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Microsoft versus Sony, Battlefield versus Call of Duty and Forza versus Gran Turismo. These are some of the rivalries that can get people talking about console wars. “Game On or Game Over” is your place to get inside the minds of Nicholas and Andy as they seek to find the true meaning of gaming and tackle some of gaming’s most controversial subjects. Both are award winning authors – although the awards haven’t been mailed or created yet — but trust them. Would they lie to you?

Andy: I was so close, so incredibly close. Whoa, OK let me rephrase that. I was teetering on the edge of going digital with my game purchases, or at least most of them. The Games with Gold that Xbox gives out every month was starting to sway me to the advantages of easily switching between games. Having a 4TB hard drive meant space wasn’t an issue. If I was going to get the game anyway, and most likely play it for a long time, why not just save the hassle of going to the store, waiting in line, getting the game and then going home.  Add to that the ability to preload games now and I can play them straight away. Sure you lose the trade-in value but it’s a give-and-take I guess.

I can say with 100% certainty now that I will not be going digital anytime soon. The reason for me no longer considering digital game purchases is the decision Microsoft made last week concerning Xbox Fitness. For those who didn’t see it, Microsoft announced that it would be ceasing support for the application. On June 27th they removed it from the Xbox Store, not a huge deal as those who have purchased games in the past were still able to play them if they were delisted.

It gets worse though. On December 15th, 2016 they will be removing the “Free with Gold” offer for 30+ workouts that were available for Gold members. The real dagger though is on 1 July 2017 and I’ll quote this so it’s not out of context, “Xbox Fitness (and all associated content) will no longer be available for download/play. This includes content you’ve purchased. At that time, Xbox Fitness will no longer be available for download from Xbox Marketplace and content will not be available for play from the Xbox Marketplace nor within the game. Xbox Fitness users will no longer be able access Xbox Fitness and the associated workouts/programs.”

Just re-read that once and it’s crystal clear. Content that gamers paid for is being removed. The ability to play something you paid for can be taken away from you and you are left with nothing. The worst fear of gamers buying digital has been confirmed. When you buy digital you do not own anything. The license that you acquired can be plucked from your fingers never to return. Some will look at this and say it’s not a big deal because of the game, it’s not a Battlefield or Assassin’s Creed game that this has happened to. There is literally nothing to stop it from happening to AAA games though and that’s something all gamers should take notice of. Before I go off the deep end and make this a novel, what are your initial thoughts on this? Do you have a gut reaction when you read this like I did?

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Nicholas: I have two initial responses – the first is that it seems like a bit of a stitch-up that Microsoft is taking away content from users that they have paid for, and the second is that this isn’t the first time we’ve seen something like this take place. To start off with the former, like you’ve mentioned, it doesn’t seem right that Microsoft are able to cut access to a game (or feature – although same same) that people have paid for. I don’t have a lot of understanding as to how Xbox Fitness works, but from what I’ve gathered you’re able to purchase workouts that you can then stream to your console. I can understand if Microsoft doesn’t want to support the application anymore, fair enough, just don’t make new content, but what strikes me as odd is that they’re seemingly taking away all of the existing content away. To me that doesn’t make a lot of sense, and I suspect that’s where the bulk of your criticisms on this entire situation are going to stem from.

Onto my second point, the reality is, this isn’t the first and nor will it be the last example of when a ‘game’ that people have paid for has been taken away from them. I am of course referring to the situation when (predominately) online games have their servers shut down. Think of titles like Battlefield or even Need For Speed games (and they’re just the two I can think of) when EA have cut their online servers. For some gamers that’s made the game completely useless. Sure, there might be a solo campaign to play, but for a lot of gamers multiplayer is where they’re focus is.

So going back to you, what are your thoughts on this entire situation? Further to that, and touching on what I’ve just said above, do you think developers owe gamers an obligation to continue supporting the games they release?

Andy: You’re absolutely right, that’s where the bulk of my criticism lays. If they no longer want to support it, I get that and completely understand it. There’s not many games out there (I know this isn’t a true game but let’s go with that for now) out there that have true support two, three or four years past the release window. Gamers, for the most part, expect that. Heck, I’d even argue that to some extent gamers are used to servers being shut down for games. It’s par for the course, usually when servers shut down there is a new iteration of the game or the player-base is so abysmally small that it doesn’t make sense to keep it going.

The thing with Xbox Fitness is, as of now there is no new iteration, and once that cut-off date is here you can’t even play it offline. You touched on it above, with most games when the servers are nuked, at least you can still play it (even a little bit) off-line or play a game’s campaign. For Microsoft to flat-out say the game/content won’t be available to play is an absolute middle finger to those people who have forked over money for that content. Full disclosure here, I don’t own – nor have I ever played Xbox Fitness, but this whole situation greatly worries me as a gamer.

