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Microsoft does about-face on new XBox restrictions

Jun. 20, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Microsoft has reversed a series of controversial restrictions for its next-gen Xbox One console.
Microsoft has reversed a series of controversial restrictions for its next-gen Xbox One console. (Microsoft via The Associated Press)
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In a sudden about-face after taking fire from a broad swath of the military gamer community, Microsoft has reversed a series of controversial restrictions for its next-gen Xbox One console.

Those rules, announced at the Electronic Entertainment Expo earlier this month, created a tsunami of discontent among off-duty gamers. The biggest issue was a requirement for the new console to phone home to the Microsoft mothership once a day via the Internet. If it did not do that, the $499 console, set for release in November, would have shut down until reconnected.

Of course, that would be a huge problem for most troops stationed downrange or aboard ships with limited Internet availability. But there were other complaints, too, including regional locks on games and playing that would have severely limited gaming action for those lucky to have an Internet connection overseas, as well as the ability to buy, lend and sell used games for everyone else.

But in an announcement posted on the Xbox website June 19, Microsoft executive Don Mattrick said the Xbox One will still work with no Internet connection.

“After a one-time system set-up with a new Xbox One, you can play any disc based game without ever connecting online again,” Mattrick wrote. “There is no 24-hour connection requirement and you can take your Xbox One anywhere you want and play your games, just like on Xbox 360.”

Microsoft also has relaxed its planned DRM policy for the new console and its games. “Trade-in, lend, resell, gift, and rent disc-based games just like you do today,” Mattrick wrote.

“There will be no limitations to using and sharing games. The ability to lend, share, and resell these games at your discretion is of incredible importance to you,” he wrote. “Also important to you is the freedom to play offline, for any length of time, anywhere in the world.”

But Microsoft’s reversal means some features planned for Xbox One will be shelved, including a family option that would have let users share a games library with as many as 10 other people.

Still unclear is whether Xbox One will be fully supported in countries outside of the 21 originally listed in the rollout for the console.

Under that arrangement, troops in Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom were good to go for gaming, for example, but those stationed in South Korea, Japan and Afghanistan were unsupported.

Microsoft’s PR team did not respond to repeated requests for clarification.

“We appreciate your passion, support and willingness to challenge the assumptions of digital licensing and connectivity,” said Mattrick, president of Microsoft’s interactive entertainment division. “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.”

Sucks to be you - or not

Just a week earlier, Mattrick grabbed the tail of tiger when he told a reporter at E3 that if military gamers couldn’t accommodate the new restrictions, they could just use old gear instead.

“We have a product for people who aren’t able to get some form of connectivity ... it’s called Xbox 360. If you have zero access to the Internet, that is an offline device,” Mattrick told a reporter.

“Hey, I can empathize. If I was on a sub, I’d be disappointed,” he added, to the outcry of many in uniform.

Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dwight Martin was one of those in uniform who made their disappointment clear. In a scathing email to Mattrick, Martin said he was “disgusted” with Microsoft’s marketing response.

“You have slapped the face of those who make your product that piece of home they take with them to some of the most dangerous places on Earth,” wrote Marin, an Afghanistan veteran and computer technician in Hawaii.

When deployed downrange, he said, his Xbox “helped me get through, it helped me have something to do when I could not talk to my wife and child due to the time differences. I saw Marines, soldiers, sailors, and airmen crowd around Xboxes at our MWR center just to play for an hour, just to feel something normal in the middle of their deployment.”

'Sin against service members'

The issue flared hot on gamer blogs and websites as well.

“Microsoft has singlehandedly alienated the entire military, and not just the U.S. military, the militaries of the entire world,” wrote naval aviator Jay Johnson in a post on the game developers’ site Gamasutra, describing the Internet connection requirement as “the single greatest sin Microsoft has committed against all service members.”

Others just asked for an apology. “Come on, Microsoft. How hard is it to say, ‘We apologize that our newest technology doesn’t fit the needs of many of our brave men and women serving in harm’s way,’” wrote one commenter on the Army Times website, citing the company’s “careless, almost offensive marketing response.”

Clearly, Mattrick and other Microsoft execs were listening.

“I would like to take the opportunity today to thank you for your assistance in helping us to reshape the future of Xbox One,” Mattrick wrote.

Mark Christianson, who runs the website “Off Duty Gamer,” said Microsoft has dodged a bullet. Just before the company waved the white flag, he predicted legions of troops would jump ship to the new PlayStation 4.

Now, he says, “It looks like Xbox One has ... saved itself from military extinction.”

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