Xbox One: Inside The Belly of a Trojan Horse

Jeremy Parish sees a long-term plan finally coming to fruition on the Redmond campus, but will gamers buy into this vision?

After sitting in the audience of both Sony and Microsoft's next-gen platform announcement events, almost exactly two months apart, I've been struck most profoundly by how differently the two companies have chosen to pitch devices that -- perhaps more than any console generation to date -- are so incredibly similar in tech and purpose. Both take the form of highly connected, self-contained boxes stuffed with what sounds like the sort of hardware you'd expect to find in a not-quite-top-tier gaming PC. Yet the messages surrounding PlayStation 4 and Xbox One couldn't be more different.

When Sony showed off the PS4 back in March, the company spent two hours going into unusual detail on the machine's underpinnings and even the guiding philosophy behind its hardware design. Games took center stage, with a heavy emphasis on the new ideas and methods of play consumers can expect to find on the new machine. While a lot of people came away from the PS4 reveal somewhat confused by such high-level talk -- not to mention unhappy about Sony's reluctance to show off the actual box -- the message the company sent with its approach came through loud and clear to those who listened: An apology for losing the plot during the PlayStation 3's development, and a statement of intent to make the PS4 a machine designed first and foremost for playing games.


Microsoft's presentation, on the other hand, began with Don Mattrick proclaiming, "It's time for technology to step behind the curtain," and that's exactly how it played out. Aside from a brief slide touching on a general overview of the system's specs, the discussion was much less technical than Sony's -- more like a standard E3 press conference. Much to the consternation of many fans, however, video games also ended up swept to the backstage; the Xbox One presentation barely even referenced games for the first half of its hour-long pep rally. Television, movies, Skype, and fantasy football dominated the front half of Xbox One's introduction. Only two new games were announced -- Turn10's Forza Motorsport 5 and Remedy's Quantum Break -- and even Xbox flagship franchise Halo only garnered mention in the form of the upcoming Steven Spielberg-helmed live-action premium television series.

I don't know that you can pin down either approach as right or wrong. Neither company managed to knock it out of the park across their entire audience, but that probably speaks to how video games have spread into popular culture by exploring concepts and demographics far beyond the traditional core consumer that defined the medium a decade ago. Microsoft is shooting for the A&F college jock (or the dad who wishes he still was one) while Sony has chosen to double down on the traditional core gamer.

In short, Sony is after the folks who call themselves "gamers" as a point of pride, while Xbox One -- at least so far -- looks like it's being pitched almost as a Trojan Horse for games. "Here's a system that can complement your sports-obsessed lifestyle," Microsoft has proclaimed. "And also, you can play video games on it if you want. You know, Madden, Call of Duty, that kind of thing." Case in point: Microsoft uses tablets as a second screen; PS4 uses PlayStation Vita.

"That the Xbox brand seems to have arrived at a point at which gaming is a feature rather than the centerpiece isn't a matter of Microsoft losing the plot; it's Microsoft's long-term plan finally coming to fruition"

Understandably, this has left the gaming press portions of the crowd here to see the system with a sour taste in their mouth (to say nothing of the snarky "bro" remarks being tossed around online). The general response is less the frustrated uncertainty that followed Sony's event and more a mild sense of betrayal. "I feel like Microsoft is trying to sell a game machine but is embarrassed by video games," I overheard one journalist complain.

But the idea that Xbox One has to sneak its video game functionality under the radar may be looking at the situation from the wrong direction. The Xbox One isn't a Trojan Horse to slip video games into the living room; video games were the Trojan Horse to grant Microsoft control over the living room. The idea of Microsoft taking over the family entertainment center dates back at least 15 years, back when the company seemed like some kind of unstoppable technological juggernaut, and before their involvement in console gaming had even begun to manifest as the WinCE layer in Sega's Dreamcast. That the Xbox brand seems to have arrived at a point at which gaming is a feature rather than the centerpiece isn't a matter of Microsoft losing the plot; it's Microsoft's long-term plan finally coming to fruition.

Regardless of where you think gaming should live within the Xbox ecosystem, the package presented in the form of Xbox One is quite compelling. Nothing Microsoft showed off today is entirely new and radical by any means -- PlayStation 4 is offering a lot of these same social and media features, and you can already shuffle between entertainment formats on Xbox 360 and Nintendo's Wii U. The appeal lies in the apparent seamlessness and fluidity Xbox One brings to the affair. If today's stage demo represents the final product (and one would hope it does), jumping between functions will be instantaneous; the machine can even run multiple functions in smooth, windowed environments.