I don’t think developers owe it to gamers to continuously support a game and kick out content. Heck, once I buy the game I don’t “expect” anymore content. 99% of the time there is more content coming (paid of course) but it’s not a necessity. What I do expect is to play the game I paid for in some capacity, whenever I want to. Whether it be tomorrow, next week, next month, next year or ten years down the road when I get a nostalgia kick going and want to remember games gone by.

This isn’t a case of a developer closing and unfortunately having to kill the game. This isn’t a case of losing a license and the game being removed from the store front. This is a case of Microsoft saying you don’t own what you paid for so now we are removing it from your system on this specified day and you’ll never be able to play it again. That is so many levels of wrong I don’t even know where to begin. What’s to stop Microsoft from saying, “Hey we are no longer going to support Minecraft. On March 25th 2017 the game and all content will be removed and no longer playable.” Pick any other game that you want and insert it into that sentence. No matter how you break it down that’s some seriously concerning stuff right there.

After the news broke, there was an initial backlash from those who play Xbox Fitness, but from what I’ve seen those who haven’t played it – most of them don’t seem to care. Do you think this is something all gamers, on all platforms, should be very concerned about? Or do you think this is one of those isolated incidents that we should just nod our heads at and move on if it doesn’t directly affect us?

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Nicholas: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there. The fact that this news over Xbox Fitness hasn’t raised alarm bells for most gamers is because, and I’m making an assumption here, most people don’t play Xbox Fitness. Hell, I didn’t even know it existed until you brought it up for this week’s discussion. Combine that with the fact that, like myself, most people probably don’t understand how it works, to hear that Microsoft is ‘turning it off’ would just come to most as non-news. If it wasn’t Xbox Fitness but another game like Minecraft it would be quite drastic.

I don’t want to wear a tin-foil hat and say that this is the beginning of something much more sinister, but I think at the least it’s a situation that gamers need to be aware of that it’s happening, so we can begin to track if occurrences like this become a ‘thing’.

You mentioning Minecraft earlier made me think of EA. More specifically, Need For Speed. Earlier I spoke about them turning off servers for games, which makes sense, but what happens when those games are made to be entirely online-only? Furthermore, what happens when those games are made to be entirely online-only but they never have to be? Case in point, Need For Speed. Let’s say in four years’ time, maybe five, maybe the next generation, EA decide to cut the servers to the latest NFS game as they support the most recent iteration. In this instance, the game has been reduced to nothing more than a coaster, or in the case of digital downloads, wasted space on your HDD. Since the game is made to be online-only, you don’t even get to play it offline, it becomes useless. As more games move towards this style, they inevitably have a set shelf live.

What are your thoughts on that? Should companies be forced to keep servers for always-online game like Need For Speed because without it they become unplayable, or is that something we should now expect when we purchase it? Alternatively, should they release a patch that makes it playable offline when scenarios like this arise?

Andy: I don’t think we will ever get to a point where we can require developers to keep servers going indefinitely. Mostly because they cost money and there is a point where it becomes no longer feasible to support servers for a dwindling player base. I absolutely love your idea though of when the decision is made to kill the servers there is one final patch pushed out that allows the game to be played offline. Granted some modes may need to be axed, and of course some features will be removed – but at the end of the day I’ll still be able to play the game I purchased when I want to play it.

You raise a great point to of the perfect storm in games right now. With more and more games falling into the “always online” way of thinking this is definitely something gamers should be looking at. I think this is one of those issues where gamers should get out in front of it so it doesn’t sneak up on us and render purchases that we make null and void. We can already see some of that just by trying to play one of those games when servers go down. You’re locked out of the game completely. Just last week I was going to play The Crew with a friend and the servers were down so I couldn’t even race by myself. That’s pretty alarming when you extrapolate it further to more games, and then take complete server shutdown into the equation.

I want to circle back to Xbox Fitness quick here and point out an observation that I haven’t seen discussed anywhere else regarding this issue. Maybe it makes sense for Microsoft to kill Xbox Fitness after this past E3. With the announcement of Scorpio and the Xbox One Slim oddly enough the one thing missing was a dedicated Kinect port. Going forward it’s safe to say that the new hardware will not have that port, you can of course get a USB adapter, but in Microsoft’s thinking the Kinect is like a beached whale. Everyone can see it, but no one wants to get near it. I think it’s reasonable to say Microsoft has already started distancing itself from Kinect since it was first removed from the Xbox One, removing the port for new hardware is just another nail in its coffin. Do you think we will begin to see fewer and fewer Kinect games, and “Better with Kinect” type games? Or and I reading too much into this and making too much out of something that’s not really there?

