OPINION: How the West was won - Sony's default win at E3

Leigh Harris
OPINION: How the West was won - Sony's default win at E3

Microsoft and Sony have fought bitterly so far this year to get us excited about their new generation consoles.

The problem is, one of these consoles hasn't innovated enough, while the other exists in an internet-fuelled Orwellian dystopia.

Physical goods have been items one can purchase and trade since civilization began. Ownership of physical goods has been imprinted so heavily upon the collective human psyche that it never sat quite right with people that they weren't allowed to reverse engineer their copy of STALKER, or that they'd actually only purchased the rights to play the content, but didn't actually own it.

It makes perfect sense in the world of copyright law, but it's been made quite blurry by industry's delay in matching the services provided by file-sharing protocols and by the very few instances that such a notion of puchasing a 'license' have ever been widely publicised.

Streaming technology has more in common with television than it does DVD rental.

No one would suggest that they 'owned' the episode of Fresh Prince of Bel Air they watched last night (except perhaps in an abstract cultural sense), and wouldn't feel entitled to watch it again or lend it to a friend on a whim. They would feel that way, however, if they'd taped it to a VHS.

In Thailand, VCRs took way too long to roll out. A culture therefore emerged where VCRs and VHS tapes were brought in via grey imports and pseudo-black markets. The cost of a VHS was the cost of producing one. The time, effort and materials a pirate (well before the term had become popularised) consumed in creating copies of existing Hollywood blockbusters was the only cost to bear, resulting in VHS sales being about $5 at a maximum.

People had their living rooms converted into ad hoc theatres, actually displaying signs telling people that for a modest fee they could come in and use the public space in the fronts of their houses to watch the latest movies.

So entrenched was this culture, and so foreign the notion that there was any difference whatsoever between the pirated VHS tapes which now flooded the market and legitimate copies brought in by distributors, that when the time did come for VHS to invade the Thai market, the customer base genuinely didn't understand the distinction.

Why should they pay six times the price for a VHS from one person and not another? Certainly the illegality of it wasn't a problem, as no one would enforce something so culturally ingrained as the VHS sharing (pirating) market.

What Microsoft has neglected to realise in its presentation of the Xbox One is that the cultural distinction between a physical good and a digital one is still very present. Its presence makes it real, considering that the consumer's perception of it will shape demand in a very real way.

People have been comparing it to Steam, noting that no one expects anything but the draconian measures imposed on its digital purchases.

And while on a moment's reflection the content is the same, the medium is perceived as different, therefore the market has different expectations.

When Steam started, digital sales of games were totally new. No one expects to be able to share their Xbox Live Arcade games with a friend, and no one complains that they can't. We're used to it because we've been gently brought into a new set of content in this very way.

The problem people face is that physical goods still carry with them an agency that they are able to be owned, bought, swapped and traded.

The negativity surrounding Microsoft is valid, but not because of the console itself or Microsoft's policies being unreasonable (they're not). It's valid because they're asking people to force a cultural shift in a transaction as old as time itself, and that they've asked this of us crucially before they've first got us on board with the console's must-have status through the usual brigade of killer apps and next-gen pop.

Thus, all Sony needed to do was follow the playbook which has worked for a generation with its PS4 presentation at E3 and capitalise on the pessimism, scepticism and in some cases paranoia directed at Microsoft in the last few weeks.


Tags: Microsoft , Sony , Hardware , Opinion , piracy , e3 , drm

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