As Microsoft and Sony prepare for the first round of the next-gen console war, the two companies have begun to sound different notes on a key feature: the access gamers will have to their own digital game libraries.
Judging from Xbox One pre-orders, Microsoft had seemed to recover from the controversy over the console's stringent used-game sharing policies and required daily online check-ins, especially when it announced in the aftermath of E3 that it was removing the maligned features from the device. In the process, however, the company abandoned some of the Xbox One's most ambitious capabilities — something Microsoft itself ruefully admitted at the time of its 180.
“The changes we’ve made will impact some of the scenarios we previously announced for Xbox One," a Microsoft representative told NBC News when the policy revision was originally announced in June. In order to remove the always-online requirement that so many critics were reviling with a passion, Microsoft was also removing the ability to store and share games in the cloud — something that would have allowed gamers to access their digital content across different consoles, handy if they wanted to play a game at a friend's house, for instance.
"Your entire games collection will no longer be available from the cloud," the Microsoft spokesperson said. "Games on disc will require the disc for playback. Games you’ve downloaded from Xbox Live will still be accessible from the cloud. Also, we will no longer offer family game sharing from the cloud. The sharing of games will work as it does on Xbox 360, you’ll simply share the disc. Downloaded titles cannot be shared.”
Apparently, losing access to an entire game collection via cloud storage was enough to start an online campaign — one that is trying to push Team Xbox to yet again reverse course, and go back to the original corporate vision, the one discussed before the original protesters launched the #XboxOneNoDRM movement. A petition appeared on Change.org this week asking Microsoft to "give us back the Xbox One we were promised at E3."
In the petition's mission statement, Xbox One fans deplore Microsoft for essentially giving into peer pressure from Sony and angry gamers.
"This was to be the future of entertainment," the petition reads. "A new wave of gaming where you could buy games digitally, then trade, share or sell those digital licenses. Essentially, it was Steam for Xbox. But consumers were uninformed, and railed against it, and it was taken away because Sony took advantage of consumer uncertainty."
Whether or not Sony "took advantage" of consumer uncertainty, the Japanese company has continued to sound a positive note about the PlayStation 4's digital features compared to those of the Xbox One. Speaking at the Develop conference in Brighton, UK, this week, Sony research and development lead Neil Brown said that the PlayStation 4 will give users unfettered access to their games on any console, with the device's much-vaunted background processing features expediting load-times and other potential technical snafus which could limit sharing.
“You can visit your friend's house, you can log into your account and play any game from your digital library, which is good," Brown said, according to the UK arm of the Official PlayStation Magazine. "But how useful is that if it takes half a day to download the game you want to play? With Play As You Download, you get much quicker access to at least the first section of the game so you can start playing quicker. So this makes a [cloud-based] digital library a practical option in the real world.”
Regardless of how Sony managed to side-step the controversies in which Microsoft continues to be embroiled, will these ambitious features actually work? The company has been promising equally determined "cross-play" features that would let gamers switch seamless between PlayStation's mobile and home-based consoles for years now, and the PS Vita still only integrates with a handful of PlayStation 3 games, after all.
Before the new consoles arrive, however, the real question remains whether or not Sony or Microsoft will continue to put forth last-minute adjustments to their respective consoles. Pete Dodd, the man who spearheaded the #PS4NoDRM and #XboxOneNoDRM campaigns, told NBC News that while he respects what the new Xbox One petition is trying to do, he is doubtful about its short-term prospects of actually shifting Microsoft's stance.
"I think a petition with 5000 signatures on it probably proves to Microsoft that they made the right decision," he wrote in an email, admitting that his own #XboxOneNoDRM campaign (which gained significantly less traction than its PS4 counterpart) probably had less of an effect on Microsoft's decision than the fact that the company appeared to be losing ground to Sony for console pre-orders prior to its shift.
"That's actually why I stayed away from petitions," Dodd continued. "Unless you can get hundreds of thousands of signatures, they tend to bolster the argument against you."
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: Yannick.LeJacq@nbcuni.com..