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Xbox One is Finding Its Stride

Eurogamer's Tom Bramwell still won't buy one for now, but reckons a lot of people will.

By Tom Bramwell, Eurogamer. Revised by Pete Davison. Published 8 months ago

I guess it's no secret that I didn't like the original Xbox One pitch.

I appreciate the convenience of digital marketplaces and I play a lot of online games, but it was naïve to expect people to swallow an always-online console with license-only ownership without offering any tangible justification for making those changes. I felt Microsoft was pushing us towards those things not because it found compelling arguments in game design, but because it found compelling arguments on its corporate roadmap.

A lot has changed in three months. Disc-based games are back, enabling a traditional second-hand market, while the console can also operate without the Internet -- at least once you download a day-one patch that tells it to do so. Other changes have been made too -- Kinect no longer has to be plugged in, a bone of contention that wasn't helped by Microsoft's involvement in PRISM; a headset is going into the box; and on Tuesday we learned that Europeans who pre-order get a free game: FIFA 14.

Microsoft also argued this week that its launch line-up is one of the strongest for any console ever. I am not convinced it's the strongest for any Xbox ever, let alone console -- the first Xbox had Halo and Project Gotham Racing, after all -- but it certainly compares favorably to PlayStation 4's offering. Crimson Dragon, Dead Rising 3, Fighter Within, Forza Motorsport 5, Killer Instinct, Lococycle, Ryse -- I doubt any of them is going to redefine anything, but they're all exclusive, and some of them are bound to be good. With multiformat games like Watch Dogs due out in parallel, there's a lot to choose from.

Microsoft seems to have made it out of panic mode and onto more of a console war footing.

Microsoft returned to old themes at Gamescom and appeared more comfortable on familiar ground.

I recognise that this is not going to be a popular view, but I'm also pleased that Microsoft has stood firm on keeping Kinect in every box. I've been a vocal critic of the first Kinect, which was sold on promises the hardware could not keep, but I've used Kinect 2.0 and it's a substantial improvement. One of my concerns about next-gen systems is that they lack any killer new hardware features besides more power, but a Kinect sensor that finally achieves its original potential could be a game-changer if Microsoft can find the right software for it. That's a big 'if', but console makers should take risks with their hardware vision, and this is a better kind of risk to take than dropkicking us into a digital-only future.

After the dark days of #XboxTent, then, not to mention the mixed messages of E3, the infamous policy climbdown and Don Mattrick's departure (may he rest in peace), things are looking a little brighter for Xbox One. Executives still sound embattled in interviews and Sony's crowd-pleasing Gamescom conference won the latest social media battle, but the company seems to have made it out of panic mode and onto more of a console war footing.

This is particularly evident in its public announcements. One of Microsoft's tactics in the last console war was tying up little exclusive deals that gave people just enough reason to choose an Xbox over a PlayStation, and it's at it again this time. Having already announced that Call of Duty DLC will debut on Xbox, this month we learned that COD will have dedicated servers for Xbox One, while the other forthcoming biggest-game-in-the-world, FIFA 14, will have slightly more Ultimate Team content available on Xbox, and this week we got to hear what it is -- just as excitement about the new football season really gets going. Meanwhile, The Division isn't even out until Christmas 2014, but it was a big hit at E3, so here's a DLC deal.

Core gamers may have poured scorn on some of this stuff -- I'm a big FIFA Ultimate Team fan, for example, and I'm not that bothered about a bunch of rare players that will be stupidly overpriced on the auction house and probably show up on PlayStation six months later anyway -- but it will have a cumulative nudging effect on a lot of undecided gamers outside of the bubble we occupy, and will probably have more of an impact on people within it than many of us would like to admit. I wonder how many who were saluting Sony's indie exclusives are privately torn about whether they can put up with missing out on COD DLC for a month every time.

Phil Harrison appeared calmer and more relaxed at Gamescom, although he hasn't spoken to the press much since the Xbox Reveal event.

In a way, this is Microsoft back in its comfort zone. The company always looked awkward going into this generation as ipso-facto market leader -- a position it has a history of screwing up when it has attained it in other businesses, most famously with Internet Explorer -- but it likes trying to chase down a competitor. ID@Xbox may be late to the party, for example, but if there is financial and cultural capital playing catch-up on indie games then Microsoft will renew its efforts to do so.

So has the last three months changed my mind about Xbox One? Sort of.

For me, the underlying motivation that led to the original Xbox One policies is still there. Just yesterday Phil Spencer said the digital ecosystem "remains a core philosophy", and I expect the console to head in that direction again once it becomes more established. That direction isn't for me if it's to the exclusion of all else - the console gaming login I choose now will be the one I am most bound by over the next 5-10 years, so I am going to pick one that gives me the most choice and the most confidence that those choices will remain available for a long time.

However, the recent changes to Xbox One have elevated it from something I genuinely didn't want in my house to something I will probably pick up as soon as there's a desirable game that I can't experience anywhere else, even though, as far as it fits into my life, it's going to be this generation's second platform.

