Xbox One u-turns: was Microsoft wrong to listen to you?

Tuesday, 6 August 2013 12:53 GMT By Dave Cook

Xbox One’s big policy reversals have sparked a great deal of debate this year. VG247′s Dave Cook looks at this week’s comments from Jesse Schell and ponders if Microsoft should have stuck to its guns.

Yesterday I wrote a news report based on comments that came from veteran game designer Jesse Schell.

He suggested that the one of the biggest mistakes any company can make when looking to innovate and bring about change is to listen to its customers too closely, and then change tack based on what they say.

Schell feels that Microsoft is one of these companies, given its steps to address user concerns by revoking several deeply-ingrained policies such as 24-hour DRM authentication, anti-used policies and blocking the right to self-publish. I wrote a blog piece on the latter here.

During his interview with GI.biz he said, “Your customers want you to stay the same, even if it drives you into the ground. Somehow, Microsoft didn’t seem to think that would be a reality, or even a problem. The reality is that they can’t do what the customers want.

“Basically, Microsoft said, ‘We’re going to be Steam. You like Steam, don’t you?’ And we all said, ‘No, we hate that. We hate you. You’re an idiot to do that.’ They came out and said, ‘We’re gonna do this new thing.’ And the customers said, ‘No, we don’t want that, we hate that’ – even though it’s what they really want and what they will ultimately buy.

“So now Microsoft has had to say they won’t do all that stuff, but someone will.”

The comments follow a heated blog on the matter from Cliff Bleszinski, who believes that Microsoft’s seemingly heavy-handed approach to the used market was formulated with the best interests of developers in mind. The former Epic Games designer claimed as long as pre-owned is allowed to exist on consoles, the glut of DLC and amount of publishers in financial bother will increase.

Like them or not, agree with them or not; these are two very smart individuals who aren’t simply howling from the rooftops in a bid to stir up trouble, raise their profile or make a name for themselves. This is what they believe, and instead of simply lambasting them as consumers we do need to ask ourselves why they believe Microsoft was right and how this applies from a developer’s perspective.

Schell offered that perhaps the big hoopla over Xbox One’s policies was because people don’t like change and that being first out the gate with such seismic policies is a path fraught with danger. While I think Microsoft’s delivery and explanation of what it was trying to achieve was best described as an ‘Omnishambles’, I agree with Schell on this point.

We often don’t like change and sometimes ambition can get ahead of practicality. Look at the Dreamcast; it was the first Western console to offer online play and for many of us it was a dream come true. The reality was that for a lot of gamers the console’s connection was slow, costly and unreliable. It may not have been perfect, but it can be argued that it inspired Xbox 360 and PS3 to make something bigger and better based on Sega’s original blueprint. The same goes for the transition between Dreamcast controller and Xbox 360 pad.

Historically the games industry is full of non-starters and also-rans. Back in the day we had Nintendo’s Virtual Boy while today we have Oculus Rift; two similar concepts that are both revolutionary in their ambition but handled with different degrees of success based on the tech at hand. This is an iterative industry that does evolve over time and naturally, mistakes will be made along the way.

Schell also compared Xbox One’s DRM structure to Steam and suggested that the only reason Valve could have got away with its own store-front is because it didn’t have such a marketplace before Steam launched. There was nothing in the gaming space to compare it to.

He said, “When you want to do something really different – the solution to the innovator’s dilemma – you can’t take your big brand and say it’s going to be completely different. You need to set up something up on the side, and big companies are hesitant to do that. It’s how Valve could do it [with Steam], because they had nothing before.

“I suspect that we’re going to end up in that world. Are we going to end up there on these consoles? I don’t know. It could be that some dark horse shows up. It could be that Apple shows up. It could be that somebody finds a better way.”

That last line – “It could be that somebody finds a better way” – is important. I personally believe that Microsoft’s communication of what it was trying to achieve in its online policies was poor at best, and I agree that blocking used sales is hardly a solution for the cash-strapped gamer. The silence on Xbox Live self-publishing was also achingly uncomfortable to watch with each passing day.

However, as we move towards a digital-only future – which I firmly believe will happen down the line – someone, somewhere will take what Microsoft set out to do with Xbox One and make it better, fairer, more practical and on terms that benefit most parties. I think the bricks and mortar stores aren’t going to like it, but to make progress sometimes sacrifices do need to be made.

Was Microsoft wrong to listen to you? Not at all, but I think that your collective noise and voiced concerns will make whoever attempts this model next do so with greater respect and consideration for you, their paying customers.

Either way, it’ll be interesting to see who steps up to the plate after Microsoft’s strike-out.

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