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The Xbox One Reveal: Microsoft Struggles to Make an Impact

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The next generation of Xbox is already off to a rocky start. (Image by Microsoft)

For the past few months negative rumors surrounded the new Xbox. From “always-online” requirements, to no used games and Microsoft’s pledge to move more into the entertainment realm than just gaming. With the Xbox brand losing dominance late in this generation and the shine of Xbox Live Gold fading against the free PlayStation Network, Steam and the paid service PlayStation Plus, Microsoft needed to come out with a strong reveal for its next console. What it did instead was dig a hole for the Xbox One before it’s even been released.

After the reveal yesterday in Redmond, Wash. it became clear Microsoft is going in an entirely different route than Sony and the PlayStation 4. Both systems are on separate paths that need one common element to succeed-a strong game library. Labeled the Xbox One, Microsoft’s next generation system is a console that’s steering the course of the company’s vision for control of all your entertainment.

Don Mattrick, president of Microsoft’s Interactive Entertainment Business, stated the Xbox One experience must be three things. “At its core, it must be simple, instant and complete,” he said during the event’s first few minutes. This tagline was used by Mattrick and others from Microsoft throughout the show. As more comes out after the Xbox Reveal event, there’s a lot of questions that weren’t properly addressed during Microsoft’s conference. The company already failed to meet these core goals on its first day. Microsoft plans on launching its next console by the end of the year but it already has a lot to reverse because of its poor decisions.

Entertainment is the Xbox’s Future

The focus of this show wasn’t on a new Halo game reveal, or a shocking announcement about the system’s capabilities. The event was all about interacting with television, movies and other entertainment. Microsoft framed its reveal and discussion of the Xbox One as an all-in-one entertainment package.

Nancy Tellem, president of Microsoft’s Entertainment and Digital Media and also former president of CBS Television Studios, said, “Xbox is about to become the next water cooler.”

Microsoft presented the console design, which looks much like a receiver box from Comcast or Direct TV. While Sony still hasn’t shown the PS4’s design and it wasn’t a terrible strike against its reveal, Microsoft showed the design within the first few minutes. The Xbox One also includes a new Kinect and controller design. The new controller looks slick but it wasn’t given a proper demonstration. The people yelling and hollering in the crowd during the event, possibly planted Microsoft employees, added a tacky, groan-inducing corporate vibe throughout the show.

A new Xbox One feature is Snap Mode, which lets users do two applications at once, like bringing up a YouTube guide video while playing a game or a Skype video call during a movie. The interface looked much smoother than the Xbox 360. The Microsoft owned-Skype integration appears to be the next stage of Xbox Live chats. Movements between Xbox One’s music, movie and television content was seamless. The Xbox One also has three operating systems running on it. There’s a lot of potential there for the best user interface and system experience.

The Xbox One will allow people to watch live television from their system, using Kinect voice and motion commands while doing it. Announced partnerships with ESPN and the NFL is a strong addition to Microsoft’s plan for dominating the living room. Bringing up fantasy sports statistics will be a big part of that live experience. For live sporting, boxing and MMA events these social aspects will be a fantastic feature. Sports will be key to the success of the Xbox One. Microsoft announced a Halo television show made by Steven Spielberg, but this isn’t going to get people to buy the Xbox One. While there’s a lot of potential for Xbox One to become the next water cooler, social hub, who is the target demographic for this key feature? Teenagers? Young adults in their 20s? Grandmothers?

You will need a separate receiver to watch live television with the Xbox One features. This feature will also only be available at launch in the U.S. People are already watching TV like this, Tweeting from their phones or browsing the Internet on their laptop during commercials. Why do they need to buy another expensive device to do what they already are right now? Sometimes people want to just simply sit on the couch and watch television, away from their Facebook friends and fantasy sports lineup. What about all the people already watching media through Netflix, Hulu and YouTube? It will be difficult for Microsoft to draw them back over to cable packages with the Xbox One.

