Xbox One For All & All For None

I’d been planning to write this article much earlier but life got way too busy (we just bought a house!) and that kept me from it. Yet that seems to have almost been to its benefit because the longer I waited, the bigger a train wreck the Xbox One reveal has become. I’m not going to waste what would inevitably be thousands of words recapping the event and the unending, escalating drama that has followed. If you want a concise summary of how the reveal blew it, watch this:

I watched the whole thing and this is pretty much accurate. Video games were a minor footnote in this reveal at best. Now, I know Microsoft told everyone ahead of time that gaming was not going to be the focus of this event and that they’ll be talking about that a lot more in a couple of weeks at E3. The thing is, that was a dumb strategy for one simple reason: Gamers are the people who are going to drive adoption of Xbox One and evangelize it. They are the single greatest sales force Microsoft has. Joe Mainstream isn’t going to buy a $400-$500 Xbox One to watch TV and media streaming services when he can have a Roku for under $100 or a Boxee, WDTV or Apple TV for not much more. The fancy UI and Kinect gestures aren’t going to do it, no one’s asking for those. I get that Microsoft wants to go after the living room and while I don’t agree with the argument that a console has to be an “everything machine” in order to survive, it still needs to have games at its forefront. That’s where the horsepower and value of the machine is shown off. A couple of teasers and a segment for yet another Call of Duty game that has a mocapped dog and barely looks better than the version you can get on the 360 just isn’t damn well good enough. If they wanted to have a reveal before E3, they should have done it sooner, cut the TV part of the presentation in half (at least) and showed more games. Even if all they had were CG trailers, they should have just talked about them more.

I’m struggling to parse who the TV portion of Xbox One’s focus is even ultimately for. I haven’t had cable since 2009 because 90% of what’s on TV is garbage and the rest isn’t worth me paying $100+ a month to get timely access to. A large and increasing number of people think the same as me and most of them are hardcore gamers. Many are calling the traditional TV business a dinosaur on the brink of extinction and I agree. Why is Microsoft doubling-down on a dying business? If Xbox One’s TV focus was to give cord cutters like myself a bevy of on-demand choices and ways to easily aggregate the various online services that are available, I’d be interested. Instead, what we got were essentially promises of a better interface for your existing cable box, assuming your box even allows itself to be controlled by Xbox One and minus all the DVR functions. Every company that has tried this strategy so far has failed miserably and all I saw out of the Xbox One event was another attempt at the same thing, only with a Windows 8 front end and Kinect commands (which everyone will get because the Kinect is not 0nly included but required.) As someone who has come down hard on Windows 8 on desktops, I will say that applications like Xbox One are where it truly shines but tacking it onto cable boxes is the wrong use of it. You know that rumoured Apple television that never appears and which I keep insisting doesn’t exist? It’s because Apple doesn’t want to just be another one of these. It almost feels like Microsoft tried to beat them to the punch in a fight Apple had already decided not to show up for.

What I do know is that Microsoft held an event that would obviously be principally be watched by hardcore gamers and the message they fed us was that Xbox One is yet another media device that happens to play games, a box that’s likely going to do a ton of things half-assed instead of a couple of things really well. I don’t care how close E3 is, they sent the wrong message. Sony’s PlayStation 4 reveal wasn’t perfect but it’s focus was 90% games and talking to both developers and players. They released less information but the narrative they wanted to create was “We’ve got an amazing games machine that can also do other stuff we’ll show you in time.” Of course it’s going to be a crazy media box too but they made gamers feel as if they were the main focus of the PS4, thus driving buzz and interest which will lead into the media features. They seeded their message in the right ways to the right people. Microsoft did not.

If the event itself wasn’t bad enough, the ineptitude of the batch of executives they have let speak for them since just makes me sink in my chair. This is one of the world’s largest, most historically successful companies in technology, one that has overseen countless major product launches. How is it possible that so many people in charge are so clueless and out of sync with each other? Whether it’s about used games, always-on connection requirements, always-on Kinect, backwards compatibility, cable box compatibility or something else, we’ve been fed a dozen different answers, few of them confirmed and many of them downright contradictory. Nintendo got slammed (and rightly so) when they first presented the Wii U because they had so few answers about their new system, it really appeared that they didn’t have their shit together. That’s exactly what we’re seeing here. Xbox One has presumably been in development for years, they had months between Sony’s PS4 reveal and now, there is no excuse for fumbling the message so badly. Everyone who had the slightest chance of speaking to the press should have been given clear answers to provide. All of the subjects I mentioned above should have had their plans locked by now and everyone should have known what was going on. Barring that, people should have been told to just shut the Hell up and not speak about what they didn’t know. Yet they all did and now there’s been a firestorm of controversy and Microsoft brought on themselves.

