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Are your digital Xbox One games really here to stay?

Xbox One S
Xbox One S (Image credit: Daniel Rubino | Windows Central)

Since its debut back in 2013, the Xbox One has always been a console built with online services in mind. While reliance on internet connectivity is common for any modern console, the original vision for the Xbox One sparked an unprecedented level of outrage at the time, with ambitious, but equally controversial policies.

Despite Microsoft eventually reversing these policies prior to launch, the fundamentals of their philosophies can be seen in the Xbox One today. Physical used games may still be in circulation and internet connectivity isn't required, but Microsoft continues to place a heavy emphasis on its digital goods and services. Digital games now release on launch day, pricing is steadily becoming more competitive and even features such as "Play Anywhere" draw players towards online purchases.

But even without the constraints associated with the initial Xbox One vision, digital rights management (DRM) and the shortcomings of digital content still hang over the console. As more gamers flock toward online distribution, some disconcerting questions still lie ahead in the years to come.

Do you really own your digital Xbox titles?

Following the recent passing of the Ultimate Game Sale, many gamers took to the Xbox Store to secure digital titles on the cheap. Personally, I was stockpiling games I missed earlier in the year, while our Xbox Senior Editor, Jez Corden, was buying up backward compatible Xbox 360 games to complete his digital collection. At this point, both of us have migrated to almost entirely digital game libraries, with a few hundred titles tied to our Microsoft accounts.

My mindset has shifted to the volatile nature of a digital ecosystem, or rather uncertainty of what's to come.

I, like many, would hate to think how much has been invested in my Xbox library and until this point, I've yet to question the stability of my game collection. Before transitioning solely to digital, I loved the concept of having a convenient collection on the go. But recently, my mindset has shifted over the volatile nature of a digital ecosystem, or rather the uncertainty of what's to come.

In Microsoft's words, "all digital goods are licensed, not sold." By purchasing digital games you're gaining access to a long-term license to play your games, rather than truly owning them. Reviewing Microsoft's content usage rules (opens in new tab), here's what the firm has to say in regard to digital goods across its ecosystem.

Digital Goods are licensed solely for your personal, non-commercial use (which excludes use for promotional purposes), at a level customary for such use. Microsoft may stop distributing any Digital Good, or add to or reduce the capabilities for any Digital Good, at any time. You may lose access to or capabilities of Digital Goods, or have the nature of your access changed

Like any digital storefront, your ownership can theoretically be revoked at any point in time, leaving a huge amount of uncertainty for the future. Sure, Microsoft's isn't going to just remove games from your library on a whim (we're, like, 99.99% sure that won't happen), but there's a potential to lose valid purchases in the years to come.

Xbox One S

Xbox One S (Image credit: Windows Central)

Regardless of the likelihood, there are plausible ways access to your games catalog could be revoked later down the line. For many, the burden of an Xbox Live ban is enough to put your purchases in jeopardy, by preventing to account from accessing Microsoft's download servers. As a part of the service usage rules, you're giving the right to forfeit your library in these scenarios, regardless of how harsh they may seem.

On a per-product basis, some content has also been known to be removed from the Xbox Store entirely – whether for legal complications, or the discretion of the publisher. Although it's uncommon for games to be removed entirely, the legalities of hosting digital content make for a more unpredictable solution than tangible goods.

Albeit unlikely, drastic events may also have an impact on your ability to access purchases. Whether a large-scale hack targeted at Microsoft, closure of the Xbox Store or even Microsoft shutting down entirely – these are all legitimate concerns in the years (or even decades) to come.

The end of an era is coming

Xbox 360 E

Xbox 360 E (Image credit: Windows Central)

With the rise of digital licensing and subscription-based services, the way in which we consume content is changing, for better or worse. Digital video game distribution has only been widely adopted in the past decade, and resultantly, the standards for such content are still being established. The promises of a digital ecosystem are enticing, but due to the infancy of such distribution, we're yet to feel the impact of its biggest flaws.

The promises of a digital ecosystem are enticing, but we're yet to feel the impact of its biggest flaws.

Over the past year, production of last generation's biggest consoles, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, ended. With both devices now having successors for reasonable price points, there was little incentive to keep the consoles on the market. While phasing out older generations of hardware is nothing new, these consoles marked the beginning of digital distribution as we know it today.

