That title alone should clue you in to my opinion about the new Xbox, but I’ll try to be as even-handed in discussing the finer points as I can. It’s not necessarily bad, it’s just not something I feel like I’m going to be interested in.
I’ve taken a couple extra days to process my thoughts on it and to try and solidify my position while most of the mainstream media took this week to either jump down Microsoft’s throat or glad-handedly praise their innovation. Essentially, for me, it boils down to… “nope.”
While that may be an oversimplification, there simply isn’t anything, as presented, that makes me interested in Microsoft’s new console. They touted the platform as a revolutionary new “relationship” with your TV. Your TV, not your games. That’s an important point, and the central point of my opinion. They’ve decided that the new Xbox should be a media center, a place of interaction between you and your TV, and the central fixture in the living room. The new features they’ve announced include live TV HDMI pass-throughs with smart overlays, programming interaction (you and the NFL), and the ability to switch in and out of the Xbox and to live TV any time, even mid-game. You can rent movies, you can control it from your phone. You can listen to music. You can tweet and bookface and be all social with your friends. You can Skype call Grandma with the Kinect camera.
You can also, occasionally, play a game.
This announcement wasn’t about games, or so they say. It was about the hardware, and all the awesome things the hardware can do. They’ll talk about games later, at E3, they promise.
Unfortunately for them and their PR department, they do manufacture a “video game console”, for whatever that phrase is worth these days. People expect that makers of a game machine to talk about playing games. So, they’re purposely vague about games, they trot out a couple developers to show us pre-rendered footage, and they answer exactly zero questions and concerns that people have about the console.
After the fact, they give random press interviews and it’s there, not at the event, that they find it a bit harder to dodge the talking points.
Here’s the essence of the machine, boiled down to bullet points.
- You need an internet connection
- Kinect bundled and 100% necessary
- Games are installed, tied to your profile
- No backwards compatibility
- Blu-Ray, 500Gb Hard Drive, new chipset
- Xbox Live still essential
- Unclear definitions of ownership
Internet connectivity actually doesn’t bother me as mush as it should. It is a game platform, most games have online features and multiplayer. That’s a fact. You need a network connection for those, which is also a fact. What they decidedly did not clarify was if the entire console can “live” offline. It can’t, at least not really. You’ll need to be signed into your profile and your profile is cloud based, which is kind of hard to do without a connection. They made two vague statements, and I’m paraphrasing, that “playing certain single player games should just work”. They actually used the word “certain”, meaning “some, but not all”. They’re “leaving it up to the developers”, which is a complete and total cop-out answer. If they game requires an internet connection, then so be it. That’s essentially their standpoint.
Again, it’s not wrong for a game to be online. Perhaps it is a problem with developers that Microsoft merely enables. Like a pot dealer who keeps you in good supply. I would love to see developers not require a connection for single player games, but every game I can think of, from this current generation, also includes some form of multiplayer and/or online experience. If it’s not directly multiplayer centric, then developers have done their best to put you online anyway. EA Online for a snowboarding game? Sure, why not. Beat your friends time in a racing game? Of course!
This is a problem with the game generation as a whole, supported by developers and console manufactures alike, and not one that’s likely to go away. Begrudgingly, we need to let that slide.
Kinect. Oh dear. Where do I start with Kinect. It’s dumb. It’s terrible. I don’t want it. I won’t use it. There is nothing vaguely interesting or beneficial, or enticing about having one of these as any part of my gaming, media, or entertainment experience. Zero. Zip. Nada. I don’t want to talk to my TV. I don’t want to wave at my TV. The assumption that saying the words “XBox, watch TV” is somehow easier, faster and more convenient than me hitting a single button on a remote is laughable. Clearly Kinect developers have never had a baby awake and fussy in the middle of the night, and sit in their living rooms watching whatever is on at 3am. Go ahead, talk to your TV then. See how that works out for you. That’s not my main issue however. The fact that the console is always on, even in a low-power state and that Kinect is always watching and listening AND the fact that Microsoft owns a patent for “counting the number of viewer via remote camera for the purpose of fee-based licensing” gives me great pause.
Before I go all “tin foil hat” about it, I’d like to point out that there are no current, in development, plans to make something draconian happen, but you can bet your ass that every PPV fight production company, along with most of Hollywood, would jump through hoops to charge you, per person, for watching a movie or an event. Right now a HD movie rental is about $5. What if they want to make that $5 a person? Or $10 a person for a new release. They’ll know how many people are watching. Let that swirl around in the back of your head for a while.
Hardware wise, they and Sony alike, have made the closest thing to a PC we’ve ever seen in the living room. It’s running a custom 8-core 64bit x86 AMD processor on a micro form factor board with 8GB of RAM, a 4MB L2 cache, and a 500GB hard drive. That’s a PC people! You can slice that 10 different ways and it’s still a PC. Unfortunately it’s also a PC that you can’t service, upgrade, or modify the hardware in. It’s also running the Windows 8 kernal, which you also can’t mess with. My prediction is that this is the fastest hacked game console ever. I’m willing to bet that inside of a month there are complete instructions on how to replace Windows 8, run a custom OS, and replace the hard drive.
It also makes perfect sense why everything permissions and profile wise is going to be cloud based. The hardware is off-the-shelf type of stuff. There’s nothing special about the hard drive or the memory. It’s easily hackable. What’s not hackable is the requirement to contact the MS mothership to play a game, or to sign into your profile. People will make great HTPCs out of this XBox, mark my words, but they’ll never be able to play a game once they do. It’s all part of the plan.
