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How Fear of Change Set Console Gaming Back a Generation

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“If I had
asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” —
The Pre
Internet

Before the
infamous Xbox One reveal, Microsoft promised to bring “
a new generation of gaming.” Derided and mocked as the usual
marketing hype, it is, perhaps ironically, the most truthful description of
what Microsoft’s executives and designers had in mind for the product. The Xbox
One was in a position to radically change the console market: embracing the
digital services, community, and accessibility of Steam; making one’s games
available to friends and family everywhere; immerse gamers by having the games
react to their emotions; they even tackled general entertainment. So what
happened?

The
unveiling of the console resulted in the worst gaming hardware reveal since the
Vitality Sensor. A unanimous and scornful reaction swiftly followed, damning
the console as dead-on-arrival. To save face, Microsoft was forced to revert
every new idea they planned to bring to the table – culminating with the Kinect-free
Xbox One – transforming what could have been the future of console gaming into
an also-ran product. We’re quick to belittle Microsoft, but gamers are also to
blame for this.

The Microsoft Stumble

When you’re
on top, there’s only one way to go, and Microsoft was, if nothing else, creative in
finding that way. While their bullishness permitted an attempt at quite
possibly the greatest change in console gaming, they fumbled in designing the
hardware and lost focus with the console.

In
designing the One, Microsoft was still riding high on the success of 360,
sharply remembering its failures. I’m tempted to imagine the Xbox One designers
thinking, “if only we hadn’t had the Red
Ring of Death, we would’ve outsold the PS3 even more.”
The result is as
predictable as it was dull. The One directly followed up on its predecessor,
Microsoft assuming that the similar design would simplify things for
developers. So much did Microsoft wager that, despite a weaker GPU,
the One’s APU costs about $10 more
to produce than its fiercest rival, the PlayStation 4
. This was the result of keeping the
SRAM design shared by the 360, and without re-evaluating if the choice was
correct, Microsoft had delivered a more expensive yet less capable solution.

Moreover,
Microsoft made another catastrophic bet. The Kinect changed the game in the
seventh console generation, spawning a myriad of, albeit gimmicky, motion and
dance games. Therefore, reasoned Microsoft, it could be a system seller in the
next cycle. A new sensor with more power, precision and price than its
predecessor, it costs $75 in manufacturing, and untold more in R&D. More damningly,
Microsoft decided against bundling a game to demonstrate the device, thus
failing to emulate the biggest contributor to the Wii’s success. Combined, this
created a poor cost/value proposition that turned a system seller into a
showstopper.

Having
failed to create a compelling console, Microsoft added insult to injury by
attempting to graft even more features onto the monster that the One was
becoming. In a typical case of design-by-committee, the One emphasized TV
support in the US, an utterly useless feature to 95% of the world. Burdened
with not one, but three operating systems to enable features such as Skype
in-game, Microsoft also decided that the Xbox One be tied to the ailing Azure
cloud, causing terrible gaming experiences where Azure had no presence (such as
Titanfall in South Africa). Xbox was
cross-branded with Windows, despite Microsoft keeping them worlds apart the previous two cycles. The
corporate machine had sunk its teeth into the box, and spat out a dystopian
mess.

The Vision Lost in The
Chaos

This leads
us to the core of the Xbox One; a generation of gaming had been promised, but
nothing of the sort was delivered. Microsoft had boldly stepped forward and
recognized the domination of Steam in the PC world; it had shown a portent of
things to come. It was embraced as a seemingly benign platform, despite
ever-present DRM in the form of Steamworks, and despite being unable to sell or
otherwise rid yourself of old games. Someone at Microsoft had realized that
significance, and put down a marker saying, “
this is how gaming should be.”

Imagine all
your games being available everywhere. Your console. Someone else’s console.
They would be available not by onerous passwords that are forgotten, but by
facial recognition linked to your gamer tag. Imagine walking into their living
room, with the entire library following you like magic. If they like a game,
you can leave it there – virtually – for them to enjoy. Imagine sharing and
trading games online, as opposed to Steam’s ‘library or nothing’ approach. Imagine
cases where multiplayer games would give access to the host’s friends so that
they can try and possibly even buy the games.

This could
vastly improve the regular gaming experience as well. With your entire library
installed on the console, load times are a thing of the past. There’s no need
to rifle through a stack of discs – and curse people if they don’t put back the
right game in the right sleeve – to play the one you want. If the console knows
every game in your library, it can also make sure they’re patched and updated.
Don’t have a fast connection, or a data cap? That’s fine too; just buy the
physical disc, use that for the data transfer, and reap all the benefits.

This was
it. The force of Steam combined with freedom and flexibility. Not only that,
but it could make for a powerful marketing tool. Demos would be obsolete, yet
available at your discretion, and become even more tantalizing. The One could
be unlike any other console – a platform providing gamers with a whole new way
of playing games! Except…

Game? Stop! Power to the
Retailers

Microsoft’s
vision for the future was never anchored with anyone. Publishers hadn’t asked
for this, although Microsoft likely expected them to come on board, as the
online platform could’ve become an exclusive hook without match. All games
would share virtually the same profit margins as digital downloads, as they
would be, at the end of the day, digital downloads regardless. Microsoft stood
to gain, sure, but so did its partners. There was only one small wrinkle in the
plan: the used game profits.

Of the US
yearly
games industry’s $15.39bn revenue, GameStop snagged a whopping $4.25bn – 35% – with more than half of that
coming from used sales game sales. Microsoft’s decision to go digital made an
immediate enemy out of the greatest games retailer in the US, and the backlash
was immediate, drowning out any and all potential comments on the topic.
Nothing but a total capitulation was accepted.

The media reveled
in it all. Controversies fuel page loads, which drive ads, leading to more
revenue. On the internet, the entire debacle spread like wildfire, with more
articles popping up each day, piling on what they could. And in one of the
quite possibly most brilliant publicity stunts in recent memory, Sony announced
during E3 every single thing it hadn’t had the time nor money to implement,
turning them into features. Publishers, who hadn’t been consulted anyway,
pragmatically distanced themselves from the failed policy. And all along the way, gamers never
gave it a chance.

Running Out of Steam

At long
last, we’ve reached the current situation. Pragmatic cutbacks, design choices,
and public backlash have turned what should’ve been a console for the future
into a shadow of its former self, now resembling a more powerful version of its
predecessor. Sony hasn’t exactly fared better, quite frankly, limiting their
‘innovation’ to a handful of gimmicks such as the share button and an
arbitrarily implemented touchpad. Minor improvements to usability from the
previous cycle aside, this has left us at the cusp of a gaming generation
restricted to merely, “
same as last time,
but more.”

Oh, well.
Perhaps Steam Boxes, when they properly arrive, might spark some gaming life
into the living room.

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