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Microsoft has control issues | This Week in Business

The effort to squash unlicensed controllers hurts plenty of paying customers, and might not even achieve its goals

This Week in Business is our more-or-less weekly recap column, a collection of stats and quotes from recent stories presented with a dash of opinion (sometimes more than a dash) and intended to shed light on various trends. Check every Friday for a new entry.

We know it's a little early for This Week in Business, but Brendan's travelling to Montreal for MIGS next week and probably won't be able to fit in a column around that, so he figured he may as well double-up this week with two columns. As for "The rest of the week in review" section, that will be in the Friday column, when there's a bit more week to review.

Remember when Microsoft announced the deal to acquire Bethesda in 2020, and Xbox head Phil Spencer heavily implied it wouldn't be making the games exclusive?

QUOTE | "This deal was not done to take games away from another player base like that. Nowhere in the documentation that we put together was: 'How do we keep other players from playing these games?' We want more people to be able to play games, not fewer people to be able to go play games." – Spencer in October of 2020.

And remember how on the very day the acquisition was finalized, Spencer confirmed that Microsoft was absolutely going to make future Bethesda games exclusive to Xbox and PC?

QUOTE | "Now that everything is official, we can begin working together to deliver more great games to everyone… With the addition of the Bethesda creative teams, gamers should know that Xbox consoles, PC, and Game Pass will be the best place to experience new Bethesda games, including some new titles in the future that will be exclusive to Xbox and PC players." – Spencer in March of 2021.

Spencer might have regretted making things that obvious, as Microsoft's apparent backtracking became a point of contention during the extended regulatory review of Microsoft's Activision Blizzard acquisition.

So with the Activision Blizzard deal closing just a few weeks ago, it's a little surprising that we're already seeing some anti-consumer overtures from Microsoft.

Last weekend, Windows Central reported on a Microsoft move to prevent unlicensed third-party controllers from working with Xbox One or Xbox Series X|S consoles.

QUOTE | "Microsoft and other licensed Xbox hardware partners' accessories are designed and manufactured with quality standards for performance, security, and safety. Unauthorized accessories can compromise the gaming experience on Xbox consoles (Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S.) Players may receive a pop-up warning that their accessory is unauthorized. Eventually, the unauthorized accessory will be blocked from use to preserve the console gaming experience." – A Microsoft representative gives the company's explanation for the move.

At first glance this is "anti-consumer" in a way that's kind of inherent to console walled gardens. Microsoft made the Xbox and it wants a cut of any business done on the Xbox, so it's trying to lock out any companies that didn't pay up. That part at least is sort of familiar.

The Xbox One has been discontinued for three years now, and Microsoft is only now going back to remove functionality

But where this is different is that Microsoft is doing this so late in the game, and without much in the way of warning. It looked the other way on these peripherals for the entirety of the Xbox One generation. The Xbox One has been discontinued for three years now, and Microsoft is only now going back to remove functionality, an act of vandalism on a console it can't even be bothered to sell any longer.

The Xbox Series X|S has been on the market for three years now, and Microsoft is only now getting around to locking it down after who knows how many companies have produced their own unlicensed controllers and who knows how many people have bought them unaware Microsoft would – or even could – sabotage them at any time.

On a selfish level, this bothers me because I had been planning to pick up Street Fighter 6 at some point, and I was planning on playing it with my old Xbox 360 Mad Catz FightStick customized with my favorite Marvel vs Capcom 2 characters. That FightStick is an officially licensed Microsoft product and Microsoft already got my money for it, but it won't work with the Series X|S because it was licensed for the Xbox 360, and Microsoft's embrace of backwards compatability never extended to the Xbox 360's peripherals. That's OK though; I just need an adapter like the Wingman XB2 converter from Brook.

QUOTE | "Dear Gamers, we extend our heartfelt appreciation for your unwavering support and interest in Brook. We find it necessary to share crucial information with you regarding our Xbox console-related products, which may encounter functional disruptions in the near future." – In a post on its website, Brook lets people know the Wingman XB2 converter and a bunch of its other products might stop working entirely or lose their functionality on Xbox systems.

While I normally have nothing but side-eye for anyone using the salutation "Dear Gamers," I feel for Brook here because the company has built a business with (in my experience) quality products, and Microsoft has decided after years of tacit approval that it wants to screw with that business.

It would be bad enough if this was being done just to force people to buy Microsoft's competing first-party product instead, but Microsoft doesn't actually offer a competing product. It would rather I spend hundreds of dollars on a new stick licensed for use on the Xbox Series X|S, even though the only reason the old one can't work is because Microsoft arbitrarily decided against it.

