The Internet Just Made Microsoft Kill a Car for a Faster Horse

It’s most likely an apocryphal story, but there’s a quote from Henry Ford where he said, “If I had asked what my customers wanted, they would have said they wanted a faster horse.” Even if the quote isn’t real, its spirit is. The idea is that people who make products that actually advance industries and push everyone forward should not and cannot wait for consumers to tell them what they want. For example, if Apple had listened to prevailing wisdom in 2007, the iPhone would have had a physical keyboard.

I bring this quote up today because of Microsoft’s capitulation to the internet crowd to reverse their used-game policy to the one that exists today and to eliminate the 24-hour online check-in policy entirely. Sure, on the surface the Xbox One’s policies were more “restrictive” than the Xbox 360's, but the benefits would have way outweighed the downsides. I’ll explain.

Buried near the bottom of Microsoft’s update post was this paragraph:

These changes will impact some of the scenarios we previously announced for Xbox One. The sharing of games will work as it does today, you will simply share the disc. Downloaded titles cannot be shared or resold. Also, similar to today, playing disc based games will require that the disc be in the tray.

To remind you of some of the “scenarios [they] previously announced”, here’s a short list of the relevant features.

• If you purchased a physical disc game, your game was tied to your account and you could go to any other Xbox One and be able to have access to your entire library without carrying physical discs around

• You could re-sell your physical disc game to Gamestop or any participating outlet that opted into Microsoft’s revenue sharing system

• You could buy a used physical disc game from a participating retailer and play it like a new game

• You could install all your games onto your hard drive and not have to get up all the time to swap discs

• You could buy a digital copy and sell it or gift it to a friend (a previously unheard-of policy in digital games)

• You could potentially share your entire library with 10 friends/family members, with the only limitation being that you couldn’t play the same game at once

These were fantastic new features that were only available because Microsoft had the very reasonable expectation that you authenticate once a day to make sure you owned the game and didn’t just dump your entire library to someone and they were able to play all your games forever. Well, all of those features are gone now.

What could have been an incredible middle step between all-physical games and all-digital games, with very good benefits on the digital side, is now not a step at all because customers couldn’t see the forest for the trees. They were too caught up in corner cases of “what if I’m traveling!” and “what if my internet goes out for a long time and I can’t authenticate!” Most people aren’t Richard Branson and most people have enough of a connection, however intermittent, to authenticate once a day.

Furthermore, when you design a product, especially when you design one that’s going to live in people’s houses for up to seven or eight years, you need to plan for the future. So why plan based on internet connectivity now? Isn’t it likely that people’s connectivity will grow? That people’s bandwidth will grow? That most everyone will be online at least to the point where they can authenticate once a day?

In the end, Microsoft capitulated to people who didn’t want change. These gamers were loudly protesting the new features instead of welcoming the convenience and benefits they brought. I get it. Maybe sharing their libraries with their friends wasn’t something they were looking forward to. Maybe they liked having to bring all their physical discs along wherever they went. Maybe they didn’t care about having the ability to sell their digital games after they’re done playing. I don’t know.

On the other side of the coin, I personally didn’t care too much about used game policies and online check-ins, because I’ll most likely only buy 2 or 3 used games in the entire 7 year console life, and my internet very rarely goes out. An inconvenience a handful of times in 7 years is a very small price for a convenience every time I want to switch games without getting up, or every time I can access my friends’ games when they’re not playing them. And now I can’t.

Microsoft tried to consolidate two types of gamers—one who cares about used games to a point where it dictates which console they buy, and one who is willing to go through authentication and online check-ins in order to transition to a digital age. By siding with the present, they threw away the future.

It’s a messaging problem

The root reason why Microsoft had to back down on their changes and make things stick with the way they are, it’s because they did a horrible job selling their new features and what they could have meant for the consumer.

What they should have done is said that they’ve made the Xbox One an entirely digital experience, where people can purchase games directly from Microsoft on day 1 without having to wait in line, preorder or deal with physical discs. They should have said that they’re still going to make physical discs available for people who don’t have the appropriate bandwidth to download 50GB games, but that their focus is on digital. They should have said that because their focus is digital, all these features listed above are like Steam, but better. But instead they focused too much on the physical discs and lost people along the way.

But that doesn’t matter now. It’s apparent that the backlash, whether founded or unfounded, was too much for Microsoft to bear, and they backed down and not only removed these so called “restrictions,” but they removed a whole lot of incredible features as well. All thanks to people complaining on the internet.

Who knows, maybe Microsoft will change the policy again and have people opt in to the online check so that they can share their libraries with their friends. Maybe they will have another tier where people opt in to these benefits. I hope so.