The Media Men

Don Mattrick presents: Logos.

When it comes to video game press conferences I think people have the tendency to get overly-cynical. The bars get set incredibly high, people want the core gamer to be catered to at all times, it’s easy to be myopic about these things, and there is a certain satisfaction in complaining, and so every year I think we see a fair bit of melodrama surrounding the big three. That being said, I think one of the defining things about the Xbox One reveal has been that while there may be a certain amount of unhealthy cynicism going around, reactions that would be far too negative if they were in response to most other conferences, feel largely justified here.

A Balancing Act

When we tune in to these events we expect a certain amount of time to be put aside for demos of motion control games that we’re probably never going to play, and segments of sporty talk about how you can use the sports app to fill your sports box with the latest sports sports. With the variety of people using consoles today, we can’t expect every second of every conference to cater to our own personal tastes. I’m somewhat playing devil’s advocate here, but maybe there’s a certain amount of give and take that has to happen with these things. Even if that is the case though, Microsoft seemed to be much less about the giving and much more about the taking.

It was crystal clear throughout the conference just what Microsoft wants their new console to be; an all-in-one home media centre that acts as a combined games console, cable box, stereo, and more. It’s an ambitious goal, and yet one that in many ways is playing it safe. We sometimes see things in the games industry that seem difficult to pull off because the ideas are so new and untested, and while Microsoft are bringing some new ideas to the table, they seem more interested in taking existing ideas and cramming them all into their system. It’s a strategy that will pay out very well if they can pull it off, but one that also risks them entering the next generation as a kind of “Jack of all trades, master of none”.

This conference could have been so much more.

Additionally, while some gamers have a tendency to overestimate how much their personal approval affects products, it must also be acknowledged that Microsoft have to walk a fine line here, between pleasing the more traditional gaming audience and reaching for a new audience of casual gamers, families, and similar folk. Nintendo's press conferences are a great example of how you can target a large new audience, while still presenting plenty for die-hard video game fans. Microsoft’s show felt nothing like Nintendo's, and there is a possibility that in trying to reach out and please everyone at the same time, companies can end up simultaneously alienating their loyal fans and failing to net a large enough new audience, eventually finding they have a smaller consumer base than they did when they started. The question has to be asked here, exactly how appropriate is it to invite the gaming press and millions of other gamers to watch your presentation, when the majority of it is going to be anything but games?

The Message

Press conferences and the talk that follows them are largely about communicating information though, and while the widespread criticism that there was too much sports and TV talk and not enough games is both important and valid, one angle I’m seeing getting much less coverage from people is what exactly Microsoft have communicated over the past few days. Whatever they want to be communicating, the message to me has seemed clear; that video games are worth less of their time than ever, that they care about a theoretical fandom of the Xbox as an all-round media centre more than they care about us, the loyal base of customers that already exist for them, and that they’re still fine sidelining independent developers as long as they’ve got the big corporations on their side.

Sir, the sergeant requests one tummy rub, ASAP.

What Microsoft have showed us of the Xbox One contrasts poorly with Sony’s Playstation 4 reveal. I gave the PS4 some degree of flack for not being backwards compatible, but at least Sony were offering some sort of alternative to stream games from older platforms. I’ve also strongly criticised Sony for playing it so safe with many of the games they’ve showed, but at least they were showing games. I don’t think Sony were fully catering to the gaming audience, but you went away from their conference seeing that they were invested in providing us, the core audience, with games, and in working with developers across the board. Microsoft seemed to not give a fuck about much of the core audience and dev community because they wanted to show off their fun new media options and tout some tech demos from the big developers. I’m still mind-boggled that their closer was Infinity Ward showing that they had motion captured a dog and now have more realistic dogs in Call of Duty. We give a lot of light ribbing in the face of these presentations, but this is something that deserves to be outright mocked.

The Omni-Box

Perhaps more dangerous for Microsoft as a company is the point that has been raised by some that the Xbox One may conceptually be a poor idea. The success of this device as an all-round media machine relies on a theoretical group of people who are involved enough in home entertainment to want a box that will stream TV and films, play music, make phone calls, etc. but somehow haven’t got devices to do this already, or can’t find better devices for the job than the Xbox One. There also seems to be this big assumption that in the age of high tech TVs, smart phones, tablets, and PCs, that people actually want to do all these things via a box connected to their TV. Even the base idea of having a device that plays TV through your TV is somewhat ridiculous.

