Microsoft’s Masterstroke and the Banned of Brothers

On November 10th Google News was filled with stories of Microsoft’s trigger-happy banning of a large chunk – if not the entirety of – those of the Xbox LIVE community who chose to mod their console to play ‘backups’ – in layman’s terms, copied Xbox 360 games. Microsoft claimed that over a million consoles had been banned –most likely due to console-modding, possbily due to misconduct, which ironically created a gigantic used market for modded Xbox 360s.

However, there has been a degree of misinformation about the extent of the bans, the degree of the suspensions themselves, and the exact reasoning behind the “who, what, when and why” of the situation.

The modification itself refers to the iXtreme Firmware (nothing we’d link here), a modification that involves essentially re-flashing/tricking the drive into believing that a game copied to a dual-layer disk is a playable, Microsoft-approved game. The availability of the mod created a gigantic community of game-rippers and hackers, updating the firmware, populating the internet with games, and policing themselves. The community was so established that they’d created automated programs to monitor games, comparing their structures to retail copies.

However, this remarkable yet egregious self-policing was not enough to beat Microsoft. One might wonder how they avoided it for so long, in fact, the community and the firmware existed for years, but Microsoft never banned this many people at once, or, at least, never admitted they did.

This begs one question:

Why now?

The answer is simple. While many outlets caim ‘Microsoft bans X amount of players,” the headline should read that they are simply banning the accounts. To quote CNET’s Daniel Terdiman (and by proxy, InformationWeek):

“…Even if someone has been banned, their Xbox will still play offline games …”

And, furthermore, from a statement from Microsoft:

“All consumers should know that piracy is illegal and modifying their Xbox 360 console violates the Xbox Live terms of use, will void their warranty and result in a ban from Xbox Live.”

These bans are, simply, referring to a ban for the console from Xbox Live. While bad behavior – offensive messages, racism and the like – will lead to a banned gamertag, the million-strong bannings are on modded consoles, leaving the gamertags in tact.

One need only look at the date – November 10th – and the release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 to understand that Microsoft didn’t wake up one day and decide to execute a million bans. Nobody knows how they did it – some postulate a hidden signal to Xbox HQ inside one of the many early leaks of triple-A titles, others simply think that Microsoft worked out the enigma code behind the firmware.

However, banning a million consoles days before the biggest game release of the year does one thing – it forces those who want to play Modern Warfare 2 into buying a new console, knowing that they’ll receive instant redemption and instant gratification. In fact, Microsoft was even good enough to release a bundle with the game – on one hand to attract new customers, on the other to bring the prodigal pirates back into the fold.

Intentionally or not, Microsoft has converted former criminals into paying customers, and in doing so has sent a powerful warning to current and future pirates.