Microsoft... what are we gonna do with you. Microsoft has historically and currently been viewed largely as a corporation that's a tad out of touch with reality and typically not having a clear definitive vision for a lot of their products. And, perhaps worse still, whenever they do come up with one its usually something that no one asked for. Whilst you think I may be talking about the Xbox One already I'm actually referring to Windows 8. W8 was very clearly designed to work with tables, phones, computers, TVs, space fridges and basically whatever else you can throw an operating system on. The problem is that's its easily a worse tablet/phone OS alternative to iOS and Android and easily the worst PC OS since Vista, and you're in pretty bad company if you're remotely being compared to Windows Vista. Microsoft decided to enter the tablet market far too late in the game and at a price point which was way too expensive and now they are paying the $900M price with their Surface tablet (which, spoiler alert, is flopping harder than The Lone Ranger at the box office). Heck, even look at Bing, coming up with a competitor to Google a decade after the entire world had adopted "google" into its everyday vernacular didn't bring them any substantial success at all. Microsoft don't exactly have a stellar track record.
Let me pull back on the Microsoft bashing for just one second, because in the world of videogames Microsoft has been a bit of a different beast in the past. While the original Xbox sold moderately well sales wise comparative to the colossus that was the Playstation 2, it did innovate in the online space and system specs wise was the more powerful of the two. The Xbox 360 introduced us to achievements which changed some fundamental thinking on how players are rewarded and Xbox Live for the time was easily the most accessible and best way to play with your friends online. Cross game parties and party chat were both killer features for the 360 over the PS3 this gen (a huge oversight on Sony's part) and XBLA is often credited just as much as Steam for bringing indie games to a wider audience and bringing us Jonathan Blow, Team Meat, Supergiant Games, Playdead Studios and many of the big name indies we've come to revere so much over the years. So, I have to ask, what the fuck happened at Microsoft to get us where we are today with the Xbox One/Xbone/Xbox 180/Xbox Tumble-Dryer?
“If you have to invent a problem to solve to justify your product; your product shouldn’t exist.” That is a quote from "The Design of Everyday Things" book I have have sitting on the shelf over there by my kitchen. Written quite some time ago, its basically design 101 for idiots, and Microsoft doesn't seem to have read it. Your product needs to have clear reasons to exist or else no one is gonna care, this is one of the very first hurdles, and I think this is where Microsoft has already went horribly wrong. They started trying to solve problems that didn't exist and are now dizzier than a Hurl-A-Whirl with a malfunctioning motor with all the 180's they've been pulling since the initial reveal as they began to realise "oh wait, consumers don't actually want any of this crap". I am very lucky in that I have friends who work within the industry who feed me information from time to time, and of that information (as well as just plain asking around my local gamestores) it paints a VERY dire scene for Microsoft on the gaming front. To the best of my knowledge the PS4 preorders are outpacing the Xbox One in the realms of four to one not just here in Australia (which historically has been more pro Xbox than Playstation), but more alarmingly for Microsoft I'm hearing similar 4:1 numbers out of North America. Yes, NORTH AMERICA, Xbox's number one (and if the reveal event was anything to go by, the only market they remotely give a shit about) territory and easily their biggest market. Microsoft has basically owned NA for over half a decade and with the preorders taken into consideration and the fact that Sony are beating them out in America release wise this time they are looking down the barrel of a scenario where Microsoft sells less than the Playstation in arguably its weakest territory. I can only imagine that its ten times worse in Europe for Microsoft, especially as they continue to pull out of more and more countries.
So about the 180s... as much as I would love to say that Microsoft "came to their senses" or had "a moment of righteous enlightment", no, they looked at the preorder numbers before and just after E3 and collectively shit through all their pants. The 4:1 number is the VASTLY improved number from what it was back in June where Sony didn't just bring a gun to a knife fight, they brought the whole fucking SWAT team. This ladies and gentlemen is why Microsoft is reversing literally everything that the Xbox One once was, and from a business point of view it makes perfect sense right? The market has spoken, the consumers don't want what Microsoft was offering so Microsoft changed to better fit what the consumers wanted in an attempt to lure some of them back, right? This will net them all the money in the world right? No, that is not how this works Microsoft. Whilst they definately should be commended for not going through with the heavily flawed original Xbox One strategy, because I can only imagine the magnificient train wreck that would have been, but at the same time I can't look at them and hail them as heroes of the consumer for changing unpopular policies in an attempt to make more $$$. That's what companies do, they make decisions to make money, let's not suger-coat that fact. And of course this doesn't just go for not Microsoft, Sony are doing the exact same thing (except they have the distinct advantage of "having a clue", where MS don't), its just that Sony believe that being kind to developers big and small will foster a better relationship between them and the consumer. They believe that focusing their console design on an easy to develop for box that is powerful will be a benefit to gamers and developers alike. And that is how they're gonna make the more $$$, and you know what, they're right. Their entire philosophy seems to be around making these two groups of people happy and trying to solve the problems that have plagued both. And by the looks of it, not even looking at the preorder numbers but just in mindspace, it looks like a resounding success so far.
