Why Game Consoles Are Left Out of Right to Repair Laws
Right to Repair

Why Game Consoles Are Left Out of Right to Repair Laws

Surprise! Consoles will not melt your face Lost Ark-style when you open them.

We’ve made some great progress toward protecting our right to fix the things we own. But if you’ve been reading the fine print on Right to Repair laws, you might have noticed that the laws have a big hole for game consoles: California’s Right to Repair law that was signed last week included tablets and phones and laptops and refrigerators and washing machines… but not game consoles.

Why? The short story is that game consoles have paired parts that are designed to prevent piracy, and repair has gotten caught in the crossfire. Game console manufacturers have deep pockets. Their lobbyists have been able to carve their way out of every Right to Repair law that has passed so far.

Let’s take a closer look at the arguments they make, but first, we want to get one thing straight: Console repair restrictions hurt video game repair shops and gamers.

Game Console Repair Needs Help

Game console repair is broken. We surveyed game console repair shops around the world, and they report that repairs are often blocked by manufacturer restrictions. Consoles with some of the most common failures—broken optical drives and broken hard drives—are a struggle to fix. Not because of a lack of skill or know-how but because manufacturers stop them. Of the shops we surveyed, 93% report trouble repairing consoles with broken optical drives. More than half of shops have had a backlog of broken consoles that can’t be repaired.

Video Game Industry Lobbyists Have Fought Hard Against Repair

Almost all of the electronics repair bills we’ve supported in statehouses around the US have included game consoles at the start. But one big lobbying group keeps pushing back: The Entertainment Software Association (ESA). 

The ESA boasts quite a roster of members

The ESA represents the big three console manufacturers, Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo, as well as game publishers like EA, Ubisoft, Activision Blizzard, and more. If you don’t recognize the name “ESA,” you may be more familiar with their (formerly) yearly event the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). In addition to large-scale event planning the ESA also sends representatives across the country to argue before legislatures against the Right to Repair on behalf of those manufacturers.

The gist of ESA’s anti-Right to Repair stance seems to be that “a ‘right to repair’ mandate could have a rapid and severely detrimental impact on the video game industry and consumers alike, regardless of how narrowly tailored it might be.”

That’s a pretty drastic statement. Considering any mandate for repairability, no matter how narrow, to be unacceptable is a frankly unreasonable line to draw. Don’t both gamers and manufacturers want their consoles to stay functional? Why is the ESA so set on the idea that DIY console repair has a detrimental effect on the video game industry? 

The ESA cites concerns about piracy (which swappable parts and access to schematics and tools would allegedly drive up) and console longevity (which us average Joes would supposedly ruin by opening up our own machines). But the effects of piracy are debated, and we know that repairable consoles are possible without inspiring piracy or harming durability—just look at the wildly successful Steam Deck.  

 A favorite argument by the ESA, one repeated in both their written policy positions and their legislative testimony, is this: that there’s really no need for DIY or independent console repair because manufacturers already offer “easy, reliable and affordable repair services.” It’s a nice thought, but is it true? 

Is Manufacturer-Sanctioned Repair Easy?

Truthfully, there’s no one answer. Whether performing a repair yourself is easier than getting one done through a manufacturer can vary wildly. It depends on what sort of repair you need, your own level of experience, how much patience you have for boxing up your device and waiting for its return, how accessible your location is to mail things to-and-fro, and how easy it is for you to part with your hard-earned cash.

Personally, I’d rather drop my console at a local repair shop between errands than spend time buying bubble wrap and boxes and printing out shipping labels

Some folks will undoubtedly find it easiest to pay a fee, ship their console off, go without gaming for a few weeks, and keep an eye out for porch pirates while awaiting their device’s return. Some find it easier to drop a console off at a local repair shop. Others don’t want to bother with the drop-off/pick-up/packing/mailing dance, can’t justify the price tag, or just plain don’t want other people handling their stuff. These folks would rather order a part, grab a screwdriver, and open the thing up themselves. To each their own. 

