We just got our first taste of Microsoft’s new console, and many are already calling it an unqualified disaster. Vicious rumors have plagued the machine for months – blocked used games, no backwards compatibility, always online, mandatory Kinect – all of which turned out to be true in one way or another. This is the worst case scenario, right? Well, maybe not.
We gamers are a right noisy bunch. If we love something, we will be sure to let you know. If we hate something, we will be damn sure to let you know. The launch of new consoles is no exception. Gamers and gaming pundits everywhere had a hell of a lot to say about the One right from the opening of the reveal event. The majority of this hasn’t been very positive. In fact, it’s been downright vitriolic. So why was I thrilled with what I saw while many others seem disgusted? Let’s break it down point by point.
- Blocked Used Games
Xbox One games will require you to install the game to the hard drive, and will not run off the disc. While Microsoft seems to be cooking up some sort of online trading service, at the outset games will come with a one-time activation code that licenses the game to your Xbox LIVE account, similar to the way Steam functions on PC – the disc is now just an alternative to downloading online, and does not carry the game rights attached to it.
This is upsetting to a sizeable chunk of the market. Buying games at full retail is expensive! Buying used and swapping games around among friends is a great way to make gaming more affordable. The problem is, it’s also incredibly detrimental to the industry.
See, game creators only see any money if the game is purchased first-hand from a retailer. Used purchases only shuffle money between the hands of various resellers out to make a quick buck. The higher the percentage of purchases considered “new”, and therefore actually funding future game development, the better.
Okay, fine. Let’s say you’re onboard with money going to developers instead of retailers. That doesn’t make gaming any more affordable. Or does it? This move towards an all-digital future is hugely beneficial to publishers. Digital has a much better profit margin than physical, and by phasing out physical you phase out secondhand sales which take a huge bite out of revenue. With these money sinks out of the way, publishers are free to offer the same sort of massive discounts on Xbox One as we see today on PC’s via services like Steam. With physical overhead gone, and confidence that 1 sale will not be turned into 9 additional sales that they see no return on, the possibility space for innovative marketing solutions opens wide up, and if Steam’s any indication, people will want to take advantage of that.
Alright, so more money goes to the developers, and it’ll help keep costs down. But what if I just want to bring the game over to a buddy’s house and play on it there? Well, you’ll be able to. The games are tied to your LIVE account, and your LIVE account exists in the cloud. Go to your friend’s Xbox One, log in to your profile, pop in the disc, and you’re good to go. What if you’re home, but different people in the house have different LIVE accounts, what then? Also no problem. The games are tied to a single LIVE account, but any other account on the owning account’s “home unit” are free to play the game as well.
The all-digital future that the One advances towards and the consequential end of used games might seem a bit inconvenient compared to the paradigm we’ve all grown accustomed to, but it is essential for the long-term health of the industry. Plus, after an adjustment period, it really ends up being more convenient for the consumer. Win-win.
- No Backwards Compatibility
In another less-than-shocking turn of events, the Xbox One will not play 360 games. This comes as a major bummer for some, especially right around the launch window when cross-generational releases are common. But what do we gain from it, and how much does it really affect your experience with the console long-term?
What we gain from it is simple. A cheaper, smaller, more power efficient, more reliable console. How do I know this? Because if 360 emulation were possible without substantial hardware modification, it would be included. Microsoft’s not stupid, they know people like backwards compatibility, and the lack of it in the One conflicts with the vision of the “all-in-one entertainment solution” they put forth. This was a chopping block decision; do we bake in a 360 to the One, driving up power consumption, failure rate, size, and cost to a console that is already sure to cost a pretty penny, or do we leave the previous iterations in the past and trust that people sufficiently attached to 360 games will keep their 360 around for a good long while? Microsoft went with the latter, and I’m inclined to agree with the decision.
As far as impact on experience is concerned, there is admittedly a hefty one right around the launch window. Many 360 games will still be popular at the time, and users who wait to pick up the One and buy 360 versions of cross-generational games will be quite disappointed when they upgrade and can no longer play those new games without using a 360. That’s the bad news. The good news is, nobody is taking your 360 away from you, and over time the games for it will become less and less relevant anyways.
The 360 has pretty solid backwards compatibility. I have a decent library of original Xbox games. Do I use my 360 to play them? Not really, no. Sure, I might’ve played some Halo 2 during the first year or two after launch, but once Halo 3 took over the scene, I rarely played an original Xbox game again. When that itch for some classic Halo came up, I popped in Halo Anniversary and ran through a few levels with the enhanced graphics. I suspect a similar situation for many other 360 owners.
Beyond that, I don’t see Microsoft leaving the old games to die a quiet death, not when there’s easy money left in them. There will one day be an “Xbox Classics” section on LIVE that offers original Xbox and 360 games for download. Original Xbox games should be able to run in software emulation, and 360 games will be “remastered” to have their frameworks be able to run natively on the One. Admittedly, this service might be way down the road from launch, but we’ll see it. If I had to guess when, I’d say 6 months after the 360 stops getting any substantial new releases, and the old systems start to get put away for good.
So short term, losing backwards compatibility sucks, but long-term it’ll be fairly inconsequential. Most importantly, it makes a cheaper, healthier console now, which in the current state of the market cannot be overvalued.
