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For all of the things Microsoft has revealed about the Xbox One this week, the company has evaded and dismissed just as many important questions and concerns about the console. In an effort to clear the air, we've pieced together the best available information on three of these important issues while we wait for Microsoft to offer more clarification.
What is going on with used games on the Xbox One?
The official word: All Microsoft is willing to say on the matter officially is that it is "designing Xbox One to enable customers to trade in and resell games." Past that, everything we know about the Xbox One's used game handling is based on vague and often conflicting reports from various sources.
What we know: Here's the situation to the best of our understanding: first off, a Microsoft' spokesperson told Develop that "on the new Xbox, all game discs are installed to the HDD to play." That means that there needs to be some mechanism to prevent a single retail disc from being installed and made playable on hundreds or thousands of Xbox One systems.
This could be as simple as the current method on the Xbox 360, which requires the disc to be in the system even if the game is being played from an installed hard drive copy. However, a report from Wired suggests this isn't how things will work on the Xbox One. That report lays out a scenario where a user installs a game on their own system and then takes the disc to a friend's house and pays a fee to install it on a second system, allowing both people to play the game.
It's still unclear what that fee would be, but since both copies of the game would still work, it sounds likely that the second player would in effect just be paying to buy a secondary copy of the game that they would own forever. No one will be forced to buy a second copy in this situation, though: "I can come to your house and I can put the disc into your machine and I can sign in as me and we can play the game," Microsoft's Phil Harrison explained to Eurogamer. Microsoft has also said that users will be able to easily share a disc across many users in a single household.
But none of this really gets into the specific situation of a used retail game, which would by necessity require somehow invalidating the copy installed on the first owner's system. On that, Microsoft has continually said that it will be possible, but the company remains extremely cagey on the specifics. "We will have a system where you can take that digital content and trade a previously played game at a retail store," Harrison said in that same Eurogamer interview. "We're not announcing the details of that today... Our goal is to make it really customer-centric, really simple, and really understandable, and we will announce those details in due course."
The latest twist in this whole mysterious business comes from MCV, which says it has information from anonymous "key retail partners" that have been briefed by Microsoft. As the site describes it, Xbox One owner will only be able to trade games in to retailers who are hooked up to Microsoft's Azure-powered pre-owned database, which will then wipe the original installed game from the original owner's hard drive through the cloud. When the game is then resold, both Microsoft and the publisher would also be able to take some percentage of the resale price, removing what many publishers consider a major problem with pre-owned sales.
(UPDATE: Microsoft community manager Larry "Major Nelson" Hryb has published an official response to MCV's report calling the information in it "inaccurate and incomplete." Meanwhile,Eurogamer is saying that its own sources confirm the basic gist of MCV's report.)
While this is all still unconfirmed, it sounds entirely plausible, and it fits into reports that the Xbox One may have to check in with online servers periodically for some unknown reason (see below). All we can say for sure is this: playing a used game on the Xbox One is going to be more complicated than the current system of simply popping any disc into any system and playing it.
So what’s the deal with an Internet connection being “required”?
The official word: The dictates from Microsoft say that the Xbox One "does not have to be always connected, but Xbox One does require a connection to the Internet." But that only introduces more questions: what is the Internet connection actually required for, and how frequently does that connection have to be available if it's not "always" needed?
What we know: Harrison may have accidentally spilled the beans on this in an interview with Kotaku in which he was asked, "If I’m playing a single player game, do I have to be online at least once per hour or something like that? Or can I go weeks and weeks?" Harrison responded, "I believe it’s 24 hours," meaning players would have to connect at least once a day.
Microsoft quickly backtracked on that statement, telling Polygon that Harrison's statement was just one of many "potential scenarios" that Microsoft has yet to confirm. But it only makes sense that users who want to resell their games will need to check in online somehow in order to confirm that the disc-free install on their system is no longer valid. And it makes sense that the system would have to make that check relatively frequently to be sure that you aren't selling discs for games you installed long ago.
So even though Microsoft doesn't want to discuss details, it's pretty clear that users without high-speed Internet will be, at best, extremely limited in how they can use the system.
Is the new Kinect really always watching me?
The official word: Here are the facts. One, the Xbox One is designed to be "always on"; even when you turn it off, it just switches to a low-power state where it can download system and game updates and listen for certain Kinect voice commands. Two, the new Kinect, which comes packaged with the system, has to be connected to the system in order for the Xbox One to function.
What we (kind of) know: Some people have combined these two facts into a concern that Microsoft has created a system designed to constantly monitor its users while they run around naked in their living rooms or something. And it's true; unless you unplug the Kinect and/or the Xbox One when you aren't using it, there is at least the theoretical potential for someone to be constantly watching you through the Kinect (even when the lights are off, thanks to the new camera's IR night-vision mode).
Of course, Microsoft has pushed back strongly against these conspiratorial concerns. "Microsoft has very, very good policies around privacy," Harrison told Eurogamer. "We're a leader in the world of privacy, I think you'll find. We take it very seriously. We aren't using Kinect to snoop on anybody at all. We listen for the word 'Xbox on' and then switch on the machine, but we don't transmit personal data in any way, shape, or form that could be personally identifiable to you, unless you explicitly opt into that."
Of course, that's what they would say if they were planning on installing a secret spy network that lets them monitor millions of peoples' every move without their knowledge. Still, it seems to us that such a system would be both quickly sniffed out by tech-savvy users monitoring their Internet traffic (for, say, streaming video/audio data sent out by their Kinect without their consent), and it would be so disastrous for Microsoft's public image that they'd never even take the risk.
That said, there are some legitimate concerns to having an ever-present, always-on camera in your living room watching and listening to you while you use the Xbox One. The most immediate involves how the Xbox shares its data with marketers and content owners. Microsoft can talk about anonymization and privacy protections all they want, but the ability for third parties to access data on exactly what you are doing in front of your Xbox One has some creepy implications.
Take, for example, this Microsoft patent for a system that would allow a movie studio to charge a different price based on how many people it detects are actively watching a downloaded movie. It sounds like a ridiculous "feature" for Microsoft to implement (and one that would quickly send users scrambling to download movies on other, camera-free hardware), but it could also be used as a bargaining chip to, for instance, get a studio to release a downloadable movie to Xbox One screens earlier than others.
The other major privacy concern here is hacking. If someone manages to figure out how to get through Microsoft's security, they could theoretically have a live, 3D video feed of every Xbox One owner at all times. Then again, we already live with and manage this kind of concern for our laptops, our tablets, and our Smartphones. Why should our game consoles be any different, right?