Blogs & Comment

Xbox One: the game console for non-gamers: Peter Nowak

Verdict: Don't want it, don't need it.

Media crowd around the new Xbox One (Photo: Ron Wurzer/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Media crowd around the new Xbox One (Photo: Ron Wurzer/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

As a gamer, I must admit to being a little put off by Microsoft’s big reveal on Tuesday of its next-generation console, the Xbox One. With a focus so far on the things I don’t care a lick about—live television, sports and Kinect voice controls—and a couple of gamer-unfriendly features, I can’t help but get the feeling that Microsoft is putting gamers in the backseat.

First, there’s the biggie—the always-on issue. For months, the rumour mill swirled about how Microsoft would require a persistent Internet connection for games to work in any capacity on the next Xbox. It turns out that’s not entirely true, although the company confirms that all games will have to be installed on the console. Games will then be linked to a unique account and if anyone wants to use that same disc on another machine, they’ll have to pay an as-yet undisclosed fee.

The concerns about the connection requirement were always about whether people would be able to trade in their games once they were bored with them. For their part, game makers want to kill off that used market because they don’t see a penny from it. While not as draconian and prone to technical failure as the always-on option would have been, Microsoft’s authentication-and-fee scenario effectively accomplishes the same thing if game makers set those secondary charges high enough—and why wouldn’t they?

Further to that, Microsoft is also inserting a backdoor of sorts for publishers, who will be able to use its Azure cloud computing services to share game resources. That theoretically means they’ll be able to design even more powerful games that can offload some computing to Microsoft’s servers, but it will also inevitably lead to more boondoggles like the recent SimCity fiasco. EA said that game needed to be always online for precisely that reason, then faced a mob of angry customers who couldn’t get into it because of technical problems.

Put those two together and it’s clear that Microsoft is doing just about everything it can to kill the used game market, in a couple of steps.

The Xbox One also won’t be backwards compatible, meaning it won’t play older 360 games. That’s not at all a concern for me since I can’t remember the last time I’ve gone back to play a game from a previous generation, but it is going to make a lot of people frothing mad, which is ironic given that these are the same people who have actually held on to older games and not traded them in.

Otherwise, Microsoft talked up the new console’s Kinect capabilities—how its gesture recognition will be more accurate and how users will be able to easily jump between live television, playing music, using the web browser and playing games with simple voice commands. It’s all very nifty if it works as smoothly as it did in the demos …  and that’s a very big if.

Here’s the thing with Kinect: in a living room setting, it will probably never be as good as its alternatives. In its first iteration, the device was woefully inaccurate, both in terms of gesture and voice recognition. As pro wrestler Samoa Joe put it on Twitter, “I find giving voice commands to an Xbox is akin to yelling at my kids. I repeat myself a lot until it begrudgingly does what I want.”

Even if the device could be made to be 95% accurate—which would be quite the engineering feat—it would still be a far cry from the 100% success rate of its competitors, which are the handheld controller for games and the remote control for the TV, respectively. Kinect may be more novel and theoretically more convenient, but to paraphrase Joe, it only takes a few hiccups of the voice controls before you go back to the old standby with buttons, because at least that option never fails. That’s why my Kinect has been sitting in the closet collecting dust for months.

At this point, it looks like the “new and improved’ Kinect will be bundled with the Xbox One, meaning that the console’s price will inevitably be pushed upward by something that certain wrestlers and I—not to mention a whole bunch of people—don’t want or need.

As for sports and live TV, I don’t follow the first and I don’t subscribe to the second. While I have no idea what the exact numbers are, I’d guess a lot of gamers are in the same boat. Many people actually choose games as their primary form of entertainment and are either cord-cutters or cord-nevers. So all that other stuff? Thanks, but no thanks—it’s just unnecessary bloat.

The problem here may be that Microsoft is overstepping its bounds. The company has long wanted to be at the core of the living room experience, if its many iterations of less than successful multimedia PCs and servers are any indication. The Xbox has always been Microsoft’s Trojan horse. Now that the company has had some success selling movies through the Xbox 360 and getting people to watch Netflix on it, the brain trust thinks it can finally pull off that shift completely.

But the effort probably won’t go as well as the company hopes, mainly because Microsoft is not willing to disrupt its way there. As Don Mattrick, president of interactive entertainment, told the Financial Post:

We have found a way to build on content, to respect IP, to respect business models that drive content creation and monetization for our partners. So we’re not going to people with what I think they would find fundamentally an offensive ask.

That approach has in recent years failed Microsoft at every turn, from phones to tablets to Windows 8. In each case, just as with Kinect, the company has trucked out innovation for innovation’s sake without really solving any consumer needs or desires in the process. The desire to play well with partners and trying to ensure their business models remain intact has also been disastrous, with disruptive companies such as Google and (in some cases) Apple swooping in to create entirely new, lucrative markets while Microsoft, meanwhile, stood idly by, incapable of understanding that that’s how meaningful innovation is done in today’s hyper-competitive environment.

With the Xbox One, the company is instead shoveling out a whole bunch of stuff gamers don’t want or need in an effort to make its partners happy, all in the face of fierce competition. Sony has so far taken the opposite tack, billing its upcoming PlayStation 4 as a console designed “by gamers for gamers.” If its welcome mat does indeed attract all the gamers that Microsoft seems to be shunning, exactly who will be left to buy the Xbox One?

Peter Nowak has been writing about technology for 15 years and is a syndicated columnist, blogger and
freelance journalist in Toronto and is working on his next book, Humans 3.0