Used Games on PS4 and Xbox: Policies Not So Different
After the Sony PlayStation 4 E3 press conference announcing that PS4 games could be resold while the Xbox One places restrictions on transfers of games, the Sony policy is being hailed as more “pro-consumer” than that of Microsoft.
I suspect there is less difference than meets the eye and what difference there is exists because of technical differences in how the two consoles handle the DRM (digital rights management) for game software. Contrary to exaggerated claims, it is not as if the PS4 games have no DRM—after all it will obviously not be possible to make copies of your new PS4 games for your friends.
The difference is that Sony is handling DRM at the level of the disk itself, whereas Microsoft is handling DRM by associating a given game with a users online Xbox Live account (the same as their Microsoft Account).
On either console when a game is transferred to a new user, there must be a mechanism of preventing the transferor from continuing to use that game. In the case of the Xbox One, a game seemingly can’t be played for more than 24 hours after the console has “checked in” online to confirm the the player is still the authorized owner of the game. In the case of the PS4, the disc itself must be in the drive to play the game.
In theory these systems need not accord significantly different rights to their users as long as there is a means of transferring a game from one Xbox Live account to another Xbox Live account. In practice, the MS policy may be more restrictive in the following ways:
- Publishers can set policies for the transfer of games (“publishers can enable you to trade in your games at participating retailers”). Microsoft would be wise to require that any cross-platform titles have restrictions that are no more limited for Xbox One games than for PS4 games, however so it is not clear how big an issue this will be.
- Transfers to “friends” seem to be artificially limited (“you can only give them to people who have been on your friends list for at least 30 days and each game can only be given once.” This seems designed to appease retail sellers of used games (e.g. GameStop)) and to limit the velocity of game turnover— because ownership of Xbox One games can be transferred electronically, more people could play a game and then resell it faster than would be possible with the physical transfer of the disc being required to transfer a game. That being said these restrictions do not seem well tailored to address that issue.
- Game rentals won’t exist at launch (“Loaning or renting games won’t be available at launch, but we are exploring the possibilities with our partners.” There is no obviously easy way to allow rentals of use rights. Even if there was, there would need to be limits because of the increased velocity of transfers/rentals that would be possible.
The bottom line is that we don’t yet know whether these restrictions will make a big difference between the Xbox One and the PS4.
In addition, there are some significant advantages to the Xbox One system:
- No need to swap discs to play different games—something I personally dislike and which limits my enjoyment of older titles.
- In a house with multiple Xbox Ones multiple family members can play the same game simultaneously, e.g. we could play a private game of Halo on our four consoles using just one purchased game.
- Game distribution need no longer involve expensive retailers.
- You can have have access to your entire game library from any console.
- You can enable third party add-on storage (e.g. 3TB hard drive) without worrying about DRM.
Of course Microsoft could have set up a a dual system where certain rights were accorded to digital purchases and copies played from physical discs lacked those rights, but I suspect that would have angered retailers.
What should be obvious now is that (i) there is no pareto-optimal way to move to digital distribution, and (ii) neither system is inherently more “pro-consumer.”