It was just shy of a year ago that Microsoft first announced the Xbox One, which at the time was planned to require Kinect to work at all. Microsoft's Phil Harrison called the bundled peripheral the system's "game-changer," something that would encourage developers to really explore what the new technology could do.
But after a cool reception to the system as a whole, Microsoft began changing things. It dropped the Xbox One's always-online requirement. It made the system functional even if a Kinect wasn't plugged in. It allowed indies to self-publish. It packed in a headset for players who didn't want to chat using Kinect. After all that, there was still one frequent request from gamers that went unfulfilled: to drop the Kinect from the hardware package entirely and cut the $499 asking price.
Microsoft finally acknowledged that request yesterday, announcing a Kinect-less Xbox One to go on sale next month for $399. Microsoft's Xbox head Phil Spencer insisted that, "Kinect remains an important part of our vision," but clearly the company's vision has shifted over the past year.
So what's the fallout from this move? Is price parity with the PlayStation 4 enough for Microsoft to bridge the early gap in this round of the console wars? Has Microsoft lost its chance to establish Kinect as the new paradigm of user interface? Was motion-sensitive gaming a fad whose time has passed?
"Xbox One sales will probably equal or exceed PS4 sales once this price change occurs, at least in North America"
Clearly Microsoft feels they can move a significantly greater number of Xbox Ones without Kinects than with it, and they are probably right. The Xbox One has not had a killer game or service yet that requires Kinect, and Microsoft must have looked ahead and not seen that arriving in the near future. Microsoft didn't want to have a greater loss on each unit by simply reducing the price, so the Kinect had to go. Effectively, developers can't count on the Kinect in the future (though it will be in a majority of the installed base for some time to come), so we will see very few games requiring the Kinect from now on.
The positive side of this decision is that the playing field is much more level between the PS4 and the Xbox One. Graphically, this will be even more true, as Microsoft reserved some 10% of the Xbox One's graphics power for Kinect processing, and that will likely no longer be true. Add that to the processing boost expected from DirectX12, and the Xbox One will probably be a lot closer to the PS4 in graphics capability. Now the battle comes down to exclusive games, exclusive content and marketing muscle, and perhaps other technologies (VR? Game streaming?). It's going to be a much closer contest now.
Xbox One sales will probably equal or exceed PS4 sales once this price change occurs, at least in North America. A lower price will help Microsoft everywhere else, but Sony has a lot more fans in Europe than Microsoft does. We probably haven't seen all of Microsoft's strategy unfold yet. The company has a huge advantage over Sony because of the $50 billion+ Microsoft has tucked in its piggy bank, and its ongoing profitability. Sony, meanwhile, continues to struggle financially (through no fault of the PlayStation). Microsoft can, if it chooses, spend far more on marketing than Sony could, and easily continue to bundle software or run sales on the Xbox One in order to boost sales where Sony probably has to keep a tight rein on marketing spending.
I'm torn between scolding Microsoft or praising the Xbox team. On the one hand, who didn't see this coming? Kinect was never all that popular on the Xbox 360, and while the camera and voice recognition were much improved for the Xbox One iteration, it didn't take a genius to realize that it couldn't possibly justify a mandated pack-in that put it $100 above the PS4. The argument could very well be made that the company should have made a prompt about-face on Kinect in the same manner that it did with the always-online policy reversal. Instead, sales have been lagging the competition and Microsoft has had to play catch up with Sony. On the other hand, now that Microsoft has actually unbundled Kinect, I can praise them for at least not being so stubborn as to drag the Kinect on for the next year or more, ultimately hindering the progress of the Xbox business for a peripheral few developers ever truly cared about.
"Now that Kinect's been cut loose Xbox One will have the unrestricted wiggle room it needs to flex its own muscle"
As Steve rightly points out, this move now yields much greater parity among the two next-gen platforms, and that should make a huge difference to consumers and developers who should be able to use more of the Xbox One's graphical processing power. Let's face it, the Kinect was the ugly albatross hanging around Xbox One's neck, and now that it's been cut loose Xbox One will have the unrestricted wiggle room it needs to flex its own muscle. Although a proper technical analysis would be better left to technical minds like Rich Leadbetter at Gamer Network's Digital Foundry, my hope is that we'll see far fewer stories about frame rate or resolution discrepancies between PS4 and Xbox One going forward.