All this to say, “easy” means different things to different people, and if there wasn’t a market of people who preferred the latter, iFixit wouldn’t exist. For us, the real question is: Do you really want the manufacturer to decide what’s “easy” for you? Personally, we’re fans of having options. 

Making Professional Repair More Accessible

Local repair shops are one of our favorite options for folks who don’t feel ready to dip their toe into DIY. Talking face-to-face with a professional repair technician has an obvious appeal. They have expertise, can answer questions about their shop’s repair capacities, give you a price quote and let you know how long they estimate turnaround to be. They also offer the certainty of knowing where your property is and that it’s within reach if you change your mind about the repair. We believe, and the FTC agrees, that independent shops are just as qualified to repair as manufacturers’ authorized shops. If console manufacturers aren’t convinced by that then they’re welcome to offer their own walk-up repair locations. The more options the merrier.

Microsoft, for one, used to have some brick-and-mortar stores that serviced consoles. The US had over 80 of them across 35 states, in fact. However, those locations no longer exist in favor of reliance on the mail-in model and partnerships with Best Buy which are only offered in 20 states at the time of writing. Most console makers don’t offer manufacturer-operated, in-person repair options at all. 

This marked lack of repair options does not inspire confidence in manufacturers’ commitment to their customers’ experience. If you want people to rely on your technicians for repair, you’ll need to put some of your techs where your customers are.

In all fairness, Microsoft has made a commitment to mitigate repair problems by offering spare parts for some devices as well as expanding their authorized service provider (ASP) locations. However, none of the spare parts offered are for consoles—yet—and “expanding their ASP locations” probably does not mean adding new shops to the repair ecosystem. 

ASPs are almost always pre-existing independent repair shops that have been “authorized” to perform certain repairs and granted the privilege of buying parts directly from the manufacturer. So new ASPs do not equal more locations to get your console serviced. In fact, historically ASPs have led to fewer repair options. 

“We’ve fixed over 30,000 devices. Less than 5% would have been considered repairable by authorized repair.”

Jessa Jones, repair extraordinaire and founder of iPad Rehab

When Apple rolled out their independent repair programs, the strict limitations they imposed on shops actually led to a reduction in the types of repair that those independent shops are allowed to perform. If console makers choose to follow Apple’s example, they could similarly “expand” authorized repair options in a way that simultaneously blocks those shops from performing many necessary repairs. If you can’t beat ‘em, control ‘em.

Is Manufacturer-Sanctioned Repair Reliable?

We’re no strangers to manufacturers and lobbyists discouraging DIY repair. They often try to justify their opposition by implying it to be inferior, dangerous, or unreliable. Those manufacturer concerns have been hyperbolic from the start. People have been completing DIY repairs without injury or (irreparable) error for years. OEMs’ worries regarding device performance and user safety hold even less water now that Apple has started their Self Service Repair program and Microsoft has started selling spare Surface parts. 

It’s a beautiful sight, but the catalog of options crucially lacks console parts. Fingers crossed that they’ll be next

These respected hardware manufacturers (one of them an ESA member) are finally embracing self-repair. Clearly, their experts have verified what we’ve been saying all along. Namely, that providing consumers with detailed step-by-step instructions and access to quality parts and tools doesn’t lead to legions of customers haphazardly stabbing their devices’ innards with screwdrivers like an impromptu reenactment of the Ides of March (in this office, we only stab batteries on purpose).

Manufacturer repairs aren’t always so reliable, anyway. Most console manufacturers offer mail-in repairs for free for the duration of their device’s warranty. It’s a simple enough process on the user end if all goes to plan. However, sending a device across a country or over an ocean isn’t without its risks. There’s the potential for damage in transit, losing the package in the mail, or porch pirates getting to it before you.

Additionally, you might not even get your own console back. Sometimes a manufacturer decides the repair isn’t worth it to them and sends a replacement device back in its stead. “When I had a fan break in my Xbox,” recounted Washington State Senator Derek Stanford, “I only had one option. I had to send it back to Microsoft. I had to wait several weeks, it was expensive, and then I got back a unit which was probably not the same unit I sent in.” That sounds more like uncertainty than reliability, to us. 

