A recent Xbox services outage has brought Microsoft’s DRM back into the spotlight

Digital Rights Management (DRM) is a technical means of protecting the copyright of digital content, whether it be music, films or games, which are used by many services to check whether the user has actually purchased this or that content. These methods are quite successful in combating piracy, but sometimes they also hit the owners of licensed copies, which causes large-scale controversy about DRM in general.

At the beginning of the story, I would like to recall the game SimCity (2013) from Electronic Arts with its terrible DRM system. It crashed on the day of the game’s release, preventing thousands of people around the world from playing offline and even doing basic things like saving game progress.

And if you go back in time, you can remember the history of DRM in Xbox One, when it was announced that the console would require a constant Internet connection to work. Fortunately, Microsoft later abandoned this idea.

And so we come to the current situation. Xbox Authentication Servers were down around the world this past weekend, preventing users from buying and running games. Microsoft says engineers are working on a server update to prevent this issue from happening again, but many questions remain.

More about the problem

So, since the Xbox servers could not verify that the user had rights to this or that content, when trying to start the game, the message “The owner of this content must be authorized in the system” appeared.

To begin with, it should be noted that on Xbox consoles there are two options for signing into an account – “home” and cloud. Cloud Authorization is designed to be used on other Xbox consoles, for example, so that you can sign into your profile on a friend’s console and play together. Also, many people use this feature to share games with friends or share their library with a second game console in the house. In this case, to check the license, the Xbox must connect to Microsoft cloud services, and if they are not available, the system will refuse to launch the game.

On a “home” console, there should be no such problems, since the DRM license is stored locally. However, some users have complained that they can’t run games even on “home” consoles, although in some cases it could just be confusion about how different games interact with DRM.

A game on a “home” console may not be available if, for some reason, it was unable to obtain an offline license. Speaking with Ashley McKissick, Corporate VP of Gaming Experience and Platforms for Xbox, Windows Central Editor Jez Corden was able to get some details about how gaming licenses work on Xbox consoles.

Some games are known to be licensed offline during installation, however other games may require a one-time launch with Internet access due to development or backward compatibility issues. The resulting license will be valid forever. Games on physical media are licensed directly from the disc. True, and here everything is not so simple. If you try to play a disc copy of an Xbox One game on an Xbox Series X|S, the game will need to reset some compatibility settings, and this feature also didn’t work during the Xbox service downtime.

Advantages and disadvantages of DRM

Without a DRM system, Xbox owners could theoretically download hundreds of games from the Xbox Game Pass and EA Play catalogs using a trial subscription, then disconnect the console from the Internet and get all these games for unlimited use. Obviously, developers are unlikely to be enthusiastic about such a scenario, so the use of DRM seems justified. However, sometimes this system fails, which negatively affects those people who paid for the content. So the controversy around DRM will obviously not subside soon.

It’s worth remembering that the initial setup of Xbox consoles requires an internet connection. In addition, many physical copies of games contain only the license itself on disks, without files to run the game.

Opponents of DRM fear that in some distant future, licensed servers may be disabled, after which all purchased content will become unavailable. Global disruptions like these show that these fears are not without merit.

There are many people in the world who want to physically own the purchased content and be able to play it offline. A scenario in which all downloaded games, whether digital or physical, can become available at one point due to DRM is clearly unacceptable.

Microsoft representatives have confirmed that the inability to launch the game offline on home consoles was the result of problems with the Xbox servers, and this should not have happened. However, the company should elaborate on existing licensing models and the reasons why some games could potentially end up with an unverified license. This is especially important now, as all-digital consoles such as the Xbox Series S are becoming more widespread in the world.

Microsoft is one of the few major platform owners that really cares about keeping software alive. For example, last week the company open-sourced Windows 95-era 3D Movie Maker. In addition, Microsoft has done a lot to update and improve games from past generations of consoles. However, any corporation should be treated with skepticism, as they have repeatedly shown that they are ready to worsen the conditions for users for the sake of profit.

There is no guarantee that in the future Microsoft will continue to invest in the development of its gaming direction, not to mention the preservation of old games. Suffice it to recall that Apple has removed iOS games from its store if they haven’t received an update in more than two years. So far, there is no indication that Microsoft might do the same, but who knows what will happen in a few years.

Whether you trust platform owners or not, DRM on consoles needs to be modernized. Steam on PC has long allowed 5 users on 10 authorized PCs to share a library of games, which is much more convenient than what consoles offer today. It’s funny that Microsoft wanted to implement such a feature in the Xbox One back in 2013, but something didn’t work out. The company also wanted to provide an official opportunity to resell games through partner networks, but the idea was abandoned by the players, since the physical possession of the game is an integral part of the console tradition. Nearly a decade later, console platforms continue to steer clear of this confusing tangle of license terms and dual ownership that is becoming more and more confusing in a subscription-centric and digital-centric world.

More transparency needed

DRM has long been a dirty word, though you can’t blame game developers for wanting to verify that users actually paid for content. It is obvious that the existing systems operate non-transparently. When all is well, Xbox performs a DRM check in the background without the user’s knowledge. But if something breaks down (albeit rarely), then we find ourselves in a situation where we simply do not know which games we have access to. It would be nice if Xbox consoles were able to provide users with such information in the form of system messages. Yes, and the license for the game could be installed in the place with the game without the need to launch.

About a year ago Xbox engineer on the ResetEra forum said that Microsoft could do more to get rid of the confusion that arises in situations like this:

“[…] we (Xbox) need to improve error messages on consoles; overly generalized and vague error messages cause confusion and can lead to distrust of the system. We are currently working internally to fix licensing related error messages and I will make sure that this feedback is heard internally.”

Of course, some of the wording of the errors has changed recently, but this is still not enough.

I would like to know what action Microsoft will take in the far, far future if the Xbox is shut down by some evil cyborg or quintillionaire director. Or what would happen if an asteroid rain destroyed the Earth’s surface, forcing us to live underground with consoles without Internet access? Although, probably, in the latter case, we all will have much more important things to do.

What is clear is that Microsoft should provide users with more information on their concerns. Can I play an Xbox Series X|S game from disc? Does it require DRM checking or special configuration at startup? Does the game have a license that will one day expire? Will it launch without the Day 1 patch?

Microsoft should definitely consider reducing the dependence of games on requests to Xbox servers. Right now, players can’t be sure that modern Xbox games can work offline, which is clearly not the best situation in general.

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