Xbox One – Out of Focus?

May 27, 2013

Like a large portion of the gaming audience, on Tuesday I was glued to a screen of some description, eagerly anticipating Microsoft’s big reveal. The follow up to what’s considered the most successful “core” console of the generation, with the prospect of incredible technology propelling gaming even further and into the next generation with style. However, the fallout from the event has led to confusion, disappointment and from some quarters, outright anger. Is it justified? I think the answer is “partly”.

I said in my piece last week that I didn’t want, but fully expected to see Microsoft focus on things other than games. What truly surprised me was the extent to which that was accurate. There was not a single gameplay demo during the entire hour (the best we got was the ‘in-engine’ footage from Call of Duty: Ghosts). For the reveal of a new games console, that’s unforgiveable. I appreciate that E3 is the place for games, but honestly, this is the third Xbox. The device that Microsoft created to obliterate Sony, to replace Sega in the hearts and minds of gamers. Showing pre-rendered videos is what led to Sony’s difficult start with the PS3’s Killzone 2 debut, and debuting 7 games, four of which are annual franchises from your new best buddies at EA Sports revealed within seconds of each other, as well as the inevitable “we’re still in bed with Call of Duty” reveal isn’t the best way to show off your clout. It was nothing short of embarrassing for those hoping to have a new gaming powerhouse to look forward to.

One thing that wasn’t quite as embarrassing as Microsoft’s previous conferences was the Kinect demos. The new Kinect looks like a genuinely impressive piece of technology, and given some of the hands-on impressions people have reported, it looks like the truth was spoken on stage, unlike the initial “Project Natal” introductions, which were found to be wildly off-base when people finally got their hands on the hardware. This time round, the demos looked like the hardware actually worked really well, and there were no kids around to claw at an imaginary tiger, and there wasn’t a single “Fist-bump!” cringe-worthy moment whilst using the sensor in any of the time it was being shown off on stage. My biggest problem is what that was being used for, however. The use of Kinect to control live TV, with the ability to carry out “second screen” activities in the main screen was certainly technically impressive, but was it needed in a games machine?

I appreciate that the market is moving along at a rapid pace. When the PS3 and Xbox 360 were released, the iPhone hadn’t even hit the market. Who could’ve predicted where we would be now at the start of this generation? Who can predict where we’ll be in a further generation’s time? The big surprise is Microsoft’s focus on the cable TV market in the US. By all accounts, it’s a shrinking market. On-demand services like Hulu and Netflix are hugely influential in the marketplace over in the US, and boxes such as the Apple TV and the Roku are becoming commonplace in living rooms. So quite why Microsoft have decided to stake so much on what is perceived to be a dying market is beyond me.

The other area that they’ve clearly invested heavily in is the “AAA” games market. With the show closing with Call of Duty on Tuesday, they have re-committed to the huge franchises. Indie developers have had something of a backlash regarding Microsoft’s stance on their rights to self-publish on the console, something Sony and Nintendo have stated will be possible on their machines. This is something that troubles me as a gamer, because the majority of innovation and boundary-pushing this generation has come from the likes of Journey, Fez, Limbo etc. With Microsoft essentially shunning developers of smaller games like this, and Sony welcoming them in with open arms (and in fact putting them front and centre in their press event), I have a feeling this could lead to a huge gulf in the library of titles available on both systems. Games sales on the whole are on the decline, and with Microsoft choosing to put all of their eggs in the AAA basket (as well as partnering with EA), it could prove to be a very costly mistake. Of course, I could be completely wrong and Microsoft could trot out those 15 titles at E3, with very little for Kinect, and 8 new IPs that make everyone’s jaw drop and rush to buy the system. I highly doubt it, but it could happen.

In one fell swoop, then, Microsoft managed to alienate the majority of their gaming audience. It seemed to me that their next task was to alienate anyone to the east of the Atlantic, or west of the Pacific. They couldn’t have made the event more focused on the USA if they’d draped Don Mattrick in a stars-and-stripes emblazoned jacket, which seemed odd to me as they broadcast it during a prime time for Europe. I get that they wanted as many folks to watch it as possible, but they fell into the all-too-frequent trap of showing off features that at least 50% of your audience can’t use, even if they wanted to. I’d hazard a guess that at least half an hour was spent focusing on the TV features, which are confirmed to be US exclusive at launch, and then a further 15 on other US-centric features, and it left me scratching my head wondering why they didn’t just do a pre-recorded video of those, and say “For more info go to Xbox.com” on stage after a brief 30 second introduction.

As a piece of technology, the Xbox One certainly seems impressive. The innovations that Microsoft put forward with Kinect in the 360 have been improved upon exponentially, and the features it will bring to folks who want to watch TV through their console definitely look like they’ll be functional. But when it came to the focus of the event, Microsoft seemed to be everywhere but where most thought they needed to be. The fallout from the event included confusing mixed messages about used games and those “always online” rumours, with Phil Harrison seemingly backing himself into a new corner every time he opened his mouth. That’s not to say that Microsoft didn’t do anything right. I like the look of the console, and I really like the design changes in the controller. But that’s where it stops for me. The fact that they seemed to want to push the controller-free nature of the Xbox One for the majority of its stage time reinforced the fears that I had going into the reveal event, and certainly didn’t endear itself to me, as I appeared to be the exact opposite of the person Microsoft were going for. I’m someone who wants to play games, and I don’t live in the USA. E3’s going to have to be pretty spectacular for me to come around on the Xbox One based on the reveal.

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