Gamers seem to hate the Xbox One. If you wade into a comments section or ask a man-on-the-street at your local Mountain Dew distributer, you’ll hear a variety of reasons why the Xbox One is not for gamers—why it’s a horrible misstep, presumed dead on arrival. Some of these criticisms will ring a little truer than others, but none really tap into what’s really eating at the gaming elite. They’re mad that they’re not the center of attention.
See, for as long as they have existed, brand new consoles have been the provenance of the hardcore gamer. They are the only ones dedicated enough, enthused enough, to drop (or convince their parents to drop) a wad of cash on a new gaming system for the privilege of buying new and more expensive games. Gamers loved consoles, and consoles loved them right back. Except now, Microsoft’s eye is wandering, and gamers do not like it one bit.
The Other Guys
As far as Microsoft is concerned, the Xbox’s manifest destiny is for it to ascend beyond a gaming console and become a standard home appliance—a refrigerator, basically. TV is central to the initial launch, but soon Xbox will expand into the broader home landscape, interacting with a variety of your devices. That’s the idea that took center stage at the Xbox One keynote. Tuesday was not a gaming console launch, it was the unveiling of a home entertainment platform. Like it or not, the Xbox is going mainstream. And to a lot of gamers, mainstream means casual means awful means this Xbox sucks. And that just makes no sense at all.
There is absolutely no downside to a gaming console widening its berth and bringing in a larger audience. Creating content for a console, or any platform, is not, despite whatever alarmist fears circulate, a zero sum proposition. A team spending time on the Kinect’s voice commands does not mean the controller gets shortchanged. Adding a whole side of the OS dedicated to apps and non-game content does not necessarily mean your games are being shortchanged—especially with all the lengths Microsoft has gone to ensure performance. (The static RAM on the CPU/GPU SoC is a bigger deal than it’s being given credit for, and should close a good portion of the GPU gap.) Microsoft is a very large company. There are seven thousand people on the Xbox team alone. It can work on more than one thing at once.
That doesn’t mean a true console launch isn’t coming, not that it helps much in the moment. We know that all of the games will be announced at this summer’s E3. Gamers know this, logically, but it doesn’t exactly feel that way. They also know, on every level, that the multi-billion-dollar console gaming industry will not retool its teams to go into TV streaming overnight—yet many gamers can’t stop expressing how afraid they are that it will.
But consider: when you think back to each console launch you’ve been geeked about, you might remember Emotion Engines and goofy Nintendo controllers, but what you really remember in the leadup to a new console are the games. Soulcalibur and Super Mario 64, Resistance: Fall of Man and that first time you saw Halo. We haven’t seen any of that yet. Call of Duty and EA Sports do not count as big unveils.
For all the decrying and defecating about how the hardcore gamer is not being served, well, you get the sense that if a few killer titles are announced in LA this June, all will be forgiven.
The Little Big Things
In the absence of games to talk about, though, the only attention that gamers really received at the keynote dealt with the broader infrastructure of gaming. And while a lot of it is very cool—installing games from the cloud, cloud-based workloads, a smart multitasking OS—these are benefits that come at a cost. It’s a modest price tag, to be sure, but people—especially people on the internet—inherently dislike things being taken away from them. Even things they don’t especially want or use all that often. The long and short? The new stuff costs you some control over your stuff, or at least the carefully maintained facade of control you had before.
An undetermined system to transfer used games, instead of just swapping out discs; required connection to the internet once a day (we are pretty sure); mandatory Kinect; the internet being central to core features like cloud gaming; and backwards compatibility. These are the big complaints, and looking at them, it’s hard to explain the furor they’ve stirred up.
Truthfully, answer this: Have you been without internet for more than 24 hours while trying to play a console game recently? Is that a regular occurrence? Have you lent a game on a disc to a friend that you needed back in a timely fashion? Have you closed your laptop or turned off your cell phone when having private conversations? Have you spent any seriously any time considering, celebrating, or lamenting the size of the consoles or other entertainment devices in your home?
For many of reading this, the answer to at least one of those questions might well be a Yes. But that does not matter. Increasingly, and for a long time now, the world has been moving forward. For a great many people—the vast majority even, probably—things have progressed to the point that these simply aren’t concerns with enough impact, however vocal, to warrant holding up the pack. That sucks. It does. (My family is still, insanely, on dial-up.) But the needs of the many, and all that.