The Next Level of Xbox Live Needs Games

There wasn’t much detail on how Microsoft will make its increasingly fading Xbox Live service dominant again like it once was several years ago. Microsoft did say the new Xbox Live is powered by the cloud but didn’t go into much detail on how drastically different the service would be. Xbox Live on the new console will use 300,000 servers and increase the friend limit to 1,000 people. The Kinect is more focused and advanced, being able to better recognize who is in front of the device along with that person’s movements and voice commands. A gaming DVR is built into the Xbox One console, allowing players to record gameplay footage and upload it to the cloud. Games require a mandatory install to the 500 GB hard drive to play. Achievements can be added after a game’s release by developers, which is a positive expansion to the wildly successful system created by Microsoft on the Xbox 360.

Where the conference started to fall apart is when Microsoft had to present its game lineup. Only a few games were actually shown, with most of the show’s focus on the TV aspect. What Microsoft did present were more sports, racing and shooting titles. Tiring and safe games from this generation will continue to be the focal point of the next for Microsoft. EA Sports games and Forza Motorsport 5 were shown, but it wasn’t clear if it was all in-game footage. Microsoft revealed a new game called Quantum Break from Remedy, the creators of Max Payne and Alan Wake, but the vague trailer wasn’t enough to get overly excited about.

Microsoft said the Xbox One will have 15 exclusives early on, eight of which are new franchises. It needed to at least tease some of the future offerings the Xbox One will have, or a few games to be at E3. Microsoft can’t rely on the core franchises of Forza, Halo, Gears of War and Fable anymore, which are stale and losing influence without some sort of innovation. Microsoft needs fresh and new IPs to lead the Xbox One, not relying on the old guard to bring in a new audience.

Ending the show with Activision’s Call of Duty: Ghosts was a mistake. You don’t want a game that hardly looked better than current Xbox 360 offerings being the last thing people remember. A silly focus on how dogs will add emotion to the story and technical specifications of how a man’s arm looks made it hard for the announcement to make a big impact. This is the same boring Call of Duty players have experienced every year in November. The development team thinks adding a dog will make this version of Call of Duty somehow relevant to emotional and quality storytelling instead of the usual celebration of violence, war and weaponry. This game will also be on PlayStation 4 and current consoles, so it’s not exclusive to the Xbox One. Showing Ghosts in the position Microsoft did gives the impression that the Xbox One is just a small continuation of the Xbox 360, not a brand new console experience.

Games like Madden from EA Sports and the next Call of Duty are a given. Everyone knows these titles will be on the new Xbox. To waste such a substantial amount of time on them during the show was the wrong call. There wasn’t the hint of future games to be shown at E3. Timed-exclusive downloadable content is not a strength anymore, no matter how much a Microsoft executive tries to make it a big deal. Why wasn’t the new controller, which looks like an improvement over the current Xbox 360 design, shown off with some games? Nobody on stage actually played a game, another mistake from the presentation.

There wasn’t a lot of substance to the details of why or how games are better on Xbox One.  The Xbox brand is essentially becoming MTV, the station once known for playing music videos and music-centric shows like “Headbangers Ball,” that now only broadcasts reality programs such as “Jersey Shore” and “Teen Mom.” Hardcore gamers should get accustomed to their Xbox being an entertainment device first and a gaming box as an afterthought. That doesn’t mean Microsoft won’t potentially have amazing games in the future, from Rare or other studios on its side, but it’s clearly not the focus anymore.

No Answers to Anti-Consumer Policies

Despite the last few months of bad publicity, there’s still massive confusion over the next Xbox’s used game and always-online policy, made worse by Microsoft’s employees after the conference. What came out after the event is overshadowing the entire reveal itself.

Edge first reported on these rumors back in February that the next Xbox would have anti-consumer policies. In April Adam Orth, a former Microsoft Studios creative director, told people on Twitter who didn’t like the concept of an always-online console to “deal with it” and insulted those who didn’t like the rumors. Orth claimed his Tweets were jokes between a friend, but it greatly backfired and gave a lot of negative publicity to Microsoft. Orth left the position shortly after the media storm.

Microsoft confirmed after the conference that Xbox One games each have a unique registration code that’s tied to an Xbox Live account. To play the game it needs to be installed to the system’s hard drive. In an interview with Kotaku, Phil Harrison, corporate vice president of Microsoft, said, “It [game install] sits on your hard drive and you have permission to play that game as long as you’d like.” So from Microsoft’s point of view, players have “permission” to use the $60 product they bought. If you wanted to borrow your game to a friend, they will have to pay a fee, the full retail price, to even play the game.

