As the console wars heat up at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles, seemingly nitpicky technical issues of used game ownership and online connection requirements have become the key weapons in a war that threatens to divide the gaming world.
While Microsoft is standing firm on the Xbox One's controversial forms of digital rights management, including mandatory daily online check-ins and the requirement of an activation code to play pre-owned games, Sony is landing potshots against its rival, and aligning game publishers that don't want to be seen as punitively restrictive.
Though Microsoft wanted to avoid drama over the system requirements by releasing information before E3, and focusing solely on games for its main E3 event, the company is back on the offensive. In an interview with veteran gaming pundit Geoff Keighley, Xbox chief Don Mattrick said that Microsoft has "a product for people who aren't able to get some form of connectivity" to the Internet: "It's called [the] Xbox 360."
Mattrick's point was that the Xbox One, "designed to use an online state," is "the future-proof choice" for new console buyers. Given the proliferation of connected devices, he suggested that always-online requirements will come to disadvantage a smaller and smaller minority of gamers. Eventually, this group will be so insignificant, ignoring the benefits of an always-online device would be actively disadvantaging many gamers for the sake of exceptional cases like, in Mattrick's words, people "on a nuclear sub."
Whether or not gamers will agree with Mattrick's logic, he's not exactly the most popular guy in the room right now. Following the glowing response that Sony received for its no-nonsense approach to the PS4's DRM, third-party publishers are leaping at the chance to look anti-DRM (or at least ambivalent) as well. EA COO Peter Moore, speaking in an interview with the video game website Polygon, said that his company never lobbied Sony or Microsoft "to put some gating function in [their gaming platforms] to allow or disallow used games."
"I am on record as being a proponent of used games," Moore said. "I like the ecosystem. I like the fact that it's kept pricing at a good level for eight years. I like the fact that someone can buy a physical game and see some equity in that game. That keeps GameStop vibrant and they are a great launch and marketing partner for us."
Ironically enough, Moore's comments come less than a month after his company abandoned its Online Pass system — a policy that had made Electronic Arts one of the most aggressive opponents of sharing and re-selling used games. Until it was abandoned last month, EA's Online Pass system worked in a similar way to how many gamers now fear the Xbox One's will. Players purchasing EA games were issued a single-use code that activated online multiplayer gameplay and other features. If they were to sell or give the game to someone else, that player would have to purchase a new code to access that material anew.
If Moore and Mattrick's comments are any indication, game developers and publishers are far from accepting any kind of universal industry standard for DRM. But its opponents may be relieved to hear that people like Moore are actually listening to their grievances now. He did admit call the Online Pass system a "mistake" that "wasn't consumer friendly," after all.
"The consumer's feedback was that this thing gets in the way of a good experience so let's get rid of it," Moore said.
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: email@example.com.