- Always Online
And here we come to the dreaded “always-on DRM”. Reports vary, but what we know for sure is that anything that requires data from LIVE will require an active internet connection (duh), and things that don’t need LIVE will still need to sync up to the servers every once in a while to make sure everything is kosher on both ends. Whether that interval is measured in minutes, hours, or days, we’re not quite sure yet. The smart money is on “about a day”, but there’s still room for variance in there.
Let me start out by saying that this is the first complaint I’ve listed here that I think has some real immitigable side effects that just plain suck. As a fellow TAY editor pointed out, those in the armed forces and in other remote locations whose access to internet is limited at best and nonexistent at worst get shafted by this system. There is a small but significant audience of people who this requirement could be a deal breaker for. And to those people, I say the PS4 also looks to be a fine machine, and I think it’ll be the console for you this generation.
To the people in less drastic situations than that – those with spotty connections, capped data plans, or similar restrictions – this system should pose no serious inconvenience to you. It looks to be about as restrictive as Steam’s “always-on DRM”, which is to say not very. If you have a decent enough connection to even be in the online gaming space at all, this requirement doesn’t look to get in your way whatsoever.
The all important question then is – why? What is to be gained from a requirement that excludes a portion of the population that is hungry for games? There is plenty to say about Microsoft’s vision for an always-connected future, the benefits of the cloud, and the innovations in gameplay a constant data stream can bring. But the reason that a single-player game that utilizes none of these features will still need to validate every once in a while is less optimistic than that; with a reduction in physical restrictions on games comes an increase in piracy. While the One will no doubt still have plenty of barriers that will prevent unsavory characters from pirating games in bulk, removing the requirement for a physical disc and the safeguards associated with that will make hackers’ jobs that much easier. By clearing games with the servers every once in a while, this makes it extremely difficult to run a hacked console, while providing a minimal inconvenience for the majority of gamers. But a majority is not all, and that’s why this is my most tepid defense on the list; I understand why they did it, I don’t necessarily begrudge them for it, but I’m not super thrilled about it either.
- Mandatory Kinect
The Xbox One will not function without a Kinect unit – included with every console – plugged in and turned on. To so-called core gamers, this seems ridiculous. Why should I have to keep Microsoft’s gimmicky answer to the Wii connected when the games I care about barely ever use it? Heck, why did I have to buy one with the console in the first place? The answer to this ties in with the theme of the reveal in general, another source of discontent among gamers.
As has been comically noted in a video that went rapidly viral, the event was mostly about television. The cable guide and voice integration were the big show stealers, which upset many gamers who thought the big show stealers should’ve been games. Well I’m here to tell you that event wasn’t for you, and the highlights of the reveal were expertly chosen for whom that announcement was directed.
We know about games. We know what we want in a gaming console, and will know all of the information that exists about a console before we buy it. The mainstream media doesn’t. The general public doesn’t. And as Mark Serrels pointed out, the mainstream media was absolutely smitten with the One.
Why? Because it answered the question “why do I need to add this expensive box to my crowded living room?” The One promises to consolidate the plethora of technology that has invaded our living room, and offer a Jetsons-esque viewing experience in the process. Talking to entertainment enthusiasts who are light gamers at most, they were amazed by what the One had to offer. Heck, my mother was even excited about it, compared to the PS4 which she didn’t even know was announced.
All of this is probably infuriating some of you even more though. Yeah, I know they were courting the general public, and they shafted me in the process. They told core gamers that they don’t need us anymore. Well, no, they didn’t. Many people seem to have overlooked the little nugget that 25 exclusives will be coming to the One its first year, 8 of which being brand new franchises. And the same people overlooked the frequent reminders that they will be showcasing oodles of games at E3, and that this event was all about the hardware and the experience it offered. When my mother heard the games would be covered at E3, her response was “What’s E3?” Those are the people this event was for. The people who don’t follow E3, and just want to be convinced why they need a cool new toy in their living room, and this event did a damn good job of that.
Which brings me back around to my original point, mandatory Kinect. Sure there’s all of the stuff with player identification and loading individual profiles and saves automagically and all of the other system-wide improvements the new Kinect offers, but that’s not why one will be in every single box. It will be in every box because for the people this event was intended for, the Kinect is the Xbox One. The people who are amazed by the guide features but have never heard of E3 are not going to buy a console and then buy a separate accessory and deal with all of that. They’re going to buy one thing, and expect it to “just work”. This is how they do that. It’s also why it looks like there will only be one configuration for HDD size (which expandable storage promises not to be an issue for power users). No confusing options or add-ons, just one unified system that will do everything right out of the box.
And hey, all of that player ID, registering your heartbeat and reading your mind shit is pretty cool too, and guaranteeing developers universal access to those features is a big deal.
So there you have it. I’m sure there are many more complaints floating out there in the blogosphere, but these are the ones that seem to be constants. I’m optimistic and excited for everything the One seeks to offer. If even after reading this you’re still pessimistic about it, wait until E3. Let Microsoft try to court you as gamers, rather than courting the general public as entertainment consumers, and then see how you feel about it. If you’re still unhappy, there’s always the PS4. If you don’t like that, I suppose the Wii U will probably still be around for a little while. Barring all of those, you could always join us in the PC master race. But at least give it a chance.