Speaking of the plan, this console is not backwards compatible with anything. Games, controllers, old Kinects, XBLA games, anything. They site an imaginary number of “less than 5%” of people played original XBox games on their 360. That may be true, but they only made a handful of games backwards compatible for that as well. There are also technical limitations. They’ve moved from a Power-PC architecture to an x86 architecture. That more of less destroys software compatibility without some sort of internal emulation. They’re also completely aware of the fact that controllers, headsets, charging stations, cords, and all the stuff that goes along with a new console is easy money. So, games not working is almost more valid that peripherals. It’s all freaking USB, can we just settle on that and move on.
The last and final points, and probably the ones causing the most internet rage: owning games, profiles and game installation. All rolled together, these three are causing so much disdain online it’s becoming a PR nightmare for Microsoft. In a nutshell, you buy a game, bring it home, sign into your profile, put the disk in the drive, install the game, and it’s forever linked to your account. On the surface, that’s actually a pretty standard PC-like authentication system. One that PC users have been using for quite a while. The only problem is that we, the consumers, made a hard delineation years ago between software and console games. Console games were treated similarly to movies. They were rented, they were traded, they were sold, they were borrowed. PC software was merely installed, and you needed serial numbers.
They claim that games are more like software than ever. They can be downloaded now. They can be installed. I’m personally having a hard time actually disagreeing with this. I use Steam. I have to be online to access Steam. I have to be signed into my profile. I download my games. I can’t lend them to anyone. At the same time, I never have. We never lent copies of Half-Life to each other. We all just bought a copy.
It also needs to be pointed out that PC games are more of an open platform. Back when CD keys were required, I could install my game on whatever computer I wanted. When I built a new PC, I installed a game on that, and then again on the next one. “Activation” of that CD key is a very recent phenomenon. The game wasn’t tied to ME. If I wanted to give my copy of Half-Life to Chip or Chris, I could. I just give him the CD and the CD key and it becomes his. There was a sense of “ownership” over the games, partially because of the physical nature of the object and partially because of the interchangeability of the platform.
So, PC games had an aire of being “owned”, and console games were, of course, “owned” and could be resold, traded, etc. They’re trying to change that fundamental role of ownership to a system of “licensed for use” and “access”. I think it’s the mindset that a game is an object that they’re trying to fight.
Think about all the other industries that tried this and then backed away. Music, was “object” (record, cassette) based until the MP3, which was easily passed around. They tried to lock it down with extra heavy DRM and the system crashed around them. The most popular services today are ones like Amazon that sell unrestricted, unprotected MP3s, or services that don’t sell anything and are little more than internet radio stations (Spotify, Pandora, Rdio). Books were “object” based (and still are) but the experiments with ebook DRM are leading to publishing companies dropping DRM for major book labels (Tor, etc).
The point is this: You can’t take a physical item, digitize it, and then convince people it isn’t an item any more. People like stuff. They like to own things. They like to know that the things they own are real, have value, and are theirs to do with as they please. When you try and change that, people are going to react negatively. Until there are no more generations of people on this planet that have read a real physical book, people are going to continue to think of books, even digital books, as “things” and not merely 1’s and 0’s. Movies, games, music, all “things” that people want to own. People don’t want the right to merely use it for a little while, and then lose it forever if the authentication servers get shut down.
So, as far as the next Xbox is concerned, let’s do back to our original summation: you buy a game, bring it home, sign into your profile, put the disk in the drive, install the game, and it’s linked to your account….
Only, you don’t. You spend money to temporarily access the data on a disk, bring it home, sign into your media ownership profile in the cloud, use the disk as a key to authenticate your access, the data is securely transferred to temporary storage at your location and your purchase record is saved forever… or until the Xbox 4, in which case will be invalidated because, once again, it’s not backwards compatible. You didn’t buy a game. You rented it. You rented it for $60 and X number of years. You can’t sell it. You can’t lend it out. It’s not physically in your ability to do so. They tried to clarify this to Wired and let slip that you could certainly hand the disk to a friend, but that they’d need to pay a fee (aka: buy) to play. The disk is nothing more than a gloried, single use, access card.
They’ve taken a concept of PC software and applied it in the most broken way, to a product that, at it’s core, is supposed to be entertainment. It’s A GAME. It’s not precious jewels, it’s not real estate, it’s not a car. It’s a game. You will now have more ability to sell your house than to sell the “stuff” inside your Xbox. PC games had serial numbers to verify ownership, but that number, along with the ownership, was transferable.
This leads to me to believe that I’ll be spending much more time playing PC games. The platform is actually more open than ever before. You can use digital distribution, or choose not to. You can play online or offline. You can buy a game from anywhere in the world, from any website, for any language, on any operating system. You can buy indie games. You can buy AAA titles. You can install them, uninstall them, and install them again 5 years from now. The hardware is customizable, more powerful and the options are limitless.
Microsoft has created a media center PC with none of the positive features of a PC, all of the restrictive platform issues of early DRM, and that actually does nothing to replace or simplify what I have in my living room at the moment. I don’t have cable, so their entire “live TV” feature is unappealing. I don’t use my XBox to stream media, and I don’t use the social aspects of it in the first place. If none of those features appeal to me, as a consumer, games are the only thing that’s left, and shockingly, they’ve managed to screw that up more than anything else. They’ve de-emphasized their core market to get into the broader market of the living room and quite honestly, they may have bitten off more than they can chew.
It actually makes me rather sad. As an avid gamer, and an early adopter, I feel left out. I’m not all filled with internet rage like most of the online communities. I realize it’s only entertainment; a temporary distraction. I’ll be interested to see what they have to offer at E3 in a couple weeks and I’ll reserve final judgement for then, but I will say this: my excitement for the Xbox 360 was real, and I enjoyed it. My excitement for the Xbox One is non-existent and unless there is a major shift in their philosophy, I doubt that will change.