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This afternoon Microsoft made the only decision available to it and backtracked on plans to make the Xbox One the first truly digital next-gen console. In the process it's likely Microsoft shelved a digital rights management system with countless hours of work and huge amounts of money invested in it. Microsoft weighed the numbers, watched preorders, ran test groups of core and casual gamers, read the thousands of memes and comments online and found no other option. Consumers made clear what they wanted, and it wasn't the digital future that the Xbox One was promising.
Why, though? Why weren't consumers ready to make the shift? Look at the PC, which currently remains the leading platform for game sales the world over, and it should be apparent that the shift to digital distribution is already approaching if not already here. After all, Steam doesn't allow trading, they don't allow used game sales, and it's impossible to purchase a game without being online in the first place. Why couldn't Microsoft replicate Steam's success on a console?
Ask any PC gamer what's so special about Steam and they'll pull out a laundry list of features and rewards that Steam provides. From spectacular sales to a huge and easily accessible community at their fingertips, Steam users are invested. Microsoft has comparable assets though, so what's the difference? At the heart of the issue comes one complex yet painfully obvious fact. Really, it's Microsoft's one mistake: trust.
When Steam first launched in 2003 the greater gaming community absolutely hated it. The service was down more than it was up, account management was unnecessarily complex and let's not even talk about the launch of Half-Life 2. It has taken ten years for Steam to reach the position it's in now and despite that I bet if you ask Gabe Newell himself he'd say how tenuous their position is. Consumer trust is a malleable and delicate thing. Steam worked a long time to reach this point, and Valve knows a thing or two about taking its time. Trust was earned with each and every bug fix, each feature added and each sale run. There's nothing more important to a digital platform than constant efforts to retain the trust of its customers.
Now let's look at the position Microsoft currently holds in the market. The Xbox 360 is currently leading the pack in terms of momentum going into the next-generation of consoles. The Xbox Live online community is huge and digital sales, both DLC and full games, are likely ever increasing. There's no better opportunity to aim for the stars, right?
Wrong, because while Microsoft's sales, advertising and Gold subscription numbers are going up consumer trust for Xbox is precarious. Controversies persist on topics such as the growth of advertisements across Xbox 360 menus, the disappearing representation of indie games on the dashboard and the continued question as to why Microsoft's service had a subscription while Sony's didn't -- just to name a few. None of these issues alone are enough to throw gamers into full revolt, but over time a distrust builds -- especially due to Microsoft's half-hearted response to these issues.
Then the Xbox One announcement came. In and of itself the Xbox One announcement was outstanding and every game shown to date looks outstanding. However, in tandem with several of the Xbox One's "features" the tenuous trust that had been built in recent years was dismantled. 24-hour check-ins, complicated ownership and trade-in rules and perhaps more significant than realized, the fact that digitally owned titles from the Xbox 360 would not work be converted to an Xbox One account. Could we trust our digital purchases would be conserved in the future? What happens in a few years when Microsoft closes down Xbox Live on 360? Do we lose our games?
Perhaps if Microsoft had been able to reference an instance where they really showed their strength in digital content management, things might be different, but they couldn't. Everything about the Xbox One is so strikingly different than the 360, there's really nothing Microsoft could say beyond, "trust us." From there, well, we know where things stand now.
What Microsoft has now is an opportunity, albeit a very, very expensive opportunity. With regards to online requirements and disc-based game ownership we're at the same point we were with the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, but the Xbox One's technology opens it up to many new opportunities. Digital ownership is alive on these consoles in a way that it never was on the previous generation. All the software Microsoft is shelving today can be dismantled, rebuilt and given new purpose. There's new life for Microsoft's Xbox One and their aspirations for a true digital console.
It won't be easy. Consumers are more distrustful of consoles moving towards a digital future than ever. Yet it's the perfect environment to get things right. My advice to Microsoft? Look to Steam and try to replicate their successes while avoiding their failures, and for heaven's sake start by telling us that every digital game purchased will be supported from now until Microsoft's demise, across all of future Microsoft platforms. That's the foundation you start with, and the heart of Valve's service on Steam.
Mainly though, just give consumers a reason to trust the Xbox One. As intangible and ephemeral as that statement may seem, it makes all the difference.
Follow Rory on Twitter @bluexy or read his news, reviews and features every day here on Neoseeker.