“Wasted”: How Microsoft squandered their chance to shine at E3

Why were there no clear reasons for the Xbox One’s flashy tech and online functionality? It’s the simplest question of all time – one which parents of inquisitive young children will become irritated by as their offspring familiarise themselves with life’s mysteries. A tiny, monosyllabic word:  […]
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Why were there no clear reasons for the Xbox One’s flashy tech and online functionality?

It’s the simplest question of all time – one which parents of inquisitive young children will become irritated by as their offspring familiarise themselves with life’s mysteries. A tiny, monosyllabic word:  “Why?”

I can’t have been the only veteran gamer thinking it after that disastrous reveal event in which Microsoft unveiled new ways to watch Star Trek, browse the internet, and… erm… use Skype. Like a lot of individuals who are prepared to sit and await a Electronic Theatre Imagesobering splash of context to go with unfathomable publicity, I expected a tirade of “why’s” to be addressed at E3. Some of them were; others unexpectedly spawned further questions involving the dreaded “why” word.

The most amusing thing in all of this is that, as a direct result of Microsoft’s own mishandling of the Xbox One’s promotion, Sony’s PR and marketing departments have hardly had to do any work at all.

Sony opted for simplicity over complexity in the new PlayStation, keeping a business model and framework which most of us are familiar with whilst adding a few key talking points. Motion control systems, touch pads, fixed price PSN membership and – crucially – giving the PS Vita a shot of adrenaline by making it, in CEO Jack Tretton’s words, “the ultimate companion device for the PS4.” Tretton merely had to walk on stage and list these features in overview, all of which are readily understandable and all of which stand in smug juxtaposition to Microsoft’s clumsy attempts to amalgamate media in the living room.

I can sit here and list the PS4′s core functionality and features off the top of my head in a single paragraph. For Microsoft’s Xbox One I might need a couple of thousand words, just to make sure everything was put into the proper context. This isn’t to say Electronic Theatre Imagethat the Xbox One’s features or functionality are ‘bad’; I’m saying that they were poorly communicated to us and many of us still can’t comprehend them.

Of course the Xbox One was going to be confusing. It’s using tech that we’ve never seen in a console before. That could have been Microsoft’s biggest selling point if they hadn’t fumbled their positioning on the high ground so badly. After that bold reveal event where gamers were primed – not necessarily happy, but primed – to see something new, the pre-E3 run-up became about damage control and flip-flopping over issues like second hand games, the “always online” requirements, and whether or not the Xbox One would really support independent developers. It was a series of PR blunders that could only aggravate industry journalists and the consumers, something Microsoft achieved with spectacular inelegance.

Their E3 presentation didn’t so much expand upon their reveal event as it attempted to dodge all the implications of it and, as someone who values fresh ideas and forward-thinking, I was bitterly disappointed by the complete lack of information on how the new Kinect would be used to further my gaming experiences, as well as justification and clarification on how the Xbox One’s online functionality would benefit me as a gamer. The “why’s” came thick and fast:

Why does my console need to ‘check in’ every so often? Why are there no apparent games at launch that make full use of the new Kinect? Why should I care about sharing my game experiences with friends? Why has Microsoft made it harder for independent developers to publish their games on the Xbox One? Why am I unsure about being able to borrow a game from a friend?

None of these questions were answered. Instead, Microsoft saw fit to bury everything beneath a mound of action-oriented games that involved guns, killing, giant war machines, and questionable representations of Roman battle tactics.

This is purely speculative on my part, but I’m of the opinion that initial hostility towards the Xbox One as a piece of hardware has scared Microsoft into tiptoeing around the issues surrounding it.

Having had the balls to attempt to evolve the game experience through full body motion control, online updating, and encouraging the gaming communities to blossom beyond the sniper scopes of Battlefield and Call of Duty, they’re now backtracking over many of the sore points, serving up platters of contradictory nonsense and usage clauses. The Xbox One isn’t “always online”, but it’ll need to have an online connection in order for games to function correctly. Microsoft fully supports independent developers, but won’t allow them to self-publish on Xbox Live and isn’t carrying Xbox Live Arcade into the online realm of the Xbox One (they suggest we keep our Xbox 360′s to retain our games in that regard). The Kinect sensor isn’t always watching or listening… although it is listening for the magic words, ‘Xbox on.’

Let’s not even talk about the idea of swapping games with our friends. There are a slew of conditions heaped upon that idea alone, with additional fees and compulsory installations marking the top of what’s a complex and largely undefined list of potential clauses, depending on what the publishers decide they want us to do.

Microsoft has missed its chance to shine at E3 by trying to refocus all attention on its gaming line-up (which is definitely one of the strongest any new console’s had in the history of home entertainment) without putting any kind of contextElectronic Theatre Image behind the hardware we were shown a few weeks ago. The only thing that’s clear as far as the hardware goes is the price tag and gamers don’t seem to like that much, either.

Crimson Dragon, originally in development for the Kinect, could have been a perfect way to demonstrate the new Kinect’s motion control capabilities, but it was reduced to a trailer full of shooting and visual spectacle. The one redeeming feature in Microsoft’s E3 conference was about forty minutes in, with Project Spark. Essentially a game creator’s kit that was a game in its own right, making use of SmartGlass, community sharing, and the Kinect sensor, in ways that could revolutionise how gamers sculpt their experiences.

The potential of the Xbox One is enormous, but it’s in danger of being overlooked and misunderstood by a suspicious consumer base who don’t trust Microsoft’s reluctance to put their business plan in simple, black and white terms.

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