Xbox One looks like far more trouble than it’s worth

So that was a press conference, all right.  There was press there, and people talked on stage for an hour.  Lots of lights and announcements were made, and many features of a new product were explained.  And when it was over I knew that Microsoft’s vision of the purpose of a console and mine were completely at odds.

We live in a multimedia future, where a video file downloaded on the PC can be dumped on a memory stick and viewed in full HD glory on the tv.  The idea of television being something you watch on its terms is dead, and good riddance to it.  Over the last couple of years the Xbox 360’s front-end has been trying to grab a piece of this, more and more being about the multimedia and relegating games to a tab off to the side.  It’s been obnoxious, and a primary reason my PS3 has been getting so much more usage lately.  Now there’s the Xbox One, moving full-bore into being the single set top box of choice, simplifying things to a ludicrous degree and bringing us one step closer to a future where we’ve evolved into the doughy blobs from Wall-E.

Before I really get into the press conference, breaking down each section, there’s one clarification to make here- I want to like the Xbox One.  Show me some good games at E3 and it could overcome my issues.  The information at the press conference, both in terms of what was said in the presentation and what was left out to be revealed afterwards makes this unlikely, but it could still happen.  There’s a long way to go before we know everything and it could all be good things from here on.  As for today, however, here’s how it went-

The conference opened with a streaming video of a bunch of people talking about what they wanted.  A refrain of “Me, me, me” left me (irony!) wondering who these people were who needed a video game console to “start feeling… alive”.  That’s a lot of broken mental baggage to dump on a system.

After the video came a several-minute talk that filled in time but didn’t actually say anything, until the Xbox One name and console was revealed.  To it’s credit, the Xbox One embodies the idea of Xbox perfectly.  It’s a box, it’s got an X on it.  It looks more like a cable box than a video game system, however, and later parts of the presentation showed that this was a very deliberate part of its design.  The name “Xbox One”, on the other hand, seems like something designed specifically to cause consumer confusion.  The video also showed off the new Kinect, whose boxy format matches perfectly with the console, and the redesigned controller.  So far, so good, and then it all went hands-free multimedia.

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I tend to leave my Kinect turned off.  It has a tendency to pick up on gestures that aren’t intended for it, putting an icon on the screen that disappears a few seconds later, but shouldn’t have been there in the first place.  I also don’t talk to hardware, unless it’s a proper human-level intelligence AI.  Seeing as this doesn’t exist, no talking to machines.  “Xbox on” to turn the machine on seems like an odd thing to do when current tech works perfectly by holding down a button on the controller for a few seconds.  It’s simple, easy, and best of all, quiet.  It also looks like it’s preserved on the new controller, but the presentation still spent a fairly large amount of time talking to and waving at a piece of hardware.

The properly interesting part from this section of the presentation was the way the Xbox One integrates with whatever television service you may have.  You plug your cable box into the Xbox One and it picks up the guide information from it, and you can use voice commands to navigate the channels.  No poking around changing video inputs, just direct input into the One to go from gaming to tv and back again.  There’s also a feature similar to picture-in-picture that lets you multitask, maybe doing a little web browsing while watching tv.  Why you’d want to do this is left to the imagination of the viewer, but it’s there if you need it and don’t have one of any number of other potential internet-browsing devices around that don’t eat up tv screen real estate.

Then it wandered into sports territory for a while and I spaced out.  For people who like that kind of thing there’s actually very good reason to be interested in the fantasy league features.  They appear to be well thought out and should add a nice personal touch to the excitement of watching a live game at it effects your personal fantasy team’s stats.

After that it was back to looking at the voice activated guide features again.  “Watch CBS” turned on CBS.  “What’s on HBO?” brought up guide info.  The line that pushed me away, however, was “No more memorizing channels or hunting for the remote control.”  You know those ads where normal people fail spectacularly at the simplest things, like cleaning an ear with a q-tip?  You know you’re being sold a line when “hit a button” or “remember ____” is too hard for your life and needs to be simplified.  And that’s putting aside my personal distaste for talking to a television, which is far from being a universal reaction.

Once past that, it was time to talk about the hardware and its interfaces.  There are three primary methods of usage- controller, Kinect, smartglass.  The smartglass integration was on display earlier when poking around with the sports stats, unexplained other than the presenter speaking to Kinect and using a smartphone simultaneously to control the information on screen.  The system also has an 8-core CPU, 8Gb DDR3 (PS4 uses DDR5, which is faster), a 500GB hard drive (can’t be replaced, but you can add an external drive), BluRay drive, USB 3.0 ports, and a few other bells and whistles.  It’s a powerful machine, and they made sure to stress that all this muscle runs whisper-quiet.  Anyone with an early 360 can appreciate that feature.

