In Which I Object to a Particular Phrase

Particular Phrase pictureIs Netflix anti-consumer? Think about it: they let you borrow movies or TV shows, but they never let you own them. Whether through streaming or the mail, they provide content while preventing customers from amassing collections. Of course, their reputation is that of the innovator; they liberated the movie-watching public from Blockbuster’s late fees and established a streaming service that facilitates the most deliciously indulgent video binges.

So if we like Netflix, why don’t we like Microsoft? One big story of the Electronic Entertainment Expo has been Sony’s pro-disc-ownership retort to Microsoft’s policy regarding the Xbox One. Whereas Microsoft said their new machine allows game publishers to confine disc operation to the first buyer’s device, effectively neutralizing the re-sale and hard copy renting markets, Sony announced that the Playstation 4 will allow the free exchange of discs between devices. A crowd of games journalists cheered this news as the games industry twitterati filled feeds with praise for Sony’s masterstroke. To understand their excitement at hearing a difference of digital rights management policy between two corporations, check out Chris Plante’s piece criticizing Microsoft, published by Polygon  in the lead-up to E3.

Plante emphatically uses the term “anti-consumer” to describe what Microsoft’s doing, but I question the label. While they may have bungled the explanation, Microsoft has not hidden this policy. They are not forcing existing customers to buy into this product. Rather, they have designed a machine that runs games according to more of a licensing notion  than one of artifact ownership. As Netflix rents out licenses to access their library of movies and shows, it seems to follow that the sale of a game could be constructed as a license for the buyer to play that game.

In fact, I generally prefer the licensing model to ownership. I enjoy the content of Netflix, Hulu Plus and Spotify without paying sticker price for each media item or amassing a dusty disc stack in my living room. Perhaps that’s the issue – in Microsoft’s case, we see a physical item change hands. Intuitively, we expect that we can bring said item to a friend’s house and it will still do its thing. But we’re adults, and that momentary frustration should give way to a rational understanding of how unintuitive the magical worlds of electronics and intellectual property rights can be.

It’s possible that those brandishing the “anti-consumer” pejorative fear the end of a product’s function via cessation of corporate support. One occasionally sees this doomsday scenario trotted out, in which a fickle executive pushes the button that makes all Xbox Ones disallow the play of all copies of Your Favorite Game. In the Netflix example, this is when Reed Hastings decides to move all the company’s assets to the organic produce business and Your Favorite Movie evaporates. This strikes me as more a concern about archiving than property. Many forms of media, such as games and movies, don’t see frequent use past the month of their purchase, so genuine appreciation of the art isn’t lost. Instead, it seems we’re threatened by the loss of knowing our copy is safe in that dusty stack. But really, archiving is the task of libraries and museums, and we’re probably not well served by the fact that hundreds of thousands of copies of Vectorman are sitting in various attics, refusing to biodegrade.

I do respect the instinct to protect oneself against the whims of corporations. The smart consumer knows that today’s target demographic is tomorrow’s underserved fringe. For this reason, I encourage skepticism about any company releasing new hardware (and if you want to pay $100 less for your next box, who can blame you?). I just want you to know that when I hear the term “anti-consumer” in regards to license agreements, I’ll likely give it the eye-roll I reserve for when I hear “anti-American” in a political debate.

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2 comments

  1. The way I see it, it’s anti-consumer in a purely economical sense.

    Today’s used game market is HUGE because many people find that the value of holding onto a game they’ve finished playing is less than what they could get for it in the marketplace.

    The used game market is a textbook example of the power of supply & demand. Put simply: the free market for used games drives down the price of new games. My favorite example right now is Bioshock Infinite. As of June 13th, the price of a new copy on Xbox 360 is $39.35, and $28.80 used. On the PC, where you can’t sell your license? $60, unchanged since release day. According to an Amazon price tracker, the new Xbox price was $60 until mid-April, just after people started listing their used copies for below sticker price.

    Without a thriving used game market, publishers remain the only source of supply, which means they get to set the price forever. I’m not claiming that games will cost $60 forever, but they’ll certainly take longer to come down than they do today.

    Unless Microsoft changes its pricing model to reflect a software license as opposed to ownership of a physical product, it’s completely anti-consumer. That’s how Netflix and Spotify work. You make a big sacrifice in terms of ownership, but in turn you pay much less money. So what feels so offensive and off-putting to consumers is that Microsoft is completely changing the model without giving some value in return. I will say that the family-sharing feature could be that value, but I think that remains to be seen.

    1. Ok, I can see how it’s a rip-off if the price reduction shoe doesn’t drop. But if it doesn’t, Microsoft and its publishing partners are being dumb; why would a consumer pay the same price as a PS4 game that has fewer restrictions?

      If a price drop does come through (and it could come in different forms – think of Steam sales) the market would adapt to what consumers view as a reasonable price AND the money would go towards companies involved in making the game rather than middlemen. That’s the license-based market I’d like to see.

      Unfortunately, Microsoft’s messaging is lagging behind. They’re not explaining these dynamics and as a result risk ending up like Sony last generation. “Why am I paying more for a system that plays mostly the same games?” consumers may ask again. And that would be a shame, because when it comes to asserting that the future of electronics is always connected, Microsoft is right.

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