By Gamer_152 16 Comments
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”.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.