In the film Back to the Future, teenager Marty McFly finds himself traveling through time from 1985 to 1955 - imperiling his own existence when he interferes with his parents' meeting.
During one scene, Marty finds himself at the dinner table with his future mother as his grandfather wheels in a black and white television set - the family's first.
"Do you have a television?" his mom-to-be asks.
"We have two of them," Marty replies.
"Wow! You must be rich!" his future uncle exclaims.
"Oh honey, he's teasing you," replies the grandmother. "Nobody has two television sets."
This joke was lost on my kids until I explained that TV sets were more expensive and less prevalent in 1955 than they were in 1985. With the rise of videogames, cable television, VCRs, DVD players and TiVo, I'd be willing to bet that the majority of households with a television now own more than one set.
In this, I see similarities between television's past and videogames' present.
Judging from their current policies, however, console manufacturers don't expect us to own more than one of their systems. Perhaps this is still a reasonable expectation - at least for people who aren't involved in the games industry - but it could soon change.
In 1985 there would have been no reason to purchase a second NES. In 2008, however, two Xbox 360s (or PS3s) can be linked together to play Call of Duty 4, UT3, and other games via LAN. Modern consoles can also be used as movie players, giving consumers another potential reason to purchase a second one.
You might think that console manufacturers would appreciate the extra dollars selling us a second system - or, for those who lose money on the hardware, the ability to increase their installed base - but they sure don't make it easy on us.
For starters, most Xbox 360 save data cannot be copied to a memory card and transferred to another console. Even when save files can be transferred to another console, they are tied to a specific profile. This means that you need to create the same profile on multiple machines, migrating it back and forth to whatever console you happen to be using.
Xbox Live Arcade titles are downloaded to a single console, however, so even if you migrate a profile to another console and log on you won't be able to access any games you purchased on a different console. Downloading additional content creates similar problems, as that content will end up only on one console and cannot be transferred.
My experience with Rock Band, which my family was kind enough to give me for Christmas, is a perfect example of the difficulties that can arise.
I purchased my first Xbox 360 at launch in 2005. As my family and friends frequently play via LAN, I was considering a second 360 this past summer in preparation for Halo 3 - a purchase which was made imperative when my original console succumbed to the dreaded "RRoD." Unbeknownst to me, I was about to be supplied with a third console for work purposes.
This new console gave me the one-time option of transferring my purchased content from the hard drive of my original 360. After doing so, however, I learned that my family members were unable to play any of my old Xbox Live Arcade games. They could only play the trial versions on my new console, unless they signed onto my account. But did I really want to give my daughter access to my Microsoft points balance? Or allow my son the possibility of ruining my reputation by playing online under my gamertag and fragging his own teammates in Halo 3? I don't think so.
Console 3, with my Live account and transferred XBLA games, is in my office along with the various debug consoles I use for my job. Console 2 is in the living room where my family gathers most often to play and contains my son's Xbox Live account. The original, now repaired, sits upstairs and remains offline. Since that upstairs room is the only place large enough to house the Rock Band peripherals, that's where we decided to play the game at Christmas.
A few weeks later, when I got the urge to download additional songs, I thought I could swap out Console 1's hard drive - until I read that licenses for downloaded content are tied to the console and not the hard drive. I didn't want to download new songs on Console 2 or 3, because I hadn't played Rock Band on either of them and was unable to transfer my game progress to those consoles via memory card.
Although I could have purchased a wireless ethernet bridge for the offline console, I didn't want to pay for another Xbox Live subscription and I lacked a third email address to create a new gamertag on Console 1 solely for download purposes. My only option was to disconnect and move the console downstairs, connect it to the internet, and recover/migrate one of our current Live accounts on the console long enough to purchase a couple of songs. I had to use my son's account because I was unable to migrate my own - something about it being tied to an email address from an ISP that was now defunct. I was worried that, when I migrated my son's account off of Console 1, the purchased songs would become unavailable. Fortunately, they seem to work with any offline profile - unlike my XBLA games.
Lest you think I am unfairly targeting Microsoft, the PlayStation 3 isn't any better. Each console is tied to a single PlayStation Network account, so while you can link a second PS3 to the wallet of your main PSN account to purchase content, you won't be able to sign in on someone else's console. Items purchased from one PSN account cannot be transferred to another, which means you'll have to download and pay for the same game separately on each PS3 console. And, when I tried to purchase PS One/PSP titles from the PlayStation store on my PC, I was forced to create a new account - only to find that my PSP would not accept the purchased content because it was linked to the PSN account from my PS3. The only redeeming quality is that Sony allows players to easily transfer saved game data from console to console.
The exception is Warhawk, which Sony says players are allowed to download on up to five PS3 consoles using the same PSN account - provided that they wait 24 hours before switching to a different console. I am still at a loss to understand how this works when each PS3 can only have one PSN account associated with it, and since downloaded content cannot otherwise be used by any other account. I imagine this means that, should you download the game on a second PS3, you will lose access to it on the first console. All the more reason to purchase the boxed copy of the game.
None of these obstacles were too large to overcome, but the point is that there shouldn't be that many obstacles in the first place. A search of both the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 web sites turned up little assistance, as if the writers of the FAQs never considered that someone might actually own two of the same machines. E-mailed pleas for assistance went unanswered.
I haven't forgotten about the Wii, by the way, but as the system lacks LAN games and cannot play movies - nevermind how difficult it has been just to fine ONE of them - the odds are that very few families own two of them. Still, as far as I know, you cannot transfer downloaded Virtual Console titles between Wii consoles either.
In all the discussions over the "inevitability" of digital downloads supplanting traditional retail distribution, I don't recall hearing proponents mention the major drawback. When you purchase a physical disc, you can play it on any number of consoles you own, you can let a friend borrow the game, and you can take it with you to someone else's house to use on their console. Not so with downloaded games.
The paranoid side of me wondered if publishers are hoping to use digital downloads to eliminate the used game market. I also considered that they might be overzealous in their copyright protection, or that maybe they weren't able to overcome certain technological challenges. However, the more I looked into it, the more I became convinced that these problems are a result of oversight. It's not a conspiracy - game publishers just haven't given it much thought.
One only has to look at the very successful iPod/iTunes system to see a working solution to the issue of multiple console ownership. If you and your wife both own an iPod and your kids own a shuffle, for example, you aren't forced to purchase the same song three or four times. Instead, your iTunes account can authorize multiple music players. Neither are you tied to a single laptop or PC for downloading all your songs.
Valve has a similar set-up with its Steam distribution platform, where purchases are attached on Steam's servers to a user's account, allowing consumers to download the content on any PC. Not only that, but Steam allows users to share "guest passes" of purchased games to allow others to try the game for a limited time. This seems more sensible than restricting gamers in the same household to trial versions of games which their siblings have already purchased just because they have a different profile. Are you telling me that Microsoft doesn't know that you are using the same console?
Clearly, solutions exist. Console manufacturers just don't yet recognise they have a problem.
Only time will tell if consumers purchase duplicate videogame consoles for the same household - much as they have with televisions, VCRs, DVD players, and other consumer electronics. The more that the manufacturers emphasise the multimedia capabilities of their systems, and the more that console games encourage LAN play, the more likely this is to happen.
At the moment, however, they aren't ready.
Console manufacturers definitely need to make it easier to own more than one of their systems - and to enjoy the content which we have paid for - especially if they expect us to more fully embrace digital downloads in the future.