Oh right, I forgot you need some random blurb here so that the text in TAY doesn't look all screwy. So, uh, yeah, I've been thinking about all the scary rumors surrounding Microsoft's next Xbox, and thought it might be fun to editorialize about it, but do it in letter form, because that's a bit more interesting than a dry essay. Hopefully, you find some great insights in here.
Currently, you are in a rather enviable position: I have an interest in purchasing an upcoming product of yours. This isn't to say that I am particularly special, but I do represent a demographic commonly known to spend the most money on entertainment products and services. Not only that, but I'm in the demographic most likely to be both an early adopter of this product and contribute greatly to this product's attach rate figures.
Yeah. I'm a male, between the ages of 18 and 35, and I'm a core gamer. As you may have guessed, I'm writing about the next Xbox.
See, some troubling rumors have been circling lately, and I'm currently questioning whether I'm really all that interested in buying another Xbox. You won this generation quite handily, in terms of attach rate (which, I'm sure you'll agree, is the most important statistic to with which to determine a "winner"), console and games sales figures, and average metascore, and that's the the reason I'm writing now: I value what you've done with the the Xbox brand. From your dedication to experimental titles like Viva Pinata to your steadfast support of... most of your mainline games (I was sad to see that three of Xbox Live's best-performing franchises on the original Xbox—Crimson Skies, MechAssault, and Conker—never made it to the Xbox 360) such as Forza and Halo, to your great support of indie games through XBLA and XBLIG, you've done good. You've provided the most robust online service out there, with great patching, download speeds, audio quality, and all that jazz. You've got the best motion-gaming solution on the market.
...but I worry you're getting ahead of yourselves. In fact, I'd go so far as to suggest you've forgotten your place in the grand scheme of the entertainment industry.
You see, there is no entertainment industry without an audience, because that's where all the money comes from. If these rumors (I know, I know—you don't comment on rumors and speculation) are even remotely correct, you stand to lose a great deal of them.
Now, normally, I wouldn't give these rumors much thought, but some of your decisions throughout the 360's life span have proved... well, somewhat troublesome. As it stands, you've slowly used up all the goodwill you rightfully earned at the start of this generation. From a diminishing variety in your exclusive triple-A titles (you've got no sandbox, action, or more traditional RPG titles, for instance) to increasingly loud frustrations being voiced by indie developers (and yes, I know, XBLIG exists to let people experiment with games, not make a living, so your obligation isn't to advertise them, but it's more than that), to concerns being voiced about your approval policies, to the fact that you're making people pay an additional fee to access services they already pay for, such as Amazon Prime, to the fact that Sony's offering 'free' games to PS+ subscribers and discounts on pretty much everything for same...
Well, it's safe to say you're losing steam.
Actually, you could probably learn a lot from Steam, Valve's digital download service. The clan/group/club service—whatever you want to call it—is great. Frequent sales (as in, dailies, weekend and mid-week, and 'event') are the biggest reason that Steam's user base may, in fact, be larger than Xbox Live's (and people say PC gaming is dying, heh). Their ever-evolving set of features may not always be the best, as Steam Greenlight has shown, but the fact that the service is ever-evolving and constantly adding features that are actually pretty cool is great. It's nice to play a game and know your saves will be accessible pretty much anywhere, without having to manually save them to the cloud, or, even worse, select your save location every time you start a game. It's cool to get early access to indie games through alpha funding.
Of course, it's not just Steam. PC gaming as a whole has always shown what the future of gaming was going to be like. Online gaming? PC. Social gaming? PC. First-person shooters? PC. Even the RPG was a PC thing, once upon a time. And right now, PC gaming is winning over the Lost Boys, an important, desirable element of consumers. It's Youtube and Twitch.tv, with video recording and livestreaming, that's getting people to buy and play games on their PCs, and soon, it's going to be a big reason people buy a Playstation 4.
You, on the other hand, seem to be considering EA's route. Your console, it's said, will mandate online-only play. I wouldn't be at all surprised if you start implementing a great deal of excessive microtransactions in your games, trying to profit by targeting the mobile demographic; after all, Forza Horizon already does.
So please, let me, a fairly average consumer, temper your expectations.
You make things for my entertainment. I give you money because of that and that alone.
I don't doubt that some journalist, fanboy, or employee feels the need to leap to your defense, shouting about claims of entitlement, so please, let me alleviate you of this notion: this is a discussion of economics. I buy what interests me. I buy what I want to play. Your lifeblood is in making things I want to spend money on. I've already stopped buying EA products, and others are beginning to as well. It doesn't have to happen to you.
Microsoft earned my loyalty this generation, and that was in part because the Xbox was really just the next Sega console, with all the Panzer Dragoon and Otogi and Jet Set Radio Future that meant. You can just as easily lose this loyalty.
I wasn't always a Microsoft fan. What may come as a surprise to many is that I was a Sony guy. If I was in the market for an electronic device, yeah, it'd be a Sony. That meant quality, and to be quite honest, if Sony hadn't completely dropped the ball this generation, in everything from price to game quality to PSN/the PS3 OS being genuinely awful in so many ways...
You wouldn't have stood a chance, even if XBL had the superior infrastructure.
But they did, and even the red ring of death couldn't stop you. When you handpicked nearly all of my favorite developers, like Remedy, Epic, and Bungie, and ran with it, I knew I'd found a good console. But I, and so many others like me, could just as easily swing the other way. Rumors are swirling that your controller's smaller—not a wise move, considering that the 360 controller's only weakness was the D-pad, even with the new transforming variant. Other rumors suggest that you're going to create a cable tv pass-through box, and that's great, but it's best to keep in mind that more and more consumers, myself included, are looking to services like Amazon Prime and Netflix for our TV fixes. Cable's worthless; the internet has rendered it so.