But like I said, all that is on a selfish level, and I try to limit the selfishness in this column to pictures of stuff that makes me nostalgic. Here comes one now.

A MadCatz FightStick customized with Marvel vs. Capcom 2 characters including Tron Bonne, Gambit, Guile, Jin, Dan, Amingo, Thanos, and Servbot
Gambit, Guile and Jin for when I want to win. Thanos, Dan and Servbot for when I do not.

Of all the people to pick on…

Ok, now that I've got that out of my system, let's talk about one of the more serious problems with this move against unauthorized controllers. It's hurting end users who are by definition Microsoft's customers, and when I say "hurting" them, in many cases I'm talking about significantly more than just making them buy a new controller.

The Quadstick is a game controller for quadriplegics, letting them control a joystick with their mouth and use a mouthpiece, lip switch, or sip/puff straw to push buttons. It's also an unauthorized accessory that relies on other unauthorized accessories to work with Xbox consoles.

"It's going to be a big problem for us"Quadstick's Fred Davison

Fred Davison is the owner of Quadstick, and he spoke with us on Monday after the news started making the rounds.

"I reached out to some friends at Xbox and they're kind of caught off guard by this whole thing too," Davison told us. "I don't have any particular information about it, just that a lot of people are concerned, because it's going to be a big problem for us."

Davison has been making Quadsticks for about ten years now, and estimates he's made about 3,000 of them in that time, more than half of them being used on Xbox consoles.

The Quadstick itself actually emulates a PlayStation 3 controller, so it needs a converter device to work with the Xbox. Davison says the Brook Wingman is the one most people go with because it's a simple plug-and-play solution and cheaper than alternatives like converters like the Cronus Zen, or the ConsoleTuner Titan Two, which offer a number of features but also add more cost, cords and complexity to a setup that is already plenty of all of those things for quadriplegic gamers.

A Quadstick setup can cost about $650 depending on the components used, and can go hundreds of dollars higher than that.

When we spoke, Davison had already received more than a dozen emails from Quadstick users and others in the assistive controls field.

"They're all concerned that the way they've been adapting to the Xbox is going to suffer," he said.

"I think the danger is you get these sort of niche markets that are relying upon a device like this to work with the Xbox and it's just going to become much more difficult for them to do it. That's the shame of it. For Quadstick users, gaming is a big outlet for their time. It's an important aspect of their lives and now they've got this new monkey wrench thrown into the works."

Obviously this is a group of people who face significant barriers to being able to enjoy games, and Microsoft's move against unlicensed controllers is raising them that much higher.

Image from a YouTube video of RockyNoHands beating Getting Over It with a Quadstick. The main screen shows a man in a jar with a sledgehammer bouncing up a hill. An inset view shows a camera image of RockyNoHands using a Quadstick to control the game
YouTuber RockyNoHands uses a Quadstick to play games like Fortnite and Apex Legends, and even used it to beat the notoriously difficult Getting Over It.

It's a surprising move for Microsoft, which has championed a push for accessibility in games for years, including with its own Xbox Adaptive Controller.

"They've got a history of being very accommodating to this market," Davison said. "They developed the Adaptive Controller, and that was a project of charity and love from them because it's not a big money maker. So they've always been the most supportive of the major console companies in helping everybody be able to play."

Davison said Microsoft has been "extremely supportive" of the Quadstick specifically in the past. When the Adaptive Controller was in development, Microsoft representatives reached out to ensure that the Quadstick could plug into it and work as a joystick.

That functionality could remain even if Microsoft squashes controller adapters like the Brook Wingman, but Davison notes plugging the Quadstick into the Adaptive Controller only lets the device replicate one joystick and a few buttons of the standard controller, rather than both joysticks and all the buttons as can be achieved with a controller adapter.

"The level at which the decision like this was made, [Quadstick] probably was not even on their radar screen," Davison said. "I only know a few people over there, but they've been big, big supporters of the Quadstick. But they're not in a position to really know how this is going to work out…

"I'm just hopeful that, in the end, there will still be a way for a device like the Quadstick to still easily be used."

Microsoft's motive

It's easy enough to get angry at the idea of Microsoft stomping all over Quadstick users as part of a money grab to drive more sales of licensed peripherals.

But it's even easier to get angry at it when we look a bit closer at the company's stated motivations here (which admittedly were never going to include money even if money absolutely was the motivation). Let's focus on one bit of that statement from up above.

QUOTE | "Unauthorized accessories can compromise the gaming experience on Xbox consoles."

At the risk of reading too much into the "compromise the gaming experience" line, that makes it sound to me like Microsoft is trying to take away access to unlicensed products intended to give people unfair advantages in online games. Davison likewise shares that belief, and the reaction to the move on forums and social media suggests he's far from the only one.