There's a possibility that this is not the powerful strategy Microsoft think it is.

I’m willing to admit that in some ways the Xbox One’s snap mode is mind-blowing, and I’m sure there is some real potential in its media-centric features. I use my Xbox 360 to stream content on a semi-regular basis, and I don’t think many of us can make entirely reliable concrete predictions about where this thing is going, but some serious questions should at least be asked about the applications of this device when Microsoft are throwing so many of their eggs in one basket, and when this console is going to have such a long lifecycle. How often do you simultaneously want a game running and media being streamed? How much do these media features really have to offer someone outside the U.S.? Who thinks the preferred device for making phone calls is their television? Couldn’t the media features here be more conveniently provided by smart TVs and other devices in the coming years? I remember back to the PS3’s old tagline of “It only does everything”, and the way I used to think it was just silly, because the idea of one machine that truly does everything is a myth.

In terms of the presentation we saw, I think what happened was that Microsoft wanted to push really hard on the media angle out of the gate to make it clear that they were more focused on non-video game mediums than ever, and perhaps because they thought that most of the video game content would be more appropriate for E3, a video game conference. But it’s clear that this console is going in a direction that not everyone is going to agree with. I’m sure that whatever the state of the Xbox One overall, we’ll see developers producing some truly stunning games for it, but the path Microsoft have taken is one that I’ve seen far too much of the video game industry take in recent years. It’s one where they have so much potential to create something mind-blowing and are squandering it, and right now the early Xbox One details are the best argument I’ve seen for getting a PS4. Thanks for reading.

16 Comments
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Edited by Seppli

Living in a small country in central Europe, the entire all-in-one pitch falls flat. Regardless of where you live in Europe, in the short term, we'll have little to nothing to gain from the added value of using Xbox One as a cable box. Even if this interplay comes into play later, the local markets offer a much poorer choice of shows and are usually outdated by roughly a year, and us consumers are limited by what corporate tastemakers preselect for us. The local market of broadcasted content is simply put way beneath me.

Personally, I've disconnected from the *Broadcasted World of Entertainment* years ago. If Microsoft does manage to *globalize* their streaming media content and make it available everywhere, that'd be highly attractive to me, but I guess that's something that would need some major political efforts of the entertainment industry pushing in the direction of an international freetrading zone (which is quite the opposite of what is currently being pushed for).

I can guarantee you, that outside of America, Microsoft's push is likely doomed, unless they've already got major co-marketing campaigns for subsidized boxes worked out in each and every territory. The whole cable box business is just revving up here, so if the Xbox One is the device being sent out to every new client, that could possibly be a winning strategy. From where I'm sitting however, I just don't believe in broadcasted media anymore, and I think neither does a majority of people under 40. Could be that the market at large is still open to such a thing, I doubt it though.

Regardless of that, opposed to North America, which is a market currently dominated by Xbox, Europe is rather anti-Microsoft regardless of what it does, and Japan never gave a crap whatsoever - and I don't think neither of these markets will respond positively to what Microsoft has shown us at the reveal event. These markets are Sony's to lose, and Microsoft's to win - and I just don't see the all-in-one strategy to be a winning bid over here.

Posted by Marcsman

Outside of America Microsoft has already failed bigtime.

Edited by Mento

I said it elsewhere (and am paraphrasing from a Jimquisition episode if I'm being totally honest), but Microsoft screwed up by not focusing on the games first and foremost. By talking up the All in One TV/internet/media features they weren't trying to compete with just Sony and Nintendo, but with the hundred different devices that provide similar services in the living room including many new TVs. I don't think they can win that contest, especially given how relatively cheap and compact a lot of those devices are and how likely the well-off gadget-loving type that would buy a game console brand new will probably already own as many of the aforementioned devices as they need.

Microsoft have a chance come E3 to make it up by concentrating entirely on the games instead, since they've all but said everything they needed to about everything else relating to the XOne, but I think that reveal shattered any illusions people had about MS knowing what the hell they were doing and it really doesn't help their case that almost every horror story about the user experience appears to be true, whether it's because it's actually true or because they're being too ambiguous about it. The Xone isn't dead on arrival, far from it, but it's discouraging how badly that initial conference was botched and it does not bode well for future presentations of the thing.