We'll be entering somewhat uncharted territory in the years ahead, where both platform owners will assumedly wind down associated services for both consoles. While services and their content have retired in the past, we're yet to see the cord cut on a platform as huge the Xbox 360. How the ownership of digital content expires may rekindle the debate surrounding how sustainable online services are, and potentially met with some shifts in the industry.

While keeping physical disc-based games in good shape is a personal responsibility, with the digital age, faith is being put in other companies to safeguard your collection. Microsoft probably won't be dumping your digital collection anytime soon, but it's still a valid ask going forward.

Preparing for the inevitable

While previous generations of Xbox hardware are falling into obscurity, Microsoft has been making strides to revive software of the past decade on Xbox One consoles. Back in 2015, it introduced the backward compatibility program – an initiative to emulate Xbox 360 games on Xbox One hardware, despite architectural differences. Succeeding its positive reception, the Xbox One will soon span three generations of consoles, with the addition of original Xbox games.

In a recent interview, Xbox head Phil Spencer discussed the motivations behind backward compatibility in its current form. Viewing games as an art form, Spencer drove home the idea of preserving titles and their accessibility, regardless of hurdles to overcome.

I look at video games as an art form. I'll go back and I'll watch Gone with the Wind, Citizen Kane. I'll read The Lord of the Rings, I'll listen to early Rolling Stones or Zeppelin albums. I think it's important that art media lives with us, and we learn from it, and I think games are the same.[…] I don't think it's a good thing when games become unplayable for technical reasons. It doesn't mean everybody should go back and play every game, but I want those games to be accessible.

Bringing these titles forward, the legacy of both consoles should be preserved alongside the Xbox One library. With existing Xbox 360 purchasing transferring over to backward compatibility, Microsoft has prepared itself for the inevitable – maintaining digital downloads once the Xbox 360 is out of action.

Microsoft's upcoming flagship console, the Xbox One X also builds on these similar values, maintaining compatibility with the existing Xbox One ecosystem, despite the significant advances in hardware. The lines between pre-defined console generations and gradually bringing to fade and with this, your digital library is expected transition going forward.

If you're truly paranoid about the longevity of your digital purchases, maybe sticking to physical games is meant for you. However, to access the full spectrum of Xbox experiences, investing in digital content is simply inevitable, despite the uncertainties that surround it. Even if some aspects of a digital-driven future may look bleak, ultimately this is a risk you'll have to take, to get the most of your console going forward.

Are you invested in the Xbox One's digital offerings? Let us know your preferences when it comes to game purchases in the comments section.

Matt Brown is Windows Central's Senior Games Editor, Xbox & PC, at Future. Following over seven years of professional consumer technology and gaming coverage, he’s focused on the world of Microsoft's gaming efforts. You can follow him on Twitter @mattjbrown.

