Breaking up is hard to do, as the Carpenters famously crooned; right now, Microsoft is discovering, not for the first time this generation, that dumping your old ideas is just as tough as dumping your clingy ex. It may be the right thing to do, but it's a fraught process and one that it's tough to emerge from without attracting plenty of ire along the way.
Kinect 2.0 and Xbox One were, after all, meant to be married for life. The expensive sensor was bundled with the console from day one. Its functionality was deeply ingrained in the design of the system's user interface, and a whole 10% of GPU resources were permanently devoted to it. Originally, Xbox One wasn't even capable of booting up without a Kinect plugged in; it was an intrinsic and inseparable part of the console. In sickness and health, till death do they part.
Well, like so many relationships and marriages, it turned out that there were plenty of good reasons to break up long before the Grim Reaper raised a bony hand. Kinect has been at the root of many of Microsoft's woes with Xbox One. It raised the price of the system, making the console $100 more expensive than the more technically impressive and well-liked PS4. It seemed to imply that Xbox One was a console aimed at casual gamers (with whom motion controls are now, fairly or unfairly, strongly associated) at the expense of the core gamers who made Xbox 360 successful. Moreover, in an age of actually rather justifiable paranoia about privacy, a camera in your living room that never turned off made plenty of people downright uncomfortable.
"Moreover, in an age of actually rather justifiable paranoia about privacy, a camera in your living room that never turned off made plenty of people downright uncomfortable"
Worst of all, up to this point, Kinect just hasn't justified its own existence. There aren't any great games on the Xbox One that use Kinect extensively; there's simply nothing there to make people think, "wow, this is something you couldn't do on PS4 because it doesn't have Kinect". After 12 months of doggedly repeating the party line that Kinect was a great unique selling point for Xbox One, Microsoft's decision to unbundle the peripheral from the console is a tacit admission that it wasn't a selling point at all. Innovative hardware is meaningless if nobody builds must-have games to exploit the functionality.
It's no coincidence, I think, that the decision to bring Kinect around the back of the woodshed and put a bullet in it was announced shortly after Phil Spencer took over Xbox. Spencer understands games in a way that his immediate predecessors did not; he would have an innate understanding of the fact that games sell consoles, and untapped potential in hardware is not exciting to consumers, it's simply wasteful. An expensive peripheral that doesn't drive great software isn't a USP, it's a ball and chain around the ankle of the console. It had to go.
It's a little disingenuous, then, to see Spencer trying to claim that everything is fine in the land of Kinect. Speaking to GamesIndustry International at E3, he simultaneously acknowledged that Kinect was dragging the console down (noting that Kinect couldn't succeed if Xbox One itself failed, which is a tacit admission that bundling Kinect with the console was risking a huge failure) while also claiming that plenty of consumers will buy the Kinect peripheral separately, and it'll continue to be a big part of the Xbox One offering.
"Kinect wasn't supported strongly by developers even when it was bundled with every Xbox One"
Not an unexpected claim, of course; but also patently not a true one. Kinect wasn't supported strongly by developers even when it was bundled with every Xbox One. Now that it's been dropped to the status of "expensive peripheral with no good games", developer support will entirely dry up. Just like its predecessor on the Xbox 360, Xbox One Kinect is going to be relegated to lip-service support ("jump around to avoid enemy attacks, or just press B... Huh, you pressed B? Not up for jumping around? Surprising...") and a handful of dancing or exercise titles. Not that there's anything wrong with dancing or exercise titles, but you don't get platform-defining tech from them; if you did, the world would have changed a hell of a lot more when Dance Dance Revolution mats came out for the PS1.
I don't want to give Microsoft too much of a hard time for its decision with Kinect, not least because it's the right decision. It gives them price parity with Sony and might help to fix some of the perception problems Xbox One faces. On the other hand, while Kinect was a failed USP - and thus deserved to be ditched - it was at least an attempt at a USP. With the right software and services backing it up, it could have given the Xbox One an offer different enough from Sony's to be very interesting indeed - but building that software would have taken time, effort and attention. Spencer, with full visibility of the firm's software pipeline, chose instead to amputate the limb and cauterise the wound. Painful, but mercifully quick; definitely a vote of no confidence in whatever Kinect software is still under development; possibly a move that will make Xbox One walk with a limp for the rest of its life.
"I don't want to give Microsoft too much of a hard time for its decision with Kinect, not least because it's the right decision"
What I hope the Xbox team recognises is that ditching Kinect isn't enough - and hollow platitudes about how important the peripheral remains to the company's strategy certainly aren't enough either. What Xbox One needs is something to replace Kinect, a new USP; one that isn't rubbish, this time. That USP could just be software, with Microsoft doubling down on its internal studios and building its relationships with third-parties to produce genuine exclusives (as opposed to timed-release DLC exclusives, which just look desperate and annoying no matter which platform is involved in them). It could be services, as the company attempts to leapfrog Sony and regain the lead Xbox Live once had over PSN's services; what form that might take is tough to say, but there's certainly still headway to be made in the provision of online services, and right now Microsoft lags behind, which makes this into an area brimming with opportunity. Most likely, a combination of both great games and great new services will be needed to make Xbox One attractive to consumers; to give it the USP that Kinect was supposed to be, but never was.
There's an interesting comparison, of course, to be made with Nintendo's difficulties with Wii U. I observed some time ago that both Microsoft and Nintendo had made the same basic error with their new consoles - they launched with expensive peripherals that boosted the cost of the console but had yet to show any dividends in terms of unique, must-have software. In Microsoft's case, Kinect has now been ditched; losing the millstone, but with no sign yet of a new USP to replace it. Nintendo, however, has taken quite the opposite approach. Gamepad remains firmly bundled with the Wii U, and while software for the Gamepad still doesn't impress, there's obviously potential there; the short, cryptic videos of Miyamoto Shigeru working up gameplay demos using the pad which was shown at the end of Nintendo's E3 broadcast was a statement of intent. Rather than ditching its white elephant, Nintendo is trying to figure out how to put it to work.
So, over the next year, we're going to get to see how two diametrically opposed solutions to the same problem work out. Microsoft, making the latest of several U-turns, has gone back to square one and now needs to find a new selling point for the Xbox One. Nintendo has doubled down on the Gamepad, and needs to convince consumers of the worth of its innovation - not to mention the worth of the Wii U overall. Different challenges with similar requirements; they both need great games to prove their point. The consumer wins, in this situation, but it will be interesting to see which company, if either, can emerge victorious from these trials.