Microsoft reverses policies on Xbox One rentals, online check-ins, and region restrictions

Microsoft heard the feedback and changed its always-online ways

If you balked at the news that the Xbox One would require a constant online connection or griped about restrictive policies toward used games on the forthcoming console, Microsoft has heard your complaints. The company has changed course on online connectivity and used games, announcing new policies for the Xbox One.

"You told us how much you loved the flexibility you have today with games delivered on disc," wrote Don Mattrick, president of Microsoft's interactive entertainment business, in a blog post. "The ability to lend, share, and resell these games at your discretion is of incredible importance to you. Also important to you is the freedom to play offline, for any length of time, anywhere in the world."

Score one for user backlash.

No connection necessary

Previously, Microsoft said its new gaming console wouldn't require a persistent Internet connection to play games, but the Xbox One would need to connect online at least once a day.

Things have changed: now you need to connect once when you set up the Xbox One, but after that you'll be able to play any disc-based game without ever needing to go online. Microsoft claims to have eliminated the Xbox One's need to check in every 24 hours.

Because of this policy change, you'll also be able to take your Xbox One anywhere you want, mirroring a feature from the Xbox 360.

Play used games

Similarly, the Xbox One will handle used games just like the Xbox 360. Microsoft will impose no limitations on sharing games or playing used games. Microsoft also won't impose any region-locked restrictions. Because of this, the Xbox One will now require you to keep a disc in the tray in order to play. You also won't be able to share downloaded games with friends and family members, a potential feature that Microsoft had alluded to in earlier news briefs.

It's a huge move by Microsoft, which seemed hopelessly out of touch with consumers during last week's E3 gaming expo--especially when stacked up against Sony's PlayStation, which will square off against the Xbox One on retail shelves later this year. In fact, Sony made the flexibility of its forthcoming console a major focus of the PlayStation press event at E3.

"When a gamer buys a PS4 disk, they have the rights to use that copy of the game," Sony Computer Entertainment of America president and CEO Jack Tretton said at E3 to a cheering audience. "They can trade in that game at retail, sell it to another person, lend it to a friend, or keep it forever. In forever, PlayStation 4 disc-based games don't need to be connected online to play."

Microsoft's moves bring the Xbox One closer to the PlayStation 4, it doesn't necessarily mean things are equal. The Xbox One still costs US$100 more than the PS4, for starters, due in large part to the packed-in Kinect hardware.

For its part, Microsoft framed Wednesday's changes as a response to user feedback. "We appreciate your passion, support and willingness to challenge the assumptions of digital licensing and connectivity," Mattrick wrote. "While we believe that the majority of people will play games online and access the cloud for both games and entertainment, we will give consumers the choice of both physical and digital content. We have listened and we have heard loud and clear from your feedback that you want the best of both worlds."

A change of heart

Still, after making such a big deal out of its "vision" for the Xbox One, Microsoft appears to have changed course with ease. So much ease, in fact, it's a bit insulting the company defended its old policies with such vigor as recently as a week ago.

And while Microsoft may have baffled everyone with its labyrinthine mess of policies, we've lost the good with the bad here. Gone is the interesting "family sharing" plan, as is the ability to install games like a PC, leaving the disk out of the console afterward. It's not that those policies are necessarily better than the ability to play offline or sell used games without restrictions, but with it seems backward to just cancel the functionality completely.

Wednesday's announcement might also through a wrentch into Microsoft's cloud computing platform. Previously, developers could count on that functionality for all consumers. Now that games can be played entirely offline, will developers count on a connection to the cloud, or will they shy away from using the new cloud compute features, or give reduced-detail offline modes, to satisfy offline players?

Microsoft says that you can play any disc-based game without ever having to connect online (after an initial online connection to set up your Xbox One), but that's a vague statement. Some games, like Bungie's Destiny, will require online connections regardless of where you buy it or which platform you play on. Game makers are still free to assume constant connectivity, even if your Xbox One does not.

It's also a mystery how third-party game makers will deal with used games. The current generation relies largely on an online pass system, where players who bought a new copy of a game entered a tedious one-time-use code to activate certain features. Those who bought used games or rented them played a crippled version of the finished product unless they purchased a new code. EA recently abolished its online pass program, however, and it seemed like Microsoft's always-online policy may have prompted the change.

Some users will be especially well-served by Microsoft's change of heart. Those who use rental services like GameFly and RedBox clearly benefit from the Xbox One's newfound flexibility toward used games, as rentals will work the same way as they did for the Xbox 360. Though GameStop is known for used game sales, it might actually suffer from this announcement, as it had been one of the few authorized resellers for Xbox One games. Now people can go back to selling games on Craigslist, eBay, and Amazon, removing a clear edge for GameStop.

Still, competition is good. Microsoft could not afford to maintain its policies after the recent backlash, even if it means looking like a flip-flopper today. By November most people will forget the Xbox One was ever designed as an always- online console, and that may make all the difference.

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