Microsoft’s new console, the Xbox One, is a powerful machine with some interesting and innovative features. Microsoft spent most of the last console generation well ahead of its main competitor, Sony. The Xbox 360 greatly expanded a brand that Microsoft had started with the original Xbox, and gained a loyal fan base – especially among online console gamers. Microsoft has invested a cubic crap ton in marketing its new machine and in exclusive partnerships.
So, the question remains, How did Microsoft screw this up so badly?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not predicting the Xbox One’s demise. A lot could happen in the coming years and Microsoft could turn this around. Microsoft seems to already be getting back on course, and had a lot of good to show off recently at Gamescom. I don’t think the PS4‘s dominance of this console generation is a foregone conclusion by any means. But I do think Microsoft handed Sony an opportunity on a silver platter.
[Disclaimer:] I’m choosing not to mention the Nintendo Wii or Wii U in this discussion because I think the market for those consoles is/was largely different and outside of the market for Microsoft and Sony’s products. I don’t at all mean to discount Nintendo‘s contributions to the current and previous console generations, I just don’t feel it’s pertinent to this topic.
Whose Idea Was It to Unveil the Non-Gaming Features First?
Microsoft first unveiled its Xbox One console at an event on the company’s campus this past May. To say that the reveal failed to excite gamers is hardly an overstatement. The focus was on all the things the Xbox One could do besides play games.
Microsoft execs and spokespeople showed off the Xbox One as an entertainment hub which, yes, did play a game or two but also was a DVR, a stream box, a health monitor and an always on presence in your living room. The internets were displeased and calls of “where are the games?” echoed through the blogosphere.
To its credit, Microsoft promised and certainly delivered some excellent gaming content for its E3 showcase a month later. But why the company chose to unveil a gaming console with its focus elsewhere still dumbfounds me.
The Kinect Problem
Microsoft’s Kinect is an incredible device that allows for never before seen gameplay styles as well as voice and gestural controls. But its mandatory inclusion with the Xbox One was a terrible idea. Core gamers don’t care about the Kinect, and the folks who might buy an Xbox One for the Kinect functions aren’t about to pay $500 for one. Add to this the somewhat spooky always-on feature of the Kinect (Microsoft has since backtracked on this) which rankled security advocates and consumers alike.
Lastly, the inclusion of the Kinect is generally thought to be the reason for the $499 price point (as opposed to the PS4’s $399), prompting calls for a Kinect free model of the console that, so far, have fallen on deaf ears from Microsoft.
The DRM and Used Games Fiasco
Microsoft originally announced the Xbox One would have an always online requirement, to check the licenses of games and media -be they on disc or downloaded. It was an effort to make the console operate more like Steam, a model based on digital downloads where the ownership is in the license for content as opposed to a physical disc. A consequence of this policy was a potential inability to share or play used games on disc -as the content’s license would already be owned.
Suffice it to say, this was extremely unpopular with console gamers. Don Mattrick’s flippant comments only made matters worse.
Flip Flops, Midseason Replacements, and Delays
Microsoft reversed its stance on its always-online license checking, DRM, and policies around used or shared games after a barrage of attacks from all sides. The internet backlash was huge and message boards were filled with scathing nerd rage screeds. Microsoft’s main rival, Sony, got in on the bloodbath too, releasing a tongue-in-cheek video about used games on the PS4.
While Microsoft’s 180 was a good thing for consumers, it put the company in an unenviable position. Also, it was only the first of many flip flops, with Microsoft switching its script again and again after features of the Xbox One were publicly bashed. Microsoft totally changed its stance on Indy development (for the better, I might add), and made it possible to disable the Kinect. Each of these moves were in response to negative press. While the changes are all good, Microsoft came out of it looking like it was indecisive and lacking leadership.
And that’s probably because it was! Don Mattrick left Microsoft for Zynga halfway through the Xbox One’s hype cycle. Mattrick ran his mouth too much, and arguably was responsible for a lot of the Xbox One’s bad press. Still, whether he jumped ship or was pushed overboard a leadership shuffle this late in the game just looks bad.
Do you know what looks even worse? Promising something without delivering. First Microsoft delayed Kinect Sports Rivals, one of its most hyped launch titles. Just last week the company announced it would be delaying the release of the Xbox One in 8 of the 21 markets it had previously announced would get the console on day one.
Xbox One Controllers Need Batteries Out of the Box – Seriously
It’s 2013, and buying batteries is ridiculous. That the Xbox One costs $499 and doesn’t come with rechargeable wireless controllers as a standard feature is nonsensical. It’s like the Xbox team said “We already included that Kinect you didn’t want, we can’t really add rechargeable controllers, now can we?”
This seems like a minor peeve, since you can get a “Play and Charge” kit. Of course, you’ll pay $24.99 for each kit, or $74.99 for a controller and kit combined. The standard, battery powered controllers are $59.99. Want to play 2 player and recharge with your new $500 console? That will just be $100 more!
As I’ve said, I’m not trying to pronounce the Xbox One dead on arrival here. Far from it! Microsoft has a loyal install base and is going into this generation with a major head start on the online side. On the hardware side, the Xbox One and Playstation 4 are comparable and development of most major titles will happen for both, aside from first party exclusives – of which Microsoft has plenty.
As embarrassing as Microsoft’s public reversals have been, they do show that the company is course-correcting and cleaning up its strategy with the Xbox One. Going forward, Microsoft has an opportunity to continue listening to its consumers and make something great.
I’m very excited to see what the coming years will bring from Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo!