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.