Since the announcement of the XBox Three… err ONE, a lot of the articles deconstructing the press conference have expressed disappointment that most of what was heavily hyped as innovation was, upon closer examination, simply old wine in new bottles. For the most, I’m in agreement with that assessment. Despite a giant enemy crab level of bombast, what we actually saw presented on that big black stage was pretty underwhelming. The One, taken as a package, is Microsoft’s attempt to update the classic console for the next generation in a way that takes advantage of new technologies without challenging any of the historical strengths of the core gaming market. The problem is that all the “new” features, while surely making the dwindling supply of big name developers happy, offer little or nothing in the way of benefit to the actual user. Personally I think it’s a bad idea to ignore the people you expect to be forking out the hundreds of dollars for your new console. That logic didn’t stop the 360 from succeeding, despite jumping through thousands of red rings of death after launch, but many of the rock solid assumptions of 2007 are no longer valid in 2013. The modern consumer has far more choice in how and where they can spend their interactive entertainment dollars. In order to get some insight into the challenges this new system will face in the current marketplace, I thought it might be useful to unpack what I think are the 5 big assumptions that have clearly driven the design and function of the One.
Assumption 1: Graphical power drives user adoption
Back in 1997, when I was working in the US offices of Psygnosis games, one of the executives came over from the UK to talk to us about the future of gaming. He pointed out that as innovations become evolutionary (rather than revolutionary), the mass-market notices these improvements less and less. It’s a message I haven’t forgotten over the last 16 years. At the time, he was discussing the long lifespan of VHS, but you can see it in the slow adoption of Blu-Ray, or 3D TV. We’ve reached a point where convenience has triumphed over pure quality, because 1080 vs. 720 isn’t something that the average user cares about. They’re both pretty damn good, right? Since the launch of the Gameboy (and the failure of the Virtual Boy) we’ve known the game playing audience is often willing to trade immersion for convenience, simplicity and portability. Nintendo and Apple have both made big money off of this fact over the last decade, while the PSP and other high end portables have struggled to convince people what they really want is all the power of a Playstation on a tiny screen. It can be maddening for big game developers, making cinematic quality experiences, to accept that they’re losing to Farmville or Angry Birds, but a huge part of an interactive experience runs in the user’s brain, not on the screen. While the models and textures on the One may be (arm) hair-raisingly more vivid, I’m not sure that they’re actually offering any improvement in gameplay. Meanwhile, players obsessed with image fidelity can upgrade their PCs.
Assumption 2: The living room is the center of our entertainment experience
The idea of the big screen TV as an “entertainment fireplace” has been around for over a decade. Being the control center of that screen has been a holy grail for hardware manufacturers from Tivo to Apple. Microsoft has always had one foot in this game, with the XBox 360 adding tons of entertainment features over the course of its life. That’s why the underlying message of this press conference was “look at all this cool television stuff!” instead of “games games games!”. But the era of the big screen hearth may already be coming to an end. Few people these days watch their TV without a computer or a mobile device by their side. For console makers looking to expand their presence and recapture a rapidly fragmenting gaming market that’s double the bad news. Yes, you can simulate second screen distraction with picture in picture, but that only works when you’re watching alone. And if you are watching TV with others, then it’s best to share your experiences, not fight for control of the feed. If you’re curious as to what this harmonious future will look like I’d highly suggest you give Apple TV with airplay a try. Outputting viral videos or your Tumblr feed straight to your TV via the iPhone could open your eyes to a rapidly approaching future where the powerful machines in our pockets also become a new way for us to share our media in our living rooms. That kind of social experience is also something that the “pay to play” nature of the Xbox stands firmly against—although Microsoft will let you have Netflix if you’re willing to pony up a second subscription fee for Live.
