Saturday, May 25, 2013

Reflections on the Xbox One reveal.

What's new is always a little scary - and even a moderately pragmatic examination of Microsoft's latest console announcement offers plenty of reason for fear - but there may indeed be a silver lining, and cause for hope. 

Now, we're pissed off, to be sure.  The lack of concrete information, the sense that the platform marginalizes its core audience, a new generation of digital rights management and a creepy camera that's always on...

Well, to start, Microsoft's messaging could have been better thought-out, and a bit more clear. 

We've all done a lot of complaining about the Xbox One reveal this week.  Prior to the event, rumors - mostly negative - were swirling around the console, from suggestions that it will require a constant internet connection to block used games to the idea that it would somehow be less powerful than Sony's console.

With all this scary buzz threatening the platform, the eyes of the gaming community - filled to the brim with glistening hope - turned to Microsoft for answers.

What are the hardware's specs?  They didn't talk about that, beyond throwing out "eight gigs" of nondescript RAM.

Does it block used games?  They didn't say.

Does it require a constant internet connection?  Microsoft left that un-addressed.

The One was swirling with concepts and ideas well before Microsoft unveiled it - and their complete failure to listen to their own console's buzz and address those questions clearly, with straight black-and-white answers was... a misstep.

Compounding this is how profoundly mixed the messages have been following the event.  Gaming journalists wanted the same answers we did - and when a journalist from Magazine A asked Microsoft Executive A, they got an answer.  The problem being, when Journalist B asked Microsoft Executive B the same question, they got a different answer - and so on, and so on, until no one's quite sure what the deal is.

If a gamer were searching for answers this past week, they'd find articles screaming sensational headlines tied to a quote from one Microsoft exec or another which had then been updated two or three times with clarifying and more-confusing quotes from other executives.

How cool will the Xbox One be?  We have no fucking idea.

The used games thing seems to be the biggest bone of contention, so let's start there.  How does it work?  No one is a hundred per cent sure - not even Microsoft itself, as it seems the actual policies surrounding the One's used solution are currently in a state of flux.  No one is giving the same answer, because there isn't one answer yet.  That all hasn't been finalized and hammered out - so they say - but is that true?

Why didn't GameStop's stock take a plunge after the announcement?  (Well, it did dip - but not much.)  Because they were already aware of the One's systems, and are part of the team (even that article had multiple ever-more-vague updates). Which is kinda' scary.  With Microsoft getting a cut of used game sales, their publishing partners getting a cut of used game sales and GameStop getting its share, one has to wonder what a used game will actually be worth to the consumer.

You can bet your ass whatever GameStop has to pay to activate the copy of CoD: Ghosts you traded in in order to sell it on to the next customer, it will be a fraction of what your friend would have to pay his Xbox One if you just handed it off to him and he expects to play it in his system, on his profile.

I worry that gamers will really be getting the short end of this stick.  And don't get me wrong, Microsoft has a responsibility to its shareholders to bleed us for everything we're worth - but an important part of that relationship is feeling like we're getting a fair deal in the process.

The scariest part is, we just don't know how much that's about to change - or even if it will change in a way that actually has an impact on our day-to-day handling of games (for example, Chamberlain, if the GameStop partnership is true - which it probably is - GameFly will still work just fine).

And for those Sony stalwarts like myself, don't go feeling all high-and-mighty yet.  Sony has repeatedly dodged the question of how the PS4 will handle used games - it's entirely possible they just let Microsoft introduce the concept to take all the heat before stepping up and admitting they intend to do the exact same thing.

Call of Duty: Ghosts

I'll be honest, the scariest thing to me is the idea that the system must connect to Xbox Live once per day in order to authorize your account and all the content on your box.  Which actually means if your Xbox One can't connect to Live in that window, you're disallowed from playing the content you purchased (only one update), and will be unable to play it until a connection is reestablished.

This concept presumes that the Xbox One - and support for it - will last for as long as one could hope.  Which ignores precedent. (I saw a quote from a Microsoft executive this past week who literally said Xbox Live would exist and be available "forever."  Which is insane.)

Anyone who hung on to an original Xbox after the launch of the 360 can attest to the support Microsoft offers their out-of-date platforms - or, specifically, lack thereof - and when your One can no longer sign into Live... you're done with your One.

I don't know about you, but the idea of a gaming platform that I could invest hundreds or thousands of dollars in suddenly becoming inert is... unappealing.  For what assurances can any console manufacturer provide?

The Dreamcast likely had ambitions of supporting the platform for a good decade, but that didn't work out - and it wasn't because Sega didn't want to or because the games were sub-par - just the opposite.

Shit happens, even to corporations as large as Microsoft and its Xbox division - and even if it never happens, Microsoft has a precedent of abandoning the support of older hardware when it moves on to a new generation.  Simply taking Microsoft at their word and examining their history renders the long-term (post-next-gen) value of the Xbox One as zero.

That's terrifying.


And yes, I find the idea of an always-on, always-connected camera facing my bed or living room more than a little creepy.  (Kinect must be turned on at all times for the One to function.)

