Phil Harrison tries (again) to clarify game ownership, second-hand sales and always-online in Xbox One

Ownership tied to login, there will be a resale mechanism, does require internet connection but not constantly.

Whether or not you agree with Microsoft's ideas and goals for Xbox One, at least they are generally pretty easy to understand. The one exception today has been how game ownership works and especially the Xbox One's attitude to sharing between friends and reselling games, which has resulted in conflicting and confusing reports.

The confusion is such that as I sat transcribing and making notes four hours after I interviewed Phil Harrison earlier today, a Microsoft PR tapped me on the shoulder and invited me back to the boardroom so that Harrison could take another swing at explaining this surprisingly complex issue.

"So, think about how you use a disc that you own of an Xbox 360 game," he began. "If I buy the disc from a store, I use that disc in my machine, I can give that disc to my son and he can play it on his 360 in his room. We both can't play at the same time, but the disc is the key to playing. I can go round to your house and give you that disc and you can play on that game as well.

"What we're doing with the digital permissions that we have for Xbox One is no different to that. If I am playing on that disc, which is installed to the hard drive on my Xbox One, everybody in my household who has permission to use my Xbox One can use that piece of content. [So] I can give that piece of content to my son and he can play it on the same system."

Harrison then explained what happens when you want to take that game beyond the borders of your own home and into a friend's place.

"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," he explained.

"The bits are on your hard drive. At the end of the play session, when I take my disc home - or even if I leave it with you - if you want to continue to play that game [on your profile] then you have to pay for it. The bits are already on your hard drive, so it's just a question of going to our [online] store and buying the game, and then it's instantly available to play.

"The bits that are on the disc, I can give to anybody else, but if we both want to play it at the same time, we both have to own it. That's no different to how discs operate today."

That makes the issue of game ownership a lot clearer than it has been at any point so far. Once you install a game, it is tied to your Xbox login, and in this way Microsoft can avoid scenarios where you buy a game, install it, then just give the disc to all your friends so they can install and play it without paying for it.

The next issue is what happens when you finish with a game and want either to trade it in at a store or sell it on in another way.

"We will have a system where you can take that digital content and trade a previously played game at a retail store," Harrison said. "We're not announcing the details of that today, but we will have announced in due course."

Harrison would not be drawn on how this worked, even as I suggested various scenarios. For example, I asked whether you would need to pay for the second-hand disc at a store and then pay a fee to Microsoft when you got home, a bit like an Online Pass. Harrison wouldn't be drawn.

"Our goal is to make it really customer-centric, really simple and really understandable and we will announce those details in due course."

I got the impression from speaking to him - entirely my inference - that this Online Pass-style scenario of paying twice for second-hand, once at retail and once at home, was not the plan. But Harrison's reluctance to pre-empt this mystery announcement means that it is still a possibility.

To me, the fact that Harrison was talking about a forthcoming announcement rather than just clarifying the detail suggests that whatever strategy Microsoft does have for this second-hand resale process may involve a specific partner. Perhaps Microsoft has done some sort of deal with GameStop or a similar retail entity.

Anyway, I took the opportunity of a second audience with Harrison to ask some follow-ups about Xbox One's always-online aspects as well.

"Some bits of the system will work offline," he said. "I think the key point to make is that Xbox One requires an internet connection, but it does not need to be connected all the time. We think that most of the biggest games on Xbox One and most of the games and experiences and services you want to use will be internet-connected."

Everybody got that? Xbox One requires an internet connection, but not all the time.

"I don't want to trivialise the issue because I know people are passionate about it, but I think most people will realise that the vast majority of content and experiences that they will want to enjoy on Xbox One will be the ones that have an online connectivity," he continued.

"I think where people have anxiety understandably is what happens when the internet connection goes down for a few minutes or a few hours. On our side, with the infrastructure investments that we as Microsoft have made in Azure and Xbox Live dedicated servers that we will have for Xbox One, we are very confident that we have the infrastructure to support all of the players and all of the connections. And although it's not directly an Xbox issue, it's something Microsoft is proven to be really good at with Office 365."

After the tape was off, we chatted some more about the anxieties that have come to light today and over the last few months of speculation. I suggested that one of the reasons that our concerns about second-hand blocking, always-online and other related issues are so acute is that we don't have any real-world Xbox One examples yet to judge it. Our touchstones are things like Diablo 3 and SimCity, which were appallingly botched launches.

Time will tell whether Microsoft can get the balance right with this stuff. Personally, I just want purely single-player games to work offline and the internet to enhance our games in transparent ways. We will have to wait and see whether Xbox One's use of cloud computation and online services muddies this situation or if the platform holder can succeed where Blizzard and EA failed.

This article is based on a press trip to Microsoft's campus in Redmond, Washington. Microsoft paid for travel and accommodation.

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