You shouldn’t have to wait weeks (or more depending on how backed up they are) as your console passes through numerous hands just to repair an optical drive. You shouldn’t have to guess whether you’re getting your own console back or a replacement. You shouldn’t have to just accept that your original console is gone forever when you may have been able to fix it if the OEM hadn’t made the repair impossible for you. You should have convenient options. 

OEM Repairs Have An Expiration Date

Reliability isn’t just about where repairs are offered or who performs them, it’s also about what manufacturers are willing to repair. We know that contractual strings can limit repairs in ASP locations and that sometimes OEMs simply opt to completely replace a console rather than perform a repair. So when they do perform repairs, just how comprehensive are the manufacturers’ in-house repair offerings? 

The ESA seems pretty confident that OEM-performed repairs are the best option to keep a console running. “Video game consoles are played for years and often held on to for generations,” the ESA’s policy position reads. We couldn’t agree more! But here’s where they lose us: “This long life-cycle is likelier to continue if repairs are performed by the manufacturer. Older model consoles are still highly popular and available on online marketplaces.” 

Brownie points to Nintendo for at least providing batteries for the 3DS family of handhelds in their online shop as well.

There’s an irony in attesting to console value over the course of “generations” when ESA-represented manufacturers don’t prioritize repairing those past generations. At time of writing, and as far as public-facing information shows: Microsoft’s list of repair services offered in the United States does not include Xbox One or One S/X, Sony doesn’t appear to offer repairs beyond the PS4, and Nintendo only offers repairs for the 3DS and Switch family of handheld consoles (though they do point customers to other options for unsupported devices). No company can support every device they’ve made forever, we know how tough that can be. But independent repair shops repair old consoles every day (provided the necessary donor parts are available) which calls into question the sincerity of what the ESA has to say about console longevity. 

The “older model consoles” the ESA references remain popular, playable, and valuable today as the result of dedicated, independent restoration work. That restoration work is made harder when schematics aren’t available and nobody is able to easily stock up on manufacturer-made parts before they discontinue the console. Any Xbox 360s and PS3s that may remain playable 25 years after launch—like the carefully maintained Game Boys out there—will be playable despite the manufacturers’ repair limitations, not because their owners stuck to OEM repairs during the brief span of years that they were offered.

The bottom line is that we simply can’t rely on a manufacturer to perform repairs for every device they make for as long as we want to keep using them. They don’t have the capacity for it. As they make new products manufacturers must sunset support for older ones. But clamping down on independent options is wholly unnecessary. Instead, sunsetting comes with a responsibility to facilitate wider access to high quality repairs. Otherwise they condemn what could become long-lived vintage consoles to early e-waste graves. 

The bottom line is that we simply can’t rely on a manufacturer to perform repairs for every device they make for as long as we want to keep using them.

If console manufacturers are as concerned about longevity as they say, they should provide the information to help DIYers and independent shops perform repairs closer to manufacturer standards. They should encourage the purchase of spare parts before they’re discontinued. They could even test and review third party replacement parts available on the market, recommending the best ones for consoles they no longer support.

Right to Repair legislation isn’t even asking that much—just a level playing field for DIY, independent shops, and OEM repair. The ideal world has to start somewhere, and our ideal is an array of viable, convenient, options for customers in need of repairs. That’s how you keep consoles running for generations to come.

Are Manufacturer Repairs Affordable?

Whether or not a manufacturer-performed console repair is affordable depends on timing. If your device is still under its manufacturer warranty you can likely get repairs performed for free, which is great! However, the standard warranty for most consoles is only about a year, with extended coverage costing the customer extra.

If your console fails after the warranty is up you may be looking at quite a price tag. As a point of reference we’ll use Microsoft’s helpful chart that details their out-of-warranty repair costs. Spoiler alert: they are steep. Call us crazy, but the listed $199 fee on a Series S or a $299 fee on a Series X doesn’t sound all that affordable. That’s about 66% of the original price for the former and 60% of the latter; way more than the 18-35% of purchase price most consumers are willing to pay. It feels especially egregious when you take into account that the previous Xbox generation (the Xbox One) wasn’t replaced by the Xbox Series X/S for seven years. That’s up to six years outside the standard warranty if you bought at launch.