This is where the two companies take seperate paths. Microsoft decided their best bet was to reinvent the wheel, and whilst its a noble pursuit, just because you are making a bold play does not mean you are making the correct one. Microsoft created a convoluted system which stripped away consumer rights so... what, we didn't have to switch discs anymore? Switching discs is not a problem that requires that level of solving. If given the option to not switch discs or have my rights as a consumer intact I know which one I am taking 100% of the time. Obviously I'd prefer to not have to get up off my lazy ass everytime I wanted to switch games, but not at the expense of stripping away my ability to sell or land the game 'I' bought. They took a very small issue and turned it into its own problem that needed to be solved, bottom line is they completely and utterly misread the market. Those of us, like me, who don't want to swap discs out of the machine or want the convenience of being able switch games quickly buy games digitally... this is a solution that already exists, Microsoft.
The Kinect also falls into this trap. In Whitten's answer to IGN's Xbox One AMA last week, the one that gave us the lovely "Kinect is no longer required to function" 180, it came accompanied with a long PR statement about all the benefits of the Kinect (which you can read in full here if you want). He does not list one single feature in it that actually fixes a problem or makes the device of any benefit to you; all of the functions merely make easy things even easier (and even then that is very questionable). "The ability to say 'Xbox On' and get right to your personalized homescreen" is Kinect's answer to "Picking up your controller and pressing one button". "Kinect allows you to search for your content, instantly move between games and your personalized dashboard with just your voice" replaces "using a controller for 4-5 seconds to do the exact same bloody thing". "No more needing to navigate through multiple UI screens to sign in" replaces "this was actually never a problem stop making it out like it was Microsoft". You're getting my drift here. This is the official PR for why the Kinect is essential before he says that it doesn't need to be plugged in. These features, which are all solutions to problems that either don't exist or solutions that no one ever asked answers for, are meant to justify why the device is in every box and bump the price up by upwards of $200US? These features and this device is why a less powerful gaming console costs $100 more than a more powerful one? An extra $100 so that you can turn it on with your voice because of the "millions of people" who didn't really feel like pressing one button? Fuck off Microsoft.
Microsoft are doing their best Torvill and Dean impression now on all their major design decisions because they created a multimedia system which was going to horrendously fail. They threw all their eggs into the "Live TV" basket unaware or grossly overestimating the consumer's need for a multi-hundred dollar machine to watch FREE TELEVISION (which is a dieing medium in its own right now with all the on demand streaming services becoming more and more prevalent and popular). Once the data came back and it proved it was going to horrendously fail they decided to do something about it. Don't get me wrong, the changes certainly help. People who were nervous that the Kinect would be a direct line from your house to NSA may now buy it, people who love indie games will be more open towards the platform because Microsoft at least has some sort of self-publishing attached to it now (even if it is just XBLIG 2.0), people who like to trade in their games to put towards other newer games may buy it now because those ridiculous policies were reversed. For anyone who didn't immediately abandon ship and puncture all the lifeboats for good measure I'm glad that the machine you are getting in November is miles better than the one they announced back in May... all of this WILL help... but I'm coming up to a catch. And its a big catch unfortunately.
The problem is with the Xbox One, and this is its biggest problem, is that the system was designed around these ideas, ideals and philosophies. A lot of money was spent into implementing them, it was built from the ground up to install disc based games to your hardrive, to fully integrate the Kinect into the Xbox experience, to focus on live Television and, the perhaps most sadly, to be a gaming machine second. So now after 180'ing themselves into oblivion what we are left with is a gaming machine that is an underpowered, overpriced machine that is in this shape because Microsoft tried to fix things that weren't broken, or fix problems that they themselves created for no concernable reason. They can 180 as much as they damn well please in their attempt to match the PS4 but its too late, it really mattered when the machine was being built and its too late to go back and change that now. Mark Cerny and the rest of Sony got it right during the design of the PS4 (which was a whole two years before Microsoft started work on the Xbox One btw), and even if Microsoft continues to 180 it doesn't change the fact that they fundamentally fucked up the design and its far too late to do anything about it. The Xbox One was flawed from the start, and just like a diamond encrusted turd... its still a turd, just a slightest more pleasing one. Its just that this time they got caught and were going to be destroyed so immensely by the competition that it was no longer viable for them to continue. Hell, if Windows 8 had this kind of stiff competition in the PC OS space maybe it wouldn't still be terrible either haha. Competition breeds innovation and excellence, this has always been and will continue to be true.
I do not believe the underpowered and overpriced hardware will be able to finish the job, Microsoft literally need to throw a kitchen sink made of marketing dollars at this thing and promote the hell out of it to the wider consumer or else they are gonna be a distance second to Sony this gen with gamers, the damage is done. And that, is my two cents on the matter (feel free to throw any opinions you have my way and I'll be sure to read and respond).