I don’t partake in used games (though I do rent on occasion), I hate GameStop et al. and the poisonous, parasitic relationship they have with the games industry. However, gamers have the right to buy games from more than just a single, monopolising digital gatekeeper. I will not buy any system that ties whether or not I can access content I paid for to the servers of a company who will only keep them online until they are no longer profitable. As of right now, neither I nor anyone else knows if that’s going to be the case. That is a massive messaging problem and shows that Microsoft either doesn’t have its shit together or that they are so tone deaf that they thought no one would care any more. Microsoft (and Sony), you aren’t Steam and you haven’t earned nearly the amount of good will and trust from gamers to pull something like this off. By not talking about it, you are letting people draw their own conclusions and having to undo those while you try to spread your intended message will be all the harder the more you let this drag on.

I’ve seen a number of apologists on forums trying to float the excuse that because Microsoft hasn’t provided all the details yet, that we shouldn’t be judging them on what we know and speculate thus far and that we’re being unfair in doing so. That’s absolute bullshit. Microsoft delivered a poor message and the consequence of that is people talking about what they got. If Microsoft didn’t provide all the details people wanted, that’s on them. What we got with the Xbox One reveal was an hour long presentation for a bunch of features most of those watching didn’t ask for, followed by a bunch of conflicting non-answers to all of our greatest questions, all of which they knew were being asked already. Maybe they couldn’t talk about everything they wanted in the one hour time limit they had but that limit was imposed because they wanted to air this reveal on TV for some reason. Maybe they should have given that up for the sake of clarity. I simply can’t fathom how a company with the resources Microsoft has can continually be so bad at this and so bad at understanding the needs of its customers. They don’t have to look far to find out what those are.

What we got from Sony was a presentation that was substantially longer, yet provided a lot of information that gamers wanted to know. Sure, most of the reveals were CG trailers but you know what? I know several games that will be on the PS4 at launch and I know the PS4 has plans to integrate media sharing and game streaming technology into the platform. So far for Xbox One, I know we’ll have a bunch of EA Sports roster updates and another Call of Duty game, all of which will be on the current systems too. I also know that there’s some new, generically titled project coming from Remedy, except they didn’t show anything meaningful from it. I’ll say it again: I don’t care how close E3 is, they screwed up by not showing more than that because that’s all people will talk about. The audience watching the other day didn’t care about TV, they cared about games and the message they were sent was that games (the thing that made the Xbox) were of distant secondary importance. It doesn’t matter if that’s what Microsoft actually meant, that’s what they said.

I’ve always said that the phrase “all publicity is good publicity” is crap. There is absolutely such a thing as bad publicity and having a large number of people talking about your product in a negative way is far worse than having them just not talk about it at all. After the PS4 reveal, most people I knew were intrigued, excited in some cases but nearly universally wanting to see more. After the Xbox One reveal, a lot of people (myself included) who went in eager to see what Microsoft was going to bring to the next generation. The “enthusiast” press is still focused on the narrative that there’s no future in triple-A and that this is the last gasp of the console business and the industry that feeds it.

We were ready for Microsoft to shut those people up. Instead, we’ve seen them flub the message so badly that we now see headlines declaring how this is their admission that the games-first console is dead and this media focus is the last attempt at consoles to remain relevant before tablets (by which they press really mean Apple) take over everything.
If anything, this reveal further entrenched the naysayers in their positions and has made the fight for Microsoft and Sony even harder. Sometimes, what you say can be far more dangerous than what you don’t say and we can see that demonstrated in the hype now surrounding the PS4 versus the Xbox One. I went from being ready to pre-order an Xbox One to taking a long wait-and-see approach. I’m definitely not the only one and there should be a ton of people in Redmond terrified of that prospect right now.

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One Response to Xbox One For All & All For None

  1. Pingback: Atari: Game Over Review: Big On Fun, Light On History | Geek Bravado

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