When good game consoles go bad

Sony's PS3 clock bug brings to mind other big annoyances console users run into. And until Sony says what really caused the problem, can we assume it's DRM?

It's times like this, as we dissect failures in digital entertainment technology, when we have to ask the question: Is it too soon to blame digital rights management?

Two console generations ago, problems like this would have been inconceivable, or at least wouldn't have had the kind of domino effect they do today. The current PlayStation bug (which is believed to be due to the inclusion of trophies in firmware v2.40) affected games, rented movies, and access to both Netflix streaming and the company's online storefront--all things that continue to work without issue for users of the newer PS3 Slim hardware. You'd simply never get this kind of problem back when the only thing you could use your system for was to play something off a disc or a cartridge.

Sony's PlayStation Network is on the fritz . Microsoft's Xbox Live network has had its problems . And there was that one Wii system software update that was turning consoles into pretty looking paperweights.

Though the main problem is less about progress and more about the security countermeasures put into place to keep consoles or users from doing something they shouldn't. Using digital rights management has become one of the easiest ways to do this, though it can also make things more difficult for the consumer.

And while DRM may not end up being the culprit in Sony's snafu, the situation is a startling reminder of how little control we have over these little boxes that are sitting in our living rooms. That's by design though. All three of the big console makers (Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo) use various types of security to make sure people do not run downloadable games or content that they have not purchased. Here's a brief rundown of how they work:

Xbox 360
DRM is attached to every piece of content acquired through Microsoft's Xbox Live Marketplace. This includes Xbox Originals, Xbox Live arcade titles, video content from the Zune marketplace, and video game add-on content.

Content licenses are tied to both the console and the user's gamertag. This means you can use that content on any console, as long as you're signed in with your Xbox Live gamertag. However, you cannot simply transfer content to a console and play it if you're another user without first using Microsoft's license transfer tool. This can transfer the license for that content from one console to another, and can only be done once every 12 months. Users also have a strict 30 minutes to start and finish the process before that transfer session expires, and requires doing it again.

There is also a license of sorts attached to game save files. This require a users to be logged in with their Xbox Live gamertag to load a saved game if it's being run on another console.

PlayStation 3
Despite the whole CD rootkit fiasco a few years back, Sony's PlayStation 3 has one of the most lenient DRM systems in place when it comes to sharing game content between systems. Users can share a game they've purchased on the PlayStation store on up to five different PS3 consoles. Though if there is a multiplayer component, all other copies of it will be locked down when one of those boxes is in use for an online match.

Although this isn't always the case, developers can choose whether or not they can lock a game save file to a particular user. For unprotected games, this means you can freely swap save files between consoles and user profiles. Otherwise, it'll be attached to that particular memory medium.

Nintendo Wii
Nintendo's DRM is a tad stricter than Microsoft and Sony's policies. Content that's downloaded from Nintendo's online store, particularly Wiiware applications or Virtual Console titles are tied to that specific machine. This means that if that machine is sold off, or if users pick up an additional console, they cannot share or transfer that content to the newer one and vice versa.

In contrast with Microsoft and Sony, game saves are console- and user-agnostic, meaning you can share them with other people.

The problems

Over the years there have been a number of problems or basic annoyances that have cropped up as a result of these security measures:

DLC problems on the 360. One of the earliest problems with DRM on consoles popped up on the Xbox 360. People who had downloaded Xbox Live arcade titles or add-on content for games found they could use it only when connected to Xbox Live. This was a result of the content license being tied to a previous console. You wouldn't think this would be nearly as widespread as it turned out to be, but with a large group of users getting replacement units for problematic launch systems, it wasn't solved until three years after the console's launch, with the aforementioned content license transfer tool.

Different limitations by content type. PlayStation 3 owners who purchase a movie can only download it once. If they want to back it up, the onus is on them to make a copy to an external device if they want to clear up some storage on the PS3's internal hard drive. It also means that if users accidentally deletes it, they're hosed, unlike with games that can be re-downloaded an infinite number of times on up to five different consoles. Microsoft is better about this, and will let users re-download both purchased movies and games any time.

Inability to share data between machines. As mentioned before, in the case of the user game save restrictions on the some PS3 titles and the Xbox 360, users are not easily able to uproot their progress in a game and use it on another user's account. This plays a number of important roles when it comes to tracking a particular user's progress, but it ends up making it far more complicated to take your data with you. This is even more prevalent in the case of Nintendo's Wii, where the content is tied to a specific console, and that console only.

So what about a fix?
The good news for PlayStation 3 owners is that a fix is on the way, and they won't necessarily have to have their machines hooked up to the Internet to apply it. Sony can push it out through the PlayStation Network. PS3 users can also download the update on to a USB key or memory stick, then run it from the console. Similarly, Sony is likely to put the fix on all game discs going forward, just as all other console makers do.

What remains unclear is whether the date bug can at all be traced back to some of this system-level DRM, or if it's simply an issue of the PlayStation's latest features literally being ahead of their time.

Update at 3:40 p.m. PST: Added additional details on transferring copy-protected PS3 game saves.

 

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