Xbox’s DRM Outage Reveals The Problems With Digital Ownership

Internet outages are a modern part of gaming. Long gone are the days when you could buy a game from a real-life store, go home, pop it in your console and be on your way. Real-life stores are dying, replaced by digital storefronts, while both the PS5 and the Xbox Series offer models with no disc drive to speak of. Even if you do go to a brick and mortar and come home with a plastic box, you'll need to wait hours until the game downloads itself onto your console before you can eventually play it. These are the annoyances of modern gaming, but mostly they represent progress. Except over the weekend, Xbox's servers went down and made a mockery of the idea that we've come so far.

As irritating as the new way of doing things is, there are some obvious upsides to it. Digital storefronts will never sell out, they're a lot more accessible for folks who can't leave the house (or live in areas without major stores), issues in games can now be patched out, and the live-service genre is booming. Of course, for every yin there is a yang. Digital storefronts have less reliable sales than physical retailers and preowned games are a thing of the past, digital stores are inaccessible in areas with poor internet, the existence of patches means games often ship on deadline but badly broken, and the couch co-op genre is dead. The times, they are a-becoming quite different.

It's probably fair to say there are some things we miss about the good old days, and we've traded away a lot in the name of convenience. But last weekend's fiasco highlights how inconvenient things can be when they go wrong. If you buy an online game, the understanding is that you'll need the game's servers, the console's servers, and your own internet to work. If you want to play Destiny on the PS5, there is no way around the fact that Destiny requires you to be online, so all three parts of that relationship (you, console, game) need to be online. With a game like Destiny, aside from largely non-disruptive server maintenance at off-peak hours, that usually works pretty well. The biggest issue is usually an individual player's own connection, which you'd expect to be decent enough if a player enjoys online games. With titles smaller than Destiny, there is always the worry that the game's servers will eventually go offline, but most people regard that as an acceptable risk. In most cases, it only happens when a game's popularity has dwindled so severely that barely anyone notices the game going dark anyway.

The recent outage with Xbox was not like this. Because Xbox uses DRM – a technology which aims to control what users do with digital content, stopping you from illegally copying or sharing downloaded games – it essentially requires you to always be online. While Xbox can be played offline, because Xbox's servers were down it seemingly could not differentiate between which games required an online connection and which did not, meaning players could not even play games they owned. They also could not access the storefronts or open Cloud sessions, neither of which should be influenced by DRM checks. Even after the system was restored after a lengthy 12 hour break, some users reported issues with streaming apps like Netflix.

There have been calls for Xbox to remove DRM entirely, which seems to be the cause of the outage, or to modify it to stop an outage like this happening again. If Xbox were to be hacked, as has happened previously, this could be exploited to keep users offline for much longer than 12 hours. The DRM only blurs the real issue here though. The problem is, while digital advancements have made a lot of things in gaming much better, we no longer own the games we play. There are the obvious problems that we can't loan a disk to a friend anymore, or can't sell it to fund our pre-owned gaming habit, but the much bigger problem is we no longer get to say what happens to these games. They can be lost to time forever. We can find ourselves unable to play them with no recourse. Digital ownership is not really ownership at all, and this past weekend is just one example of the many issues modern gaming still needs to work out.

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