Assumption 3: There’s a “core gamer” who wants our stuff
While developers like to talk a lot about “pleasing the core gamer” it’s a demographic that may not actually exist from a marketing perspective. My personal attempts to peel that onion to it’s core has led me to believe that what defines a “core” player is their willingness to tell their friends about, and identify with, their gaming experiences. To put it another way, you’re a core gamer because you call yourself one—and not because of which games you play. Despite the stereotype of gamers as lonely and anti-social, I’m starting to think that the opposite is true. If we only exist as the core because we tell other people we are, then we must always be finding better ways to shout. Multiplayer is a key ingredient in many of the most popular platform titles, and with the rise of games like MOBA and Minecraft I think that the deeply social nature of self-identifying gamers is starting to become obvious. It’s also being seriously under served on the consoles. Yes, there are MMOs on the platforms, but they’re 10 years too late. Meanwhile, the failure of the manufacturers to capitalize on socialization may end up being the fundamental missed opportunity of the current console generation. If the Facebook gaming revolution of 2007–2012 proved one thing, it’s that there is power in allowing your players to connect virally. While Sony and Microsoft were fighting to preserve the AAA game, Facebook changed the rules. XBox lets you collect friends, but how do you discover new ones, and where’s the feed that updates you on their latest purchases, scores, and contests? No amount of buttons labeled “social” on the controller is going to fix that. The platform that successfully integrates (consensual) virality, instead of squelching it, or taxing it out of existence, will be able to fundamentally reshape the gaming marketplace. I’m currently betting on Steam, although I hear there are smart folks over at Google as well…
Assumption 4: The old business model is the best!
After a GDC where indie games were crowned the next big thing, we had almost a month where the console manufacturers were press releasing all over themselves to claim that they would bridge the gap between app based systems and program based ones in order to allow innovative indie titles to make the leap. With the One, Microsoft has flipped the indie/app development community the angry bird. Avoiding appification of the platform clearly supports the wishes of the major developers. It also plasters a design metaphor (Metro) built for apps all over a system that doesn’t actually use them. Without some kind of indie friendly developer store on the platform I’m guessing we’ll have to endure another half decade of Sony & MS continuing to try and stretch their hacked-together solutions to cover more and more edge cases that could be simply and cleanly solved with an app model. The resistance to an open apps store does make some sense. There’s no arguing that Freemium changes the game, and not in a good way for the big developers. I will point out that having a robust app system with a 30% sales tax doesn’t seem to have hurt Apple at all… Sony seems to be playing with some limited innovation. Microsoft, meanwhile, is bowing to all the wishes of the big developers, layering on user-unfriendly solutions in order to prop-up the big profit margins of the past. And the customers just get expensive games with ever more layers of DRM along with fewer and fewer ways to share our games with our friends. That raises the question: how high do the walls of your garden have to rise before you’re willing to call it a prison?
Assumption 5: Sports is awesome!
Basketball! Football! Baseball! Soccerball! Moneyball! That sports is a powerful profit center for consoles is the one assumption that I think will remain true. That’s why I wasn’t surprised to see EA using their segment to pitch an all-sports roster of next-gen titles. Pro Sports is already what keeps cable alive. Besides the shooty shooty modern neo-con fantasy warfare genre, it’s also the only remaining mainstream console category that is a reliable profit center. But with no backward compatibility and an ever increasing number of alternatives for fans in terms of platforms and form factor, it seems like these new consoles will have an uphill battle in using sports alone to push people to purchase a $300+ box for their living room. For better or worse, Microsoft has now revealed the strategy that it has to live with for the next half decade. Meanwhile, tablets and phones march out with new (and more powerful) models every single year. How long will it be before the devices in our hands push more powerful graphics than the ones aging underneath our televisions, with innovative strategies to connect users through our televisions. If the console is going to avoid obsolescence it’s going to need more than vocal control and heartbeat reading cameras to do it. What I was hoping to see this week was the brilliant idea that would make the console a must-buy. What I saw instead was console by committee. And it was a committee that seemed to lack a single user. But maybe I’m missing something. I’d love for someone to convince me that the consoles are going to succeed and rule once more. So far that hasn’t been Sony or Microsoft.