Perhaps this should be “Tap vs. Ben,” or “Tap vs. Not-Tap,” since 47Games’ Ben Hoyt is not technically on the Tap-Repeatedly staff, but we don’t have a category for that and I wouldn’t want Ben to think we’re excluding him. He has, after all, contributed a Celebrity Guest Editorial for us, and we did recently do a fun podcast on the Mass Effect trilogy and Halo, er, quadrogy. The dude is an honorary staff member, and opened up some time to contribute slightly more than half a discussion of Microsoft’s May 21 Xbox One announcement – a lucky thing, since coverage of all the new consoles has been somewhat scarce around here. Now we have an honest to god game designer weighing in (one who’s shipped an Xbox 360 title or two). Suck it, IGN!
Steerpike: Microsoft was last to the party with its announcement – Sony unveiled the PS4 back in February, Nintendo’s Wii U is already out. And so ends the longest console generation in game history. Well, almost ends. The jury’s still out on whether consumers will flock storeward to buy these things during the holiday season.
Coming off the announcement and thinking about the generation as a whole, I find myself reflecting on how little the major players seem to have learned about customer management over the past nine years. Microsoft’s event was… sort of dull, in my book, showing off little in the way of sock-knocking new technology and avoiding key questions about connectivity, used games, and DRM. The most furious press debate to come out of their announcement was a discussion about how best to abbreviate the name of the system. “360” was easy, but “Xbox One” is apparently too many letters for journalists to type. Suggestions included:
- Xbox 1. Shouted down for already being what some refer to the first-generation Xbox as
- Xbone. Which people laughed at because we’re all third graders
- the One. Nixed on account of possible confusion among video games systems and Matrix movies
- X-1. Vetoed for “sounding like a snowboard brand”
- Xone. Killed for sounding like zone
- XB1. Which I’m guessing will probably win out.
Beyond that? My primary reaction was one of general unsurprise – Microsoft’s wanted a strong, integrated living room system for a while now, and the Xbone (*tee-hee*) wants to be that. It seems that Microsoft’s ideal outcome would be a system on which gaming is considered nothing more than one of its many functions.
Ben: Ok. I’m going to go ahead and indulge my inner 14 year-old just the once and call it the Xbone. (Ah, that felt good). From now on, I’m gonna throw my hat in with the XB1 camp.
So, I have to admit that I was really surprised, the day after the XB1 announcement/reveal, to hear that the general consensus was so negative. I watched the announcement live and was really excited by what I saw. As far as I can tell, there seem to be three major complaints:
- There was very little in the way of exciting new game titles
- Games were not enough of a focus / they focused too much on TV, movies, music, etc.
- It’s solving problems that I don’t have
Let me go ahead and address why I am not concerned by these three issues.
1) I think that Microsoft made an extremely wise decision with regards to the format of their reveal. I had actually blocked-out two hours to watch it, expecting it to be a long, plodding, affair with all of the kinds of examples, demos, tech specs, and partner glad-handing that we’ve seen in the past and at the PS4 reveal. It seems pretty clear to me that Microsoft’s goal was to save a lot of the really exciting, hardcore gaming news for E3, which is now only a couple of weeks away. If there aren’t a lot of really cool games being shown off then, I’ll be worried (and very surprised). In the meantime, I actually liked the idea of having a shorter reveal that was focused on the hardware and non-gaming features while saving the hardcore gaming news for the hardcore gaming press at E3.
2) I was really surprised at the negative reaction to the XB1’s non-gaming features and focus. It’s been pretty well-known for some time now that many Xbox 360 owners use their console as much (if not more) for watching video as gaming. I certainly think that I fall into this group. It feels to me like most people, particularly in the gaming press, are missing the forest for the trees here. Microsoft has been pretty clear, since before the first Xbox, that it was using the gaming console as a Trojan horse to try and win the war for the living room. The Xbox One reveal makes it pretty clear to me that they have decided that it’s finally time to transition the Xbox from being a hardcore gaming console to being the unified interface for living room entertainment of the future. Games are, and will remain, a central part of that strategy, but TV, movies, music, and communication (Skype) are also clearly equally important pillars. The Xbox One is competing as much with the Apple TV as it is with the PS4, and I think that Microsoft has put forth an exciting device from that perspective. If it really does everything they’re saying that it does (as well as solid DVR functionality, which seems like it should be perfectly doable), as smoothly as they say that it does, I think that they could just succeed in their goal of becoming the default and only necessary living room device. That would have very interesting implications for the smartphone, tablet, digital distribution, and games industries.
