After months of build up, Microsoft on Tuesday announced its next-generation console, Xbox One. The event provided an effective to February's PlayStation 4 unveiling; where Sony spent its time focusing on the system's ability to play games, Microsoft took a more holistic approach to entertainment, pushing its new console as an "all-in-one" entertainment hub.
Set for release around the world later this year, Xbox One will feature more integrated "intelligent TV" options, a revamped Kinect sensitive enough to measure users' heartbeats, and an overhauled, cloud-driven Xbox Live service. Little was shown in the way of new games, with Forza Motorsport 5 and a teaser for Remedy's Quantum Break wedged between early glimpses of next-gen Call of Duty and EA Sports titles.
And while it didn't happen at the event, Microsoft also provided a bit of light on two issues gamers had fretted about for some time. First off, rumors that the system would be "always online" were addressed, with Microsoft confirming that Xbox One will allow developers to create that requirement if they wish. On top of that, used game sales will likely be curbed somewhat; Microsoft has said it will support second-hand options in some form, but the policies on how it will work are being hammered out. Lastly, Microsoft confirmed that, much like the PlayStation 4, Xbox One will not be compatible with the games of its predecessor.
So with that all laid out, what did the GamesIndustry International squad think of Microsoft's showing? Have they trumped the competition? Is this the one set-top box to rule them all, or was Microsoft's first step more of a stumble? What about that name, or the box itself?
Microsoft just didn't seem to understand what I care about. I don't care about the number of transistors in the console. I don't care about making the act of watching TV a social experience. I don't care if Steven Spielberg rubberstamps his name on a TV adaptation he has next to nothing to do with. I don't care about Skype on a console when voice chat is already a standard feature.
"Instead of coming clean, Microsoft half-addressed issues afterward, inviting potential customers to assume the worst and become more entrenched in their distrust of the company"
I care about games. And when it came to games, Microsoft gave me almost nothing to get excited about. Quantum Break's cryptic teaser has my interest, and Call of Duty fans likely got enough new information on Ghosts to get stoked for the shooter, but what else was there? Four new sure-to-be-multiplatform EA Sports titles and Forza Motorsport 5? A cloud-based video recording feature like what Sony showed in the PS4? A Kinect sensor that isn't terrible and a redesigned controller D-pad that actually works?
And perhaps worse than not talking about the games, Microsoft didn't even address the always-online, used-games-blocking elephant in the room. Instead of coming clean during the conference, Microsoft half-addressed the issue afterward, essentially inviting potential customers to assume the worst and become more entrenched in their distrust of the company.
I might be a bit negative here. Much like the Xbox 360's gamerscore and achievements, features like TV integration and multitasking might be really cool and compelling in practice. But as featured promises for a brand new system, they fall far short of mind-blowing. It's possible the Xbox One is worth getting excited over, but Microsoft's big unveiling failed to show why.
Xbox One isn't a video games console. Whether you like that or not, that's the case. Xbox One is the collective Microsoft entertainment and communications business sitting under your television. Games are part of that, sure, but Skype is just as important for Microsoft. So is TV and sports and music, so is streaming movies and everything else the Xbox reveal batted around the stage last night. In that sense Xbox One is a good brand name, it's about a new start, it's the one place for everything that falls under Microsoft's entertainment umbrella. It's not the third Xbox console, it's the first Xbox home entertainment device.
"The danger is if games on Xbox One are forced to measure up to the NFL, Daft Punk and Game of Thrones. If it's not a mainstream blockbuster it's not worthy"
Clearly that's not sitting well with the core gamer, who has been so incredibly well-served by Microsoft over the past 8 years. None of that is going away - witness Eric Hirshberg's huge Call of Duty Ghosts pitch, a nod to Remedy's new IP and a bunch of EA sports games - but the danger is games on Xbox One are forced to measure up to the NFL, Daft Punk, Game of Thrones and The Avengers. If it's not a mainstream blockbuster it's not worthy. There were no indie developers on stage last night, there's no indication of anything other than the glamour and glitz and camera tricks of the million dollar entertainment business.
I suspect that's the message Microsoft has tried to get across with its first showing, and at E3 (a games conference, remember) it will go large on video game content, with those new IPs and exclusives it hinted at last night. Maybe Microsoft doesn't need to interest the indie scene and it can afford to shrug off competition from mobile and tablets at this stage. Maybe it's going to go all-out on the high-end $60 games. After all, this industry has split off into multiple businesses over the past five years, and at this point it's clear where Microsoft is placing its money.
Microsoft has clearly said that while games are important, they are planning to sell this as "the ultimate all-in-one home entertainment system." That's different than Sony's "Games, games, games" stance for the PS4. Sure, gamers are going to care about what the console does for gaming first and foremost. The Xbox One will be right up there, power-wise, with the PS4. The Kinect will no longer be restricted to casual games; lag issues have apparently been solved, and every Xbox One will come with Kinect, so we may see it integrated into any kind of game. The cloud potential may also lead to design innovation down the road.
