Xbox One: the game console for non-gamers

22 May

microsoft-xbox-oneAs a gamer, I must admit to being a little put off by Microsoft’s big reveal of its next-generation console, the Xbox One, on Tuesday. With a focus so far on the things I don’t care a lick about – live television, sports and Kinect voice controls – and a couple of gamer-unfriendly features, I can’t help but get the feeling that Microsoft is putting gamers in the backseat.

First, there’s the biggie – the always-on issue. For months, the rumour mill swirled about how Microsoft would require a persistent internet connection for games to work in any capacity on the next Xbox. It turns out that’s not entirely true, although the company confirms that all games will have to be installed on the console. Games will then be linked to a unique account and if anyone wants to use that same disc on another machine, they’ll have to pay an as-yet undisclosed fee.

The concerns about the connection requirement were always about whether people would be able to trade in their games once they were bored with them. For their part, game makers want to kill off that used market because they don’t see a penny from it. While not as draconian and prone to technical failure as the always-on option would have been, Microsoft’s authentication-and-fee scenario effectively accomplishes the same thing if game makers set those secondary charges high enough – and why wouldn’t they?

Further to that, Microsoft is also inserting a backdoor of sorts for publishers, who will be able to use its Azure cloud computing services to share game resources. That theoretically means they’ll be able to design even more powerful games that can offload some computing to Microsoft’s servers, but it will also inevitably lead to more boondoggles like the recent SimCity fiasco. EA said that game needed to be always online for precisely that reason, then faced a mob of angry customers who couldn’t get into it because of technical problems.

Put those two together and it’s clear that Microsoft is doing just about everything it can to kill the used game market, in a couple of steps.

The Xbox One also won’t be backwards compatible, meaning it won’t play older 360 games. That’s not at all a concern for me since I can’t remember the last time I’ve gone back to play a game from a previous generation, but it is going to make a lot of people frothing mad, which is ironic given that these are the same people who have actually held on to older games and not traded them in.

Otherwise, Microsoft talked up the new console’s Kinect capabilities – how its gesture recognition will be more accurate and how users will be able to easily jump between live television, playing music, using the web browser and playing games with simple voice commands. It’s all very nifty if it works as smoothly as it did in the demos… and that’s a very big if.

Here’s the thing with Kinect: in a living room setting, it will probably never be as good as its alternatives. In its first iteration, the device was woefully inaccurate, both in terms of gesture and voice recognition. As pro wrestler Samoa Joe put it on Twitter, “I find giving voice commands to a Xbox is akin to yelling at my kids. I repeat myself a lot until it begrudgingly does what I want.”

Even if the device could be made to be 95-per-cent accurate – which would be quite the engineering feat – it would still be a far cry from the 100-per-cent success rate of its competitors, which are the handheld controller for games and the remote control for the TV, respectively. Kinect may be more novel and theoretically more convenient, but to paraphrase Joe, it only takes a few hiccups of the voice controls before you go back to the old standby with buttons, because at least that option never fails. That’s why my Kinect has been sitting in the closet collecting dust for months.

At this point, it looks like the “new and improved’ Kinect will be bundled with the Xbox One, meaning that the console’s price will inevitably be pushed upward by something that certain wrestlers and I – not to mention a whole bunch of people – don’t want or need.

As for sports and live TV, I don’t follow the first and I don’t subscribe to the second. While I have no idea what the exact numbers are, I’d guess a lot of gamers are in the same boat. Many people actually choose games as their primary form of entertainment and are either cord-cutters or cord-nevers. So all that other stuff? Thanks, but no thanks – it’s just unnecessary bloat.

The problem here may be that Microsoft is overstepping its bounds. The company has long wanted to be at the core of the living room experience, if its many iterations of failed entertainment servers are any indication, and the Xbox has been the Trojan horse for that to happen since its inception. Now that the company has had some success selling movies through the Xbox 360 and getting people to watch Netflix on it, the brain trust thinks it can finally pull off that shift completely.

But the effort probably won’t go as well as the company hopes, mainly because Microsoft is not willing to disrupt its way there. As Don Mattrick, president of interactive entertainment, told the Financial Post:

We have found a way to build on content, to respect IP, to respect business models that drive content creation and monetization for our partners. So we’re not going to people with what I think they would find fundamentally an offensive ask.

That approach has in recent years failed Microsoft at every turn, from phones to tablets to Windows 8. In each case, just as with Kinect, the company has trucked out innovations for innovation’s sake without really solving any consumer needs or desires in the process. The desire to play well with partners and trying to ensure their business models remain intact has also been disastrous, with disruptive companies such as Google and (in some cases) Apple swooping in to create entirely new, lucrative markets while Microsoft, meanwhile, stood idly by, incapable of understanding that that’s how meaningful innovation is done in today’s hyper-competitive environment.