On a final note the dog thing was just ridiculous, but that's more Activision's fault than Microsoft's, who may have rightfully believed that a new Call of Duty was one game announcement that could potentially excite a lot of people and didn't look too closely at what was actually in the presentation beforehand. Adding a dog is something you do to the fifth consecutive game in a single generation, where you don't have a huge leap in technology from which to draw any real innovations. I guess it's no surprise that CoD continues to be creatively bankrupt, but the desperation is tangible.

Moderator
Posted by Video_Game_King

This may sound alarmist, but this may be reflective of a greater trend in gaming that's been going on since the last generation: focus first and foremost on casual gamers. I'd like to say that core gamers have never been the target audience, but if ever there was a time when we got focus, it was from the PS1 to the start of the last generation (although the latter point is definitely a fuzzy one). From here on out, families and infrequent players are the target du jour, and we may have to grin and bear it.

You understand how hard it is to phrase this without sounding all doomsday, right?

Edited by FinalDasa

@video_game_king: If you think about it consoles have been trying hard to broaden who buys the boxes. The PS2 (and I think the PS1 as well) had DVD players, so did the original Xbox, and they all played CDs. As technology has come along the consoles are just broadening their entertainment abilities. Yes it means people who don't care about every video game will be splitting the consoles manufacturers focus, but as long as we support the games we love then they have no choice but to keep making them.

Moderator
Posted by believer258

@video_game_king: That seems to be a symptom of a broadening market. And the goal of seemingly every piece of media these days is "broaden the market". It's still a cynical viewpoint, but this line of thinking leaves everyone behind and not just us. Devices need to specialize in a few things, not do everything (except for a PC, which has kind of snuggled into the "can-do-everything" role but not by way of a single company). No one buys an iPod as their primary movie-viewing device; it can do that, but Apple knows that music is the purpose of an iPod and guess what is always advertised? iPods playing music.

I don't think we're being left behind completely; rather, we're a slice of a pie chart somewhere, the rest of which is made up other slices that Microsoft wants to sell to. And the sports-watching, cable-viewing, living-room family is the biggest slice. It's also the one that gives the least fucks.

I remember back to the PS3’s old tagline of “It only does everyone”

It does everyone?

Posted by GaspoweR

Every time I see @joeyf come online he is almost always on Netflix as well as a number of people as well including myself. I play games more on my (recently built) PC now and less so on the Xbox. From the looks of things from this presentation, I think MS just used the data they got from Xbox Live activity and found (surprisingly) more people who were using the Xbox more so as a media consumption box instead of a gaming console most of the time and would just see a spike of game usage when a new game comes out but then those same people would probably just go back to watching a movie or TV show on Netflix or Hulu Plus. The other large percentage who are actually playing games are probably playing (we can probably make the obvious guess) Call of Duty multiplayer.

What I actually don't understand though is why they still won't allow self-publishing on their platform. I think they would benefit from having more (high-quality) digital download games on their service by doing that. Sony on the other hand allows indie devs to self publish and now they are getting an influx of great indie games showing up on their platform.

@video_game_king:

I remember back to the PS3’s old tagline of “It only does everyone”

It does everyone?

That seems very erotic.

Posted by Video_Game_King
Posted by Pr1mus

The criticisms of the conference are justified because they failed at what they were trying to do. Even in the eyes of those who got the message loud and clear that they weren't going to show many games, if any, what they did show was uninspired and unexciting. Very little details on the hardware itself, how all the services actually work and worst of all, very few things that aren't already available on the Xbox 360.

Getting all this boring stuff out of the way a couple days before E3 to hopefully be able to focus on games at a gaming convention is a great idea but making this the official reveal of the system however is a terrible idea.

The people who will make or break this systems are the early adopters who will get their hands on it in the first 12 months and these people are the core gamers. Not the casual audience or the people who are into the services other than gaming that this box has to offer. These people are more than happy to stick with their 360 for the moment.

You only ever get one chance to make a good first impression and they blew it.

Edited by GaspoweR

@video_game_king: Oh I don't think you said that. I should have omitted you from the quote. :D

Posted by Slag

This may sound alarmist, but this may be reflective of a greater trend in gaming that's been going on since the last generation: focus first and foremost on casual gamers. I'd like to say that core gamers have never been the target audience, but if ever there was a time when we got focus, it was from the PS1 to the start of the last generation (although the latter point is definitely a fuzzy one). From here on out, families and infrequent players are the target du jour, and we may have to grin and bear it.