So to answer the question of motion gaming's relevance, I don't think it's a fad on the scale of Guitar Hero, but the problem has always been that the software has felt too gimmicky (with a few exceptions) and core games could be better enjoyed with a familiar controller. I think things could actually swing back in Kinect's favor once VR gaming actually takes hold. Perhaps that's what Phil Spencer means when he refers to Microsoft's vision. If there's one thing I learned from my few Oculus Rift demos, it's that I intuitively wanted to reach out into the virtual world to grab or control things. That's when motion controls could actually feel natural, and ironically a controller suddenly feels out of place.
So it's no longer compulsory to have a government spy camera attached to your Xbox One - who could have seen that coming? The sad truth is everyone but Microsoft, and that's the real worry. It shows not only how badly they judged their audience, but suggests there's a creeping desperation on the part of sales executives. Kinect was supposed to be the big differentiator for Xbox One, Microsoft was firm that it was vital to the experience, but now they've relegated it to the peripherals pile along with all those plastic guitars and light guns to try and boost sales. At this point you feel as though Microsoft would smear the Xbox One with red lipstick and dress it in frilly knickers if they thought it would shift more units, so now is the time to start a petition for any other hardware changes you'd like to see. I'll be setting my petition for a crumpet toaster live any day now.
"So it's no longer compulsory to have a government spy camera attached to your Xbox One, who could have seen that coming?"
Snarky? Perhaps, but Kinect became a joke to the hardcore, a baffling addition to the casual and a conspiracy theory dream for the paranoid. And yet another device for your mother to fail to work Skype on. ("I can't hear you... can you hear me? Wha... no, now you've frozen...")
The response from developers on social media has been one marked with head-shaking and, more damningly, shrugging. Some, those who actually wanted to develop for the damn thing, feel rightly disappointed and there must be studios working on something for Kinect right now that are having a really bad day. A few are sad that the motion control genre is going, but I suspect they're probably parents of young children that they're desperate to exhaust. (And to those parents I say - set up a padded room and invest in an Oculus Rift.)
The biggest loser in this though? The early adopter, the one group that stuck by Microsoft through all the "always online" drama, who brandished their pre-order receipts with pride. For those that bought their machines on day one they've already had to endure watching the retail price fall just three months after they bought the console, now it's dropping again. And still the only decent game they've got to play on it is Titanfall.
I'm not sure I have it in me to hate on Microsoft for doing the right thing here. When it came to launching a new generation of Xbox hardware, there really was no other option than to roll the dice again with Kinect. It didn't work - not everything in business does - and Microsoft could quite easily have dragged its feet for another year before finally tearing off the band-aid. If I have a complaint it's that it seems to have stopped halfway, dangling the carrot that this maligned peripheral will one day return as a vital aspect of the corporate vision. Frankly, that seems disingenuous, one last shot of hubris in what seems like an unmistakable retreat.
"Now that the price tag is the same, the appeal of Titanfall is starting to look like the single biggest difference between the two platforms"
But I'm going to have to take exception to Rachel's assertion that all Xbox One owners have is Titanfall. To be brutally honest, as a PlayStation 4 owner I feel like I don't even have that. Indeed, I can confidently state that I would swap inFamous: Second Son, Killzone: Shadow Fall and Knack for just a few days with Respawn's excellent debut. And then there's Dead Rising 3, Forza 5 and Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare - not one of them a masterpiece, but to my mind only inFamous keeps pace from Sony's AAA crop. Obviously, when it comes to taste in games opinions will always vary, but I don't think I've ever owned a console so bereft of worthwhile top-tier content in its first year as the PlayStation 4.
That's not to say that Microsoft has knocked it out of the park, exactly, but Sony has outright dropped the ball, plugging the yawning gaps in its release schedule with the promise of indie games that, for the most part, have yet to arrive. And now that Kinect is not an essential part of the Xbox One proposition, now that the price tag is the same - and given that Microsoft's backtracking on self-publishing is an established fact rather than a fresh indignity - the appeal of Titanfall is starting to look like the single biggest difference between the two platforms.
The momentum remains with Sony, of course, but as a consumer I just hope there's enough cash in the Japanese giant's leaky coffers to compete with Microsoft on development. With the playing field finally level, the truth will out.