Such devices can enable first-person shooter players to play with keyboards and mice. They also can run scripts, mods, and macros that help people out during gameplay by, for example, adjusting for and negating the effect of recoil on a player's aim in a first-person shooter.

So sure, that's a legitimate thing for developers to want to stop. Studios have spent decades fighting against hacks, cheats, exploits, and anything else that could impact the competitive balance of their games, so they're unlikely to be fans of devices that disrupt that balance.

To unilaterally squash the use of unlicensed peripherals regardless of whether they're giving players an advantage is overkill

As the platform holder, Microsoft may be in the best position to help detect when those devices are being used, but to unilaterally squash the use of unlicensed peripherals regardless of whether they're giving players an advantage – and to apply this ban across the entire platform rather than on a game-by-game (or even competitive-mode-by-competitive-mode) basis – is overkill.

So what kind of horrible devices that only have disreputable and illicit uses need to be excised so dramatically from the ecosystem?

There are a few of them out there, but the Cronus Zen and the ConsoleTuner Titan Two are two commonly cited examples.

That would be the same Cronus Zen and ConsoleTuner Titan Two that Quadstick users will probably resort to once the Brook Wingman adapters stop working.

Cronus and ConsoleTuner haven't made any public statements about the new Microsoft policy that we've seen, nor have our attempts to reach them for comment been successful. We also haven't seen any users of those products say they've run into the problems that Brook warned its users about.

As for why they might work when the Brook Wingman adapter doesn't, the Cronus Zen and the Titan Two require an original Xbox controller so it can effectively present itself as the real deal for authentication and maintain a connection with the system. If the console already sees such devices as authorized controllers, detection becomes a bit trickier.

Add it up and it looks like Microsoft is breaking the devices of people who invested in the Xbox ecosystem, creating a fair amount of e-waste out of all the unlicensed peripherals that will no longer work with Xbox platforms, and hurting paraplegic gamers reliant on a Quadstick or other such unlicensed accessibility tools, all in the name of a) money or b) thwarting cheaters.

But the amount of money at stake here is a rounding error for a company the size of Microsoft, and the devices people actually use to cheat – devices like the Cronus Zen and ConsoleTuner Titan Two – may be entirely unaffected by the move. They may even benefit from it.

For the record, I know I'm namedropping the Cronus Zen and ConsoleTuner Titan Two a lot here, but I want to be clear I have no sponsorship or advertising deal with them. In fact, while I was aware such devices existed, I actually just learned the brand names of the Cronus Zen and ConsoleTuner Titan Two this week, specifically because of Microsoft's decision to come down on unlicensed controllers. So as I see it, if anybody finds out about the Cronus Zen and ConsoleTuner Titan Two and thinks they sound like an interesting product now, Microsoft's really the one to blame for raising awareness of them. And just so we're clear, when I say "them," I mean the Cronus Zen and ConsoleTuner Titan Two.

This could conceivably make the cheating problem in competitive games worse as people who relied on the Brook Wingman are pushed toward devices like the Cronus Zen and ConsoleTuner Titan and figure they may as well try out some of those more competitively disruptive advantages they paid extra for.

"The Brook converter is the most benign of all the devices," Davison said. "It has some of what they call turbo features, but they're very limited in that way compared to the Cronus devices. It's pretty much just letting somebody use their favorite controller."

And that simple act of letting someone use their favorite controller actually seems like something that should be very much in line with Xbox's overarching vision.

QUOTE | "The future of gaming is the ability to play the games you want, with the people you want, whenever you want, wherever you are, and on any device." – Xbox head Phil Spencer, speaking to us when he was named one of our 2018 People of the Year.

Ah, 2018. That was a good year for Microsoft in our estimation. Beyond Spencer making the People of the Year list, we also celebrated the team behind the Xbox Adaptive Controller.

Personally, I'm a bit disappointed in seeing how Microsoft's vision has apparently changed five years down the road. Hopefully there's time enough for them to change their minds. I would suggest they actually revisit some of their own marketing for the Adaptive Controller when they were rolling it out, and consider if the animating spirit behind that device is present at all in the imminent crackdown of unlicensed controllers like the Quadstick.

QUOTE | "It goes to the core of everything I am, everything I've grown up with, everything I've experienced. It's nice when a person considers you. It's unbelievable when a company does it, when a company thinks about you, designs something for you. All of a sudden, I'm not the person on the outside." – Microsoft Stores retail learning specialist Solomon Romney, who was born without fingers on his left hand, tells the company's Story Labs blog in 2018 how profound the simple act of playing with a favorite controller can be.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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