Quantifying Repairability

The ESA’s arguments against repair don’t stop with their “easy, reliable, affordable” line. They’ve even gone so far as to cite iFixit’s own repairability scores as an argument against repair. One rep spoke earlier this year before a Canadian committee discussing a repair-related amendment, saying, “Video game consoles are consistently rated highly for their repairability on websites like iFixit.” In essence, their stance seems to be that consoles are so fixable already that they just don’t see why repairers want more resources from them.

It’s a puzzling stance to take given that we just had to spend a couple of thousand words debunking the ESA’s claims that repair is best left to the manufacturer. First they don’t want the public repairing our own consoles because we obviously can’t do it right. Then they turn around and argue that actually DIY repair is so easy that they can’t see what more we could want from them. Are they confident in the average DIYer or aren’t they? Do their tools and methods make their in-house repairs more reliable or not? If not, then why insist on funneling customers into their repair system over any other?

As far as our repairability ratings go, in the past we have given many consoles respectable scores. There are lots of parts in modern game consoles that are physically easy to swap. But even if some repairs are doable, many consoles have very common repairs that are blocked by software. It doesn’t matter if you can attach the part if it just plain won’t function afterwards.

The repairability score for the Xbox Series X earning a 7/10
As a homework assignment, the Xbox Series X was a C at best on our old scorecard, with some important fine print to read re: software locks

As far as our repairability ratings go, boiling repairability down into a single number is difficult. When we first started scoring consoles, we’d never seen software-blocked repairs. As they’ve become more common, we’ve recently had to update our scorecard with a heavy-hitting penalty to reflect the fatal blow that software blocks can deal to repair. Even now, a console may receive a decent overall repairability score despite losing points for some software-blocked repairs. To make matters more complex, software changes over time. If we tested every update on every console, we’d lose both our minds and our ability to get anything else done. No equation we come up with to calculate these things will ever be perfect. So to be absolutely clear: no iFixit score should be seen as an endorsement of software locks.

Software Blocks: The Anti-Repair Silver Bullet

What are these software blocks exactly? In an (alleged) effort to curb piracy, consoles often contain technological protection measures (TPMs) that prevent optical disc drives from being replaced. What’s a TPM? The phrase encompasses a number of methods used to prevent accessing or copying protected content. They might require a password to access a streaming service, impose a time limit on digital library books, or enable encryption. In video game consoles, it usually means preventing the replacement of parts.

One such protection measure is microcontrollers (also sometimes referred to as a TPM—but for ‘trusted platform module,’ just to be confusing). The stated goal of this design choice in the optical drives of consoles is to stop a potential pirate from replacing the original part with a doctored one that might allow the user to play pirated discs. And they are pretty good at preventing that. Crucially, though, this anti-piracy method throws the baby out with the bathwater—it doesn’t just prevent drive doctoring, it prevents a whole slew of repairs. 

How? Well, even if you have a spare, functioning, OEM-made optical drive for an Xbox One with which to replace your console’s broken optical drive, you can’t just swap the two parts. That itty bitty microcontroller digitally partners the optical drive to the motherboard it came with. A simple one-to-one swap won’t function. You need to buy both a functional optical drive and its paired motherboard. No small task, and not a cheap one either.

All this to say: as much as we love these consoles for their modularity, restrained use of adhesives, and ease of disassembly, our scoring rubric at the time didn’t always reflect tertiary considerations. Lots of things can kill a repair: unavailable parts, inaccessible tools (physical and digital), and incomplete documentation to name a few. By playing dumb about the importance of fair access to parts, tools, and service information the ESA positions themselves firmly against the interests of both the repair community and their member orgs’ customers. 

Piracy: A Convenient Boogeyman

The media industry’s war on piracy is a perpetual arms race. Making piracy a pain for the pirates is a high priority for the gaming industry, but as anti-piracy strategies have gotten more complex, our ability to perform simple repairs has already been caught in the crossfire. When faced with legislation that would embrace a right to repair the ESA tends to emerge with metaphorical guns blazing at committee hearings in opposition, and piracy makes for useful ammunition. 

These are all consoles that should be getting enjoyed in homes

Of course devs, publishers, and manufacturers all want to curb potential loss of profits. But the measures OEMs are taking to prevent piracy make independent repair impossible in a significant number of cases. Earlier this year, we surveyed 91 repair shops around the world. More than 66% of respondents said that they had a backlog of old consoles in their shops that they couldn’t repair due to paired optical drives. A few respondents reported having more than 20 of these bulky unrepairable consoles in storage at once due to this issue.

When we take into account that these consoles aren’t going to be supported by the manufacturer forever, the future looks pretty bleak: even more unrepairable consoles will be sitting around in back rooms because the only feasible use for them will be to harvest spare parts—the ones that aren’t paired, that is.

The measures that console manufacturers have taken to prevent piracy have drastic negative effects on the repair ecosystem. OEMs can claim in legislative houses that this is necessary to keep games profitable and the “incentive to create” alive and well, but certain studies have cast doubt on just how true those claims are. Research conducted at the request of the EU in 2015 indicated that piracy might actually increase video game sales. A PC Gamer survey found that many pirates legitimately purchase games after pirating them. So the issue is, at the very least, up for debate. 

For games, the estimated effect of illegal online transactions on sales is positive – implying that illegal consumption leads to increased legal consumption. This positive effect of illegal downloads and streams on the sales of games may be explained by the industry being successful in converting illegal users to paying users.” (Emphasis iFixit)

Estimating displacement rates of copyrighted content in the EU – Final report

Frankly, though, splitting hairs about whether and how piracy hurts gaming is, to us, irrelevant. Repairability is our chief focus, and we believe it is both possible, and imperative that repair is protected when manufacturers combat piracy. Parts pairing limits repair severely, so it either has to go or it has to change.

If OEMs care about their customers and their consoles’ longevity then they shouldn’t rest on their laurels with the incredibly flawed parts-pairing “solution” to piracy of physical games. A solution that makes so many common repairs nigh on impossible is simply a bad solution. Is there truly no alternative? No way to create a software tool that allows people to pair a new drive with their motherboard? We don’t buy it.

Repair is the Answer, not the Enemy

Game consoles, like all electronics, will succumb to entropy. There’s no getting around the necessity of repair. While the ESA would like us all to believe that manufacturers and their repair partnerships have all of our needs covered, that simply isn’t the case. At the end of the day, as with so many other issues hindering repair, fair competition and transparency are key. They enable the better access and fairer pricing that consumers need. But the ESA would rather act as though there is no problem with the current state of the repair landscape.

The ESA can push their “easy, reliable, affordable” mantra all they want. They can stoke disputed fears about piracy. But when consumers’ machines reach their breaking point in the years post-warranty, the options are bleak. Many will be faced with either a steep bill for repairs, buying a whole new console, or—if they can’t afford those options—letting the console and its games go to waste. Some of those folks will get disillusioned. Some will start to look to competitors or themselves as alternatives. When they do, our guides will be here to tell them how to fix what they can. And articles like this one will explain how manufacturers purposefully made the rest unfixable.

Now, I’m no oracle, but I can absolutely see a future where OEMs’ lack of flexibility on repair erodes customers’ trust and the brand loyalty they’ve worked so hard for. Consoles hold a special space in gaming culture, but if they remain such an expensive hassle to fix it won’t be surprising if folks give up on them. 

PCs can offer a more customizable, modular, repairable experience. The Steam Deck has robust support for DIY repair, offers an alternative to handheld consoles like the Switch, and can connect to smart TVs like a traditional console. When the next generation starts to loom on the horizon, alternatives might look enticing to the folks who’ve had to spend hundreds repairing or replacing their current console. And it’s not hard to see why.

To call on manufacturers to make game consoles repairable, support Right to Repair legislation near you.