But the worst thing, which I mentioned earlier, is the always-online, microtransaction-influenced concept.
Just who do you think is buying video game consoles? Nintendo's big mistake last generation was targeting the casual gamer. Yes, the Wii outsold the Xbox for a while, and still does worldwide, even if, in the most important market, the 360's apparently eclipsed it. That doesn't matter, of course, because the 360's attach rate was so much better than the Wii's. I'm confident you made more money through game licensing fees and the dashboard advertisements than Nintendo ever made on the Wii. While the Kinect was initially successful, how much money are you really making on it? Most of your Kinect-exclusive games have been disasters, and I'd be willing to bet that people don't use the Kinect enhancements in their AAA games all that much.
Social was supposedly where the money was, but only for the short term.
So now you're looking at mobile gaming, like so many others are. The problem is, as much money as it makes, mobile gaming is all about short term play. Mobile is about playing for ten minutes at a pop. Microtransactions facilitate this, supporting that short-term, instantaneous habit by empowering people to get things quickly.
In other words, mobile gaming is a completely different market. You are making a video game console; you want customers to buy your games and spend time with them. Remember, one of your biggest concerns is how to keep people from trading their games in. How do you fix that?
You don't make disposable, cheap experiences intended to appeal to people who only want to play for a few minutes at a time.
See, if you target an audience who doesn't have any interest your product while trying to simultaneously prevent your currently-existing audience from getting rid of games that are trying to appeal to the people who don't care, you'll lose.
When I say lose, by the way, I'm not talking about some sort of metaphorical fanboy sense, I'm talking about "you will fail to profit, because nobody will want what you have to offer."
What you need to do are make the kind of games that work for a console. That means you need to think about how to convince people to come back to your game, to sit down for several hours and consume what you have to offer. If you want to get people to spend money, give up the dream of mobile's profits, because you aren't making a device people move with, you're making a device people move to.
Your goal should be to get people to want to stay in one place for long periods of time, and, as it turns out, giving them ways to avoid that through microtransactions won't help.
You know what else won't help? This always-connected thing. People don't like strings. They like things to be easy. As opposed to PCs as the predominant form of gaming, that's the primary appeal of consoles: they're easy. You put in a disc, you play the game, and you have a good time. Nobody likes requirements. Nobody likes it when things go wrong. An always-online system, no matter how generous it may be, still has the potential for things to go wrong.
If I change internet service providers, how can I play my video games in the downtime? When a line gets cut, what can I do? My modem was screwy for a good six months, and my 360 absolutely refused to connect to the internet sometimes. Don't even get me started on all the times Xbox Live goes down (admittedly, not as much as PSN).
Through an always-online console, you are not making a device people gravitate to whenever they feel like it, you're creating an experience that only works on your terms. You've fundamentally misunderstood your place relative to the consumer. We consume entertainment on our terms, and if we don't like it, then we make such a fuss about it that the retailing giant Amazon does the unprecedented and accepts returns on your product.
You don't want that. You don't want people not playing your console. You don't want people not consuming your product. You don't want people getting rid of your product. You don't want that bad press either.
Windows 8 has been a tremendous failure because Microsoft felt the need to dictate terms to its audience. Where most of us wanted a mouse and keyboard-friendly interface for our mouse and keyboard devices, you chose to remove that option and only provide a touch-friendly interface. Businesses—your biggest customers, haven't been adopting Windows 8, and neither have consumers. I can't visit the computing section of any of my local electronics stores without hearing someone complaining about Windows 8, wishing they could get Windows 7 back.
Now, you're rumored to be doing it with your next Xbox. People won't buy things they don't want. At the minimum, you need to provide that—at best, you should be providing things they had no idea they wanted. No one, under any circumstance, wants limitation, and that's precisely what an always-online console would do.
Now, you might say "but hey, social is the future, and a lot of people enjoy games online!" If you do, then just like EA, you've completely missed the part where people still spend millions on single-player experiences, like Batman: Arkham City, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and Bioshock Infinite. Those games are still social, but it's asynchronous—we share videos of our experiences and talk about how much fun we had rather than play together. Every game is social, espeically single-player only games, because the only way we can share those experiences is to talk about them.
And you know what gets people to buy games? Talk. Word of mouth. "Hey, guess what I did! It was awesome!"
So, y'know, maybe you're not doing any of this. That's cool, this letter was more of a thought experiment than anything else. I'm not even sending it to you, I'm posting it on Kotaku in the hopes that it might start an interesting conversation. It's not just something that applies to Microsoft, either. EA could definitely learn from this, especially after the SimCity debacle.
As crazy as it sounds, I think single-player heavy, microtransaction-free games on a console that can be played so long as it's hooked up to a display and has electricity makes a lot of sense. Any other kind of game... I'm not all that interested in spending money on. Don't get me wrong, there's a big market for multiplayer games out there, and games such as League of Legends or Team Fortress 2 are making obscene amounts of cash, but it's vital that developers focus on a wide variety of games that appeal to a wide variety of people, rather than simply chasing the Next Big Thing, which, in this case, just happens to be social and mobile gaming.
We, the consumers, still want those single-player, offline games that give us a reason to spend a few hours in front of our televisions.
If you deny us that... we'll probably just start buying Sony.