Microsoft had its big reveal of the new Xbox today. A device that looks like this:
It’s supposedly a pretty powerful machine, bearing a strong focus on media and multitasking, all wrapped up in a device that functions as much on a controller as it does on voice and gesture input.
I’m going to skip all the boring crap about the hardware. It’s gonna run a blah blah AMD something harble garble, what we really want to know is how good is this console going to be? If Microsoft’s stock dip is any indicator: Not very. If at all. I’ve got no doubt that the thing will be able to run some attractive looking worlds, maintain a nice framerate, and hopefully avoid flashing some kind of red light at me when it can’t handle itself, but Microsoft essentially told the consumers to prepare their collective anuses for a seriously bad day.
Here’s a quick preface for you about me: I am a Sony fan to a degree, but anyone who met me while I worked retail will find that I try my best not to argue about the superior console. I have my opinions, you have yours, and it’s really hard to say which is actually better objectively. I believe both consoles have their merits, I own both, and while I use my PS3 more often, I don’t hate myself every time I turn my 360 on. I go by the Reasonable Gamer because that’s what I strive to be: reasonable.
That being said, Microsoft really pissed me off with this one. There was this sort of half-confirmation of all the horror stories floating around. Sure, Xbox One won’t require an always-on internet connection, but you still have to connect to the internet at least once a day to play any games, even single player ones with no internet based features. Theoretically your downloaded Blu-ray movies will still work without an active connection…though they haven’t said for how long. The contrast here is that anyone reading this probably has a stable enough internet connection not to need to worry about that, but there are plenty of other more insidious things that could be going on with that constant checking and rechecking of the connection that we won’t know about, and we all know that always on DRM totally worked for Diablo III and Sim City and the like. Look, I’m always online. I’m checking stuff out, reading up on how people are feeling about the gaming atmosphere, checking out news and previews, looking at funny pictures depicting strange game logic, this isn’t really going to affect me, but its the principle of the matter. We’ve purchased the device and the game…and now we can’t use it because we pay way to much money to a group of companies that now average lower customer service scores than most airlines!? That’s madness.
Then there’s the used game debacle. Be wary, I’m going to fallaciously use a little slippery slope argumentation here. So Microsoft says “Hey, you can buy a game, install it on your console, and you never need that disc again on that console. But if you want to use that game on another console you’re going to have to pay an extra fee.” I have no doubt that at least 98% of people who heard that threw their hands up in disgust, assuming they have friends. I sort of understand the argument that’s been floating around for so long about the ways that secondhand dealership hurts the gaming industry. These people put their blood, sweat and tears into a product, a person buys it and they get paid a bit, then that bastard has to go and sell it to a friend or to a Gamestop and then Gamestop sells it to someone and pockets all that sweet, sweet profit for themselves. The problem with that is that tons of other industries have dealt with secondhand dealers for ages, and they’re still around! People buy used cars all the time. The biggest problems start to crop up when someone tries to impede people’s ability to buy something like that. Microsoft is a huge company that makes tons of money, and that’s their job as a company: make money. Provide a product, make money. The failure here is to understand the new nature of the gaming space. Certainly this last generation brought in a ridiculous number of new gamers, people of all ages who had never really operated in that space or really took it seriously. These people don’t have a terribly extensive knowledge base, or the fond memories of yore like the rest of us (who seem only too eager to wax on about how amazing everything used to be), and are therefore less likely to rise up in opposition to these changes. But the fact of the matter is that gaming has, and will hopefully always be, an industry that thrives on word-of-mouth. 80’s and 90’s gamers probably each have a novel’s worth of stories about lending games to friends, borrowing games from neighbors, and renting games from various stores and this has led to a very important characteristic: You can read all the reviews you want by people who write reviews for a living, and not believe that a game is good, but as soon as one of your trusted friends comes by having played it, you’re sold. Microsoft doesn’t want to make that process easy, or at the very least, free. My biggest worry of all is that the everyday consumer will just roll with this change, snuffing the economic voices of us retro gamers, leading to a society where games are judged almost solely by their insanely overpriced marketing campaigns that mask their shortcomings and leave gamers perpetually disappointed in the finished products. Microsoft hasn’t given the price point on the fee to install a game on another console, but I can see one thing that might pull them through this: drop the price of the game. Digital distribution services have been booming lately, especially with their ability to cut production costs of games and allowing those games to be sold at a much lower price. What Microsoft is essentially doing is making a physical digital distribution model, when they may as well have just committed to making a game console with no discs. If their games only costed, say, thirty bucks at the most, though, they might pique my interest.
End all that with the ridiculous focus on voice and gesture input. Supposedly one can power the console on just by talking to it, and while it’d be awesome if I could name my Xbox Jarvis and have it call me “Captain Awesomesauce” all day, I don’t want it waking up or playing obnoxious sporting events every time a neighbor makes a douchey quip to their fraternity friend through my paper-thin walls. I can only imagine the PR nightmare that will arise when someone’s having a birthday party for their eighty-year-old grandma and someone asks for a breakfast sausage and their Xbox interprets that as a search for porn. Barring the most amazing advances in the ability of the Kinect 2.0 to read movement and recognize my voice, its just going to be a headache that a significant portion of the intended audience probably doesn’t even want. And if they tell us that the only way to get the console to eject discs or navigate menus is by flailing around like an epileptic fish, then it’ll be the nail in the coffin that Sony will build its new, pixelated throne on.
I suppose this isn’t all to say that the thing is going to be terrible. Cool, I can watch TV while waiting for an online match (I hope it doesn’t take that long for games in this day and age to get their matchmaking done), I can suspend games where they sit, the hard drive’s pretty big, and I’m sure the built-in DVR and post-to-Youtube type stuff will be a hit with competitive and super hardcore gamers, but these are all features that the PS4 has, without nearly as many of the pesky bits restricting the console’s usefulness in the used space or sans internet.
If I had to assign an adjective to describe the console and/or reveal it would be a weird combination of disappointment and affirmation. Disafferpointation. It basically became exactly what I feared it would be, but I’d held out hope that Microsoft might damage my previous expectations, and reinforce them with something stronger. What they did was shoot me in the foot, then tell me that the solution to that problem is to replace my current foot with a heavier one that I can only use to walk North, but will forever after that look pretty, and be pretty good at walking through spiky brush, provided my new foot can check in with its cloud service via the internet every eighth step.