3) I call BS on this entire line of argumentation. I have a pretty sweet entertainment setup here in my living room. I have a big HDTV, a fancy receiver, a 5.1 sound system, a TiVo, PS3, Xbox 360, and an Apple TV. Switching back-and-forth between my various inputs involves at least 2-3 different remotes, not to mention controllers for the consoles. Is this a #firstworldproblem? Yes, absolutely, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t still be a pain-in-the-ass; and forget about trying to have a guest figure it out. Being able to manage this, instantaneously, with just my voice feels like a pretty big win to me.
Steerpike: I think a lot of it is an inexplicable desire to be mad no matter what they show off. I’m not 100% sold on the functionality decisions of the Xbox One for reasons I’ll go into in a minute, but I understand the logic behind those decisions. (A) Living room, as you said. (B) Market share. A system that does more than games inherently has more potential use than one that doesn’t; Microsoft is in the profit business like all other companies. (C) Audience. The great dream of game console makers since the beginning has been to expand their user base beyond gamers. I remember old Atari 2600 ads for “productivity” software. Back then it was a way to convince parents that these systems weren’t just for kids, or to convince parents to invest in an expensive gift for their kids because they could use it too. Now the device actually can do things nongamers might want, and games are a feature. What’s the big deal?
It’s worth noting that in the months leading up to the untimely Red-Ringing of my seventh Xbox 360, I used the thing almost exclusively for Netflix and HBO Go. In general I prefer the PS3’s controller, so unless a game was 360 exclusive, I didn’t play it there. But I had no regrets about using the machine that way.
Why am I not sold on the functionality? Part of it is concern over the strength of their hardware. Mechanical instability in one generation by no means implies potential shortcomings in the next, but still.. I went through seven 360s. Seven. And my story isn’t unique. An experience like that has to color your opinion. So when I look at the Xbox One and see how much more functionality it has versus its predecessor, the pessimist in me sees more to break.
The other thing that worries me is more nebulous: this box supposedly does so much. Are we sure that Microsoft will be able to keep feeding that beast? Won’t it get pushback from media companies that see the Xbox One as taking market share from them? Netflix streaming was The Thing until the studios got wise and didn’t renew their contracts. Oh sure, Microsoft has plenty of deals now, with almost all the big names. But does it have the clout to continue them? What if Comcast decides that the Xbox One is cutting into their DVR rental margins? Or into their Xfinity On Demand profits?
My interest in the device is primarily as a gaming system (despite what I said up there), and I agree Microsoft is simply waiting for E3 to reveal the big launches in its exclusive lineup. Remedy Entertainment’s Quantum Break announcement is intriguingly vague and should tide people over. I won’t opine about XB1’s games until I’ve seen some. But a lot depends on the launch library… and the price. I’ll start the betting at $499, plus maybe some sort of cut-rate subscription-based one like they do with the 360 now.
That leads me to another thing – Xbox Live. A great service in many ways, though Playstation Plus actually gives you more goodies. Fundamentally, though, it’s a two-generation-old platform that doesn’t work with modern, unified-device logistics, the very heart of XB1’s design intent. I suspect they have a whole team of coders locked in a basement with a pile of increasingly rancid ham sandwiches because the brass won’t let them out until they’ve brought Live’s functionality up to snuff. Concurrent logins and multiple users under a single account, granular controls, cloud integration… lots of work to do.
Ben: Well, a couple of quick responses: a) While your hardware stability concerns are certainly understandable, I suspect that they are unlikely to be an actual issue. b) Much of the content is already available via Xbox Live and has been for years. Assuming that they get a critical mass of users, I don’t think that the content providers will be able to afford walking away, regardless. c) I’m really hoping that they can hit $399, but I think you may be right about launching at $499. Pretty sure I’ll be getting it day-one, regardless, but think that the lower price point will be important for them to get the kind of numbers they are looking for.
So, here’s my chief complaint/concern: what is their plan with regards to indies? Their conspicuous silence during the reveal could be chalked up to them saving that info for a later time, as they didn’t see it as central to their strategy as the more mass-market content. However, since the reveal, there has been a lot of buzz on this subject and Microsoft hasn’t said anything to make me feel better about it. I think that if there is one key lesson to learn in the last 4 years its that a low-friction, open marketplace (at least as open as the Apple App Store or Steam) is a very powerful thing. I don’t think that Microsoft’s heavily-curated approach to XBLA will be viable in the next generation and if they aren’t going to make big changes to make it easier for indies to release content for their console, they are going to suffer for it. In fact, I’d go so far as to predict that they will inevitably have to do this, but that it’s a question of whether they acknowledge that at launch or submit to it later because it’s hurting them not to.
Steerpike: it’s funny how fast things have changed on that front. Not long ago, a heavily-curated model would’ve been just fine. Maybe annoying for indies, but not a major problem. Today, you’re right, if they try to do something like that they’ll shoot their own marketplace in the foot. Microsoft should look at some of its policies; some – like the exorbitant fee to issue a patch on Live – don’t really do anybody much good.
