The honorable Cliff Bleszinski weighed in on the furore surrounding Microsoft's decision to reverse course on how Xbox One would handle digital-rights-management, and lamented about what's been lost in so doing. He writes passionately about the commoditization of the used games trade, and how many developers link their own lack of success (financial especially) with the predatory practises of retailers. If only, he seems to suggest, the gamer universe had shown a little more foresight and realized that in the long run a fully locked-up console could have been a good thing. And that's ruined now.
The problem with this line of reasoning is very simple to tease out: The row over DRM is not about the freedom to digitally trade. It's about value for money. Outside of certain academic groups who consider the implications of such things, nobody on Earth cares about being able to trade their digital wares. Your iPad is likely stuffed to the gills with apps and games that you will never be able to sell, and yet you don't really care. Your Steam account probably has a library of hundreds of titles (many unplayed) that are likewise tied to you forever. But you don't really mind because you got them cheaply.
The consistent factor in determining whether a digital market succeeds is if it offers radically cheaper prices. Then it seems worth the trade-off. If you can get ebooks cheaply, buy music by the track, get games at huge discounts or apps for free, it's worth buying in. That's why the mobile game sector gives games away for free and does phenomenally well. And the prospects for where that approach to the business can go is why the maker of Puzzle and Dragons is valued as highly as Nintendo (although that valuation is likely exuberant).
The problem for the console industry is that it's caught in a paradox. Designers like Bleszinski want their world to go digital for a multitude of empowering reasons, but the business people who do the math want digital to happen while retaining retail (or near-to) prices. Selling a disc-based brand new Call of Duty for $59 and a digital version for $49 maybe makes sense in their world. Selling it for $9, on the other hand, breaks their business.
This is why the recent meme about how Xbox One's scheme was all about reducing console game prices rings hollow. Microsoft, the company that sells full priced games on Live years after they're only $5 new at retail, is not in a position to do that. EA cannot realistically refactor its entire business model around selling $9.99 games without losing a lot first. Nobody wants to admit it, but for the console sector to get to a digital place it has to climb down a very steep cliff first (no pun intended), and nobody - not even Sony - is able to.
Meanwhile the customers, used to these crazy prices and maximising their dollar by trading games (in effect paying what they can afford via swapping and topping up), are not keen to pay a whole lot more than they already do. They can't afford it. Now you see why I think microconsoles are a much bigger deal than they appear to be: they're climbing up rather than trying to avoid rapelling down. Similarly you see I think a whole gang of indies coming out of the app space with the idea of skilling upwards is much more interesting in the long run.
For now, absent all other choices, customers have chosen not to change. They won't be shifted until someone makes a radical case to them based on price. Call of Duty for $9? Sold.