This means a few different things. To begin with, digitally downloadable content, both large and small, is now being regularly served. Both Sony and Microsoft have been releasing past console content on their machines, and Sony has actually moved on to full-blown PS3 releases, including the previously disc-only game, Burnout Paradise
. There are now some rumblings indicating that Microsoft may intend
to do the same.
"It's part of a larger strategy to increase the importance of the online presence, where content can be tightly controlled ..."
While it's unlikely that the next generation of consoles will completely forgo disc-based media, downloads are quickly becoming a much bigger part of the experience. Some games, such as Rock Band 2
and Gears of War 2
, are now shipping with codes for free downloads. This isn't because the publishers like you and want to give you free stuff. It's part of a larger strategy to increase the importance of the online presence, where content can be tightly controlled and decrease the importance of physical media, and thus, used-game sales and rentals. Once a code is used it essentially ties the content to your online account and therefore a secondhand buyer will not be able to take advantage of it. Eventually, the same will likely be true for all content, even if it doesn't specifically require you to enter a code. Both online and disc media will act in exactly the same way by registering a specific game to your account, making the disc itself virtually worthless. We already have this in the PC-space with services like Steam. Whether you buy a Valve game in a store or through Steam itself, you still end up having to register your product through Steam, and launching your product through Steam.
The benefit of this, of course, is the ability to play your games anywhere you have access to your Steam account, or the ability to simply re-download whatever registered games you want on the service for as long as the service exists (even if you lose your original CDs/DVDs). With so much content already downloaded to 360 hard drives, I imagine Microsoft's customers probably wouldn't be too happy to lose all of that content with a new console release. Because of the fact that this kind of content will no longer be able to be sold or handed down so easily anymore (unlike consoles of old), backwards compatibility, at the very least for downloaded content, will probably become much more important. But at the same time, it's very likely that Microsoft (and Sony) will be moving in a direction that ties games to specific accounts rather than to a disc, just as Steam does already.
"The next step would be for Microsoft to actually leverage its Windows platform and allow Xbox games to be played directly on a PC."
But this is where Games for Windows Live comes in and potentially gives Microsoft a major advantage in the next generation of console wars (over Sony, anyway ... Nintendo is a matter for another column). Microsoft already allows some interaction between Games for Windows Live and Xbox Live users, including a few games that have cross-platform multiplayer available. The next step would be for Microsoft to actually leverage its Windows platform and allow Xbox games to be played directly on a PC. This could possibly start with a client that allows some Xbox Live Arcade games to be played on Windows, but eventually Microsoft could support full releases on it as well. They could offer a certification that allows computers to be advertised as "Xbox-compatible" to ensure that particular machines could run new Xbox-branded games (Microsoft could even make it a requirement to run the games). Then Xbox users would have the freedom to basically take their games anywhere ... On their TV, a friend's TV, their desktop PC, maybe even a laptop. As long as they can login to their Live account, they can access their games. Suddenly, Microsoft doesn't need the money from "Games for Windows Live". They can just get it from "Xbox Live" users, whether they are PC or console users.
In this way, "Xbox Live" ends up being the standard. Yes, a specific kind of hardware configuration would also be required and could even evolve, but the real access to running your games comes from Xbox Live. The network is the platform.
As co-editors of A Link To The Future, Geoff and Jeff like to discuss, among many other topics, the business aspects of gaming. Game companies often make decisions that on their face appear baffling, or even infuriating, to many gamers. Yet when you think hard about them from the company's perspective, many other decisions are eminently sensible, or at least appeared to be so based on the conditions at the time those choices were made. Our goal with this column is to start a conversation about just those topics. While neither Geoff nor Jeff are employed in the game industry, they do have professional backgrounds that are relevant to the discussion. More to the point, they don't claim to have all the answers -- but this is a conversation worth having. You can reach them at