In a developer roundtable, the system's hardware team discussed a lot of the technical thinking behind the One's innards -- a lot of the same ground Sony covered, but as a corollary to the main presentation rather than a prelude to it. A lot of attention was given to the system's healthy RAM specs -- nearly double what the developers feel is really necessary to simply run games. By packing in so much surplus high-speed memory, the Xbox One team has made possible simultaneous virtual machines that can switch instantly into and out of active memory. At the very least, it should be a welcome change from the agonizing 10-second transitions between system functions that Wii U users have learned to live with.

I find it interesting that Microsoft and Sony have naturally targeted different ends of the gamer spectrum. The differences aren't mere lip-service but rather part of the fundamental underpinnings of each console, their prevailing philosophies. I'll be interested to see which tactic works better. Both? Neither? Will casual gamers buy a gaming device to run their living room? Are there enough core gamers left to sustain an entire platform dedicated to them alone?

Jeremy Parish is Games Editor at USgamer. USgamer is an upcoming consumer website published by Gamer Network and launching in early June, and will be located at

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Latest comments (13)

Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 8 years ago
"That the Xbox brand seems to have arrived at a point at which gaming is a feature rather than the centerpiece isn't a matter of Microsoft losing the plot; it's Microsoft's long-term plan finally coming to fruition"

Yup that just about nails it.
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Yiannis Koumoutzelis Founder & Creative Director, Neriad Games8 years ago
This is exactly as i see it too! and very important at a time when Android is trying to take over the TV! Xbox One performs perfectly compared to even the best Samsung "smart" TVs which are still struggling with apps and gestures that don't quite work. Xbox really makes your TV smart! (as an extension it tells consumers: do not spend your money on a "smart TV" our device can deliver far more and better than any android TV can)

The games were almost pushed aside, because kind of obviously the Xbox One as it seems is a more powerful machine than PS4. Perhaps they saw no point talking about the obvious. Xbox is a force to be reckoned in gaming! There is no doubt about it and needs no explanation. 15 exclusive games, and 8 new IP tells me more than watching an already known game trailer would.

The only sad thing in this story, is that Nintendo's home console really looks bad after that. Their plan to take over the living room pales in comparison. Microsoft has trounced any plan they possibly had as One can be used with tablets and even Lumia 920 as we saw in the presentation. Not to mention the possibilities for games and apps coming in from Windows 8 and Phone and how that could help developers and form the largest user base of gamers!

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Yiannis Koumoutzelis on 22nd May 2013 4:54am

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We'll see..we'll see.

In the end, its about the games. And thats where my wallet votes
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Show all comments (13)
Matthew Handrahan European Deputy Editor, GamesIndustry.biz8 years ago
I find it slightly odd that so many have decided that Microsoft no longer sees games as central.

It was made clear in the lead up to the conference, during the conference, and reiterated to the journalists attending the live event and the various hosted streaming sessions around the world - if my experience is anything to go by, anyway - that this was the first part of (annoying marketing phrase coming up) "a two-part story."

The other part will be at E3, and that's all games - the 15 exclusives coming in the first year, 8 of which are new IP. Microsoft's argument is that E3 is for games, and they didn't want their conference to be bogged down by services and architecture - I can kind of see their point, though it has caused some confusion, and that stuff is never much fun to watch. So much of the coverage I've read so far doesn't mention this at all.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Matthew Handrahan on 22nd May 2013 8:28am

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Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 8 years ago
I think that Microsoft were shocked in the 360 generation by being beaten by the Nintendo Wii. Because it did things that more consumers wanted.
So now Microsoft have responded with a box that they hope cannot be so easily outflanked.
Kinect could be the making of the One, or it could be its downfall. If it is realised well in the system software and in applications it could set the One apart. If developers and consumers reject it then it could be a white elephant that brings only cost and inconvenience. Microsoft must be sitting on the edge of their seats to see which way it goes.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 8 years ago
@Matthew: You're right, however... had this been a press ONLY event not advertised or televised as such a big deal reveal and there were more (and better) teasers shown, I'd bet a nice chunk of the ire about a lack of new (and more) games would be less of an issue. You know we live in a "gotta have all the info NOW" mode these days, so dragging things out (even if it's only for a few more weeks) makes all that another part of why some dislike these events and their "to be continued..." elements.

