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.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.