Microsoft has had a serious messaging problem with the Xbox One. Like a season of LOST, their confusing DRM policies have created a feedback loop of questions and answers that led to more questions. The negative response has been so bad that Microsoft decided to scrap their new DRM entirely, reverting to the same policies they’ve had on the Xbox 360. Lost in all this noise are the cool things the console can actually do.
The story so far has been a laundry list of ways in which owners will be forced to use their console — always connected, always “Kinected”, and with a lost value in their physical media. Microsoft has failed completely and utterly to explain the benefit to consumers and the media, letting all the bad news build and fester. Even now, with those awful DRM policies scrapped, we’re talking more about what the console won’t do than what it does do.
That said, here are some potentially great features of the Xbox One, the potential for consumer benefit, and the way MS has fumbled in presenting them.
R.I.P. Xbox Live Families and Digital Sharing Libraries
Okay, let’s get the bad news out of the way first. When I first started writing this article Microsoft hadn’t dropped their bomb about the lack of DRM on Xbox One. Now that they have, instead of shooting one feature in the foot, they’ve shot it in the head. Originally, Xbox One owners would have had a way to share their digital games with up to 10 family members. Sadly, that’s no longer the case.
The idea barely had time to gestate — Major Nelson was one of the few I heard really pushing the feature at E3, and now that it’s gone I have to wonder if they’ll eventually bring it back.
What made the concept so intriguing was the idea of borrowing and lending digital games (it’s something even Valve is rumored to be thinking about). So-called “family members” could “check out” your purchased games, and presumably it would have been exactly like lending out physical games, where you can’t play them until you get them back.
How the system would have kept track of borrowed games, who is included in your family, etc., was still up in the air and potentially really complicated. One copy of a single-player game could have been passed around between 10 people, which sounds like a profit nightmare for a lot of developers. We may never know how MS planned to address these problems, though I seriously hope they plan to reintroduce this concept at a later date.
Xbox One was supposed to be an always-on, always-connected console for another reason: the Cloud. By building the connected concept into the platform, Microsoft was giving a promise to developers that cloud-computing will always be available to them. Now it’ll be up to game developers to require online connections for their games, which is probably how it should have been from the start.
We’ve already heard about games taking advantage of these features, with Forza 5 using the cloud to build its AI drivers on real data and Titanfall using the infrastructure for dedicated servers and AI. It’s a potentially cool way for devs to build their games. Imagine an Assassin’s Creed where the full horsepower of the Xbox One is used to build the graphics within your area while offloading the rest of the city backdrop to the cloud, or an Elder Scrolls game with dynamic weather built from real-world physics models and calculated on the cloud.
But what happens in five years when you’ve got 100+ games offloading processes to the cloud? Microsoft improved their infrastructure, but have they really improved it enough to support that kind of pressure? To a large extent, cloud processing still sounds like a pipedream, but a cool pipedream nevertheless.
While I’m asking questions, what’s to stop Sony from simply adding the exact same features to PS4? It is “the cloud” after all; the entire advantage of it is that you’re getting performance benefits beyond the hardware. Is the Xbox One that highly integrated and the PS4 that incapable? I doubt it.
A new version of the Kinect had to happen, but it didn’t have to be attached by umbilical cord to the console. Kinect 2.0 is required for the Xbox One to work. Why? I honestly can’t come to a decent conclusion without putting on a tinfoil hat.
You could assume that it’s a promise to developers. The Kinect will always be there, so they can reliably include Kinect features in their games. The problem is you can’t promise that people won’t plug the thing in and then lock it in a soundproof box. You can’t promise that people won’t buy an Xbox One and put it in a tiny Brooklyn apartment instead of Microsoft’s white-washed, square, expansive demo living rooms. So the truth is that there’s really no promise to devs, just a pointless requirement placed on consumers. Kind of like the ones they recently threw away!
That said, a newer, infinitely better Kinect could be awesome. Some of the games made for Kinect would have been really cool if they really worked. The games that worked well enough, like Child of Eden, were potentially transcendent experiences. Will anyone actually make a must-have Kinect game this time around? I think we’re still trying to find out if a truly great Kinect game is even possible, but I will say that this toy is one little bundle of potential that the PS4 simply doesn’t have.
TV TV TV with Snap Mode
Love it or hate it, Xbox 360 changed the way we use game consoles. It’s crazy to think that the 360 didn’t have Netflix out of the box, as it’s such a natural part of the console now. The 360 became much more than a gaming platform, so it's only natural that the Xbox One take that concept to the next level. While the TV integration may come off as a way for MS to get in bed with the various cable companies and potentially offer consumers subsidized consoles with contracts, the basic feature is potentially really cool.
With an HDMI input on the Xbox One, the console can take the feed from your cable box and roll the TV experience into the console. If you’re obsessing with The Witcher 3 and the next season of Game of Thrones is premiering, you can simply switch from one to the other without a hitch. You can even run TV in the corner while playing a game with picture-in-picture. Grinding in an RPG might not be so bad when you can do it while watching TV.
I’m not sure how much I’ll personally take advantage of those features, but the speed with which you can switch between gaming and apps is huge. Every time I load up my Xbox 360 these days I spend 5-10 minutes just waiting for stuff to load, whether it’s a game or HBO Go, so making that process instantaneous could be a game changer.
The 360 redesign and a window to Backward Compatibility
Microsoft announced a new 360 at their E3 press conference, forgetting to add any new features or cut the price, instead opting to simply design the console to look more like an Xbox One. Without a price cut I’m not really sure what the new 360’s purpose is. To top it off, while they dedicated time to revealing the new design, Microsoft completely failed to mention one of the most interesting ways owners of the 360 and One can use them.
In an interview with Major Nelson (wearing a hilarious hat), he confirmed that users can plug a 360 into the Xbox One’s HDMI input instead of a cable box. The result? The ability to play Xbox 360 through the same input and interface as the Xbox One. It isn’t a true solution for backwards compatibility, but it keeps things more unified at least. Of course there are still a ton of questions here, like what happens when both consoles are signed into the same XBL account or if the console daisy-chain will create video lag. Maybe that’s why they haven’t talked about it yet.
Hopefully now that the DRM fiasco is largely behind us we can return to focusing on the good things the Xbox One is capable of. There are still questions, but they’re mostly positive ones. Instead of asking if the console will violate our rights as consumers, we can ask if it’ll do awesome things. That’s a nice step up, right?
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