[Note: Since this article was first published, Microsoft have announced sweeping changes to their DRM policies that render many of these observations obsolete... for the time being]
Well, who saw that coming?
We here at Midnight Resistance have been saying for months that Sony and Microsoft would probably use their pre-E3 announcements to pitch their new consoles to the specialist gaming press, so that their E3 shows can be full of uninspiring stuff about 'multimedia' and 'social' for the benefit of mainstream tech reporters. Our idea was to get a big blast of game-focused stuff out of the way at a smaller event that the specialist press will go nuts over, and then even if your E3 presentation is all about sharing TV highlights with coworkers, there'll be enough game information floating around already to satisfy the internet nerds. It turns out we may have got the strategy right, but the timing back to front - at least, I hope so. The only way Microsoft could make their E3 presentation less about games would be if they just sat everyone down to watch Clear And Present Danger, perhaps with Don Mattrick and Kudo Tsunoda riffing jokes over the top.
CNet's description of the 'Dadbox' sounds pretty apt - its promise of TV, sports and Call of Duty doesn't do a lot for me, but I know a lot of guys in their 30's and 40's who would be satisfied to slip that big black box of consumer electronics in amongst all their other big black boxes of consumer electronics. You might say the Xbox One is the first games console to have been specifically designed to appeal to actual adults, which is sort of cool in terms of cultural acceptance, but it makes you wonder what kind of games we're going to see - it's easy to image a future library of sports, military fantasies, and downloadable Peppa Pig puzzle games for the kids. Of course there'll be a strong parity between the games released on the Xblah and the PS4 to begin with, but once both systems have settled in a bit and we establish some owner demographics, who knows how they might diverge?
One of the most interesting things about the Xboing is the strong push away away from physical product ownership and towards digital licensing. I wrote about this stuff a few months ago, unaware that the shitty future I was describing was less than a year away. How exciting! The consumer experience Microsoft spelled out in their presentation sounds about as appealing as a smack in the mouth, but it's going to be interesting to watch the market react. In case you're unaware, the current plan seems to be that when you put a new game in the console it will fully install to your hard drive and license itself onto your Live profile. After that, you won't need to use the disc again. If you want to play your games on a different console, you need to put the disc in that machine, go online and log into your profile in order to access your game licenses. You can sell your games back to certain Microsoft-approved retailers, who will pay a small fee to remove the game license from your account and renew the license for that disc, so it can register itself on someone else's profile. Alternatively, a person could borrow your disc and pay a fee directly to Microsoft to add the game license to their profile without removing it from yours. And maybe other users sharing your console might be able to share your licenses, but that still seems unclear. The point is, the disc itself it simply a means of getting the game data onto your console - an alternative to downloads - but the thing that determines whether you can play the game is whether or not you have the license on your Live profile. (And that requires an 'almost-always-online' connection to verify, yada yada...)
It's really not as bad as people seem to think! At least, assuming you're a well-paid techno-fetishist who happens to live somewhere with a reliable net connection, which is something Microsoft seem happy to bet on. The experience of buying a game, taking it home, dropping it into your console and playing it will be unchanged so long as you have an internet connection, and the kind of customers they seem to be targeting have a steady income and only buy a few games each year anyway, so they don't need to care about trade-ins. Personally, the idea of being a software licensee rather than a product owner does makes me throw up in my mouth a little - I like to preserve my game collection for posterity and such, and any system that relies on an external server for access like this will inevitably shut down eventually - but I'm a tedious videogame nerd, and I doubt the average Xburp user will care about Call of Duty: Ghosts in ten years' time. (Neither would I, but I probably will still be banging on about Metal Gear Solid 5.)
I like the idea of an upgraded Kinect too, and I'm happy they've put their foot down on packing one in the box and requiring it for the console to run. Can you imagine what a mess the Wii would have been if it had launched with a conventional controller, and Wii remotes had been an optional extra? I think one of the reasons why the Kinect never really reached its potential on the 360 is because developers can't rely on players to have one - there's not much point spending time on features that only a small minority of players can access - but in future Microsoft will be able to guarantee it. That's a big deal!
I'm not interested in buying one, of course.
But even for non-customers like myself, there are things to think about at this stage. Over the next few years, current 360 owners will get to enjoy an exclusive preview of the coming digital rights shitfest, as the current format of the Xbox Live Marketplace reaches the end of its lifespan. Got any DLC you've been putting off buying? Do you own any Live Arcade games that you haven't currently installed? Got any unspent Microsoft Points in your account? All of these things will probably vanish from the net within the next five years, so perhaps you should consider tying up those loose ends while you can.
Isn't this fun? It's like a mini digital apocalypse! How would you spend your final moments before the end of the World (...of Warcraft)?
It's pretty disappointing to see where Microsoft have gone with the Xboke, but I guess it's always been their plan to move into multimedia set-top boxes and own the living room. I say good luck to them! They've made some bold decisions, and possibly their hardware division is about to disappear into a black hole of its own hubris, but I think I have more respect for its creative vision than I did for the 360 - 'like a martial artist inhaling before a fight', my arse. In terms of games... well, I think Leigh Alexander put it best. Someone, somewhere, is looking at their current sales metrics and saying "Yes, these are the three things that sell the best, we should stop wasting money on other projects and double down on those three things!" We'll probably see a bit of a resurgence in non-AAA games immediately after launch (as people will buy any old thing to play on their new box), but unless lo-fi games like Earth Defence Force suddenly become fashionable in the mainstream, we'll probably see the same rotting divide set in between hilariously cheap download games and ludicrously expensive boxed blockbusters.
There's a million and one things Microsoft could do to change this - enabling self-publishing for smaller developers would be a start. If the console fails to excite people, they'll just patch features in and out until it does. Presumably there'd be nothing to stop them removing the digital license checks and going back to a traditional "PUT DISC IN, PLAY GAME" model if they wanted to. There's no point in armchair analysts like us making any firm predictions about the Xbollard or the PS4 at this stage, because anything could happen for the first few years after launch. I think what I'm taking away from the launch event is a renewed interest in the Ouya - again, maybe not something I myself would buy, but I can see a much more obvious space for a cheap, scrappy, open platform next to Microsoft's digitally-signed autocracy.
I'll stick with my 3DS for the time being.