Why Kinect-free Xbox One is playing catch-ups with PS4

Wednesday, 14 May 2014 07:49 GMT By Brenna Hillier

Xbox One now costs the same as PS4, Xbox Live is turning into PlayStation Plus, And Kinect has just been handed a death sentence: Microsoft is clearly shitting itself in the face of Sony’s onslaught, and about time, too.

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There’s a strange sort of myth surrounding the last generation of consoles, established and perpetuated by Microsoft and its fanboys (as opposed to mere fans). The myth is that the Xbox 360 completely dominated the PlayStation 3.

“When Microsoft first announced the Xbox One it did so from a state of hubris. It took a good look at the games industry from its own perspective and dreamed a bold dream of the future to come; a future where Xbox fanboys would embrace with open arms whatever came to them with the Xbox brand slathered across it.”

It’s a story that fits well with the Xbox 360’s dudebro-friendly marketing and culture, and appeals to the Call of Duty crowd – the massive user base that chimes in once or twice a year for Activision’s latest shooter, Madden, and maybe one or two other games. But it’s simply not true.

In fact, globally, PS3 and Xbox 360 sales are close to even, and both companies made a lot of money from their machines. Even in North America, the Xbox’s traditional stomping ground, the PS3 is not that far behind, and in Europe, it’s in the lead. Let’s not even start on Japan, which was an absolute write-off for Microsoft last generation.

Sure, the PS3 was definitely trailing to begin with, but it’s caught up. Xbox Live is, without a doubt, the more successful multiplayer platform of the big two – mostly thanks to Call of Duty, Halo and other heavy-hitters – but that’s changing, and PlayStation is now such an important platform that Activision is striking sweetheart deals with Sony for Destiny, a game (franchise?) it has backed to be its next big thing. Xbox 360 is not a triumphant, unchallenged champion; it’s one favourite in a two horse race.

It’s okay to pretend otherwise. If you want to make out that either platform (or even one of Nintendo’s) is winning by a country mile you are welcome to do so. Console wars are half the fun of the gaming community, apparently. Your rampant Sony or Microsoft fanboyism can be annoying, but it (mostly) isn’t consequential.

But when Microsoft starts to believe its own hype? Yeah. That’s dangerous.

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When Microsoft first announced the Xbox One it did so from a state of hubris. It took a good look at the games industry from its own perspective (North America dominant, well-off, highly connected) and dreamed a bold dream of the future to come; a future where Xbox fanboys would embrace with open arms whatever came to them with the Xbox brand slathered across it.

“Microsoft got the shock of its life when you stood up and said no, waving a newspaper at its nose.”

You didn’t, of course; you fought back. Who knows whether that was the right thing? Some of Microsoft’s ideas seemed pretty tasty, actually, and many of them will work their way back in even more palatable forms. But Microsoft got the shock of its life when you stood up and said no, waving a newspaper at its nose.

The company slunk off like a spanked puppy and came back with a much more traditional console, which you accepted – but not the way Microsoft had hoped. Instead of becoming the overnight sales sensation everyone hoped for, the Xbox One continues to trail the PS4 sales-wise, even in the US.

Some of this is just the changing face of the industry. We’ve all lived through enough console launches now that we don’t expect a new box to revolutionise our lives, and the business of triple-A games is getting leaner, harder and more hit-oriented. Sales will be slower to build than in previous generations, even though the audience has grown.

And then some of it is Microsoft’s fault. The higher price tag did Sony a massive favour, but more importantly, the bad taste of all that digital stuff Microsoft shouted at reveal lingers on, so much so that the online vitriol has a new flavour. Ask anyone who spends time managing a gaming community or social outlet and you’ll hear that the Xbox haters are much more vocal than ever before. Internet comment threads don’t always correlate to sales figures, but the sheer poison out there is working against the Xbox One’s chances. That kind of reputation takes a long time to dispel – after all, we’ve just discussed the persistent myth that the PS3 is a flop.

So Microsoft’s got to shift, fast, and it’s doing a good job. It spun on its heel over all that unpopular DRM stuff. It’s brought its Games with Gold and Xbox Live schemes more in line with Sony’s excellent offerings. By dropping the price to match the PS4 it has a chance to swing back and go neck-and-neck with Sony again – maybe even overtake, if it can bang out a few exclusives and win back its populous but offended fanbase.

The only way it could drop that price was to give Kinect the boot, through. Since that same fanbase has never wanted motion controls or shouting, it must have been an easy decision to make.

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So why didn’t it make it sooner? There are a couple of reasons. The first and most obvious is that the man who championed Kinect, who pushed for the console to be built with the sensor in mind from day one, has left the company. Without Don Mattrick, the Xbox executive team is searching for a new direction – and until it finds one, “more of the stuff that made us successful in the past” is a pretty safe bet. Expect core games, core games and more core games; it won’t work forever, but it only needs to work until Microsoft works out its next big thing.

Which it will, because here comes the other reason Kinect lasted as long as it did: the market for core games isn’t growing. Oh, it’s not shrinking, but it’s definitely not showing the kind of massive growth that the industry exhibited before the global financial crisis, and over past generations. Games are getting more and more expensive to produce, and the hits are getting further and further apart. Publishers now need sales of three, four, five million sales to satisfy shareholders, and there just aren’t enough of us to ensure that this happens predictably.

“Games are written in a language not everybody speaks, and with the rise of competing entertainment – yes, smart devices, but also PC games and non-traditional media – the lure of control pad games is fading.”

The problem is we’re reaching saturation point. Yes, most kids grow up nowadays using the Internet, computers and smart devices – but that doesn’t necessarily mean they grow up using a controller. You forget, sometimes, how hard using a controller really is, but count the buttons on it sometime. Ask your grandpa, or your mailman, or even your eight year old cousin to play a game and watch them run around in circles staring at the ceiling. See how they don’t automatically know which key is the trigger, or jump, or accelerate. Watch how they try to open doors you know don’t open.

Games are written in a language not everybody speaks, and with the rise of competing entertainment – yes, smart devices, but also PC games and non-traditional media – the lure of control pad games is fading. The pleasures of gaming – exploring virtual worlds, completing mechanical challenges, problem solving, progressing – are available everywhere, in much more accessible forms.

Gaming is big business, and nobody’s arguing that it’s not. But in terms of traditional, triple-A releases it’s also at risk of staling – of hitting a peak instead of growing onwards to that future we all imagine where everyone is a hardcore gamer.

Kinect was an attempted solution to that, and if it ever worked as advertised and anticipated (see: Marvel’s holotables, finger tracking and all), it might have been the solution. It probably won’t be, now that Microsoft has taken a big old dump in front of any developer working on games and technology for it. What incentive do our heroes have to keep pushing the boundaries in a market that rewards conservatism – when even Microsoft abandons its bold push for a controller-free future?

I’m glad the Xbox One will be affordable to a greater number of people. I’m glad core gamers will feel they’re getting their money’s worth now that Microsoft isn’t necessarily pouring resources into a peripheral they aren’t interested in. But I’m sad to see Xbox, a brand that meant standing up against the industry’s old guard, playing it “safe” by dropping investment in gaming’s future.

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