The Xbox One Is For Everyone… But Probably Not You
This holiday, you might be choosing and wish to be armed with the best information. This choice is one that many will take offense to. It’s one that could destroy an empire. It’s one that might segregate you from your friends and family. It’s one that might keep you from continuing lifelong relationships. In the end, you could be wholly debased by your decision.
Console wars have real life consequences, ones which impact the livelihoods of developers everywhere. If the Xbox One is a flop, Microsoft will have to drastically re-envision its Xbox sector. If the PS4 struggles, then it and the Vita are in trouble, spelling double the consequences. And the Wii U…well, Nintendo is facing adversity at this very moment. It’s a bitter war fought over the holiday dollar.
However, what if the optimal decision was more eminent than the press and your friends make it seem? Many consumers are looking forward to the next generation of Halo, but they know little about the pitfalls of the new Xbox they have obediently pre-ordered. Controversy is erupting from the Microsoft camp over their choices, irredeemably pointed against the traditional early adopter, the core of the market, the champion of the holiday and most persuasive marketer for their brand. This isn’t reactionary rhetoric; Microsoft is taking to every method of damage control including captive ads in movie theaters, direct appeals from executives, and viral marketing in order to correct its mistakes. It’s tougher and tougher to tell the difference between Microsoft certified “Facts” and legitimate opinions. But, it’s the fault of the business, one progressively focusing, perhaps misguidedly, on the bottom dollar.
Indeed, the problem hearkens back a whole generation.
A Revolution Awaits
Remember the Blue Ocean? In their quest for market supremacy after Gamecube’s intense niching, the Wii careened but ultimately embraced its underdog status, succeeding with a veritable galaxy of content. Despite expanding into the waggle empire, would-be detractors are hard pressed to pan the entire library; Nintendo made sure that every single possible genre was occupied with lovingly-crafted titles and that new genres emerged for those who would sooner knit a sweater or throw a ball around the yard.
They did this out of reverence for their own creations. By welcoming newcomers into the fold, they could meld the Touch Generation into smash brothers. Everyone would become a believer in the tried-and-true unique gameplay experiences Nintendo has championed since their inception(and in defense of Nintendo’s cult of personality, half of GameRankings’ top ten of the last couple generations are from Nintendo franchises). The plan always intended for the swimmers in their Blue Ocean to detach the Wii Fit training wheels and venture into difficult and rewarding adventures.
Microsoft loves the Blue Ocean. They showed this when they brought out the Kinect in 2010, a brilliantly named camera peripheral intending to best the Playstation Eye and eliminate the controller from Nintendo’s waggle equation. Their zeal for attracting new audiences hardly failed either; Kinect stole customers from Nintendo and turned a profit.
Yet, it should have been a vehicle for stellar and deep gameplay, like the Wii before it. Despite the potential for a surplus of money printing casual games, the Wii featured considerably ambitious titles from Nintendo’s most lauded developers. Unfortunately, it’s heartbreaking to view the review scores of Kinect software in turn: mostly party fare with shallow skill ceilings. None of the middle ground experiences exist to close the gap between casual and hardcore. There was never a Halo Lite in comparison to New Super Mario Brothers to teach the uninitiated how to survive in a league requiring skill and reflexes. At their apex, even, they reach a level of innovative yet middling in difficulty. Without tried-and-true designers like Miyamoto or a groundbreaking new input device (Kinect is last-gen), it’s hard to see the makings of Nintendo’s plan in Xbox.
But, the Kinect brigade returns, with a fresh chance to play the core consumers, their Halo fans, back into their hand. Riding a high caused by the Kinect for Windows frenzy which launched legitimately useful software as opposed to games, Microsoft is packing it in with the console, branding it as a better way to use the system. Woe to those cavemen who remain tethered to analogue input! What better constitutes is a coherent voice interface, more sophisticated gesture-based UI, and a more powerful Kinect with better analytic software. It also constitutes a mandatory connection, and the myriad ways that could rupture your privacy are boggling. Keep in mind, nobody ever means to ruin privacy, until government agencies come knocking. This issue aside, developers are responsible for whether it amounts to anything worthwhile for the people Microsoft has been trying to reach with their recent conferences.
Now that the generation renowned for reaching out to those who would never touch a video game otherwise is over, the early adopters must be appeased! Nintendo already made a hard misstep in this area with the Wii U, offering few key titles which weren’t ports. Both Microsoft and Sony seem to be taking advantage of this with aplomb, but upon granular examination of the Xbox One’s upcoming library, the Kinect aims are exactly the same as before, if not shallower. Most drive the same path as the “Better with Kinect” branding of the last generation, featuring voice commands for AAA titles, perhaps immersive but not useful. There is a new Kinect Sports game, but nothing else exclusive and innovative which takes full advantage of the new Kinect. The Kinect is a mandatory peripheral; can Microsoft really justify that fact to the disinterested mess of early adopters? Can they make the lightning strike twice in the Blue Ocean? Sony has not included their new Playstation Camera in the box because they realize not everybody wants it. They trust that more of their market wants the traditional experience out of the gate. Microsoft says yes to a unique experience, but at the same time pushes little in the way of innovative content other than the UI. It’s a ballsy pull on account of poor aim.
Microsoft should not be punished for trying to be innovative, truly, but why make innovation mandatory without a clearly attractive direction to the most concrete end user? Xbox One is $100 dollars more than the Playstation 4, a console certain to have a game library of similar caliber. Microsoft’s attempt at wooing the Blue Ocean a second time also jades the generation who wasted away watching companies like Rare become relegated to Kinect Sports and petting tigers in Kinectimals while waiting for the supreme titles. The Blue Ocean graduates have outgrown the Kinect and launched into deep, stimulating gameplay.
When it comes to value, Microsoft’s try was sterling, too. They made a huge deal with the NFL which those who don’t even watch football will still be subsidizing for the extra $100. They are adding new features and a huge host of new servers to Xbox Live to improve matchmaking and offload processing from the console, which there is no real issue with! Well, except that the service is still $10 and subscription is basically required for a meaningful Xbox experience (and streaming video service, a gripe with the 360). Here’s an incorrigible point though: they wanted you to spend less money with their new DRM. At least, that’s what they told you. They were really looking out for number one.
Their new style of DRM could have been wonderful, if executed correctly. But, they backpedaled into the popularly-demanded disk DRM, all the while cursing the consumer for not understanding their brilliant plan. Cursing the consumer! But, who can blame them? Their new DRM was rumored for months beforehand in a pessimistic light, and when finally released from the veil, it was hardly in the spotlight. Instead, they detailed it offstage to the press to disseminate in neutral tones, tones which could reveal the pros along with the cons in a way less deceitful than a cagey reveal on stage.
In any case, the backlash from consumers over the DRM was not purely over the murky dialogue with Microsoft, but also because it was so different that the current system and ripe for problems. The new DRM eliminated the idea of used games, tying every game disc to a single Microsoft account. Then, it did allow consumers to resell their license to the publisher, but for what amount? And who is to say that the publisher would not resell that license full-price? There would be no such thing as buying used, at least in the sense of getting a discount, only selling for what could be a minuscule profit. This eliminates the idea of buying used and hanging onto a game, a method with more advantages than buying new and selling. Publishers were surely excited to be able to count the sales of every license on their terms for graph porn too, alas. Supposed Microsoft employees have made parallels to the Steam platform with the DRM, but a look at EA’s failed Origin service demonstrates the danger.
Mentioning the family sharing plan brings tears to the eyes of those who decided to defend the DRM based on its virtues. It sounded brilliant in theory: you could start an adhoc family with any ten Xboxes and share your purchased games. Their bastion of hope fell apart when Microsoft let a little more mojo slip–sharing games only means sharing an hour long demo of a game! That constitutes sharing, but not in the capital S way that is standard today. Thus, when going back and reading comments about Microsoft’s brilliant DRM, keep in mind this caveat.
Luckily, this potential doomsday scenario has been avoided for now. But, Xbox seems committed to rolling out their changes over time at the grudge of third-parties like EA and Ubisoft. It’s posturing to be pro-consumer with a “we’re listening closely” response, but in an industry where profit margins are thin because of used game retailers and the cost of high-profile development, the push will continue. Maybe Microsoft will never give in, but when Sony’s first-party titles are sticking with the classic DRM (see their snide used game video) and Nintendo’s digital licensing system ties games to a console, they is the most malleable camp for publishers to harry.
If further evidence is required that Microsoft is the torch bearer for the practices publishers want, this is altogether evident in the cash siphon they are perpetuating in the way of indie publishing. Microsoft is sticking with their same decadent fees and stringent requirements for bringing games to their Live Arcade platform. Self-publishing as done on Microsoft platforms is relegated to a section specifically for indie games which garners minimal attention. Their tenacity in sticking to this policy in the face of Sony and Nintendo’s more open approach is confident, yet harrowing, much like the DRM issue. It’s a testament to their betrothal to big business, perpetuating the funnel of much-needed indie funds to the robber barons.
Where’s the hardware scrutiny, though? Most are trying to push aside the argument, branding the PS4 and Xbox One as equivalent, but Xbox drives a more suspect course. Surveying the comments made about the PS4 and not about the Xbox One tells quite a story. The lead architect of the console, a man who has had a hand in many of Sony’s AAA titles, Mark Cerny, claims that the console can push out production-quality game engines in at least 1/3 the time that it took using the PS3’s tools and hardware. To corroborate on the GPU side, John Carmack, who helped put 3D graphics on the map by programming the engines for Doom and Quake, went out of his way to call it well designed. Carmack isn’t the only one to offer this assessment, but aside from this testimony, the experienced can plainly look at the Xbox One and see a tougher sell to developers as compared to the PS4 or a PC. The Xbox One’s RAM is all over the place with a really quick buffer connecting it all in the middle, as opposed to the PS4 with its harder, faster, stronger solid block. If the solid block sounds more simple, that’s because it is, and developers will benefit. The PS4 is also simply packing a more mature GPU, packing more flops for your buck.
More integral to the hardware, of course, is the exclusive library. The Xbox will always pack a fresh Halo, and for this generation it has 8 exclusive games being crafted lovingly, right now. PS4, on the other hand, has 30 exclusive titles gestating, 20 of which to be birthed by the end of the year. Chances are likely that the PS4 will have more games which tickle more fancies; that’s just the rule of numbers. Gameplay comparisons can be made all day about the myriad of titles, so this argument is altogether null. Still! This is the show of developer support that the hardware difference Mark Cerny ensured presupposes. When it comes to smaller studios, if those with kits can push out a PS4 engine so much faster than the Xbox One, then perhaps they will rest their laurels on a secure bet this generation. Of course, the PC is the easiest development platform, but it follows the same trend: the sheer number of PC games planned is hard to fathom.
Probably Not for You
Who is the Xbox One for, then? Not for indie developers, who are going to hound Sony’s especial embrace of those who wish to self-publish. It’s not for those with the self-respect to keep their activities from potentially being recorded by a doppelganger of the 1984 viewscreen. It’s not even those who want the best hardware, as the PS4 wins by a couple hairs and has a better architecture to boot. How are they going to market it over the Playstation 4 and Wii U?
Admittedly, it does have a few spots notched out. It’s for those who are interested in the future of the experiences created in the last generation, like Dance Central and Kinect Sports, but these experiences are prehistoric cash-grabs inspired by the last-generation, and in addition, they must compete with the new experiences provided by the Wii U and PS4 which have similar capabilities for gameplay. It’s also for those interested in a new kind of interaction with UI via Kinect and Smartglass, although Smartglass echoes the Wii U. It’s most certainly for those in the market for a universal media center, but the cost of Xbox Live burdens those already nickel-and-dimed by providers to use the very media services that it gates without the subscription.
Negative energy isn’t useful, but there is yin and yang to seemingly everything the Xbox One has going for it. All in all, if a traditional console experience is what you are seeking, the evidence is stacked against your investment compared to the PS4 and even the Wii U.
What do you think? Leave a comment.