That and for a lot of core 360 gamers, despite what Microsoft says... it's the GAMES that are just as or more important than the services when all is said and done. The best thing they did was show off the box , something Nintendo and Sony should have done during their console reveals just to get that confusion out of the way for the form factor crowd. Eh, well... Sony actually comes in last again in revealing their secret weapon, as that teaser video they dropped doesn't count... ;^P
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Brian Smith Artist 8 years ago
Personally I think they've missed a trick with no backward compatibility. I know this was a complaint last generation and it didn't really count for much but I really think it's different this time around. Last time we had a quality gap between that gen and the new one that was glaringly obvious. In 6 months who'd want to play an older systems game anyhow. That seemed to be proven right.

This next generation however we have less of a fidelity gap and also users have amassed libraries of digital content unlike before. This time around I think existing users will see it as more of an issue. For me personally, I would tend to wait 6 months or a year until theres decent content out for the new system whereas I'd stick my hat in the ring on day one if it supported my current library.

If others share this viewpoint it could mean much slower migration of users from the 360 platform.
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Sandy Lobban Founder, Noise Me Up8 years ago
Why should an entertainment console only crunch numbers related to games? It makes no sense these days. I think this is a good approach personally. However, and this applies to everyone trying to take over the living room, the broadcast guys have seen what has happened to music, books, games and film. The relationships built here will determine who comes out on top, as they will not give up their business to a manufacturer who is looking to push them out. Pretty much why apple isn't there yet. They simply cant offer anything meaningful in terms of local TV content.
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Adam Coate CEO & Founder, Coate Games8 years ago
Weren't video games made for kids too at some point? I see the AAA video game industry following what the comics industry did. It "grew up along with its audience", and increasingly alienated people who weren't adults who grew up reading comics. On the rare occasion I go into a comic book store there isn't a kid in sight. These consoles are machines aimed at adult males. The games don't appeal to women, children, or families. So in order to take their broken model of alienating, overbloated "AAA" games and try to force it to work in the mass market, they're making consoles into tv boxes too. A gamer husband doesn't say to his wife, "Hey honey, these are games we can play together along with the kids". He's saying, "Hey honey, it plays movies, too". The movie/entertainment thing is a crutch being leaned on because Microsoft has lost sight of the mass market (or arguably never had it to begin with).
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Matthew Handrahan European Deputy Editor, GamesIndustry.biz8 years ago
@Greg: I agree. I personally feel they got it the wrong way round. If they really must tell their two-part story, the games really should have been the first chapter.
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Jean Auguste Consultant 8 years ago
Of course Microsoft intends to reach the mass market with this machine but none of that is really about having more Xbox One out there than Playstation 4 or Apple Tv.

You have to relate everything they said with the presence of Kinect and the fact it has to be always on and the fact that the console has to be always connected. The main purpose of this is DATA : Kinect scans faces/living rooms/behaviours and the programs you watch or the people you chat with on Skype, all of that will bring data. And that's how they want to make their money from, the same way as Facebook, the same as Google.

If they sell 10 or 20 millions less Xbox One than any of their competitors, it's not the way they'll measure success or fail. It's about how meaningful the data they pull out can be : Tv ratings more precise than ever, what ads really catch up your attention, how many persons are in the room, male/female, can we identify the unknown person that is with you in the room based on your recent Skype communications, are you single, kids around, etc ?

This is where they want to be 10 years from now. And for gaming. It's very independent from that (except for some of the resources). They believe they will be successul enough in the industry whatever happens and even if they're far behind the Ps4 (considering the Xbox One could never be released in Japan or in 2015-2016 minimum).


Edited 4 times. Last edit by Jean Auguste on 22nd May 2013 2:59pm

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David Serrano Freelancer 8 years ago
The best selling console game of all time has only reached approx. 22 to 23 percent of the active 360 and PS 3 installed base. And the average AAA game now only reaches a single digit percentage of the installed base. So most 360 and PS 3 owners have already stopped buying and playing the types of games the new systems will so far exclusively feature. I don't think MS or Sony have shown the average 360 and PS 3 owner anything yet that would motivate them to invest in a new system. I don't see myself buying either system until the price is $200 or less.

I think MS may end up selling more consoles to fantasy football fans and non-gamers interested in the set top features than to core players.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by David Serrano on 23rd May 2013 8:40pm

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Michail Mavronas 3D artist 8 years ago
well..the "Xbox One Reveal 2013 Highlights" video in youtube sums the whole thing up. Problem is that they haven't satisfied their core customers aka the they are already doomed to second place sales wise.. at least this is what you can gather from peoples reactions so far.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Michail Mavronas on 28th May 2013 3:57pm

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