The main difference between now and three months ago, though, is that I suspect Xbox One is going to be a lot of people's primary platform after all. More so now than in any previous generation, we will all make this decision in groups, buying the same system as each other because we want to play together, and this feeds into Microsoft's strategy really well, because a group will favour a cross-section of everyone's preferences. With the old policies now less of an issue, if everyone is slightly nudged towards Xbox One by a different marginal exclusive that appeals directly to them, the group decision may swing more easily in Microsoft's favor.

I suspect Xbox One is going to be a lot of people's primary platform after all.

Popular at E3 2013, Microsoft was quick to tie up The Division content in a similar manner to COD and FIFA.

It may even overcome the price difference between PS4 and Xbox One -- a not insubstantial $100 -- which will be the last big stumbling block for a lot of people, and which makes it harder to get on board with the inclusion of Kinect. If Microsoft could do something about the price without sacrificing Kinect, that would make things very interesting, although this week's FIFA announcement suggests it hopes to soften the blow in other ways, at least in some territories.

Meanwhile, Sony is sticking firmly to its message about supercharged PC hardware driving creativity and freedom of expression from the smallest studio to the largest corporation. It's a good message, but it is starting to feel too broad for this late stage in the pre-launch cycle. Adverts during primetime television aren't going to talk about N++ and Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, after all; they're going to talk about Killzone: Shadow Fall and DriveClub. If the other side is pitching Call of Duty DLC first and Forza Motorsport 5, things may be closer than they appear.

"Others have shifted their message and changed their story," Andrew House zinged during Sony's press conference on Tuesday, and you can forgive him, Shuhei Yoshida and Mark Cerny for enjoying their position a little after years of mishap with PS3. If I were them, though, I would be drawing up posters with "$399" written on them and plastering them all over public transit rather than joking about how Microsoft has had to learn a harsh lesson in public -- something that only a small subset of people in their addressable market care about, and largely people who have already pre-ordered PS4.

As the battle lines are more clearly drawn in the console war, then, it's worth remembering that Microsoft has changed its message, if not its motives, and that the new message of contrition, coupled to the old message about a lot of little exclusives, could well make all the difference. Whatever else happens in the next few months, though, the console war is starting to look much more competitive already, and for those at Microsoft who had to turn things around at the end of May, that must already feel like quite an achievement -- if not quite the one that they originally hoped their efforts would be used to unlock.

The best community comments so far 11 comments

  • MojoBox 8 months ago

    I'm going to stick to PC and PS4 for this coming generation. While Microsoft has been backing down from their initial plans in a panicky retreat, they've shown me their mind and all I can say to them is "No thank you". Both the PC (let's be real, Valve and Steam) and the PS4 have problems from a consumer perspective but they have both earned a lot of good will in my book and I have far more confidence that things could get better in those ecosystems. Microsoft, on the other hand, has a long track record of focusing on corporate bottom line more than consumer needs and has spent the last 3 years turning the Xbox 360 from my gamers choice console into an ad ridden hulking piece of junk with kinect dangling from it's neck like an albatross dragging it under the waves. So IF I ever get an XBONE it'll be many years down the line.

  • deesmith 8 months ago

    Good article and I agree that the Xbox1 may become the primary console for many but for one very different reason. Consider the people like myself who are prone to buy 2 consoles. In the prior generation you may have setup these consoles on the same TV with one at HDMI 1 and the other at HDMI 2 based on usage maybe.

    Now consider this gen and you have both units. For cable subscribers in the US the X1 will have to be on and active at all times as the cable feed will be passing through the unit so that sets is at HDMI 1 and if the ps4 is on the same TV (more on this later) then it will be on HDMI 2. But the fact that it is already on and you are on that channel as you watch TV I would think you are more likely to just play a game on it - as opposed to switching inputs. It is a small thing but it makes a big impression.

    If the interface is easy to use and Kinect is responsive for voice controls, this is the kind of thing that you will tell your friends and it may sway more people than you might think. Actually I predicted that Xbox would steal the HDMI input idea from Google and Better known Apple TV or become a set-top box and if you think about it, it makes sense.

    Now in the homes that have more than 1 TV, imagine you decide to go ahead and get the Eye toy, if you own the Kinect and it has more features are you going to install both units on the same TV? I think not, this relegates the Ps4 into another room in the house, again taking it away from being the primary system.

    Let’s looks at purchases for a second. Once you determine your primary system, this becomes the system you purchase cross platforms on because you use it more. To me this is the play the Microsoft was aiming for from the start and has been what Microsoft has been trying to achieve since the days of Media Center pcs.

    DRM aside (and mind you the reasons for the attempting to go all DRM include the steady bootlegging of games in the 360 era) the X1 offers more feature out of the box than the ps4 even with the now not included eye toy. The addition of the HDMI pass-through removes the need for devices the Boxee and Apple TV in homes that have them and there are a decent number of homes that use such devices. Provided that stick to DLNA standards to allow streaming as they already do with 360 you literally have the one in all unit that you need in your living room.

    Add in quality software and well you get my point.

  • Stealth20k 8 months ago

    There is still nothing on it Id wan to play really

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