40 Comments
  • Digital collections are never ours on Xbox especially, we just own the Licences which can be revoked anytime when we get banned. Microsoft has to do something about that. For me I have lots of digital games but most of my AAA titles are all physical. As someone with a sense of ownership, I prefer physical to digital. This is a nice read Matt.
  • Thats not true re: ban part.  When you are ban, you are just banned from LIVE....they dont' ban your digital games acquired on a home console. 
  • While that is true, by getting locked out of Xbox Live, you can no longer download any of your purchased titles. Technically your games aren't being revoked, but your ability to access a fair majority of them is.
  • I have about 300 games in my library, coming back for the 360 and all this time on Xbox live Gold. Honestly, I'm afraid of taking a picture that gets automatically uploaded, or something unralated that would get my MS account blocked or banned, and lose all the xbox stuff. My mom got her e-mail address banned cause she used to share jokes with a group of people
  • Yeah, this is another problem that I didn't really touch on in the article - there's a real lack of transparency surrounding what can get you banned, and even for events out of their control, some users have been cut off from the Xbox Live service
  • So it's a bit anecdotal, but I did run into an issue where an album I had purchased in Groove became no longer available. Copyright holder pulled it. I had called them about this. It was over a year after the original purchase. They issued a full refund. It was in Microsoft credit, but it did give me a whole lot more confidence on this matter. Better than it just disappearing.
  • Same happened to me.  They actually gave me enough credit to purchase a full album, even though I'd bought it at discount.
  • I've been all digital since it became available on the 360. Since XB1, going completely digital has had big pay offs. We have 2 XB1 and one is the designated "Home" device. Anyone in the family can play on it with Live Gold and any game in my collection. I can play on the other XB1 at the same time. One Gold subscription and only one paid license per game. I also have dozens of free games from Gold. Nearly 100% of my games are on-line multiplayer. If Xbox Live goes down, I won't be playing games anyway.
  • Physical is KING folks! Physical>>>>digital
  • you keep sniffing the plastic box when the store opens in the morning.  we'll enjoy the game by midnight launch.
  • Until your disc drive fails, or disc gets damaged. I'll keep my digital titles as along as my account is active.
  • Thats why its best to buy on GOG.com where you truly own a DRM free copy of the game that you can easily backup to local storage; Steam seems to be pretty good in this regard also, but whenever I get a chance I buy DRM free as that is the only way you can ensure you will have you digital game even in 50 years time; As regards Microsoft, I so far have not had great experience with their digital stores, particularly the WP store where if an app was withdrawn from sale you lost access to it, unlike on Steam where you have access even long after a game is not sold or the dev long gone; after having this happen on at least 10+ WP apps and games I stopped buying new ones, not worth the hassle chasing refunds and endlessly arguing with reps to get your stolen property back.  
  • I'm with you on GoG. Every time I buy a game I make sure I download a copy of the installer to keep on an external hard drive. That plus no DRM means the games are effectively mine. For keeps.
  • I was all in on digital until I moved into the middle of nowhere. I am now limited to 10mb/sec. Back to disc games I guess :(
  • The same can easily be applied to films and music purchased digitally. Physical formats always win in this regard. And they can be sold again too
  • If you ever read the TOS on physical games, you would know that those games are also licenses of the game. You have no ownership of the games. The difference is that the company can't to anything to prevent you from using that game. As long as the disc is not damaged, you can load the game. With digital games, you rely on the game being hosted on a server to download. I personally don't see a problem with this. The games will be around long enough on those servers that most people won't care if they are removed. How many people still have the original xbox or PS and still play those games? Most people move on to the next generation console and don't go back to old games much. Who this will hurt are collectors. There are still people who have ataris and collect the old cartridges. If everything is digital, you can't collect old games anymore. What will probably happen is that the old games will be re-released as nostolgia plays, like how nintendo released the NES classic edition.  Of course, that means paying again for games you previously owned. 
  • Look no further than what happened to Xbox Fitness recently. Not only did they discontinue that game/app/whatever-you-want-to-call-it, but they also straight up pulled the title from consoles, presumably because they no longer wanted to manage the overhead of ongoing maintenance on the content. Granted they provided a one-year notice period and some kind of refund on purchased content, but yeah, you don't own any of it.
  • The bigger questions is what happens to your games when you die. At 52 I'm a walkin' deadman. If I die today, can my son take over my XBL account? 
  • Sure. Why not? But he will have to know your password...    I think about that a lot, I haven't done it, but what happens if I get hit by a car, all my accounts are just locked...  I almost think I need a Will writen up with that stored in it, haha.
  • Good paper. However you don't mention the price factor. Example: I bought Forza Horizon 2 yesterday on eBay (obviously pre owned) for less than $10 while it's still showing full price on the Store.
  • This is common on MOST games, where a 3-4 month old game is $59.99 when you can even go to Walmart and get it for $39.99.  Even 3 year old games that they are giving away in places are still $59.99 in the store. I only get digital when it's a deal or it's AAA new release (where I am paying $59.99 anyway about it)
  • i'm not worried. i only have about 15-20 digital games. and i can play them all offline on the xbox 360 anyways. i never play online or multiplayer games, so thats not a problem either. the rest of the games are all on disc. i tend to get physical releases anyways.   later -1
