The Xbone 180; The Abortion of Next-Gen

Microsoft gave in to the whining, the fear-mongering, the myopic and the change-averse rain-man tantrums of a gaming minority. They gave in to a group who has time and time again demonstrated that they don't know what they want or what's best for them.... they just know how to yell without and complain without presenting solutions. As a result, we lost something that could truly have represented a next-gen. Instead, now we get more of the same with slightly better graphics and integrated video sharing functionality. Yay?

It is important to recognize that I am going to discuss a lot about POTENTIAL in this post. There is going to be discussion of ideas, concepts, etc that were never explicitly shared or indicated, but were implicit in some cases and long-goal hopes in others. Just because they were not explicitly indicated does not mean they were not considered or even believed to be the hopeful future. It simply means they were far enough off or their exact final form impossible to truly predict accurately enough to prevent additional backlash from this same, obnoxious community. Why would you share such details with a group that has only ever shown itself capable of dealing in concrete when those details are still limestone waiting for quarry?

Don't get me wrong, I had quibbles with MS' strategy as well. But to abandon an ideal over alterable details with months left to iron them out is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Easily the biggest concern was the 24hr check-in cycle. Yet, you would think there were amenable solutions to that. My first thought revolves around using the disc itself as its own offline check for those rare instances you are without an internet connection. It proves you still have the license/product which was really the point of the 24hr check when physical objects persist in a digital ecosystem. This problem is easily solved with digital versions. In order to lend, trade-in, share, etc a digital copy you must inherently be online to initiate that transaction. If that transaction then leaves a note on your machine/account dictating your ability to have or not have access to that product as you deemed fit (traded, lended, kept in your possession, etc) it can remember this while you're offline as well (and is, in fact, likely how the 24hr check for physical discs was operating as well). Want to use your digital game on another machine while it is still attached to your account? Shocker, but you might have to log in... if nothing else so you can download it huh? I do believe that this system would be more effective with a designated "home system" to where all your licenses automatically revert after predetermined time periods much like how Kindle and Nook book lending services have time restrictions. This prevents your friend from borrowing your game and leaving his console offline so that it never receives your rescinded loan. It is digital theft prevention from that friend who always forgets to return your stuff. And that's just a quick idea that could, and likely would, be possible to build and expound upon. If nothing else, these complaints were coming from supposed hardcore gamers. You know, the same guys who live by their millisecond lag times both in their hardware and their broadband access. The same guys who sit on the internet and read about gaming almost as much as they take part in it. You know, the same guys who tend to have pretty stable, good internet connections. But right.... DRM is bad. Sorry, I forgot buzzwords have more power than actual meaning.

So here's where my problems with the whole change begin. We have consistently, ad nauseum, heard the gaming press complain that the industry is unsustainable in it's current incarnation. Microsoft makes an attempt that it believes may help this and it's shot down before it has even had a chance to see whether that would. Sometimes, change is good. Correct, change is not inherently good and change solely for the sake of change can be a problem. But here's the thing. In this case it is change for potential benefit vs stagnation which has long been accused of becoming a boggy mire that drowns all who step within it. Microsoft made an attempt to bring publishers/developers back into the second-hand market so that they WOULDN'T continue to be so afraid of it. This allows them to see some of the benefit and continues to help fund more of the things you like. The used discussion has been hashed out so often I'm not going to repeat it here. All I will say is that Microsoft was trying to actually let you still have it and place it within an ecosystem where the people who create the products you enjoy may benefit from the resale of their non-perishable goods. This, in turn, would likely have a downwards price effect, especially on initial game pricing. Most games make ALL of their money in the first 2-3 months post-release and they have to because it may become cannibalized by used sales or lost in the next latest thing. By allowing publishers to have a piece of this tail end by offering a piece of used sales, Microsoft was giving them the potential to have lower initial prices and still make more as there would be a longer tail on the earnings of games. Now, without a piece of this tail, they must grab everything they can up front and this means season passes, day 1 DLC, etc while they have every ounce of mindshare and only new owners.

And this brings us the potential of pricing. Steam has time and time again shown us this model can work and work effectively. For those not involved in PC gaming, Steam does have great sales, yes, but it is it's role as a central ecosystem from which players can buy directly or input purchases from elsewhere that truly drives this to its greatest efficiency. Allowing the retail marketplace access to your ecosystem with its merchandising, pricing, etc is a good thing. Steam sees this with sales of keys, etc from retailers like Green Man Gaming. Microsoft's approach actually expanded this to ALL retailers selling games. We would still have the potential for digital without the reliance on a single ecosystem's pricing scheme. Phenomenal. We would be able to have all the benefits and convenience of digital versions without the usual worry that people have of nascent systems like Games on Demand. This would force Games on Demand (or its Xbone equivalent) to either be price competitive or simply act as a digital repository for retail purchases. There is no way this doesn't lead to broader acceptance and lower prices or more rapid decline in pricing. No, this absolutely would not have been immediate and was actually probably a gradual change years off, but it would have been there. It was a long-play, a rare instance where a company demonstrated long vision in a world where quarterly share-holder meetings necessitate only thinking in the short-term (and is likely what resulted in this reversal).

So what have we lost?

1) A digital/physical convergence that merged the convenience of digital with the remaining presence of physical media. It was actually a smart and efficient compromise if only they had handled the 24hr check for physical media better. The rest of entertainment is heading or has already headed towards a digital world. Console gaming was being left behind and now is standing at the train station waving to the others as they chug away.

