The Xbox One: the ultimate platform for ignoring gamers

New Halo, new MGS, new Dark Souls… so why did the Xbox One launch feel so empty?

Microsoft kicked off its 2013 Electronic Entertainment Expo press briefing on Monday with a showcase focused almost entirely on its new home console, the Xbox One. The company unveiled the new system last month at its Redmond campus in Seattle with uncharacteristically little fanfare, choosing instead to focus on a straightforward approach that highlighted the company’s biggest push yet for taking over the living room.

Unlike its predecessor, the Xbox 360, which has been on the market for almost eight years, the Xbox One’s focus is not solely on games. Microsoft made this abundantly clear when it dedicated almost half of the Redmond showcase to talking about television. (A sore point for the Xbox’s longtime gaming consumers, who hadn’t anticipated this change in strategy.) The Xbox One’s numerous television services and applications – which include live television streaming, a TV guide that integrates video-on-demand results with currently trending shows and an application called “snap mode”, which allows side-by-side multitasking like internet searches or the ability to make Skype calls through the console, all without the need to pause whatever is streaming – appear to be driven by the desire to appeal to a new kind of modern family, one whose diverse interests and short attention spans make it hungry for an all-inclusive entertainment solution that takes advantages of modern technologies like voice and gesture recognition and cloud platforms. This is the box, Microsoft is telling its consumers. There’s no longer any need for all the other stuff cluttering your television cabinet. Of course, believing in this vision requires consumers to put a lot of faith in Microsoft.

But – for gamers especially – this is no longer as easy as it may have once been. Last week, Microsoft announced a series of restrictions for the Xbox One, starting with the news that the new console will require an online “check-in” every 24 hours when playing games, the justification for which appears to be a need to ensure consumers still own the licenses for the games they bought. The second restriction concerns the idea of ownership: with the Xbox One, individual publishers will get to decide whether they will allow their games to be traded and resold between consumers, and whether a fee will be required to do so. This last point is a particularly thorny one for gamers: it means they’ll no longer be able to really think of the games they own as their own exclusive property, more like extended loans.

It’s for this reason perhaps that Microsoft made no mention of television, digital rights management or game ownership at its E3 press conference on Monday, instead focusing entirely on software in the hope to finally win over anyone who still remained skeptical. There was the announcement of continued support of the Xbox 360, including a hardware redesign, upgraded Xbox Live memberships and three new games including World of Tanks and Dark Souls II. There was a long-awaited glimpse at Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid 5 and reveals of new gaming franchises from Crytek, Remedy and Insomniac Games, as well as Respawn Entertainment’s Titanfall. There was the news that Microsoft Points are finally on their way out, to be replaced by real-world currency.

Even Microsoft’s flagship crowd-pleaser Halo made an appearance: a new title coming in 2014 and a reaffirmation that Hollywood director Steven Spielberg is teaming up with Microsoft’s 343 studio to create a live-action Halo television series for the Xbox One. But ultimately, the showcase was as predicable and disappointing as the initial Xbox One reveal, where, after switching focus from television to games, Microsoft reaffirmed its commitment to financial interests above artistic ones with lengthy demonstrations of top-selling franchises like Call of Duty, Forza, FIFA and Madden. There was no mention then of the all-inclusive diversity the company has been so careful to associate itself with in the past, no mention of how it plans to support independent developers, casual gamers or anyone whose taste likes outside shooters and sports games. While Monday saw the company showing slightly more interest in convincing gamers it hasn’t forgotten about them, the majority of “exciting” and “groundbreaking” projects it showed off consisted of just more of the same types of games designed appeal to the same core group of gamers, a group that’s no longer an accurate representation of the gaming market, and hasn’t been for a long time. What happened to all that talk about advancing the artform and giving game developers the chance and means to experiment and create new experiences? What happened to trying to push the boundaries of the medium and diversifying the scope of games and the audience that plays them?

Microsoft Studios president Phil Spencer closed today’s briefing by talking about “revolutionizing entertainment”, calling the Xbox One an “ambitious system built for a modern, connected living room.” Only then did he thank “the fans” for their support. The sentiment may just be too late.

Photograph: Getty Images
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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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