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Then they talked about Kinect for a while and I tuned out.  Also you can game-DVR your gameplay and upload it, on the theory that the player is an incurable narcissist.  EA came on and talked about sports, and Microsoft showed demonstrated the Xbox One version of Forza.  It looked like a very pretty car game, but didn’t show off enough to sell the new system’s graphics prowess.

Still, that was a game running on hardware, so it was definitely a step in the right direction.  Next up was Quantum Break, and it also showed off the power of the games of the future by dipping into the gimmicks of the past, thanks to an FMV intro.  With the focus on Kinect and the Xbox One being a fantastic way to watch tv doing their level best to persuade me to give up, this isn’t what I was hoping for.  The ship crashing into the bridge looked great, although I was left wondering what magic material the mast is made of to take out that bridge so completely.  But FMV?  Really?

On the plus side, they announced that there will be 15 exclusive games, 8 of which are new IP, released during the first year of Xbox One’s life.  So that’s good to hear.  Then that brief moment of hope was destroyed by more tv babble.  (It didn’t help that the presenter ranks Game of Thrones higher than Breaking Bad.)  Steven Spielberg is taking part in creating a live-action Halo tv series, and then more sports television stuff.

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Finally, at the very end, something resembling actual gameplay was shown off with Call of Duty: Ghosts.  It’s not a game that I care about much personally but at least it’s something, plus it has a dog in it, so awwww….  While I’ve been harsh on the direction Microsoft has taken the Xbox One, there’s no denying that the in-game visuals were impressive, and the promise of them running at 60FPS means there’s plenty of room for improvement.  It’s going to be crazy-expensive from the developer’s point of view, of course, but those that can deliver will be putting out some very detailed games.

So the net result of the conference was that, personally, I wasn’t sold on the console.  Too much focus on things that don’t matter in the slightest to the way I use a gaming system, and that’s perfectly fine.  I am not the mass market, and despite the impression the start of the conference made it’s not actually all about the idea of “me”.  They’ve got a market of multi-millions to sell this thing to and they like sports, tv, and Call of Duty.  The games will come at E3.  The bad news, on the other hand, will wander out an hour or two after the conference.

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Remember when I said there’s no way Microsoft would lock out used games, and that an always-online console would be market suicide?  The rest of the day after the conference was spent with a back and forth about how true or not true this would be.  It needs to be online once a day.  You need to install the game from disk, which grants the single user under which the game was installed permission to use it, and if you bring the game over to a friend’s you’ll need to log into your account to play.  Kinect hast to be on at all times, and it’s always watching.  You don’t always need to be online but cloud features in the game may require a constant connection.  Etc.  Lots of rumor, little info, all of it making this shiny new system look like it absolutely hated the very idea of a consumer.

Here’s what we know, quoted directly from Major Nels0n-

“We know there is some confusion around used games on Xbox One and wanted to provide a bit of clarification on exactly what we’ve confirmed today. While there have been many potential scenarios discussed, today we have only confirmed that we designed Xbox One to enable our customers to trade in and resell games at retail.

Beyond that, we have not confirmed any specific scenarios.

Another piece of clarification around playing games at a friend’s house – should you choose to play your game at your friend’s house, there is no fee to play that game while you are signed in to your profile.”

I wish I could say more about this but it’s all rumor/speculation outside of these brief lines.  There’s a lot of confusion, much of it caused directly by Microsoft spokespeople themselves, but Major Nelson is the final word for now.  How on earth they didn’t know that this is what people wanted to know is a complete mystery, but their cluelessness and incapability in answering the questions goes a long way towards showing that the Microsoft that thought killing the Start button in Windows 8 was a good idea is alive and well.  Personally, I can say right now I’ve utterly zero interest in this console, thanks to today’s missteps.  This thing looks like far more trouble than it’s worth.  I hate to say it, but I won’t be particularly saddened if E3 doesn’t show anything to make me reconsider.

  • inplainview

    Good write up.
    “Over the last couple of years the Xbox 360′s front-end has been trying to grab a piece of this, more and more being about the multimedia and relegating games to a tab off to the side. It’s been obnoxious…”
    Yes, yes it has.
    “You plug your cable box into the Xbox One and it picks up the guide information from it, and you can use voice commands to navigate the channels. No poking around changing video inputs, just direct input into the One to go from gaming to tv and back again. There’s also a feature similar to picture-in-picture that lets you multitask, maybe doing a little web browsing while watching tv. Why you’d want to do this is left to the imagination of the viewer…”
    Perhaps this is some kind of response to the Wii-U tablet off screen usability/tablet remote. Though as you say it seems largely useless. Using the gamepad on the Wii-U takes up no screen real-estate, and is un-obtrusive when others are using the main tv.
    “…I can say right now I’ve utterly zero interest in this console…”
    Ditto.