It's much easier to assign a bogeyman to explain away why you can't own something than it is to simply say you can't afford it. And this natural human tendency might explain why the backlash against Microsoft's reported treatment of Xbox One used games has become a moral imperative, instead of one about how goddamn expensive the platonic ideal of an Xbox One experience will be.
While it remains unclear exactly how the One will handle used and borrowed games—there are conflicting details coming out of Redmond every other day—they will likely involve licensing a game to your account. That means when you buy and activate a game, your account is the only one that can play it. And that has made people angry.
Rumors initially suggested that used games would either not exist, or that they would be sold at near-full-price by Microsoft, exclusively. Those have been disproven or denied, but the vitriol surrounding the situation—while easily to read as overreaction to the fairly unlikely outcome of No More Cheap Used Games—has remained. It goes deeper than just used games, though. Everything the Xbox One promises requires a heavy financial investment. And the same truth that's hit virtually every other medium has finally hit gaming: Everything is too damn expensive now, and that can be really depressing.
Yeah, you know everything is expensive. Sort of. But the slide we’ve been on for the past several years, ever since Apple created the premium-at-a-cost the standard for a variety of products, never quite made it to gaming. It’s been seven years since the last time we stared down gigantic price tags for new console hardware. That means it's time to pay up.
It's not just the box, either. While in the past we were always able to just casually sidestep the always-inept DRM, more and more of the central features of core games are being based on online, where they can be monitored more closely and effectively. Which introduces the threat of actually paying the sticker price.
So when we talk (yell) about the Xbox One’s restrictions on used and borrowed games—even though a very similar digital model has been in place on Steam and iTunes for years—what we’re really lashing out at is not the idea of digital licensing (though some folks do take umbrage with it). It’s the sense that all this new content, which will be made available solely and specifically through official, possibly full-priced menus, will simply cost too much to enjoy, and that begging, borrowing, or even pirating is being slowly stamped out by new centralized systems.
That threat to piracy in other media, or even a more benign borrowing of games here, is no small thing. The amount of content and services being produced for these systems has exploded in recent years. What used to be a manageable stream of new games and entertainment is now a firehose that, if you’re paying full price for everything, will leave the average member of the audience—still fairly young, typically—on the outside looking in for a ton of content. And if you know you can't afford the blades, you'll be hard-pressed to buy the razor.
This is true of everything, not just gaming, but the gamers might have the freshest set of eyeballs right now to call it like they see it. Why are people mad? Because the Xbox One and all of its associated content and services might just be too expensive for you to enjoy it.
And it doesn't stop there. On top of possibly spending more than you used to on games, already spending god-knows-what on the Xbox One in the first place, and likely slipping in a subscription to Xbox Live for the hell of it? To really get the most out of your new Xbox, you might have to load up your home with other things it can talk to. Your wallet's already ducking for cover.
The Xbox One’s central conceit—that the console can, should, and will become the motor powering smart appliances in modern homes—is almost a presumption. Of course everyone who owns an Xbox will also have and buy modern appliances that can be routed through the console. Is that really true, though? Microsoft might be building the centerpiece of the home of the future, but where does that leave the rest of us whose homes live in the present or recent past? As a piece of consumer electronic lust machine, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a console evolving into the centerpiece of a modernized home. That’s just how new technologies build on each other. But in merging audiences—gamers and the people who spend $1500 on a new laptop every two years—it’s possible Microsoft overestimated how technologically advanced many of its users want to be.
Also remember, unlike the Xbox 360 and PS3 launches, the new generation arrives amidst an economic slump. When the PlayStation 3 was announced in early 2005, the world was still in the throes of the pre-housing-bubble economy, more than two years away from the global recession. In the intervening eight years, though, technology has become more opulent and we keep paying for it. Thrift, meanwhile, has ruled almost everywhere else. Like games.
It’s possible that this is a moment—a new console not just announcing its own expensive presence, but presuming that you will enter into and exist in its wider and more expensive universe—when everyone says, Man, that’s so much. And that's enough to make you yell.