  • My account was closed and I lost 10 years of achievements and all my saves.
    Appeal process is basically useless no matter what happened.
    Even with physical you are not safe now... All these games on disc and I need to start again instead of enjoying a quick continue.
  • The future is digital.  Resistance is futile.  Microsoft is all-in on cloud computing.  I'm confident of the company's ability to sustain content online.  Also, I really like being able to download my games on any Xbox any time.  And legal disclosures about what a company can do, doesn't mean they intend to.  All digital content companies have to cover themselves legally.
  • And just to add...this is the PC way of life for how many years now?   Unsure why the freakout hapepned with console. 
  • Ive trusted Steam for over a decade now with my games.  I honestly dont know why people's mindset in consoles are still way behind than Steam, G.O.G. EA's Origin.  These older gamers just can't let go of their plastic case sniffing obsession.  They're dragging the millenials along with them.
  • And Physical games are never going away.  When Digital is on par 100% on costs (when a 2 year odl game in the "store" is still $59.99 and I can buy it in any store for $19.99) it will never go away. Then there is the fact where MOST people in this country have a fair internet connection where a 65gb game (modern games, new COD, Gears 4, Mafia 3 for example) will take 3-4 hours to download, this will get worse with 4K games. If you buy a pysical game, you can be playing it in 30 min or less in most cases.
  • I was not a big fan of Digital until the Game Sharing.
  • There have been numerous cases where Apple and Amazon have not only removed digital purchases from the store, but also from your library and remotely deleted it from your device. I believe Amazon does it a lot more frequently though. But theoretically, Microsoft does reserve the right and has the capability to delete digital purchases from your library and console. I like to collect games anyways so that's the main reason I stick with physical copies for most of my purchases.
  • The best example of game licenses being revoked are the 007 game series. You can't buy Goldeneye Reloaded anymore for example from digital stores, not even on PC. Activision lost the license to make 007 games and sell them. However, while that technically applies to physical copies too, there's nothing the publishers or license holders can do to prevent you from playing, buying, or selling physical copies of any 007 game. That's the biggest advantage of physical media. However, if you can buy digital games DRM free from places like GoG, then you should be safe too.
  • problem is games on disc now are half finished and not complete, it takes months of patches and additional dlc to actually get the game, so even if you buy a physical copy the game is truly digital
  • Interestingly, on Games with gold, you get the game for now, or you have an option to buy it to "own it forever" I think the games with gold will be revoked at some point in the future
  • As long as Sony does it, it will never go away...
  • In all honesty the physical copy is best. I have had music that I purchased and with every upgrade in phones I have somehow lost countless amounts of music. One song in particular "The Rise" now say I can't listen to it its copy right protected.
  • I like to own my games, so it's mostly physical for me. ofc there are games that are only available digitally or sometimes there are some great deals on digital games so I do buy digital on those occasions. There are so many reasons as to why I prefer physical. Personally the only advantage for me of having things digitally is that you're not getting up and changing a disc when you finish a game. But for me thats ok, I'm not a lazy person...
  • I prefer physical formats too, games, movies, music always buy physical, I don't trust digital rights owners to keep my game/movie/music available until I die so... 
  • I honestly don't worry about this. I finish games and move on, not sticking with them for muchg more than two years. The odds something is pulled before I'm done with it is incredibly small. However, since I cycle through games quickly, I also find digital purchases a really bad value. Instead, I stay with physical, then trade them in upon completion. Plus, physical prices are cheaper at launch through Best Buy GCU or Amazon Prime, so I both get a lower initila price and recoup some of the cost on the back end. Digital just isn't appealing at $60 with no trade-in option.
  • And this is why I am about 85% Phyical where I can... There WILL be a time where Xbox One X is no more....games will not be available from Microsoft (How long they hold on to digital games after a dev offically kills a game is YET to be seen). When these digital games are no longer accessable in their current form. When you SHOULD be able to pop up a OLD Xbox one, drop in a classic phyiscal game, install it and play it. Microosoft clearly has this in their licencne. Over the last 20 years, Microsoft has changed around many times and in that time completely changed their focus around. I like what Phil Spencer says but, next time Xbox starts doing poorly (market slump), he will be replaced. It's just how it works in business.  The Next guy could say "clean up really old titles for new stuff" and your favorite game from 10-15 years ago is gone for ever. There is also the fact, that digital games will have no value, today, or 20 years for from now. The Phyical game will, even if it's $1, it will have value. This one of those things that are very subjective but, just seeing what I get for my money, a physical game in the long term (esp after I am done playing it), is the best value. We also have the download factor. WHen you order a modern game, they are getting over 65gb in size (Gears 4, New COD, Mafia 3 for example) on a modern internet connection, these games will take 3-4 hours to download.  With a Phyiscal game, yould could be playing in less than 30 min in MOST cases. No matter how much Microsoft wants digital to take over in a console, it will never go away, just too many factors
  • Cost is an issue. When I shop around physical media it is often cheaper than digital. Microsoft charge a premium for going digital. This is strange because you would have thought physical media added cost.
  • I have a huge digital library and hope that we don’t lose access. I have digital for the convenience.