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Rant – The Xbox 360’s downloadable content time bomb

When your Xbox 360 dies how s it handled?

Overall, Microsoft handled it well. They sent me a prepaid mailer and turned around a replacement console in a matter of days. It should have been a flawless exchange.

Only someone wasn’t minding the details when they created Xbox Live Marketplace. They crafted a system where the customer only half licenses any content he or she pays for. The other half is licensed to their console. If you lose your Xbox 360 through no fault of your own, your purchases are orphaned. And now that there are downloadable content modules that affect your game save file – such as Knights of the Nine for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion – this has even deeper consequences.

Here’s how it works. You buy an arcade game, theme or downloadable game content item using Microsoft points. That content is registered to your Gamertag, so you can re-download and access it remotely from any Xbox 360 that’s connected to Xbox Live over the Internet. Nifty, right? But it’s also registered to your “home” console – the one you bought it on – for offline use by anyone who plays on that console.

Which is all well and good, but what happens if:

You buy something on a friend’s Xbox 360 with your gamertag?
Answer: They own the content on their console and can play it anytime they like, but you can only play it when you’re online at home.

You have more than one Xbox 360 in your home?
Answer: Anyone can play it on the console you purchased it with, but you alone can play it on the other one, and only when you’re online.

Your console dies and you get a replacement?
Answer: You can only play your content – and any games whose save files depend on that content’s presence – online!

Think about it: If your Internet service goes down unexpectedly (say, due to a winter storm that takes out half the utilities in the Seattle area!)… or you have to cancel it to pay for Ramen noodles… or you visit a bandwidth-impaired family member… you simply can’t play your downloaded arcade games. Or Oblivion (or any other game add-on that modifies your save game) if you’ve paid for downloadable content and then saved your game.

Here’s what happened to me. My very first day with the 360, I bought Bejeweled 2, Geometry Wars and the Penny Arcade theme and gamer pictures on my living room console. A few days later, the console died and was replaced. When I got the new one, I had all of my content stored on the hard drive (which I had thoughtfully held back when I sent the defective machine in for repair), but I could only see my chosen theme when I logged in to Xbox Live. I also couldn’t play those games unless I was logged in.

So I called 1-800-4MY-XBOX. I told the tech that I couldn’t access my purchases unless I was online. “Oh, that’s because it’s registered to your console. You’re probably trying to play it on another Xbox 360.”

“Yeah,” I said. “The one you sent me to replace the launch system that died. Didn’t you transfer ownership of my purchased content to the new console before sending me a new one?”

“Let me give you to a supervisor,” the tech said.

Half and hour, a hang up and three transfers later, we had worked out a solution. A technical support supervisor credited my account for the Xbox Live points needed to repurchase the content. There’s only one problem with this approach: You can’t buy the same content again since you already own it! When I went to repurchase those items on my new console, Xbox Live blocked me. “You already own this content, do you want to download it again?” it said. Only re-downloading the files didn’t give me back my “first console ownership.”

So I had to call back and get Xbox support to transfer the newly credited points to my wife’s account so she could buy the items for me on my 360. Only then could I get the games, theme and pictures to load without being connected to Xbox Live.

It’s a year later now, and I expected that Microsoft would have dealt with this. I was shocked recently when I saw people on several game forums complaining about the problem, particularly related to Oblivion.

Microsoft, if you’re listening, here are a couple of consumer-friendly solutions that shouldn’t hurt too much to implement on your end and might even save you on costly tech support:

Transfer content ownership when you replace a console. C’mon, this is basic customer service. How hard is it to create an internal tool that looks up any content that’s been registered to a specific console sent in for repair and then perform a one-time transfer to the replacement console’s ID before shipping it off to the customer? Even if this step added a day to the replacement time, it would be worth it to most customers. This process should be created and become a standard operating procedure.

Let us grant ownership of our purchases to our 360 console and then revoke it if we need to transfer it to another console. Apple does this with iTunes: You can license your music to play on five PCs of your choosing, and then revoke any of those licenses and transfer them to different PCs anytime you want. I know, I know: You want to protect yourself from piracy and maximize your revenue streams. So limit the number of active consoles to only one or two at a time. (I vote for two because we have two 360s in my house. But I can understand if you only made it one… You want to soak us for two copies of each game!) You could even further restrict that the credit card used on the console has to match. Seriously, how many people are going to give their credit card to a buddy so they can let him play Geometry Wars for free?! (True, having a credit card restriction would leave people who buy their points and subscription cards at retail out in the cold, but if it makes one bean counter at Microsoft sleep easier at night, well, it will have been worth it…)

The good news is that only some kinds of Marketplace content are problematic. Multiplayer maps, cheat codes and add-ons that don’t affect your game saves shouldn’t brick your single-player game if you’re not able to get your console on the Internet now and again, though they could cause issues at LAN parties. Movie rentals probably only matter if your console fails during the rental period. But themes, gamer pictures, arcade games, and any game add-on that’s not free and modifies the game world (and thus your save game) could be a problem. To test out a new download, you could try creating a new save game (don’t overwrite anything!) and then load it on a friend’s 360 with the network connection turned off. If you can load the save, the add-on shouldn’t lock you out if you ever have to replace your console.

I’ve given Microsoft a year to resolve this issue. Frankly, they should have planned for it at launch, but they were understandably overwhelmed by other matters – like making and distributing enough consoles to meet demand. But by now someone nestled in the corporate spire has no doubt written a memo or urgent e-mail about how the customer’s interest is completely been lost here. And so far it’s been ignored.

Consoles die, some well before their time. Our purchases shouldn’t be irrevocably locked to them. Maybe in 10 years when broadband Internet is like running water and dial tone, this won’t be an issue. But for now, it’s at least a great inconvenience and in some instances a travesty.

Me, I’m not buying any Oblivion downloadable content until this problem is corrected. And I’ll weigh any other game downloadable content purchases against whether they’re likely to disrupt my saves should the thinkable happen – my 360 goes paws up again.

I suggest you do the same.

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