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Nicholas: I think it’s important that we recognise something first – no game was ever “better with Kinect”. OK, now that I’ve addressed that, let’s answer your question seriously. Kinect, much like the motion controls on the Wii, were a gimmick at best. Yes it was cool to be able to make movements in games using your body, and voice commands are pretty slick too, but ultimately, it was never the step forward in gaming that gamers wanted, nor needed. Unlike VR which has the ability to completely change how we play games, motion controls was never going to be that change. It was a novel idea that seemed like a fun idea at first but which got tiring quick.

The fact that Microsoft have decided to not even make the Kinect connect to their new consoles without an adapter is a clear sign that they’re moving on bigger and better things. It was a fun experiment but one that I think we all saw was going to end sooner or later.

If I can return to the original topic of paid content becoming inaccessible, I’d like to contrast gaming with an example like Spotify or even Google Play. Both offer people the ability to pay for music, and you can ever change the settings so you can listen to content offline, but the moment you stop paying for a subscription you lose access to said music and other media. What are your thoughts on that, where you’ve been paying for something up until a point, but as soon as you stop paying it gets taken away. With Xbox Fitness, if it was a subscription-based service, would Microsoft pulling the plug be that big a deal with you? What if gaming as a whole moved towards a subscription-based service. Is that something you would be interested in?

Andy: See, that would make sense and be logical. By paying a subscription fee I then have access to something. When I no longer pay the subscription fee then access to that content is eliminated. Being I am primarily an Xbox One gamer, I already have two subscriptions. 1 – Xbox Live which allows be the monthly Games with Gold, when I no longer have that subscriptions those Games with Gold games will no longer be playable on my Xbox One. That’s part of the deal, I understand that. Same with EA Access, once my subscription is not renewed then all those games I have downloaded from the Vault will be locked. That’s part of the deal I agreed to when I signed up for both of those subscriptions. So when those games go away I can’t say it was unexpected or even unfair.

If Xbox Fitness was a subscription-based service then I can understand why people would be disappointed in it going away, but the outrage and anger would be misplaced because they knew about it going in. As it stands now, Xbox Fitness was a purchase, not a subscription, and being a purchase puts it into a different category in regards to what our expectations should be. When I purchase something, I have an expectation that… oh I don’t know, it’s mine. I can access it whenever I want, use it when I want and how I want. A purchase does not mean that some entity can come along at some point and arbitrarily take it away from me without compensating me for my initial purchase. That, to me, seems very wrong and ill thought out.

It seems there is a decent segment of gamers that aren’t too happy above this and have started a movement to get Microsoft keeping Xbox Fitness going. On the Microsoft website there is a section where you can propose ideas and other gamers can vote on it. At the time of writing this reply there are 2,468 votes in favour of keeping it online. You and I both know how entitled gamers can be at times, yet this feedback suggestion is actually very reasonable. All they want is the ability to play their purchased content offline. They aren’t demanding anything else. If Microsoft is truly set on eliminating Xbox Fitness – which I believe they are – then that solution is the best for those who have forked out money for the workouts and content.

As we approach the close of yet another week I wanted to touch on something I mentioned at the top. Digital purchases. With this development are you going to be rushing out to purchase games digitally? Or are you going to be a little hesitant now that it seems a company can flat-out remove access to anything you buy digitally whenever they want to? Yes, this is an isolated case right now, but it is certainly something that gamers need to think about as they weigh that digital purchase versus a physical one is it not?

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Nicholas: For me and at this stage, the fiasco surrounding Xbox Fitness isn’t enough to make me question a future in digital downloads. While I certainly agree, what it seems Microsoft is doing does seem like a dick-move, I think this will be an isolated example and not something that we’ll see become a trend in the years to come. Personally, I’m more worried about more games going online-only and then we get to that point where the servers are cut and access to all the content becomes impossible. That seems like more of a possibility and in that situation, whether I’ve purchased the disc or downloaded the game won’t make much of a difference.

It’s interesting though that you mention this entire topic because just this weekend past I was interested in playing the recently released LEGO: Star Wars The Force Awakens game, but because I didn’t have any credit on my account and nor did I want to use my credit card, I ended up just giving it a miss. Above we’ve spoken about publishers pulling content or cutting servers, but for me, the decision to go digital isn’t about that, but moreso a) still wanting to have a physical collection I can own and appreciate and b) not wanting my credit card details on yet another database.

Ultimately, I don’t think we’ve got anything to worry about at this stage, but it seems like if nothing else, all this has done is put up just another hurdle in the eventual move towards completely digital gaming. Question is, when will we be forced to start jumping?

Tune in next time for the next instalment of Game On or Game Over. If you have any ideas for our next article, feel free to contact Andy or Nicholas on Twitter.

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