A Winner Is You


Well, that didn’t take long.

After weeks of standing staunchly behind a set of decisions and plans for their Xbox One console that were so bafflingly, brazenly, obtusely anti-consumer that it even stood out in the videogame industry and drew fire even from pretty much everyone, Microsoft has backed down. The Xbox One has dropped, among things, its draconian anti-used games restrictions, its various DRM schemes and – perhaps most egregious – it’s de facto always online requirements.

In an entertainment industry so often defined, perhaps more than any other, by the weary willingness of its fans to suffer indignities demanded by the corporate purveyors (“What do you mean no backwards compatibility?? This is… egh, fine. I guess I’ll still buy it…”), this is a tremendous victory for consumers. It’s not so much that gamers have shown themselves reluctant to organize – after all, whole corners of The Internet are buttressed by petitions regarding unsatisfying endings or incorrect Hedgehog eye colors – but rather that raging against the console titans has always proven fruitless. Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo have built their fortresses on strong foundations of reliable, loyal consumers and exclusivity arrangements that can coax grudging acquiescence to repeat business from the most jaded among us … and worse, they know it.

But this time? This time, one of them went too far. Or, alternately, this time, we finally registered outrage at a decibel level which simply could not be ignored. Yes, there are bigger issues in the world, and people fighting for nobler causes. Balking at videogame DRM doesn’t place one on par with the people being brutalized in Tahrir Square or digging their loved ones out from the rubble of a crooked sweatshop in Bangladesh. But fairly or not, in the nominally-capitalist West, the interplay of consumers and corporations is inextricably linked with the interplay of citizens and communities. As such, people willing to get mad and get noticed in regard to something as “frivolous” as a gaming hobby can be taken as a positive sign overall.

Make no mistake: This was a win – and a substantial one – for the plurality of gaming consumers who registered their outrage and the game journalists who did their jobs in reporting the offending information, digging for more, demanding answers and relaying said outrage through the amplifier of the new media. This could well be a watershed moment for gaming – the moment when everyone from console makers to publishers (who, let’s be clear here, wanted these kinds of rigid restrictions by and large) were reminded for the first time in a generation of just who was supposed to be the boss in these relationships. You won. I won. We won.

So why am I watching so many people so eager to give their hard-won victory away to someone else?

The narrative of the anger against the Xbox One’s various now-abandoned schemes began with the very first drippings of information about the new console, but it took awhile for the venom felt by early responders to gain traction in the conversational mainstream. Microsoft’s almost flippantly dismissive pre-E3 reveal enraged gamers with its emphasis on non-gaming functionality, and when Don Mattrick was caught on camera at E3 2013 (where Microsoft delivered yet another info-lite, base-enraging showcase) condescendingly telling those who didn’t want an always-online console to, in effect, stick with the previous generation’s device, Microsoft had seemingly slipped into the role of Generation 8’s reigning villain figure. All they needed was a “hero” to oppose them.

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Enter Sony, who seized on the opportunity to turn what was already set up as a pretty impressive showing into a one-sided corporate beatdown. Sony’s E3 press event devoted big chunks of the PS4’s coming out party to emphasizing all of the similarities it wouldn’t share with the Xbox One, culminating in a video clip mocking the used games restrictions and a hundred dollars lower pricepoint. It was a big deal, to be sure, an unheard of, impossible to predict moment where a game company “suit” taking a jokey shot at his counterpart across the hall becomes the viral icon of an E3 clip parade that also featured the return of Mirror’s Edge, Killer Instinct and Mega Man shooting Kirby in the face with a Crash Bomb.

It wasn’t so much that this kind of inter-company sniping from an industry that likes to present itself as otherwise so much more serious than their principle function as high-tech toymakers would imply was something “new” that created the deafening buzz, I believe, but rather the jolting sense that something familiar had returned. “Console Wars,” wherein game makers promoted their competitors supposed failings as ardently as their own successes (“Genesis Does What Ninten-Don’t!”), were the standard operating procedure of the business once upon a time, but things outside of the message board universe were supposed to have cooled and grown-up on that front. Apparently not.

To see it rear up again, even briefly, was enough to cause a genuine shockwave that spread well beyond E3’s halls. It hit the mainstream media and even rated an already infamous reaction from Jimmy Fallon (who somehow morphed from pop-culture to fairly tolerable while I wasn’t looking) and his audience during his “Video Games Week.” So when, late Wednesday afternoon, Microsoft hurriedly announced that they were dropping all or most of the offending “features” from the system, it was expected that the jubilant reaction would in part include “thank you’s” to Sony etc for supposedly forcing Microsoft’s hand.

But that’s not what happened, and it’s important that we keep that clear.

This is, for a change, not a victory of one soulless corporate machine over another. This is a victory for the gamers – for the consumers. Let’s be perfectly clear about this. The draconian anti-consumer measures that were up until about two days ago encoded into the very DNA of the Xbox One are all measures that would be incredibly beneficial to both console manufacturers and the mainstream, big budget AAA publishing model that sustains them. It’s not for nothing that a certain Gears of War honcho been all over social media and the gaming press stumping for it. Sony may have (correctly) intuited that gamers were going to revolt against Microsoft for actually pulling the trigger on this horror show, but make no mistake; if they thought they could get away with it, they’d have done the same thing (so would Nintendo, assuming they could bring themselves to acknowledge that The Internet exists).

Sony isn’t the hero here for not trying to screw you over as bad as Microsoft, they’re just the guys who didn’t quite have the stones to try screwing you over. The hero here … is us.

We, the consumers, are our own heroes this time. You did this. Not Sony. Not Jimmy Fallon. You. You forced Sony’s hand (rumor has it they hadn’t fully committed to any policies until they saw how badly Microsoft was getting flayed for this) at E3, and then you forced Microsoft’s hand. You stood up to one of the biggest and most powerful corporate entities that has ever existed in the gaming realm or anywhere else and said “NO. That’s too far. I’m not going to stand for that. You don’t get to do that and still have my support.”

And Microsoft backed. Down. From. You.

This is bigger than the Xbox One, or at least it could be. This is, perhaps, the moment a line got drawn in the sand. The moment when gamers said to gaming “This is the point you don’t get to go beyond.” Or maybe not. Maybe it’s a one off, and now that we’ve got this win we go back to letting them walk all over us on everything else.

But for now, it’s a win. And it belongs to you. Not to Sony. Not to any of Microsoft’s other competitors. To you. So claim it.

Be proud of it.

You earned it.

It’s yours.

Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.

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Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.