Friday, June 21, 2013

The Xbox One Post-Mortem

The Xbox One as it was originally envisioned by Microsoft is no more; the victim of public outcry and the most hopelessly uphill PR battle since the debut of New Coke. Now there will be no required internet access, no daily checks to verify your rights to games, and no hassles when lending, trading, or selling software to your friends. 

All of these restrictions may be gone, but the discontent with Microsoft remains. Some gamers have been pacified by the company's decision to scuttle the Xbox One's unsavory DRM, but others are reluctant to get onboard, wary of what Microsoft once had planned for them and uncomfortable with the Kinect camera. That's still a mandatory part of the Xbox One hardware, it's still always listening for user input, and it still presents ugly possibilities for user surveillance and targeted advertising.

Microsoft is also taking heat from the minority of gamers who were happy with the machine's original design (yes, there really are some out there!), along with developers who hoped to stem the tide of used game sales. A recent article published on Gizmodo argues that Microsoft's retreat from DRM hobbles innovation and anchors the game industry to the past. However, author Kyle Wagner hangs his hat on hypotheticals... games could have been cheaper without a used market. The family sharing plan could have given up to ten people access to your games. The Xbox Live store could have emulated Steam's frequent sales and heavy discounts.

Jim Sterling, a writer for Destructoid and one of the Xbox One's most vocal critics, was not swayed by Wagner's optimistic what-if scenarios. In his response, Sterling muses: 

"It takes a lot of naivety to trust so willingly in Microsoft, a company that's done absolutely nothing to earn our trust. It takes even more to believe that an industry so dependent on heavy-handed consumer control deserves to survive. Frankly, any industry that suffers due to the reversal of ONE console's DRM policies is an industry that deserves to suffer."

Sterling has taken this hardline stance about the game industry's financial recklessness in previous Destructoid articles, and while they may sound callous, those harsh words are not without wisdom. Game development has gotten so expensive that absurd sales margins are necessary to break even on top-shelf titles. Street Fighter X Tekken is an excellent example... this crossover between two of gaming's biggest fighting franchises sold 1.4 million units, yet was still regarded as a disappointment by Capcom's sales department.

The Xbox One's internet requirement and restrictions on used games were designed to give publishers a path to meet their unrealistic sales goals. With those restrictions gone, it may be time for them to consider the reality that the game industry just can't shoulder the burden of scores of AAA titles every year. Gears of War producer Cliff Bleszinski was wrong to target used game sales for the woes of game publishers, but he's got at least one thing right... with the average game budget eclipsing any hope of a return on that massive investment, the numbers just don't work.

Returning to the topic at hand, what does Microsoft's recent policy reversal mean for the future of the Xbox One? The decision to drop DRM ensures that the Xbox One will have a future, even if it enters the console race with a few bruises and a limp. I was certain the system's internet restrictions and narrow user base would doom it to a long, dusty life on store shelves. Without those limitations, the Xbox One has an honest shot at success... but with a one hundred dollar price difference and the unnerving presence of the Kinect camera, it may have to settle for nipping at Sony's heels throughout this console cycle.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Hola, all!

Just to let you know, I'm not dead... although a recent attempt to build a spinner for my PC did take a bite out of my thumb. I've been wanting to write a follow-up on that Ballarena article I wrote a year ago, but need the proper equipment for it. Trust me, playing an Arkanoid clone without a dial is not something you want to do.

(Neither is slicing your thumb open with an Xacto knife, but I digress.)

Anyway, I'll be back again, and hopefully soon. Thanks for your patience.