Xbox One: conceived in an age of prosperity, it's the wrong console for our time

Microsoft's vision of the future is a group of wildly gesticulating children and screeching voices aimed at a beautiful black box that can switch between CBeebies and CBBC in one barked order from a five year old.

Microsoft described the new Xbox One as "a new vision for the future comes to life". I've assembled many speeches around this theme over the years, never for a games console.

Then again, there has never been a console as over-engineered as Xbox One. You operate it using a voice recognition system devised by Mircosoft's top aural engineers. You can scan menus using a new sign language developed by Microsoft's ergonomic technicians.

Microsoft is the sort of company that probably hires TV ethnographers and viewing psychologists. In the wildly chaotic living room of the Watsons, though, the will of dad still prospers. Without control of the "remote", order does not exist. With Xbox One the TV watching quacks have won the design war. The patriarchy has been deposed as we move into the new era of Microsoftocracy.

Well Microsoft, my vision of your future is a group of wildly gesticulating children and screeching voices aimed at the beautiful black box that can switch between CBeebies and CBBC in one barked order from a five year old.

Worryingly, particularly for the middle aged grumpy gamer, is that Microsoft's user experience experts have, in their words "refreshed" the "class-leading" Xbox controller with more than "40 technical and design innovations". I don't want the controller to be "refreshed". I'm used to it. It's perfect in every way. I spend more time using the old unrefreshed controller than I do driving my car. We've been on many adventures together and I don't want to trade it in for an upgraded and refreshed version. Microsoft should hire some political philosophers alongside the audience ethnographers. Edmund Burke could have told them that "change always brings certain loss and only possible gain".

Yesterday's global screencast of the launch event carried it's own pre-launch hashtag: #xboxreveal. One thing that was not revealed was the price of the new system. I'm pretty sure that we'll all want one but can we all afford it? The company has spent a lot of time bringing people closer together with the integration of Skype and improvements to the use of Xbox live for multi-player online gaming. It looks impressive and I certainly want to play with one as quickly as I can.

But the price of the "liquid black" console will be the real game changer. Microsoft has sheepishly admitted to Wired that games discs will have to be installed onto the hard drive. This strongly suggests they will create a fee regime for second hand disc purchasers. If true, it will significantly reduce games ownership in my constituency and I'm sure will create a consumer resistance to the new device that Microsoft's team of market researchers may have underestimated.

We are told to expect more news about the repertoire of available games during the E3 conference next month. Yesterday's list of games was limited, only using the unsurprising Call of Duty franchise to showcase the new kit. Microsoft promise early and new franchises. They're going to have to deliver on this if they want early sales.

Xbox One looks like the next generation of big telly gaming and viewing. Yet without knowing its' price or games catalogue, how can one judge its' value? It was conceived in a time of ever growing prosperity and no-one, not even the Microsoft pointy heads will know whether Xbox One will triumph in tough economic times.

Tom Watson is the MP for West Bromwich East, and Deputy Chair of the Labour Party. He is also an avid gamer and campaigner for media integrity.
Show Hide image

Marc Maron: a conversation with the anxiety co-pilot

Now that the interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads and featured guests from Iggy Pop and Barack Obama, what does its host Marc Maron want to say?

Richard Pryor decided to talk about race. Sam Kinison used his fame and his family history to talk about God. Bill Hicks asked why nothing produced in America seemed quite worthy of the people who consumed it. Now that the intimate, interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads on iTunes and has featured guests from Mel Brooks to Iggy Pop and, this summer, Barack Obama, what does its host, the comedian Marc Maron – adopter of stray cats, recovered addict and vinyl hoarder – feel he has to say?

“I think the type of conversations that I have on the show are something that is missing in our lives,” Maron told me one recent Friday, down the line from the garage in the garden of his home in Highland Park, Los Angeles, where WTF has been recorded twice a week since 2009. “We’ve lost the knowledge that it’s not that hard to have an hour-long conversation with someone. You’re built to carry whatever problems they have. I think it’s good for the heart.”

If the Maron family crest bore a motto, it might be that timeless adage: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Born in 1963, Maron was raised by a real-estate broker mother and an orthopaedic surgeon father, first in New Jersey, then in Alaska, then in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “My father is and was both an overactive hypochondriac and a physician,” he wrote in his 2013 memoir, Attempting Normal, “which is a bad combination.” After studying English at Boston University, he began performing stand-up comedy at the age of 24.

“I don’t think of myself as a joke guy,” he told me. “Most of what I do is creating a dialogue around my own problems. Some people call it ‘navel-gazing’ but I’d prefer to call it ‘compulsive self-awareness’.”

