Until last Wednesday afternoon, Microsoft’s biggest problem wasn’t any single aspect of their upcoming Xbox One console. It’s how they were talking to consumers.
Every word out of Don Mattrick’s mouth made Microsoft sound more and more like a lumbering, tone-deaf, but well-intentioned giant, stepping on buildings and people, all the while asking “Why is everyone running away?” All the noise coming from that side of Microsoft confused the issues surrounding the Xbox One itself.
What should we be looking forward to? What’s really, actually worrisome? What questions still remain to be answered?
What We’re Looking Forward To
Technically all gaming is digital, but I’m talking about the non-physical stuff. Day-one downloads of every game coming out. Sony has this with the PlayStation 4 as well, but Microsoft is uniquely situated after their month-long PR nightmare. Originally, Microsoft had been trying to untether game licenses from the physical game disc. That’s how it’s been for a long time now, but it’s largely unenforceable. Now that they’ve rolled back on that particular policy, Microsoft is in a spot to really show the advantages of getting rid of a disc in console gaming.
We should be seeing a continuation of the awesome sales Microsoft has been doing over the last couple months, to start with. Of course, with nothing old on the console at launch, we won’t see these right away, but a year makes a big difference. In November 2014 we might be seeing the Xbox One Anniversary Sale, with launch titles going for incredible prices.
Microsoft also needs to be aggressive about making their day-one purchases appealing to gamers. The deals need to be so good that people wonder why they’d bother with discs. Early access, preloads, free season passes; the sky’s the limit. The company should be selling us on how great their idea was and how dumb we were to shout about it, regardless of whether there’s any truth to it or not. Obviously, this is fantasy and conjecture, but Microsoft’s version of the future is in jeopardy, and if it wants us to get on the bandwagon, it has some work ahead.
The HDMI Pass-through on the Xbox One has a ton of potential. It might not be as awesome as I’m hoping, but I’m looking forward to trying it. At the worst, I won’t use it. At best, it could open up a precious HDMI port on my television and even change the way I watch TV.
If the voice and gesture commands work as described, and the guide is as good as it looked during the demo in May, it could be a great way to search for and record programs. While the Xbox One isn’t a DVR, it is able to interact with the DVR it’s passing using IR blasters and HDMI-CEC. HDMI-CEC is the same feature that lets people with the right televisions turn on their TV just by activating their PlayStation 3 consoles.
Kinect is a great idea that, right now, just doesn’t work very well. It requires a gigantic room, TV studio lighting, and just the right game. Kinect 2.0 for Xbox One is a massive step above the current edition and has way more potential. All the potential we imagined for the first Kinect is potential renewed with the new one.
For example, the problems people had during the Microsoft conference with Yusuf turning their Xboxes off for them should no longer be an issue. (In fact, Microsoft confirmed this in a technical demonstration on Xbox Wire) The fidelity and range of the new Kinect should improve its ability to discern who is talking and where the voices are coming from. Meaning that your drunk roommate shouldn’t be able to walk into the room and say “Xbox Off” just to be a jerk, and the Xbox should know when the command it hears is coming from a video playing on it.
The hardware can also pick up on things like heartbeats, giving a potential slew of options for role-playing, horror and card games, just to name a few. Much of the trouble with the first Kinect sat squarely on the lackluster hardware, but with the new Kinect, it should lean much more toward the games being designed to use the hardware well.
The New Controller
There’s so much about the new controller that I’m excited about. Little stuff that will change the way we use it and the way developers use it.
The impulse triggers alone, from reports, add an incredible level of detail to the rumble. People who have played Forza Motorsport 5 have described the experience as revolutionary. At least among racing games you play with controllers, anyway.
The controller now uses a micro USB port, the same kind you have on your smartphone, Kindle, and everything else, for charging. Better yet, when the controller is plugged in, all the radios in the controller shutdown. The charging cable isn’t just for charging, but also for transmitting controller signals. Instead of having to buy a separate wired Xbox controller for PC games, we should be able to use any Xbox One controller. Microsoft hasn’t confirmed as much yet, but the Xbox 360 controller quickly became the standard for PC gaming, and Microsoft knows that.
I expect we’ll see this to a degree on the PlayStation 4 as well with the way Ubisoft and EA showed it off at their conferences, but Microsoft has a slight edge right now with the SmartGlass application already out there to get people used to the idea.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, for example, will allow inventory management via the tablet, a nice concession to the necessarily PC-friendly interface of the game. The Commander’s view in Battlefield 4 has options for deploying air strikes, and Dead Rising 3 will apparently use the connectivity to send in-game calls to your SmartGlass device.
This feature, too, is something we’ll see on PlayStation 4, but it’s important nonetheless. We’re going to save hours a year on loading games, and then spend those hours playing more games. There’s no downside to that.
What Worries Us
When I wrote this last week, this section was much longer. That was before Microsoft backed off on the DRM policies they’d announced before and during E3. The Xbox as it’d been presented was rife with problems. License transfer issues, problems with territorial availability and the looming monster of the required Internet connection made the Xbox One a difficult pill to swallow. With the recent change, most of those questions are gone, leaving just a few concerns that are much less deeply-rooted.
The Eye of Sauron
The mere presence of Kinect is a concern for many. Microsoft has explicitly stated that the microphone and camera can be disabled, but that the Kinect must be plugged in for the system to operate. There’s no deep conspiracy here, at least not one that isn’t equally possible for smartphones.