Microsoft’s Major Nelson confused the issue even further, saying you can play your game at a friend’s house if signed in to your Xbox Live profile, but didn’t say if they could play the game if signed in to their own. Harrison confirmed his previous statements to Kotaku in an interview with CVG. It also came out that Xbox One potentially needs to be connected to the Internet for it to perform checks every 24 hours or so, according to Kotaku. While the system can still be somehow used if something happens to the Internet connection, Microsoft didn’t provide any real answer as to how. “But the device is fundamentally designed to be expanded and extended by the Internet as many devices are today,” Harrison said. Then Microsoft clarified to Polygon these statements from Harrison were “potential scenarios” for the Xbox One. Microsoft further clarified today that the Xbox One’s policy decisions were still being worked out.

The fact that Microsoft refuses to get the facts straight even after its major reveal shows that its either incredibly clueless or arrogant, assuming that these aren’t important topics for consumers and people will flock to the Xbox One just because the company says run. Microsoft’s responses so far are just empty public relations answers to a question that shouldn’t need to be avoided if the end result was in the consumer’s best interest. This isn’t a complex issue. The Xbox One is either anti-consumer or it’s not. Authentication checks, always-online restrictions and no used games are deal-breakers for a majority of hardcore gamers and regular buyers, especially students and those in the armed forces.

These roadblocks complicate the message of Microsoft revolutionizing the living room as the center of entertainment when an Xbox One owner can’t even go to their friend or family’s house and play games without hassle. Not saying anything at the conference opened up even more confusion from conflicting reports. The most important detail, how people will be able to use the content they bought for the system, still hasn’t been answered.

Making your friend or family member pay full retail price after borrowing them your game just so they can play it is absolutely absurd. What happens to renting games? Does this mean that tradition is over? Playing a retail disc on another console is now considered a “feature.” There are no consumer benefits to these specific practices at all. Microsoft said people will somehow be able to sell and buy used games, but wasn’t clear on how and didn’t give any concrete details on such an important aspect of the console. As it stands the Xbox One is anti-used games. The used game market is extremely important to the industry. With games being so expensive, many people are only able to play the the latest game releases by selling or trading in the old ones.

Microsoft are complicating what once was a simple task for the past 30-plus years of gaming. Someone put their game into the system and played that game. Harrison is trying to confuse consumers with lengthy explanations on Microsoft’s policies, using terms like “the bits” and muddling how you can play and what you can with do with your purchased games.

There are too many variables to account for with these types of policies. What happens when Microsoft closes the servers like it did with the original Xbox in 2010 and you’re no longer able to authenticate your games and the system with an online connection?  Will you be even able to buy all early Xbox One titles three or four years into the console’s life if the used market is hindered? Restricting the flow of used games and adding authentication systems ends the lifespan of these hundreds of games past the Xbox One cycle and almost guarantees they will be lost to history.

Like the PlayStation 4, Xbox One isn’t backwards compatible with its previous titles on the Xbox 360 and Xbox Live Arcade games. Microsoft doesn’t care if you can’t play your old 360 games anymore though. “If you’re backwards compatible, you’re really just backwards,” Don Mattrick said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. Xbox 360 Gamerscore, Achievements and Profiles will transfer over to the Xbox One, at least bringing part of the legacy over from the past eight years. The system also only has a non-removable, 500 GB that won’t last a generation with each game needing to be installed to play. Many players will eventually have to buy an external drive and connect it to the system.  In another anti-consumer move, most likely players are still going to pay for an Xbox Live subscription fee each year just to play online multiplayer, something that almost every other gaming device does for free now.

There’s also the problem of mandatory Kinect. Without the device plugged in the Xbox One simply won’t work. What happens if and when the Kinect hardware fails? Most of the system will be controlled with Kinect movements and voice commands. The device can even read your heart rate and display that information on screen. The Kinect will recognize everyone in front of the console and collect data on what users like and dislike.