"My iPhone has two cameras in it, and no one's afraid of it," is a fair counterpoint.  But your iPhone wasn't made by a software giant with a history of criminally vulnerable and easy-to-crack operating systems.  The One is one good hack away from several major lawsuits.

There is a fine and sagacious rationale for including Kinect with every Xbox One - every developer making games for the system will know, 100%, that their audience will be able to use the gesture system - but, at the same time, this is rather like tying the life of your console to a Dualshock.

If the One can't function without the Kinect 2.0, what happens when the Kinect stops working?

Is it okay to worry about that?  Is it fair to worry about it, given the reliability of Microsoft's past hardware offerings?

You'd be crazy not to worry about that.  And then there's the TV thing.

We were all pretty damned exasperated that Microsoft, in unveiling its next-generation games console, did not actually show any games until 37 minutes into its one-hour presentation - going on and on about TV functionality, TV programming and TV partnerships - and even once they got to the games, no gameplay or genuine proof of life was shown.

In fact, we're all pretty exasperated with almost everything surrounding the One's reveal - but that seems to be just us.

This is the poll Kotaku ran on the day of the One's reveal.  Even assuming the type of crap one can expect of online polls, it's a pretty clear condemnation of what Microsoft showed. We hated what we saw, for the most part.

It's important to note the "we," though.  "We" are the folks who read and write video game blogs.  We follow the industry news and were perfectly aware in 2012 that new consoles would be announced and likely available in 2013.  We know this game.  We're invested.

The world at large, though?  The folks Microsoft actually cares about?  They like it!  They like it a lot, if the positive buzz in the general (non-enthusiast) press is to be believed, even if it does feel misinformed and perhaps even disingenuous when a clearly one-sided article from Forbes notes the "new" feature of being able to control the Xbox with your voice in a list of eight reasons to buy the Xbox One.

Joe Sixpack loves Call of Duty and watching ESPN.  I'm sorry, but that's just the "popular" in popular culture at work - CoD makes a few billion dollars every year, and Football is far more important to the public in general than it is to us.  If you were to gather everyone who reads Eurogamer, Polygon, Kotaku, Destructoid and IGN in a field, you'd probably have less than 100,000 people.

The Xbox division would go bankrupt if we were the only people who bought their console, and so we're not the people they have any intention of trying to please - but they may end up doing so, regardless.

Above are six major, highly-anticipated third-party titles which are definitely, one-hundred-per-cent coming to the Xbox One.  No doubt about it.  These are games which have had their hype building for several months, if not years in Destiny's case - but none of them saw so much as a mention at the announcement event.  And did anyone else find it weird that Dying Light was announced and confirmed for Xbox One the very next day?

As if Techland were waiting for the One reveal just so they could come forward and admit they were working on a title for it.

Microsoft - why on earth would you squander this?

There is built-in excitement and wide-eyed optimism for those games - why not call up Ubisoft, Electronic Arts, Deep Silver and Warner Bros to say "we're announcing a console in May, could you put together a thirty-second trailer that ends with a line about how your game is coming to Xbox One?  ...maybe how it's better with Kinect?"

You had forty minutes of talking about TV crap in that presentation.  An additional ninety seconds of games wouldn't have killed you.

Why not reach out to Techland and say "we want you to announce your next major game at our console presser?"

I have no idea.  Because the Xbox One will have all the major next-gen games you're excited about (unless the game is inFamous: Second Son or Killzone: Shadow Fall.  And, at the very least, everyone who's gone hands-on with it agrees the new controller is pretty cool.

And yeah, we don't care about TV, but c'mon - most people who watch Netflix at home are doing it on their PS3 - a video game console.  Consoles are already used for what Microsoft has planned - it just wants the One to be the best option for it, even if that ambition is perhaps a case of putting the chicken before the egg.

Microsoft settled in to that ambition years ago - a half-decade ago, if industry rumblings are to be believed - when they decided the One was the future of console gaming, and designed an operating system that was somehow a hybrid of three operating systems in order to see their vision of a profoundly-multitasking machine through.  They locked in the 8GB of RAM years ago - if industry rumblings are to be believed - in the hopes of out-maneuvering Sony, and the "different architecture" of the Xbox One is due entirely to managing the bandwidth limitations of the DDR3 RAM they chose.

The system's innards are no longer as simple and elegant as a home PC, but look - neither is the PS3, and its library is frickin' awesome.  And yes, next gen the Xbox will be slightly less-powerful than its Sony counterpart - but the Xbox has been slightly less-powerful than its Sony competition since the dawn of the current gen, and nobody minded then.  In fact, the most-powerful console has never won a console generation.

The absolute worst-case scenario for Gamers is that, in its early days, the One may see sub-par ports due to its more-complex architecture, in the same way the PS3 did in '07-'10.  Otherwise, chances are good it will be just as healthy and robust as one would hope.

As for the rest - all the questions whose answers remain unclear, all the edginess around their used games solution - we'll have to wait.

And, just for the sake of being supportive, we'll have to hope - that when Don Mattrick takes the stage at E3, he is armed will all that and more.

Along with a next-gen Halo.

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