You understand how hard it is to phrase this without sounding all doomsday, right?

I don't think that'as alarmist, I think Microsoft and Nintendo have been very open about their ambitions in that regard. Ever since Project Natal, Microsoft has basically been exclusively angling that way.

It makes a lot of business sense unfortunately, in order to grow the business they have to appeal to those kinds of people. And given the cost of development of AAA games + the requirements of the new tech require that kind of broad market to recoup their costs. They have to assume they are going to have us anyway no matter how much we get shoved aside.

I'd argue the SNES/Genesis era through PS2/Xbox era was the era were gamers were the sole focus. Before that game systems were advertised as toys/educational devices etc. This last gen is where the multimedia, netflix etc stuff kinda came into play.

Edited by Video_Game_King
Posted by Slag

@video_game_king: Well like a lot of things, these changes rarely happen overnight. There's not a hard and fast beginning and ending date. I imagine at the end of this new gen, it will be as different from today as today is from the end of the PS2 era. This gen's big new thing was social, motion control and multimedia. Maybe Next will end up being VR or something else. We'll see.

And Hey that turd sandwhich was party so because it was marketed/conceived under what was already the old paradigm when games had already moved past the toy era.

Posted by GERALTITUDE

Nice thoughts, very on the nose as far as how I feel. I'm surprised how many apologists are out there saying we are overreacting to a conference that wasn't for us - no one in the "mass market" seems impressed either. :(

Edited by Marokai

I honestly just don't know who this device is supposed to be for. I've gone from being actively scared of what the Xbox One could do to damage the games industry, to being confused and bewildered at who this is supposedly being advertised to and how they expect all of this stuff to work. The TV stuff is baffling to me because there seems to be very little benefit to the thing except "watch live TV through the Xbox!" So what? I still need a cable box and a TV to make all that work anyway, these features are almost assuredly going to be watered down/nonexistant in other countries, and the Xbox One has no DVR capabilities anyway, so if you want to watch something on the Xbox, you have to do so on schedule. Who does that?

Microsoft just seems to be marketing this toward the traditional upper middle class family living room circa 2001. @mento mentioned the Jimquisition; after listening to the most recent Destructoid podcast I feel like Microsoft is marketing this device to an audience they're just sort of hoping exists. Microsoft keeps trying to build this weird monolithic ecosystem for all their devices; Windows 8, Windows Phones, Surface tablets, Smartglass, etc, because they can't get out of this monopolistic attitude where they want to control all of your media experiences that they've been unable to shake since the 90s.

The whole reveal just seemed deeply out of touch, particularly with the conflicting answers on damn near any question they were asked. They've had months to prepare for these questions, months to understand what the outrage is and where it's coming from, and they still had no unified answers. How does that happen?

If I don't have cable, what am I supposed to be excited about with the Xbox One? It's games capabilities are inferior to the Ps4, and Kinect has a terrible track record. I want to be excited for new devices, but it seems like all of the eggs are being put in cable TV (which is hilariously shortsighted) and motion controls. The problem is, the mainstream news outlets love all this multimedia shit, and Kinect proves that whether something works well or not doesn't seem to dictate market success. People are stupid and don't think out their purchases very well, and Microsoft is banking on that.

Edited by GrantHeaslip

I'll reiterate what a few of you have already said: the cable box stuff does nothing for me, and I don't think I'm much different than most under-30s (or even under-40s). I've never had cable, and have zero interest in it. My PS3 does Netflix and YouTube quite well, which is basically all I need. A Twitch.tv app would be nice to have once in a while, and HBO Go would be good if HBO would ever let me pay for it without cable. If Sony were to implement Google's rumoured open Airplay alternative and let me stream anything I can see on my phone, that would basically cover any possible media streaming need I could have.

I have almost zero interest in split-screen content while a video -- I've got my phone or laptop, and I'm also not a crazy person who messes with their phone while watching TV shows or movies. Aside from a few use cases like sports, it seems like a solution in need of a problem, or a sad commentary on our cultural ADD.

Also, as a Canadian, I'm not convinced our local media oligopoly is even interested in playing ball with Microsoft. I imagine the situation is even worse in Europe, at least outside of the U.K. or maybe France.