With the Xbox One, the company is instead shoveling out a whole bunch of stuff gamers don’t want or need in an effort to make its partners happy, all in the face of fierce competition. Sony has so far taken the opposite tack, billing its upcoming PlayStation 4 as a console designed “by gamers for gamers.” If its welcome mat does indeed attract all the gamers that Microsoft seems to be shunning, exactly who will be left to buy the Xbox One?


Posted by on May 22, 2013 in microsoft, video games


5 responses to “Xbox One: the game console for non-gamers

  1. Marc Venot

    May 22, 2013 at 1:46 am

    When last fall BCtransit made a show of police presence when there was an incident I told them to equip with Xbox with kinnect to watch over.

  2. Alexander Trauzzi (@Omega_)

    May 22, 2013 at 9:08 am

    I can’t help but feel like what Microsoft is proposing is more intended to function like a set top box than an actual games console.
    Sadly, the entertainment focus is primarily on derivatives of traditional American television and culture which is just sports and shooters. I never liked the Xbox or the Xbox 360, I found them to be mediocre at best – the games being little more than lightly interactive movies.

    In some ways, I find Microsoft’s announcement encouraging. I’m personally more interested seeing Nintendo get back on their feet. While I’m under no illusion that Nintendo will suddenly surge forward, it does bring me comfort knowing that they’re actually doing what’s right and differentiating! As for Sony, while I’ll give them a chance to surprise me, I’m not holding my breath…

    The only good games for Xbox and PS3 are also available for PC. The same can’t be said of Nintendo and that gives them even just the slightest edge.

  3. rbn

    May 22, 2013 at 11:09 am

    As someone who originally bought the 360 to use more as a STB than a gaming machine and now owns three of them, it seems to me that they missed their mark on both sides. The combination of a high-gain antenna, multi-tuner Media Center PC and a set of XBoxes to distribute it to all of the televisions in the house was a powerful tool. It allows me to combine media from multiple sources relatively easily, access it at my leisure and once set up it is easy enough for non-technical family members to comfortably use (ie makes cord cutting palatable). The whole system cost less than what even basic cable would charge for a year, so it was a no-brainer as it bought me a lot more flexibility and ended up costing me less.

    The problem with that system is that it is complicated to set up in the first place, so most of that promise was limited to technically minded people who were willing to do a bit of work for something better. From what I’ve seen of this new system, it doesn’t seem to address that issue. Rigging up a STB with HDMI pass-through is simple enough, but it doesn’t really let you do anything that you couldn’t do with the STB alone. The voice and motion controls are cute, but the novelty will wear off pretty quickly and, like you say, you’ll likely end up back at the remote because it always just works.

    Had they build something like media centre right into the XBox, then I likely would have taken notice – but this doesn’t appear to be anything like that. Add in an ATSC tuner or two, mix in the capacity to record and stream to other XBoxes (including from that HDMI In port, just with an encrypted path of course) and feed Netflix/Hulu/Homegroup content right into the main program grid and they’d have made something interesting. They’ve got all of the parts to make that work, but instead they chose to just go with a thin veneer on top of what people already have.

    I guess this is the frustrating thing about Microsoft, they create some incredible building blocks but they’re too scared of peeving off their partners that they never put them together. Their engineers have beaten Apple to the punch on a lot of things, but their management doesn’t want to upset the apple truck and they end up sitting on them while the competition catches up and surpasses them. Kodak made that mistake not too long ago – they were nearly a decade ahead of everyone else with digital imaging, but squandered that position because they didn’t want to upset the chemical labs they worked with.

    With all of that said, once I got those XBoxes into the house I got back into gaming and have since bought a pile of stuff from them that I otherwise wouldn’t have. Their strategy of building a media hub and pulling people into the gaming side worked well on me, but I don’t see their moves here broadening that appeal much beyond what the 360 did. Ironically, the main reason I stopped playing video games for a period was that the DRM started to become invasive (I need to work on my computer, and anything that messes with the kernel and/or boot sector is not worth the risk for mere leisure activities) and the moves they are making here might do it all over again.

  4. bradfonseca

    May 24, 2013 at 8:17 am

    Reblogged this on The Emporium of Lost Thoughts and commented:
    Is Microsoft trying to broaden the audience for the Xbox One or just alienate gamers? I guess time will tell.

  5. craigbamford

    May 26, 2013 at 10:14 pm

    My instant thought is “this football-and-TV stuff isn’t going to mean a thing to anybody outside the United States”. Feels like they just ceded both Asia and Europe to Sony.

    On the plus side, they may be relenting a bit on the used game thing. Supposedly it’ll be set up so that usability can be transferred from system to system via the disc, that the “check in” will ensure that only one person at a time can be using it, and that retailers will be able to “reset” ownership as long as they pass on a bit of the profit to MS and the publisher.

    Still not wonderful, but makes a whole lot more sense than that bafflegab about forcing your buddy to pay a fee for the game you lent him for a week.

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