2) True portability is lost. Now you have to physically hand over your disc to someone. You must be near them in some physical way. Want to share that game with your cousin across the country? Now you can grab a plane ticket, take a road trip or drop the telegram for the Pony Express to pick it up. This is all instead of saying "Titanfall is awesome man, you should give it a shot. Here, I just grabbed Forza so won't be playing it this week, why don't you give it a shot and if you like it grab a digital license of your own so we can play together later" and clicking the lend button so your best friend across the country can download and try it out..... instantly.

Or TRUE portability.... with the increasing convergence in consumer hardware, portable systems are becoming more and more similar. Want a true killer app (granted, this is a dream that would be far down the line)? Imagine in the future that Microsoft has (well, actually already have really) merged your Xbox, Win Phone, Win8 and Surface accounts. Your XBLA purchase also now entitles you to playing it on all these devices with a single purchase. Or at the very least a significant discount. And you could have save sharing, etc. Yes, there are development concerns here, hardware variations and incurred costs. Some of these may be mitigated as more and more desktop chips turn towards mobile compatible chips (see Intel's current Haswell move). Some of these are value-added service which actually spurs purchasing.

3) True permanence was a possibility. The retail/digital convergence Microsoft was proposing allowed for a stronger sense of permanence. Scratch or lose your disk now? Tough. Your friend you so had to have physical lending for broke it, lost it or worse? Tough. With the original Xbone system you'd still have had that game linked to your account and could simply have redownloaded it. No worse for the wear. See, there's no degradation of digital bits and that seems far more permanent to me than a physical object. Yes, I am incurring some risk at the hands of a corporation in the sense that some day they may implode their servers and I may lose access to it, but that's likely a lower risk than your 5 year old cousin's temper tantrum rampage. That's such a doomsday, worst-case scenario it feels disingenuous to assume it will happen.

And then there's the pipe dream of TRUE permanence. Every game you've ever bought and kept is linked to your account. Should Microsoft (or even Sony in this distant future) enact a streaming service or whatever you have record that you own that game. There is the potential for not having to purchase it again or having nominal fees to reinstate this back catalog. With the current system, you are tied to an old system which will eventually break for your backwards compatibility. If that machine breaks and is no longer manufactured your backwards compatibility is gone with it.

4) Pricing: Discussed. Steam-like with a retail environment of competition would have likely eventually led to lower prices. They did not bring this up because this was an economy mediated change; one whose time-frame and degree of impact were fluid and unable to be predicted. It would have been like asking what mortgage rates will be in 5 years.

5) Differentiation: We've lost what separated these consoles in any true, meaningful way. We've taken away a tool from developers now that they are not assured of always on. This hurts gamers as these tools are what allow change and evolution to occur. Want exclusivity to make things interesting? You NEED differentiation. Now MS loses something which could have set it apart and as such loses exclusives (features or games). No we can just see a repeat of the current generation, a true multiplatform homogenization. Yay...

6) I always see people complain about having to change their discs. The Xbone got you so close to NEVER having to do that again. AND, in addition, allowed for the rapid switching between games they were talking about, even with retail purchased disc games. You know where they said the machine can be teeing up your multiplayer match while you play your single-player game? God, that seems a lot more inconvenient now that you'll have to actually physically swap out a disc every time...

So what do we gain for the loss of potential? What do we gain by shuddering in fear of change?

1) You can continue getting dismal trade value for your games and can continue buying used games which are $5 cheaper than their new editions and don't support the people who worked hard to make what you enjoy.

2) You can PHYSICALLY hand a disc to your friend. Now you have to actually hand it to them.... or mail it to them. Perhaps you will have to take your horse-drawn carriage over to their house or send it via pony express. Or you could have simply hit the share button and have instantly allowed for it, but apparently that tactile feedback is really important to some of you.

3) You can play your Xbone offline. You know, those rare instances when you take it camping, to the deserts of Iraq, beneath the waves on a submarine or to Grandma's house. Or you could have, you know, waited for a better solution or clarification on this process which played an alterable, smaller role in the grand scheme.

Congrats gamers. You let the 14yr olds jumping on the bandwagon win with your fear mongering and sensationalism. I would argue we all perhaps won a battle, but really lost a war. And in doing so, may have potentially lost our industry we love as well.... Congratulations status quo and stagnation, you have won again and you really didn't even know what you wanted or were asking for.

**For those who will complain that I am being xenophobic and not considering those less fortunate than me who don't have consistent, adequate access to the internet. First of all, you've completely ignored my solution to the supposed 24hr window, but let me ignore that for a minute as well then. Let's also ignore that they said this authorization is on the order of kilobytes every 24hrs; something your 28.8k modem or your cellphone are more than capable of. Instead, let's discuss the idea of luxury goods. This is a $500 GAMING machine. About the luxury of luxuries; a machine designed purely for entertainment. It is MORE of a luxury than internet access (some even discuss this as a basic human right in a modern world) and is even more of a luxury item than consistent broadband internet access. And you can't call it xenophobic because the United States is 27th in the world in broadband penetration. That's pretty low amongst countries where individuals can afford such luxuries. And lastly.... that is what it is. It is a luxury good. You do not have a right to it (same argument for you pirates out there too). If you don't have what it takes to have one (disposable income, internet access) why do you think you have the right to it? If nothing else, as broadband penetration and internet access around the world continue to proliferate at increasing speeds this box was built to serve for the next decade or so. That world is going to be a little different then than it is now and if it means some people are going to miss out for a while then that is the unfortunate reality.