This bloody machine has become the Zeno’s tortoise of the sporadic games commentator over the last three months. Every time I’ve sat down to wrangle my thoughts into a coherent essay the narrative has again moved on, meaning I’ve had to junk another several hundred words of analysis. Still, things seem to have more or less died down for the time being (although who knows what GamesCom will bring), so here goes.
These words falling from the mouth of long-suffering Xbox community liaison Larry Hryb made it clear how quickly and completely Microsoft had smashed their carefully cultivated consumer-friendly image in the days following the unveiling of the Xbox One. The mask has slipped. Hryb’s customary synthetic bonhomie had evaporated, leaving a visibly tired, anxious old man tersely trying to steer an interview away from the PR bombs falling on all sides. When Don Mattrick came out with even more arrogant, defensive words Microsoft’s role had by then been firmly set. A console race that everyone had expected to be played out by the numbers had suddenly become interesting again.
I can’t remember a previous console race where a competitor in a good position has managed to damage their chances through sheer complacency, and where everyone (and let’s be clear, Microsoft’s woes and subsequent u-turn haven’t been caused by a few scattered voices – everyone from high profile developers, to indies, to the mainstream press, to retailers have publicly criticised Microsoft’s policies) smelt blood and shifted their allegiances.
So now Microsoft have backtracked on their ‘always on’ policy, and strictly controlling resale of disc games, as well as vaguely announcing that self-publishing will not be prohibited. Some will no doubt argue that this settles the issue, “no harm, no foul”. I don’t think it’s as simple as that. Microsoft have communicated that their preferred outcome (for a platform they control) is to implement always-on DRM. Does anyone really trust them not to let these features creep back in a year from now? How much support and visibility can independent developers expect from a platform holder that is only grudgingly letting them self-publish, and who are yet to give details of how this will work?
There’s a world of difference between announcing an initiative and seeing it through. It is going to take time (maybe a couple of years) to win back developers’ trust, and during that time the shelves of their digital shopfront are going to be a bit more bare. (Have you ever asked a veteran UK console developer whether they ever want to work with Nintendo again? How do you think that happened?)
On top of this the actual consumer proposition is still a bit of a mess. The machine is underspecced and overpriced compared to the PS4, and is bundled with a pointless camera that nobody on Earth still believes serves any purpose other than harvesting data to sell to advertisers. Of course if there’s one thing we know with certainty about Microsoft’s home entertainment division, it’s that they’ll drastically slash the price of the machine and stuff the channel to ensure that it can be at least presented as a success to third party publishers, even if sales then fall off a cliff next Spring.
Microsoft excel(R) when they have a successful externally-developed model to work from. (Better still if they can buy it wholesale, like DirectX or Skype.) The Xbox 360 was essentially a cargo-cultish attempt to replicate the success of the PS2, imitating its characteristics even where they no longer made technical sense. The Kinect managed to be a huge commercial success by repackaging the marketing message of the Wii, even though it didn’t work properly and had no games. The Xbox One has no such blueprint to follow, except perhaps its similarly narrowly-focused namesake, so everybody around the table has been able to tack on their particular interests.
In spite of lacking backward compatibility, the XBox One still somehow manages to be heavily burdened with legacy features, the moth-eaten banners of insular corporate fiefdoms within Microsoft. Kinect. Metro. Live. Bing. Internet Explorer. Television, television, television.
Anyway. Now that we’ve seen how Mattrick’s grand vision has been received, why did Microsoft try to feed us this twelve course banquet of crap in the first place?
The most obvious reason is because they’ve gotten away with so much in the past generation.
Last time around, Microsoft benefited greatly from an early advantage. The PlayStation 3 was expensive for a long time, and it took longer still for multiplatform ports to draw level. (PC games were also, in terms of relative commercial prospects, in disarray.) As a result Microsoft mistook necessity for genuine brand loyalty. At times in the Xbox 360’s life it felt like Microsoft were testing the boundaries of what indignities they could get consumers to dutifully accept.
The launch machines had a failure rate so insanely high that Microsoft ate a $1.1bn writedown as the less painful option (the alternative presumably having been fighting an ugly class action lawsuit). Buggy launch games were waved through certification. (“Coming in hot” as Peter Moore so excitingly span it. We’re sorry the brakes failed on your car, we had to cut some corners to meet a deadline. No we’re not going to do a recall. We’ve said we’re listening and we respect you, isn’t that enough?)
Xbox 360 owners became wearily familiar with protracted exchanges with customer support to deal with dead consoles, scratched discs and guessing the magic phrase which would free them from their Xbox Live subscriptions. The dashboard became swamped with advertising. Kinect Star Wars was an actual thing that existed, as opposed to a terrible SNL skit.
Developers had it little better: Restrictive licensing terms prevented them from adding features or content to their games on other platforms, and indie developers were ghettoised on their digital store.
So it’s fair to say the landscape has shifted a bit since the mid-2000s.
Is the Xbox One going to fail, then? Probably not. There are always a lot of consumers out there who just don’t want to have to make informed purchases, and that’s okay. The Xbox 360 has worked out well for them or their friends, and they can see the familiar franchises are available. Microsoft are betting that there are a lot of 40-something American guys who don’t use social media or read the specialist press and just want to play Madden and CoD and watch live spoooorts. It’s a pretty safe bet to make.
Based on the currently available information, should you buy one? No. The only situation I can see where it would make sense would be for fans of some particular exclusive franchise, but I can’t imagine what that would be at this point. (Another thing that’s changed since 2006 is that most of Microsoft’s internal studios have received the ‘EA treatment’ – nobody seriously expects Rare, for instance, to ever recapture their glory days now.)
Should developers support it? Before the policy u-turn, this would have been an obvious and unequivocal “no”. Now it’s more of a “wait and see”. A platform that pushes one model of product ownership even when it’s not appropriate would cause serious damage to the medium. It’s also worth remembering that there’s still a lot of other issues with Microsoft’s long-standing policies that haven’t been talked about. Is cross-platform play still banned? (Anachronistic and misguided.) Are ‘slots’ on the digital store still scarce, and/or tied to publishers also offering physical products? What are the exact details of the TRCs, and the limitations of the DRM scheme? Do you have to support Kinect? Do players still have to have an Xbox Live Gold account to access huge parts of the system’s functionality?
The original plan would have done massive damage to Microsoft’s prospects in the living room, and there would have been some fallout for the wider industry. The new plan is more palatable but still has some worst-case hidden dangers. As Carmack recently observed, a stable duopoly has generally been very healthy for the console market, and the machines are architecturally so similar that it’s not going to be prohibitive for developers to support both if we get the situation of a rough 50/50 worldwide split again.
But having seen Don Mattrick and Mark Cerny plead their cases I know which I think deserves to win.