Sit down, let me tell you a story.
Like the cat in the popular Internet meme that ate the hamster, a wide range of Xbox 360 owners -- paying customers who have supported Microsoft for years -- stumbled upon the ability to get several free games from different regions of Microsoft’s Xbox LIVE online infrastructure. It’s not something new. Resourceful gamers have followed these promotions for years, dating back to the beginnings of online console gaming on the Xbox.
Microsoft, Sony and various third party publishers often host region-specific deals that include free or reduced games. Valve’s Steam store on the PC does the same. Most have multiple accounts, set up with addresses from various countries that allow them to download and purchase games that might not be available in their home region. It’s a win-win situation for everyone. Sony, Microsoft and Valve get to inflate their subscription statistics, gamers get free and reduced games, publishers gain more customers and everyone is happy.
But it seems, less than eight weeks ahead of the launch of its next-gen console, Microsoft has decided it’s going to take its ball and go home, taking with it hundreds, if not thousands, of accounts of paying customers. Perhaps these resourceful gamers got caught with their hands in the cookie jar. Downloading “Injustice: Gods Among Us,” “Flashback,” “Rayman Legends” and several other games from countries they did not live in is certainly tiptoeing through a gray area. Microsoft’s Terms of Service -- that massive wall of text no one ever reads, but you have to agree to if you want to play the latest “Halo” or “Call of Duty” -- give Microsoft the power to ban any console or account of any paying customer for just about any reason the faceless corporation feels like. One of the reasons listed includes the vague “marketplace theft.”
So what does “marketplace theft” mean? Can one conceivably steal digital goods? They aren’t tangible, no one is losing anything, therefore is it truly theft? Semantics aside, is taking advantage of a Microsoft mistake theft?
In hindsight, it’s obvious “Injustice,” “Rayman Legends” and other games weren’t supposed to be free. It was a mistake by someone within Microsoft’s endless maze of bosses, peons and interns to upload the content to Xbox LIVE for free. But it’s not the first time Microsoft has done this. Less than three months after Ubisoft’s “Assassin’s Creed III” hit store shelves, it showed up on the Chinese Xbox LIVE marketplace for free. Hundreds, if not thousands, of gamers downloaded it without any backlash. Microsoft’s own “Fable II” was released on the U.S. Xbox LIVE Marketplace for free several years ago. Again, hundreds, if not thousands, of gamers took advantage without any backlash.
Perhaps the most egregious example was when the first map pack for “Halo 4” was accidentally marked “free” for gamers when it hit the marketplace earlier this year. Thousands of gamers downloaded the map pack and enjoyed it. Microsoft initially said it was a mistake, but everyone that downloaded it could do so without worry of repercussions. Less than two days later, the company announced it wasn’t a mistake, but a promotion to give gamers a flavor of what the new map pack would offer.
So it makes sense with so many incidents in the past happening again and again with no backlash from big brother, gamers would be safe in taking advantage of the latest snafu. Not this time. Posts began popping up on various enthusiast messageboards from NeoGAF, to Cheap Ass Gamer to GamFAQs, all purporting their consoles, and sometimes accounts, had been permanently banned by Microsoft for the listed “marketplace theft.” The nastygram message they receive when they sign into Xbox LIVE just tells them they are banned from the service. If they are lucky enough to get an e-mail, it simply states the ban is permanent, there is no way it can be reversed and literally to not even bother calling Xbox customer support because there is nothing they can or will do.
When a console is banned, it simply cannot connect to Microsoft’s Xbox LIVE service. Those games and DLC packs that were purchased and downloaded on that system are still playable offline. Any purchase made on another console and simply downloaded on the banned console cannot be played, due to the company’s archaic DRM scheme. As long as you remove the “stolen” games and DLC off the hard drive, you can install it in a new console and you’re good to go.
But Microsoft didn’t even stop there. Instead of simply banning the console, which is a bit extreme, and revoking the license of the title, which they have done before as in the case of the “Halo 4” map pack, they are banning accounts, as well. You know that account that you’ve subscribed to Xbox LIVE with for the past five to 10 years, paying good money for the service? That’s gone, dead, forever. It doesn’t matter if you have already prepaid for the service into the future. Kiss that money goodbye. It’s now lining Steve Ballmer’s golden parachute as he bails out of Microsoft, laughing the whole time with his sweaty armpits. You know all of those games and DLC you downloaded? Kiss that goodbye whenever your banned console finally dies, which is will, because it’s an Xbox 360. It doesn’t matter if you have purchased thousands of dollars in Xbox LIVE Arcade games or add-ons to your favorite titles. Once that console dies, they cease to exist. You know those Microsoft Points you purchased that have been recently converted to money? Sorry, you lose that too. Executives have to eat.
It’s somewhat ironic, and extremely hypocritical, that Microsoft is banning accounts for “marketplace theft,” of titles due to their own errors, when those bans ultimately lead to Microsoft stealing up to thousands of dollars in investments in the gaming service. The beauty of the situation is you don’t even have a way to appeal or any way to voice your concern because Microsoft simply does not care.
Of course, the company is probably laughing its way to the bank, yet again. The Xbox 360 4GB Arcade Edition has leaped to the top 20 video game sellers on Amazon, mostly likely in the wake of the mass bannings. Xbox LIVE subscription cards have also experienced a similar jump. So the people that were banned are being led like sheep back to the herd, and Microsoft is yet again raking in the cash.
As a word of advice, be careful if you are searching for an Xbox 360 on Craigslist or eBay currently. Many are selling their banned consoles without any sort of information about them. And once you have that console, even if you were not the one to get it banned, you’re still stuck with a banned console, because Microsoft won’t lift the restriction.