Thanks to a combination of poor timing and confusing corporate rhetoric, Microsoft has found itself at the heart of some nasty rumors swirling around this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles.
The company revealed that its upcoming Xbox One gaming console will be "always on," a startling feature in the wake of revelations about the National Security Agency's efforts to collect American citizens' phone and e-mail records. The Xbox One system will require an online connection to allow users to play games they have purchased themselves (the system requires a login to Xbox Live at least once every 24 hours), and will broadly the buying, selling and trading of used games by associating each game to its individual owner. Microsoft has said that players will be able to share their Xbox One game library with up to 10 "family members," but the net effect is that selling or swapping used Xbox One games on sites like eBay and Craigslist will likely be impossible.
The company has also said it may work with "partners" to make possible the sale of used games. Though they've been vague on details, the implication is that Microsoft would strike deals with chain retailers like GameStop (which buys used games at a heavy discount, and then resells them for just a few bucks below retail price) to implement some kind of a tracking system to keep its database current. Such an arrangement would further marginalize mom-and-pop game shops, already a rare bird in the gaming ecosystem.
There's more. In addition to the required online tracking system, Xbox One will ship with the second generation of Microsoft's Kinect motion sensor in the box, a connection to which will be required for players to use their consoles. The Kinect 2 is also "always on." It's able to identify individuals based on face and body recognition, works in the dark, records audio and is constantly connected to the Internet and 300,000 Microsoft servers. Even when your Xbox One is off, the Kinect is still listening, watching and waiting. (It's also worth noting that late last year Microsoft filed for a patent that would use the Kinect camera to monitor the number of viewers in a room, checking to see if the number of people in a given room exceeded a particular threshold set by the content provider. Too many occupants, and the user would be prompted to purchase a license for more viewers.)
As a series of bullet points, it's rather grim stuff – a new and seemingly more menacing level of Big Brother oversight. From another angle, however, the used-game issue in particular can seem almost semantic: It's an established fact that purely digital game ownership – be it on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 or Steam – is subject to DRM, so why should disc-based game ownership be any different? If all Xbox One purchases were to happen by digital download instead of physical disc, we wouldn't be having this debate.
Still, Xbox has dug itself into a hole. To call it a PR disaster would probably be an overstatement, as evidenced by the fact that the console is selling pre-orders at a rapid clip. But its confusing messaging (and Sony's own counter-tactics) have put the company on the defensive. Microsoft has gone so far as to cancel nearly all of its executives' press interviews at E3. If Microsoft isn't explicitly clear about its policies, it's likely to face lawsuits from disgruntled fans expecting to be able to buy and sell their games as they wish, along with the inevitable kickback regarding its Kinect-related privacy issues. If it's too communicative about its policies, however, the company risks alienating millions of potential consumers in its latest bid to control the living room.