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
Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.