Since Kinect needs to be plugged in for the console to even function, it’s also always on and listening to everything you say for potential commands. Microsoft told The Verge it knows people are concerned about their privacy. Like with the PlayStation 4, do people want to give this much trust to a multi-billion dollar, multinational corporation who has already demonstrated its questionable and anti-consumer practices? What about hackers potentially spying on you? While the new Kinect has some fantastic features, the device’s core design is creepy. People shouldn’t give up the privacy of their own home just to watch Monday Night Football or play Forza Motorsport 5.

Not so Simple and Instant

The Xbox One is going to alienate many people. It’s going to be irrelevant in Japan like the previous two systems, especially with its restrictions on used games and television features. Across Europe it will face problems because of its television focus too. The Xbox One is so US-centered, with its live television programs, types of games and the NFL partnership. With the changing gaming industry landscape, you need the whole globe to win, just not one territory.

The living room is no longer the center of the American family and home. Families aren’t connected like they once were. Each person is in their own world, now more glued into their mobile devices, social media accounts and their own television in their rooms. Where Nintendo has traditionally done well in Japan and Sony needed all three territories to build up the PlayStation 3, it’s a risk for Microsoft to focus solely on American buyers. However if the company can convince the mainstream that it needs the Xbox One, that might be all Microsoft needs to edge out the PS4 and also take away users from much larger targets like Apple, Google, Samsung and others.

With traditional television models becoming a thing of the past, Microsoft will also need to incorporate these social features into the way people play their Xbox One games for the longevity of the system. The built-in gaming DVR will be another important component to the social functionality Microsoft is trying to promote. While the hardware and gaming side of the event was vague, we were assured that the new additions were all, “rocket science-level stuff,” according to Marc Whitten, the corporate vice president of Xbox Live. What isn’t rocket science-level stuff is that the core lifeline of the Xbox One needs to be focused around Xbox Live and games-the two areas that made the Xbox brand the giant that it is today.

Outside of its television capabilities, Microsoft’s presentation failed to substantially differentiate the Xbox One from the Xbox 360. The vagueness throughout the show hurt the reveal and didn’t tell people much about the ins and outs of the console. Compared to the PlayStation 4 reveal on Feb. 20, the Xbox One reveal wasn’t appealing to gamers. As a living room box it could potentially attract a mainstream audience, but with when and how people watch television programs changing so rapidly it’s a gamble for Microsoft.

Microsoft had stated earlier that the Xbox Reveal event was only part one of its plan. Round two of Microsoft’s reveal takes place during E3 in June with a focus on all the Xbox One games. It’s a risky strategy because Microsoft still has battleground against the negative perception surrounding the Xbox brand, even more so after yesterday’s reveal. Microsoft has to show big games. Period. In the United States, the Xbox One could potentially be a huge hit. This will be a box that lets people watch TV and also play Madden or Call of Duty. With the Kinect being integral to the Xbox One, Microsoft needs to show why the device is important for games, which it utterly failed to do on the Xbox 360.

Since Microsoft gave no price and the console probably won’t be cheap with the included Kinect, it will be difficult to convince potential buyers to spend hundreds of dollars to buy a system to watch television programs and talk to their TV. It will be hard making the case that consumers need the Xbox One console in addition to the cable, phone and other subscription services they’re already paying a substantial amount of money per month for. Not only the price of the console, but also possibly paying for an Xbox Live Gold subscription, fees for playing your friend’s games and other features that will be locked behind that pay-wall. Once the mainstream finds out how anti-consumer the Xbox One actually is that will make Microsoft’s job even harder.

The next Xbox was supposed to be simple. A system easy to use and understand. So far it’s struggling to meet those goals and Microsoft just revealed the console. Microsoft confirmed more of the bad instead of the good it needed to. E3 is Microsoft’s chance to reverse some of this negative perception, but it might be impossible to change if the main complaints are integral to the way the Xbox One operates.

Perception is reality, and if Microsoft can’t fix its image problem with the Xbox One then its new system is already in trouble. Nobody should just give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt concerning its anti-consumer policies when there are other viable options on the market. Much like Sony did with the launch of the PlayStation 3 in 2006, Microsoft is foolishly counting on an Xbox 360 user base that might tune out and change the channel to the PS4.

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