The reality is that Microsoft has dumped a ton of money into Kinect research and they want to make sure developers have incentive to create for it. Developers won’t bother making software for an accessory that might or might not be there, so this is Microsoft’s gamble, probably the biggest gamble with the Xbox One at this point.
Part of that gamble is the high price of the Xbox One.
By including the Kinect, Microsoft was forced to sell the console for a higher price than its primary competitor to the tune of $100 more. I really don’t think they could afford to sell it for a dollar less, but I also don’t think they could sell it for a dollar more.
In a moment of PlayStation 3-era Sony level hubris, Don Mattrick described the Xbox One as delivering “thousands of dollars of value.” As Sony discovered with this generation, however, you have to sell things at a price the market is willing to work with regardless of the value proposition. People aren’t going to get second jobs to buy game consoles.
Xbox One & Indie Developers
Game Informer documented, in a great feature a month or two back, what they’ve called the XBLA Exodus. We’re in what a lot of people consider a golden age of independent games. The bandwidth of Internet connections and accessibility of development tools had made for a ripe environment and some of the most successful and most interesting games of the last few years have come from there.
Microsoft’s position on the Xbox 360 isn’t changing—small developers need to have publishers—as they move to Xbox One, except that the Indie Games channel is going away. The channel in its current stage is mostly just Minecraft clones and controller vibration apps, so Microsoft doesn’t seem too worried they’ll be missing out.
Sony, on the other hand, is actively pursuing indie developers and self-publishing. It’s hard to tell right now whether this will hurt Microsoft in the long run. They’ve been good about pursuing small games with potential, and, while some developers have had negative interactions with Microsoft, games like Minecraft and State of Decay are selling like crazy. If it continues to pursue those smaller developers and treat them well, this might not be an issue.
More than anything, as I mentioned in the introduction, the way Microsoft is talking to consumers is its biggest problem. Don Mattrick comes off as arrogant and tone-deaf as he suggested that gamers without consistent connections should get an Xbox 360 instead of an Xbox One. People on the outskirts of the customer base don’t appear to matter. Microsoft needs to solve this problem first. They need to get someone more likable in front of people to defuse and diffuse the PR damage the last few weeks have done.
What We Don’t Know Yet
Preloads & Bandwidth
Microsoft continually brags about the 300,000 servers they’re putting in to support the new Xbox, but if we’ve learned anything from SimCity and Diablo III in the last year, it’s that hubris is alive and well in game development. Developers and publishers think they’re ready to support demand for a game, and then they can’t handle the number of concurrent downloads or the mass of people trying to connect and use their services.
Will Microsoft have methods in place to mitigate the huge traffic spikes that will come with the console launch, the upcoming holiday season, and big game launches?
One option Steam has—and it really seems like Microsoft is emulating Steam in many aspects of its service—is preloading. You can load a game onto your computer a week or two before the developer releases it. This helps decrease waits to play games and server loads on release day. Will Microsoft have preloads available for all or some of its games? I think it’s crucial that it does, but I haven’t been able to find any information to confirm whether such a thing will be possible.
News went around in late May that Xbox 360 accessories would not be compatible with the Xbox One. In many cases, this makes sense, especially with the controllers. Some headsets, however, come with a pretty hefty premium that makes this a concern.
In a very convincing PR packet that went up on Pastebin recently, though, was the following note:
Xbox plans to develop solutions in the near future to allow consumers to connect many brands of wired gaming headsets to the Wireless Controller for gaming and chat audio.
This suggests that adapters should be available for those of us with sets like the Astro A50s. It’s not a sure thing though, as it’s not clear what the solutions will be.
In a blog post, Astro Gaming writes:
RE: PlayStation 4. Should work fine with our current products, but we’ll confirm in the coming weeks.
RE: Xbox One. We’re working closely with Xbox to create the best ASTRO audio solution.
For either or both systems, we may provide an upgrade path to our customers who purchased earlier this year or maybe even a trade-in program, but that decision is still to be determined.
To be clear, we are in discussions with both Sony and Microsoft to secure the required next-generation licenses to develop new licensed products for both the PS4 and Xbox One.
Turtle Beach has new headsets in the works, but hasn’t announced anything regarding compatibility solutions for current headsets. Other accessory manufacturers have been similarly quiet.
What Size Hard Drive Will the Xbox One Accept?
We know that the Xbox One’s hard drive is not removable. 500GB is pretty beefy, but it won’t last forever. The upside is that the console has a USB 3.0 port on the back that Microsoft has confirmed will allow external storage. The question I haven’t been able to find an answer for is the size limitations of that. Will I be able to link up a 4TB drive to my Xbox One? I’m going to need lots of space to hoard games I’m not playing anymore.
Will the Future Come Back?
Microsoft has a certain vision of the future and now, like John and Sarah Connor, they must fight for it. Maybe the terminators are a better analogy here. As the life cycle of the Xbox One continues, will features from the original press conference come back? The family sharing plan is the big one. Rumors floated around for a couple days that this feature was limited to 45 minute chunks, more akin to a demo, but Microsoft’s Marc Whitten confirmed via Twitter that a time limit “would be silly.” Family sharing was easily the most exciting feature of the original Xbox One presentation and rumors abound of Steam doing something similar. This will likely come back, a year or two down the line, as an option for digitally-purchased games. Of course, that all remains to be seen.
There’s a lot to process in the coming months before the new consoles release, and we’ll likely get even more information at Gamescom in August and maybe even the Tokyo Game Show in September, at least as far as the Wii U and PlayStation 4 are concerned. Some of these fears, hopes, and questions may change in the coming months, but there’s a lot to look forward to.