The Xbox One as it was originally envisioned by Microsoft is no more; the victim of public outcry and the most hopelessly uphill PR battle since the debut of New Coke. Now there will be no required internet access, no daily checks to verify your rights to games, and no hassles when lending, trading, or selling software to your friends.
All of these restrictions may be gone, but the discontent with Microsoft remains. Some gamers have been pacified by the company's decision to scuttle the Xbox One's unsavory DRM, but others are reluctant to get onboard, wary of what Microsoft once had planned for them and uncomfortable with the Kinect camera. That's still a mandatory part of the Xbox One hardware, it's still always listening for user input, and it still presents ugly possibilities for user surveillance and targeted advertising.
Microsoft is also taking heat from the minority of gamers who were happy with the machine's original design (yes, there really are some out there!), along with developers who hoped to stem the tide of used game sales. A recent article published on Gizmodo argues that Microsoft's retreat from DRM hobbles innovation and anchors the game industry to the past. However, author Kyle Wagner hangs his hat on hypotheticals... games could have been cheaper without a used market. The family sharing plan could have given up to ten people access to your games. The Xbox Live store could have emulated Steam's frequent sales and heavy discounts.
Jim Sterling, a writer for Destructoid and one of the Xbox One's most vocal critics, was not swayed by Wagner's optimistic what-if scenarios. In his response, Sterling muses:
"It takes a lot of naivety to trust so willingly in Microsoft, a company that's done absolutely nothing to earn our trust. It takes even more to believe that an industry so dependent on heavy-handed consumer control deserves to survive. Frankly, any industry that suffers due to the reversal of ONE console's DRM policies is an industry that deserves to suffer."
Sterling has taken this hardline stance on the game industry's financial recklessness in previous Destructoid articles, and while they may sound callous, those harsh words are not without wisdom. Game development has gotten so expensive that absurd sales figures are necessary to break even on top-shelf titles. Street Fighter X Tekken is an excellent example... this crossover between two of gaming's biggest fighting franchises sold 1.4 million units, yet was still regarded as a disappointment by Capcom's sales department.
The Xbox One's internet requirement and restrictions on used games were designed to give publishers a path to meet their unrealistic sales goals. With those restrictions gone, it may be time for them to consider the reality that the game industry just can't shoulder the burden of scores of AAA titles every year. Gears of War producer Cliff Bleszinski was wrong to target used game sales for the woes of game publishers, but he's got at least one thing right... with the average game budget eclipsing any hope of a return on that massive investment, the numbers just don't work.
Returning to the topic at hand, what does Microsoft's recent policy reversal mean for the future of the Xbox One? The decision to drop DRM ensures that the Xbox One will have a future, even if it enters the console race with a few bruises and a limp. A month ago, I was certain the system's internet restrictions and narrow user base would doom it to a long, dusty life on store shelves. Without those limitations, the Xbox One has a shot at modest success... but with a one hundred dollar price difference and the unnerving presence of the Kinect camera, it may have to settle for nipping at Sony's heels throughout this console cycle.
“So,” say the three people who are reading this, “do you have an opinion about the Xbox One?”
Oh lord, do I have an opinion about the Xbox One. Where do I start?
For those of you who may have missed it, the Xbox One was finally revealed at a press event last Tuesday. While the machine outperforms its predecessor from a purely technical standpoint, with double the cores and sixteen times the RAM, in many ways it feels like a huge step back from previous console generations. Since I’m a glass half empty kind of guy, let’s look at everything you’ll lose when you upgrade to the Xbox One…
Because the new Xbox is using a completely different architecture, Microsoft has chosen to make a clean break from the previous system rather than attempt hardware emulation as it did in the past. The Xbox One won’t be able to play any of the games from the Xbox 360 library, whether you purchased them on disc or downloaded them from Microsoft’s online store. Logically, this also means that the handful of original Xbox games that could run on the second generation machine won’t on the third.
Microsoft spokesman Don Mattrick claims that backward compatibility is more trouble than it’s worth, stating “If you’re backwards compatible, you’re really backwards.” What a charmer, that guy! Arrogant dismissal aside, he’s not far off base. Nintendo designed the Wii U with a supercharged version of the same Power PC hardware they used in their past two systems. That makes it a cinch for the system to run Wii games (you know, timeless classics like Ninjabread Man and Red Steel), but has the unfortunate side effect of hobbling its performance as a next generation machine. When the Xbox One and Playstation 4 ultimately hit store shelves, the Wii U will lag as far behind them as the Wii had its own contemporaries.
Backward compatibility is certainly a useful feature, but it’s not worth hobbling a console’s performance for it. With this in mind, I think abandoning it (instead of taking it away halfway through a console’s lifespan, as Nintendo and Sony have done) is probably the right decision. Of course, that will probably mean publishers will offer the games we’ve already purchased in a shiny new package, but should we expect anything less from today’s content providers?
Early in the life of the Xbox 360, there was a gadget called the Xbox Live Vision camera, which was designed to bring a level of immersion to the gaming experience. A few dozen games offered limited support for the device, like video chatting in UNO and taunting your opponent with a snapshot in Burnout Paradise, but the webcam didn’t make much of an impression on gamers and was quickly swept under the rug.
Years later, Microsoft acknowledged the success Nintendo had with its motion controlled Wii remotes, and tried to one-up them with a device that turns the player’s entire body into a controller. That device, of course, was the Kinect. This combined camera, infrared sensor, and microphone monitor the player’s movements and turns them into input, letting them drive a car by turning an invisible steering wheel or punch out a thug by sending a fist at the television screen. That’s how it works in theory, anyway… in practice, the results have been less than satisfactory.
Microsoft’s been pretty happy with its performance, though. Encouraged by the twenty-four million units it sold for the Xbox 360, the company has decided to pack a next generation version of the Kinect with every Xbox One. That’s pretty cool, right? Now whenever I feel like shakin’ my groove thing in Dance Central, I’ll have the Kinect right there to plug in my Xbox One, whenever I want it!
Oh, but there’s just one problem. You actually can’t use the Xbox One unless the Kinect is plugged into it, and you can’t turn it off, either. As long as the Xbox One is drawing power, the Kinect is always active, staring at you with its creepy cyclopean eye. The Kinect is designed to let you switch on the system with a simple voice command (which reminds me of a joke I heard about a voodoo dick, but perhaps now’s not the time…), but what’s this thing doing when the Xbox One is lying dormant?
Perhaps what’s more scary is what Microsoft could do with the Kinect when the system is turned on. Microsoft has applied for a patent to make the Kinect scan for warm bodies and stop the playback of films if it finds too many of them in a room. Congratulations Microsoft, you just justified my paranoia!
A WHOLE LOT OF DISPLAY CONNECTIONS
HDMI is great, isn’t it? Just one cable gives you a crisper picture than anything else on the market, and you don’t even need to mess with separate audio cables like you did with component or VGA. It is pretty terrific, but not so great that it should be the only display connection your game system offers. It’s your only option with the Xbox One, so if you’ve got a television set without an HDMI port, you’ll either need to run out and buy one, or just stare longingly at your new system as it rests on the shelf under your entertainment center.
For all its benefits, the HDMI standard also gives you something you won’t want… digital rights management. If you’re hoping to record your first experience with the Xbox One, you’d better have a camcorder handy, because that HDMI connection will likely ensure that you’re not going to get any footage straight from the system. Fiercely territorial copyright protection is a running theme with the Xbox One, and the more you learn about it, the worse it gets.
YOUR RIGHTS TO THE GAMES YOU’VE JUST BOUGHT
Okay, here’s a real doozy, and the deal-breaker for a lot of gamers. Spurred on by complaints from developers, Microsoft has introduced a new system to deal with (and monetize) used game sales. The company’s not putting forth too many details for fear of the tar and feathers that will quickly follow, but here’s what we know about how game purchases and resales will work from what little Microsoft spokesmen and retailers will tell us:
1. You purchase a new Xbox One game from a store.
2. You insert the game into your system. (okay, so far so good!)
3. The game is written to the Xbox One’s hard drive, and your rights to it are registered online.
4. When you start the game, an online registration check is performed before it will begin. (uh, not so good…)
5. Once you’re finished with the game, you take it to a reseller like GameStop to sell it.
6. The store buys your game and enters a record of that sale in an Xbox One online database.
7. The store splits the profits between Microsoft, the publisher, and itself.
8. You lose your rights to the game and can no longer play it.
There’s exactly one thing I like about this new arrangement, and that’s the ability to play games straight from the hard drive without a disc in the machine. Everything else stinks. With this new system in place, you can’t loan your games to a friend, you can’t sell them on eBay or Craigslist, and you can’t take them to a mom and pop game store where you might get a few more dollars. You may not even be able to rent games, unless Microsoft has made a yet-unannounced deal with GameFly and RedBox.
Market analyst Michael Pachter proclaimed with his usual misplaced sense of confidence that Microsoft “doesn’t have the balls to block used games” a couple of months before the Xbox One unveiling. However, the system the company has planned for second-hand game sales is so tightly restricted and so openly hostile to the end user that it’s only a marginal improvement. Microsoft press flack Larry Hyrb claims that early reports of the Xbox One‘s method of handling used games is “inaccurate and incomplete,” but that’s not a denial, and it’s not a clarification. Most likely, it’s a stall for time until Sony makes a similar admission at this year’s E3.
Yes, I think Sony’s got the same bad news for gamers next month. This is all speculation, but it’s my belief that regulating used game sales wasn’t Microsoft’s idea, or Sony’s, but rather publishers like Electronic Arts and Activision. They’ve complained about the used game market for years, and have at last found a way to take their cut of the profit from software they’ve already sold. It would be easy to lionize Nintendo for not taking part in regulating used game sales, but the reality is that publishers probably didn’t decide how to handle it until after the Wii U was released. Beyond that, third-party game sales are so weak on Nintendo’s systems that there probably wasn’t a point. One can only assume that publishers will just let the Wii U run its brief course and pressure Nintendo to control used game sales with its next system, or drive the company out of the console business completely.
While I have my suspicions, Sony’s plans for the Playstation 4 are still not clear. They could surprise me and turn a blind eye to used game sales, or at least not be quite as ghoulish about them. However, everything I know about the Xbox One has convinced me that there’s no place for it in my collection. For all Microsoft’s crowing about the system’s high performance and useful features, it seems like it was tailor made for the content providers lurking behind the console, rather than the players sitting in front of it.