And there have been many problems. Maron, now 51, began his 2013 comedy special Thinky Pain by telling the audience in the basement of the Village Gate nightclub in New York that he didn’t “have a lot of respect for people that don’t have the courage to lose complete control of their life for a few years”.

When Maron was 35, unhappily married, hoovering up booze, weed and cocaine most evenings, he met a beautiful aspiring comedian 12 years his junior, who told him he looked dreadful and offered to help him get sober. And she did, more or less. He divorced his first wife and pinned his hopes on his second. By 2009, he was living on the US west coast, divorced for a second time, barely able to work and newly dismissed from the morning talk show he’d co-hosted on the left-leaning Air America radio network.

“It was a period where I needed to talk a lot,” he said, “but also to sort of re-engage with something I think I had practised as a child: being part of somebody else.” With the former Air America producer Brendan McDonald, Maron began recording conversations with comedian friends, seeking advice, delving into their lives. He asked stock questions, such as “What did your old man do?” and “Who were your guys?”, as if they might provide some clue to where he had gone wrong. Then people started to listen.

“I started getting emails saying somehow or other the dialogue with my guests, or my monologues, were making people feel better or getting them through dark times,” he said. “I never anticipated people would get that type of help from the show.”

In a recent episode with Ian McKellen, Maron explained to the British actor that his listeners were “sensitive, slightly aggravated, usually intelligent people”, not so much “a demographic, more of a disposition”. By 2010, WTF had attracted a cult following. Robin Williams came to the garage and talked about his depression. Maron’s fellow stand-up Todd Glass came out as gay on the show after a string of suicides among young LGBT people. Friends whom Maron had known throughout his career, including David Cross, Sarah Silverman and Bob Odenkirk, joined him to reminisce. His 2010 interview with Louis CK, arguably the best-known US comedian of recent years, was voted the greatest podcast episode ever by the online magazine Slate.

“Comedians in their infancy are generally selfish, irresponsible, emotionally retarded, morally dubious, substance-addicted animals who live out of boxes and milk crates,” Maron wrote in his memoir. Yet, as they mature, they can become “some of the most thoughtful, philosophical, open-minded . . . creative people in the world”.

“The best comics are people that have taken the chance to live a life independent of mainstream culture and expectations,” he told me. “They’re constantly looking for an angle on the information coming in. They write things down. It’s the life of a thinker, or a philosopher, or poet – however you want to put it.”

I suggested that poetry was an ideal analogy for comedy, not only because poets reframe reality in a truthful way but also because they can be savage and resentful, particularly to fellow poets. It’s a fact Maron openly concedes about himself.

“I’m the clown that thought Louis CK’s show Louie should be called F*** You, Marc Maron,” he said at the 2011 Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal. The episode of WTF with Louis CK, a friend since the late 1980s, is remarkable not only for the moment when CK becomes audibly emotional as he discusses the birth of his first child, but for the way in which he unflinchingly airs his grievances with Maron, who confesses to envying CK’s success so much that they lost contact for a time. “You were being a shitty friend by being jealous,” CK says. “I could’ve used you . . . I got divorced. I got a show cancelled. I could’ve used a friend.”

So, in 2015, with a TV series about his life on the IFC cable network concluding its third series, the widely discussed interview in which Obama opened up about parenting, gun control and racism in the US and a series of high-profile appearances in Dublin, London and Sydney booked to showcase new material, surely the glass at last looks half full? “Maybe,” he said. “There are some people whose ego is able to accept the love and adoration of an audience. I’ve always been one to question that.”

Yet the improvements to his life – recognition, financial security, reconciliation with old friends – are undeniable. “Most creative people move through a tremendous amount of insecurity, which can turn to hostility. But the podcast became socially relevant and some of the insecurities dissipated. I could accept myself, for the most part, and realise that all the hard work I’d done for half my life had manifested into something that connects with people.”

Maron’s biggest anxiety today, he explained at the end of our talk, before opening the garage door to face the day, is that he’s “swamped with work all the f***ing time”.

“I beat myself up feeling like I should be out in the world, seeing a play or some art or something. Often, when I do monologues, I think, ‘I’ve got nothing to talk about.’ But then I go on and talk about nothing.”

The truth is that Marc Maron isn’t Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks – but that’s OK. We live in a different time. Perhaps what listeners need most is not more opinions, but a little help getting out of their own way: a co-pilot to navigate the anxieties of living day to day. “That’s exactly right,” he said. “The little things.”

Marc Maron performs at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, on 3 and 4 September

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses