The most memorable image from Microsoft’s reveal of the Xbox One was an animated German Shepherd with Kevlar armour and a high polygon count. Motion-captured from a retired Navy Seal dog to serve as a player companion in this year’s iteration of Call of Duty, the pooch is an apt mascot for the console.
The dog will be present with fewer pixels in the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of Call of Duty: Ghosts, also slated to release towards the end of the year. Likewise, under the buzzwords and incremental improvements, the Xbox One is simply a better version of its predecessor rather than a new animal.
Microsoft new console will wade into a changing market where customers have flocked to social networks, streamed media and casual games on tablet computers and smartphones. It will go toe to toe with Nintendo’s struggling Wii-U console and Sony’s upcoming PlayStation 4, with all three platform holders fighting for relevance in a changing market.
The Xbox One will have an enhanced version of the Kinect motion-sensing camera, which will this time ship with the console, more RAM, beefier central and graphics processing units, even more focus on media functionality, and enhanced online features. Like the PlayStation 4, it will be an always-on, multitasking device with a more elegant user experience than today’s consoles. What it won’t have is one overriding, compelling reason to buy it.
Where’s the hook?
There is no big leap here, like the cheap entry into DVD the PlayStation 2 offered, the Wii’s accessible motion control interface, or the online features and high-definition visuals the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 brought to the market. For the most part, it is a machine that does things older consoles do, but a little bit better. As with the PlayStation 4, the tin and wires and silicon amount to little more than a midrange PC optimised for games and media.
Even the games are just shinier versions of the ones gamers have been playing for the past eight years. Most of the big titles for the Christmas launch window of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 will be on the 360 and PS3 too – among them Assassin’s Creed IV, Call of Duty: Ghosts, Watch Dogs, Fifa 14 and Battlefield 4. (With Sony’s exceptional PS3 exclusive line-up for the rest of the year, PlayStation loyalists will have even less reason to upgrade to a new console than the Microsoft faithful.)
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If a military dog was the image, “television” was the word. Microsoft barely spoke about games until more than halfway through the announcement event, instead talking up its vision for the machine as the nerve centre for home entertainment.
Microsoft’s vision for the Xbox One is that it should be the centrepiece of your living room, the place where you watch TV, Blu-ray discs, and downloadable and streamed music, films and TV programmes. You’ll be able to plug your cable box into your Xbox (if you’re in North America, at least) and navigate content using Kinect voice and motion controls.
While you’re watching TV, you’ll be able to cue up player stats during a sports game and view them in a sidebar along with the match. You’ll be able to use your smartphone or tablet to navigate live TV or switch between multitasking apps using Xbox One’s improved user interface through an enhanced version of the SmartGlass app. It’s all very zeitgeisty stuff about multiple screens and multitasking, though how it will work in practice remains to be seen.
Most analysts interpret the focus that Microsoft is putting on TV as a serious attempt to take the fight for the living room to Apple, Google and Amazon — on the face of it, a market many times bigger and more strategic than the world of hardcore gaming. And make no mistake, this event was more for the analysts and stockholders than for the gamers.
Turn off your television
Console gamers weren’t impressed. Where the PlayStation 4 announcement event inspired reactions ranging from apathy to mild interest, responses to Xbox One from gamers and gaming press run the gamut from cynicism to outright hostility.
Gamers have had fun with snarky memes deriding the console’s focus on TV. Microsoft’s unclear communication around questions about whether an Internet connection is required and how the Xbox One will handle second-hand games hasn’t helped. At best, it has been clumsy, at worst disingenuous.
The Xbox One reveal was a “disaster”, bleats Kotaku, a gaming blog with a sensationalist bent. And the usually more measured Gamesindustry.biz writes that “Microsoft’s confused, boring reveal event angered the core audience and worried business commentators”.
Microsoft may yet regret alienating the core. A big swathe of the younger customers who once bought consoles today cares more about mobile devices. Most older adults can operate a TV set-top box well enough without needing to add another device to the TV cabinet — and they probably don’t want their Mad Men marathon interrupted by Skype calls and Web browsing.
But gamers might have given Microsoft its entry point into the lounge.
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As a generalisation, hardcore gamers may watch TV shows that they download or stream. They don’t watch television. They won’t buy a box to watch television, but they might watch more television if the consoles they bought to play games enhanced the experience in some way. That means the question of games still matters.
Yet the Xbox One reveal left this largely unanswered with its modest showing of games. To demonstrate continuity to the core gamer market — which can be deeply conservative — Microsoft extended its close relationship with Activision for Call of Duty to the new platform. It teased a couple of exclusives including a new game from Alan Wake and Max Payne developer Remedy and a new version of its flagship race Forza.
The promise of E3
Microsoft says it has 15 exclusive games in development for the first year of the Xbox One’s life, though it is unclear how many of these will be small, downloadable titles or Kinect games for the casual market. Wait for E3 in Los Angeles in June when more games will be announced, urges Microsoft.
Perhaps Microsoft just misjudged its messaging. It’s certain big-name games like Halo and Gears of War will be announced for the Xbox One sooner than later, and that these will pull back its core audience. What we have heard from games journalists who have played with tech demos for the new controller and Kinect camera is quite promising, too. And in the background, Microsoft has a cloud strategy for its console that is visionary, if not yet completely practical.
Still, a rocky console launch can quickly avalanche, as Sony discovered in the last console generation. Compared to Microsoft, the Japanese electronics giant announced its PlayStation 4 with a games-centric event that was clearly targeted at the gamer rather than the mainstream. Given that this market will be the first to buy the console, it’s an approach that makes sense.
The two machines are quite similar on paper, though we don’t yet have enough detail about the GPU and CPU of the Xbox One to compare them with complete confidence. It seems likely both will enter the market priced at US$399 for the entry level unit. The two companies will compete based on their media ecosystems and exclusive games rather on than their specs or price.
For now, Sony seems to have the mindshare among the core audience. That could change quickly, depending on what emerges about pricing, launch dates and exclusive games from E3, where Microsoft and Sony will both make their launch plans for their new systems clearer.
Rather than asking which of the two will grab the early adopter market, the more interesting question is whether either can conquer the mainstream in a world where console launches don’t seem to excite the average consumer.
To be fair, the Xbox One reveal wasn’t Microsoft’s giant enemy crab. There isn’t the hubris here that Sony carried into the PlayStation 3 generation after it dominated the competition with the PlayStation 2.
There’s just the bewilderment of a company that needs a blockbuster product in the consumer market after tepid sales of its tablet and smartphone platforms as well as apathy and anger about the latest version of its desktop operating system.
The Xbox 360 was a success for Microsoft, making it the biggest console player in North America and a serious contender worldwide. Just when Microsoft thought it had the console market figured out, the market went and changed. — (c) 2013 NewsCentral Media
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