The Xbox One's DRM policy reversal was unprecedented, and will have lasting impacts for the lifespan of Microsoft's next game console. When the console was originally announced on Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., campus back in May, conflicting reports from Microsoft execs during interviews throughout the day portrayed the Xbox One's digital vision as a scrambled mess. Some execs said the console required an online check-in once every 24 hours; others mentioned different periods of time; some said you could sell used games "for a fee"; others said it wouldn't cost a thing. You get the idea -- there wasn't a clear message, and the reaction from the most vocal of consumers was overwhelmingly negative.
Microsoft Senior Director of Product Management Albert Penello lived through the saga. "I always have to be really careful what I say here," he said, prefacing his comments, clearly burnt by the experience earlier this year. Before saying anything else, Penello wanted to reiterate that Microsoft is wholesale committed to the console's current vision:
"The thing I want to be super explicit about, because I do think people are worried about, is once we made the decision to go to physical disc security, we're not unwinding that decision. We're committed to the physical disc; we're committed to trading and loaning. This is my official: 'We're not going back on that.' I don't want anybody to think we 'got' them, and then tomorrow I'm gonna go back to the old stuff, 'cause that's not gonna happen."
All that said, Penello and the team at Microsoft haven't completely given up on the original vision of a digital future. And some of that vision is even still in the Xbox One arriving on November 22nd.
Of the many promises made back in May, one critical piece is still in play: digital everything. When a game launches on Xbox One -- any game -- the digital version is also simultaneously available. Moreover, you can convert the physical version of any game to its digital counterpart using a disc. "If you want to convert your physical license to digital, you could rent the game or borrow it, [and] download it to your box without having to download it online. And then we do allow you to convert that to a digital license," Penello explained. In terms of taking a disc you've purchased and converting that to the digital version, that's no longer possible -- one of several victims in the policy reversal.
Promises of cloud functionality are also still alive -- when you sign in with your Gamertag on any Xbox One, your entire profile and everything attached to it come along for the ride. That means not just the games you own, but also even the way you set up your Dashboard -- pins and all.
Both of these functions are critical to the initial vision Microsoft presented back in May, but not quite as "all-in" as originally planned. "I do feel like we never got a chance to have a rational conversation about what we were trying to do," Penello said. He related Microsoft's issues with the initial Xbox One introduction -- what Penello laughingly called "the dark days" -- to his own experience helping design the original Xbox "Duke" controller:
"I always tell this story about how we did so much user testing on that thing, about how comfortable it was. Every piece of data we had said that was the best controller ever made. And then we showed it to customers and they're like, 'Oh my god, this thing's huge! It's gotta be uncomfortable!'
And you're like, 'Okay, we're done.' Because I'm not gonna be able to tell you about all the work we did, and all the data I had, and, oh by the way, when you feel it, it is really comfortable. Sometimes the customer just says 'No.' I look at it this way: I'm done; I've made up my mind. And we go, well, we've gotta fix it. It's not worth it. And that's where I think we were on the digital stuff. We'll get back to some of the cool stuff, and we have a lot of the cool stuff still in there."
We also chalk up some of the customer response to poor messaging, something that Microsoft thankfully corralled as time went on.
Penello went on to detail the logic behind reports of the Xbox One being "behind" the competition. "You can almost attach any of the weirdness between then [May] and launch to that decision, because the truth was we were really committed to it," he told us. "It was gonna be a lot of work to let people be able to trade, and working with all the publishers to understand how licenses would work and stuff." He directly tied the new console's lack of external HDD support to the policy reversal, as well as parts of the big day one patch that'll enable the vast majority of the console's functionality (the former is coming, just not at launch). The day one patch was in the works all along regardless, according to Microsoft exec Marc Whitten, and not solely based on the policy change.
Regardless, Penello admitted that, in the end, it was the right decision. He still believes the all-digital future is coming. "We just think that's the way the future's gonna go," he said. "We may have been right. What we were wrong about was that it's just too soon. People just weren't ready to make that leap right away."