Even the most insidious accusation, that Microsoft now has the ability to Morgan-Freeman-in-The-Dark-Knight everyone who owns an Xbox One, is almost passingly absurd. A scandal from something like that might literally shutter the whole damn Xbox project. These are not no-warrant spy devices. They are game consoles. And further, if the Xbox team wants to see me in my damn underwear, go ahead, get an eyefull boys and girls. If it wants to listen to me sing along to rap songs I don’t actually know the lyrics to, or watch me mouth the words to every scene in Never Been Kissed, it can go right ahead. I am not trafficking in State secrets, and it seems deeply paranoid (and more than slightly conceited) that anyone has much interest at all in watching me sit on my ass being awful at Halo.
Let’s also be clear: Dismissing many of the above is not to dismiss their more virulent but ultimately fictional counterparts. An always-on connection with a 3-minute window to reconnect would be ludicrous for a variety of reasons. Zero used games ever would be nuts. Coming to your apartment and smashing all of your Xbox 360 DVDs and HDDs and sawing your 360 in half would be unfortunate. But that’s not how this went. These are a bunch of low-impact changes that could have and were rumored to have been much worse, but which sting doubly because they were basically the only news that was aimed specifically at gamers.
Being Good, Not New
Sure, maybe the Wii blew everyone away with its uniqueness, and the original Kinect was a Whoa moment. But anyone disappointed that the One doesn’t have some truly “innovative” new way to play games is nuts. (It seems at times, even, that the pushback against the Kinect is less about its feature set than it is about outside media encroaching into gaming’s territory.) Interface reboots don’t happen in a single generation. Not in a truly meaningful way, at least. Microsoft is far enough down the Kinect rabbit hole that the only correct path available to it was to fix what it was already working with. The original Kinect was a tech demo shelled in a dancing game, occasionally used as an HBO voice remote.
The new Kinect isn’t like that. It appears to be everything we ever asked for from the original, and then some. The controller has seen a wonderful facelift. The OS tweaks make sense at a time when the sustainability of a single-purpose console is under scrutiny. This is what we praise other companies, like Apple, for doing. We love refinement, revision, recalculation. We applaud when products take risks, and then give standing ovations when they slow down to perfect those risks that worked out. Sometimes. Other times, when we think the holding pattern has lasted long enough, we skewer Apple, too. And when a holding pattern might last a whole console cycle—the better part of a decade—that’s going to piss some people off.
Even if Microsoft improves the Kinect, SmartGlass, its native apps, and everything else, there’s a nagging feeling that Microsoft has only fortified the ground it was already standing on instead of walking forward. And for game consoles, that’s a letdown in a way that’s hard to explain to anyone who’s never been geeked up wondering how much better FMV cutscenes could be on DVDs instead of CD-ROMs, or how much better controls will be with a dual analog controller, or even how fun a console with a handle that looks like a toaster might be. Consoles are supposed to be where crazy new ideas happen.
Look closer, though, and the Xbox One has something even more unique than feeling “new”. It has the capacity for growth. Its hardware is solid enough to go toe-to-toe with its competition, but the ability to throw some of its workload onto one of the 300,000 Xbox Live servers Microsoft will be running means it can scale in a way that previous generations could not. The same goes for the Kinect, which has tremendous room to grow as its software becomes more and more accurate. There are massive banks of Kinects gathering data, improving recognition, and fine-tuning motion sensing. The One’s Kinect will almost certainly be far more accurate three years from now than it is at launch.
Developers have always been more skilled at squeezing performance out of consoles at the end of their life cycles, but the hardware itself adapting over that time is something totally new. And necessary in a world where we turn over technology at a rate of a new iPhone every year, or a new laptop every two.
Is it possible that games will not run as well on the Xbox as they do on the PS4? Sure, of course that’s conceivable given the specs. And could the quality of gaming experience suffer if Microsoft’s bid to expand console gaming’s technological horizons with cloud computing falls flat? With those titles that use it before it flops (in that scenario), yeah, that's a big possibility. But let’s see some games first, and how they play. Let’s see if the Xbox really can make the gaming-console-as-a-home-automation-system something more than a gimmick. Let’s see if these ideas work.