Microsoft has a history of making savvy decisions in a calculated, observational manner. They rarely blaze trails with hardware, software, or policy, but they watch to see what’s working elsewhere. Then they change slowly. My guess is that while the new Live Marketplace won’t be God’s gift to the indie developer, neither will it be ruinous. There’s money there for all involved, and plenty of room to play.
Like you, I felt that the unveiling was intentionally reserved. Nothing about it got people really excited, but I suspect that was by design. Microsoft’s strategy may be a slow release of information so people get more and more comfortable with the system, until by the time it finally comes out they feel they know the console and therefore buy it. That might be better than getting people frothed up at some huge extravaganza… especially because the days of blowing people’s minds with tech and graphics are pretty much over. (that’s a whole other conversation right there).
I was going to ask you if you intended to buy XB1 out of the gate, so I’m glad you mentioned it. It’s too early for me to say. This generation represents my first consoles since the SEGA Genesis, if you can believe it. That means I missed a lot of classic stuff, but also a lot of hassle. And in this generation, I waited for prices and exclusives I really really wanted before taking the plunge with both consoles. I don’t regret either decision for a second – especially the PS3, which I’m very fond of – but I don’t think that will translate into my standing in line on Day One. Besides, launch libraries are often lackluster and uninspiring. Developers need time to get used to the hardware. By not buying a PS3 until the Slim and Demon’s Souls, I ensured that my earliest experiences with the console were great. Same goes for the 360 and Gears. Thus I’d say – right now – I expect to wait, but don’t hold me to that. You never know!
Let’s change gears for a second. The upcoming generation will be unique in many ways, but it’s also facing a new landscape. We haven’t yet talked about the Steam Box and what we think it’ll mean – both for the living room and for consoles in general. Do you see it as direct competition to the XB1 and PS4, or does its (expected) high price put it in a different category? Speaking personally, I don’t know if I’m going to buy a branded Steam Box, but sooner or later when the right moment and right components align, I’ll put something based on it under my TV. What’s your thoughts? Is this something immense for the living room, or will it be lower-key?
Ben: Well, I think we should be avoid beating a dead horse, especially given that we seem to be largely in agreement. I will say that I’m willing to bet that you end up buying an XB1 within the first 6 months. :-)
With regards to the Steam Box, I’m not sure that I have enough info to speak to it. I recently invested in a monster gaming PC, which is where I plan to do as much of my gaming as possible for the foreseeable future. In fact, Bioshock Infinite is the first shooter that I’ve played on a PC in quite some time (though I will confess to using an Xbox 360 controller to do so). So, the idea of having a box that would let me play a PC-quality game with a 360 controller on my HDTV, from the comfort of my couch, really intrigues me. (For similar reasons, I’m also pretty intrigued by the nVidia Shield, which I’m hoping will allow me to play these games from the comfort of my bed).
I understand that Steam is supposed to already support outputting to an HDTV, via Big Picture mode, but I haven’t hooked that up and am not 100% clear on what’s involved. Assuming that the Steam Box makes this simple, I’m curious about it, but I don’t really see the value of having another console-like box by my TV with which to play PC games (many of which really require a keyboard/mouse/desk/monitor-type setup).
Anyway, the Steam Box is probably another conversation and I’m sure that your readers have had their fill of my ramblings at this point, so we should probably draw this to a close. Thanks for taking the time to read/listen.
Steerpike: six months, you say? Hmm… it’s a possibility. I try to be strong, but somehow this stuff ends up in my house anyway. Stranger things have happened, that’s for sure. Hell, nine times out of ten when I go into Best Buy for a can of air or a toaster or something I get to the checkout counter and a game has inexplicably found its way into my hand.
The Steam Box intrigues me because it’s an oddity, in the sense that it doesn’t fit any category that’s come before. It’s too “big” to be a console and too “in your living room” to be a PC. What I find myself wondering is whether it’s about to define a future category – or, possibly, redefine the idea of a console. I tend to play certain games on the PC and certain games on consoles, divided pretty logically between what plays best with thumbsticks and what plays best with a mouse. But the idea of having Steam, and a powerful computer, near the sofa is intriguing to me.
In the end, I didn’t see anything to hate in the XB1 event. But I didn’t see anything that made me want it, either. That, I guess, will have to come from the games. Now, I admit the media center aspects of XB1 are far more interesting than all the sharing/social crap Sony’s promising with PS4, but neither offer anything that make me want to stand out in the cold on launch day.
We may largely agree on the console launch stuff, but I’m horrified by this revelation about a 360 controller and Bioshock Infinite. Nothing short of blasphemy, that is. God himself intended shooters to be played with a mouse and keyboard. I mean come on dude. For shame!
Many thanks to Ben for taking the time to share a discussion with us – especially when his time is consumed by something I can’t talk about just yet but will be appearing on Tap in due course.