"Gamers alone won't be enough for Microsoft to call this launch a success"
The big question of price was not addressed, and likely won't be for a while as Sony and Microsoft hold off until the last minute. Microsoft will want to see how excited they can make gamers over the device, and hope to charge the highest price possible. Really, though, gamers alone won't be enough for Microsoft to call this launch a success. The company wants and needs the broader market of TV watchers, sports fans, and general entertainment junkies to see the Xbox One as something worth shelling out hundreds of dollars for. I hope Microsoft can be willing to take a hit on hardware profits to get the Xbox One out to the largest audience possible as fast as possible; at least Microsoft has the cash to throw at this (which Sony doesn't).
The name Xbox One is not going to be a help; it doesn't in and of itself signify an advance over the Xbox 360. If anything, it suggest the original version of the Xbox; it's about as poor a name choice as the Wii U. The name is much less important than the device itself and the amount of money Microsoft plans to pour into marketing and products. It sounds like Microsoft is going all-in on game development, and the Halo TV series, and the NFL partnership. With a matching marketing commitment, this looks like a strong launch... if people feel the price offers a good value for whatever the final package includes. It's going to be an epic cage match between Sony and Microsoft this fall.
Where was the razzle-dazzle, Microsoft? You teased with your talk of 15 exclusive titles, but what I actually saw were some cars, some sports, Quantum Break and Call Of Duty. And some really expensive suits.
"The focus on the non-game elements of the machine was a basic misunderstanding of its audience, a presentation that would have been better given to TV manufacturers and investors"
Sony's presentation for PlayStation 4, with its cast of developers, felt like gamers talking to gamers about a new machine that would make playing more exciting. Microsoft felt like a company trying to sell to gamers a box that lets you watch TV and check your fantasy football league at the same time. (As if your smartphone isn't always in your pocket, allowing that sort of multi-tasking without the need for a big song and dance about it.)
A quick flash of the box and then an explanation of the dashboard, a look at Skype and then endless talk about TV - the focus on the non-game elements of the machine was a basic misunderstanding of its audience, a presentation that would have been better given to TV manufacturers and investors.
But for all the talk the crucial details were left vague. They evangelised constantly about the online connections, but didn't clarify if it needed to be on all the time - by trying to avoid that topic they've made it a singular obsession for fans and journalists picking through the aftermath of interviews and press releases. If Microsoft really wanted to distract us, all it would have taken was a montage of pretty games, some overly loud music and a few hints about the next Rockstar or Respawn game. We're that easy to please.
You have to question your presentation skills when your audience leaves not thinking "I want an Xbox One" but instead "I want a Call Of Duty dog!"
I'd agree with Steve that Xbox One is a terrible name, but the Xbox brand itself is incredibly strong, so I'm not too concerned with it since it's still Xbox. What does concern me, however, is Microsoft's obsession with syncing up my TV watching habits with the Xbox. As cool as the interface may be, and as seamless as the functionality might be, I don't need any assistance in watching TV or playing music or Skyping, thanks. As Michael Pachter pointed out to me, it's a move squarely aimed at capturing a mass audience, but it's a delicate balance indeed to retain a core audience while also expanding outwards. Microsoft is clearly at risk of losing some of the core audience to Sony and the PS4, which has put AAA games and indie games front and center.
"Microsoft is clearly at risk of losing some of the core audience to Sony and the PS4, which has put AAA games and indie games front and center"
To be fair, we have to reserve judgment until we get a better sense of the lineup of games Xbox One will have at launch, and the news about Microsoft Game Studios investing much more into development is definitely encouraging, but the overall tone set during this initial presentation had to leave a bitter taste in core gamers' mouths. Remedy's Quantum Break, a new Forza and some EA Sports titles certainly don't give Xbox One any major advantage over PS4 as far as I can tell. Perhaps E3 will enlighten us.
The real elephant in the room for me is how Microsoft is handling used games. So far, the information available seems to indicate that users who purchase a pre-owned game will have to pay a fee to be able to install it to the Xbox One - and Xbox One will require games to be installed. This means that anyone hoping to pay less money for a used title will have to give up that saving on a fee. Developers and publishers may like the idea if those fees generate revenues for them, but it's an incredibly anti-consumer stance on its face. And that's coming from the company that's historically emphasized the power of "choice" and how consumer friendly it is. Even more shocking is that it appears that Microsoft hasn't fully figured out what its stance on used games actually is. It insists it's not blocking them, but the idea of each game disc being tied to one Xbox account is almost as bad. Microsoft notes that full details on its used games plan are forthcoming, but for now this is looking like a weakness that Sony can capitalize on.