It’s like a question from one of those IQ tests that assess how white and middle class you are: Complete the following sequence: “Xbox, Xbox 360…” The answer, we now know, is the Xbox One, Microsoft’s newly unveiled ugly brick of a console. I’m fascinated by the number base that Microsoft’s marketing department are using that has ‘one’ in the third slot, and ‘360’ in the second.
The explanation for the new silly name is that it’s “The all-in-one entertainment system” – which makes it sound a lot like the PS4. Or for that matter the PS3. Especially considering that what makes the Xbox One into an all-in-one system is the final acceptance of the Blu-Ray Disc format, which Sony has been using for seven years. Everything else the Xbox One can do sounds awfully like everything the Xbox 360.5 (i.e. 360+Kinect) can do – except, hopefully, turn itself from something that looks like an ugly brick into something that is literally an ugly brick thanks to shoddy early version engineering problems.
Microsoft gained ground on Sony in the previous generation to the extent that they are currently ahead by a nose – the installed base figures are at 77.3 million versus 77.2 million. Of course, this figure doesn’t take into account the fact that Microsoft have made more money on the 360 thanks to their very clever online strategy based around Xbox Live, something Sony were very slow to recognise was going to be a requirement in order to remain competitive. But given that Microsoft went from number three to joint second last time around, you would think that they would use declaring their cards after all their competitors as an opportunity to announce something show-stopping that it would be too late for their rivals to imitate. Apparently, turned to their R&D department and found nothing that was ready.
What’s seriously missing right now is the answer to the question: “You must own an Xbox One because….”, and frankly at the moment the answer seems to be “you’re an Xbox Live subscriber and Microsoft need you to upgrade.” My Twitter feed this morning was full of 0people making jokes about the fact that the new Kinect is always on, and speculating about who it will Skype as you are doing something embarrassing… Apart from the fact that it is an upgrade over its predecessor, there’s little of interest about the Xbox One as it currently stands, and certainly no reason for anyone not already locked into Xbox Live to choose it over its rival, the PS4 (unless, of course, you are in love with Kinect – which almost no gamer hobbyists are).
Of course, it’s always been the “killer app” that makes a console – the original Xbox was saved almost single handedly by Bungie’s Halo: Combat Evolved, for instance, but the way things are going with AAA development it’s become much harder to make exclusives worthwhile. The problem is twofold: on the one hand, development costs continue to rise – Epic’s Tim Sweeney stated: “We are hoping costs at the start of the next generation to only be double the cost of the start of the previous generation”. Yikes! On the other hand, the truly big franchises can’t afford to be tied to a single platform any more. The moment Rockstar North decided ‘never again’ to platform exclusives, the “killer app” became a very different proposition since all the major franchises have now gone multi-platform and the odds of a new franchise getting major traction from launch is rather low.
Although I am no fan of Microsoft, the 360 did pull a grudging respect out of me because it successfully initiated a service model that made the economics of console manufacture less horrific. But the economics of blockbuster game development is becoming ever more horrific, and to describe the release schedules for retail games over the past few years as ‘stale’ is only unfair because there are still plenty of players lining up to play sequels of the same old franchises. I’m at a loss to explain why Microsoft think the Xbox One can succeed just on the basis of it being “The all-in-one entertainment system”, especially since Sony has for several years been touting the PS3 with the tagline “It only does everything”. Your unique selling point is supposed to distinguish you from your competitors – not make your new product sound like your competitor’s previous product.
The currently-ending generation marked a change in focus towards online – the coming generation is apparently marked by a general absence of any compelling ideas, coupled with the ever-present threat of a total collapse in the high street retail of videogames. Except for the original PlayStation, I’ve owned every console hardware released from the Sega Megadrive onwards. Perhaps I’m just getting old, but I’ve yet to see any reason to buy any of the new consoles and Microsoft and Sony better hope that it’s just us 8-bit gamesters who are nonplussed by the future being offered. With Nintendo’s Wii U sales failing to meet even the most conservative of expectations, Sony and Microsoft are locked into a deadly battle, tumbling into a high-tech Khazad-dûm of their own creation – and it’s not yet clear who is Gandalf and who is the balrog…