Microsoft unveiled the Xbox One at a press reveal event in Redmond yesterday to a mixed critical reaction, their tentative first step into the eighth console generation and a surprisingly loaded portent of how they plan to establish themselves in today’s economic current. The console entitles its user to a variety of simultaneous activities such that he can play a game while watching live television, throwing on a movie, or chatting with friends on Skype, all processes that can be controlled through voice command. Much of the press release focused on the One’s intended goal of supplanting all entertainment-related functions, with more specific games coverage likely being reserved for an event that generates more gamer hype (read: E3). Microsoft’s desired first impression based on the positioning of their product is clear: this is a machine designed for the majority of their consumer base, a set of casual gamers who will idle in front of any given AAA release until they get a video call or Monday Night Football rolls around.
The company has approached this one-black-box-fits-all attitude carelessly, implementing policies that will alienate devoted gamers and limit appeal to less informed audiences. The former didn’t necessarily stop the Wii, which was subject to dwindling third-party support and loss of interest from many longtime Nintendo fans but still claimed victory in every notable market. However, Microsoft is not enjoying the same reputation that Nintendo did when they stepped into the seventh generation – gamers are a wary lot now, and one might look to the currently dismal performance of the Wii U as a cautionary tale about willingly displacing one demographic to accommodate another. A glance at any given forum or comment thread suggests widespread dissatisfaction with certain elements of the One, such as Microsoft’s draconian DRM enforcement. Here is a system that claims to be a video gamer’s new best friend, and yet it won’t even let you loan your games to your real friends without forcing them to pay a console licensing fee? (This is, in diplomatic parlance, “a potential scenario.”) A required Internet connection once every 24 hours? No backwards compatibility? No importing your old downloaded games? The latter two are particularly galling because they constitute a transparent bid at stifling the obsolescence of the Xbox 360, but the devaluation of gaming technology is inevitable, especially when it’s so poorly constructed. If Microsoft expects gamers to bounce back and forth between their uber-machine and their old RROD factory just to have full access to all of their titles, then they’d better continue to furnish free maintenance for their old systems, which seems like an unwieldy expenditure for a consumer landscape that they project to be inundated with these wonderful Ones. “Fundamental architecture differences” my ass.
To address the system’s potential difficulty with reaching a casual audience, we can return to the Nintendo parallel. Much of the Wii’s success came from its celebration of family gaming and the shared living space, prioritizing software that was accessible and fun for players of all ages and skill levels. There were some fluffy features like the Weather Channel that granted it more flexibility than a dedicated gaming machine, but the intent behind the platform was always clear. Far less so with the Xbox One, which is in the precarious position of acting as a unifier of common entertainment services where there hasn’t yet been a proven need for one. Anyone with the means or desire to buy an One likely has all of the gadgetry they need to perform each of its vaunted tasks – a laptop, smart phone, and their previous-generation game console for television and movies if they don’t already own a cable box, or a Roku, or the million other similar peripherals. There is something wrongheaded AND disturbingly cynical about Microsoft’s assumption that, if given the chance, people will toss to the side all of these other electronic devices for the chance to sink into the couch and fulfill all of their digital needs through one system alone. At a less intimidating cost, the One may be able to acquit itself at least partially, but this seems unlikely given that a) the processing power is reportedly “eight times greater” than that of the Xbox 360, b) Microsoft claims that there will be over 300,000 servers to host the console’s need for, at least, that mandatory once-a-day connection, and c) a low price point for this system would probably force Microsoft to sell the console at a loss, which is a huge risk in this market. This is a multi-billion dollar industry operating in a culture of excess, where “doing less” has never been the answer the public is looking for even as it struggles to make ends meet.
With all this said, the question of the Xbox One’s library hangs in the balance, and the titles announced at this event are more or less what you’d expect from a Microsoft press conference. Lots of emphasis on their sports content, a Forza title, a new IP from Remedy and, naturally, another installment in the Call of Duty franchise. Quantum Break might be interesting, but everything else we’re seeing here looks like so much of the risk-averse chaff that gamers are growing increasingly dissatisfied with. If these games are your thing, more power to you, but a gradually more conservative collection of titles, combined with roundly derided copy protection measures and a lot of redundant functionality, all align to make Microsoft’s next move feel a lot less important to watch than it was seven years ago. To me, this reveal reads as the scared baby steps of a company struggling to assert itself for a fractured set of demographics. (You can bet Sony’s keeping an eye on them, though, what with that 9% stock increase after the conference.)
Drew Byrd-Smith – drewbyrd.blogspot.com