Xbox One – What It Is, What It Does – We Think

Xbox One 001UPDATED: We originally stated that the Xbox One could emulate existing Xbox 360 games.  It’s now clear Xbox One will not offer emulation of Xbox 360, Xbox Live or Xbox indie games.

Our non-games readers might have missed the excitement, buzz, then deluge of social media updates, from developers, journalists, games industry pundits, analysts and gamers over the last 24 hours.

Microsoft announced their new platform, the snappily named Xbox One and revealed a number of key capabilities of the new console.

If you’re in a hurry, here’s a video which summarises the whole announcement…  However we’d recommend reading on.

Anticipation was high.  The Xbox 360 is much-loved platform and speculation about the new console’s hardware has run rampant over the last few weeks, as industry analysts predicted (and the rest of us just guessed) what services, games and unique new features the new Xbox would include.

Xbox One MattrickThe launch, from Microsoft’s Redmond HQ, was streamed live to the Internet.  The whole gaming world was watching – and tweeting – as every new element was announced.

It’s a powerful device.  It’s black.  Very black.  A Spinal Tap ‘none more black’ sort of shiny blackness.  Every new Xbox One will come with a Kinect device.  If you’re not familiar with the Kinect, it’s a new input device which incorporates a high-fidelity camera and microphone, which lets you play games by moving and control the Xbox with voice commands.

Xbox One TV MoviesIt started with TV.  The new Xbox One will feature integrated smart TV capabilities, allowing the user to speak directly to the Xbox Kinect and pull up programme planners, record a show, ‘pinch and grab’ whatever’s on screen, using physical gestures and ’tile’ your current window. This means you can shrink your game, movie playback or TV show into a smaller window and use the web browser, search engine, or other app (Skype was the example shown).

Xbox One Halo TVMore interestingly on the TV front, the company announced that 343 Studios, the company which is taking the Halo franchise forward, is working directly with Steven Spielberg to create a live-action Halo TV series.  Mr Spielberg has form in the games world, having worked with a number of publishers in the past on original titles as well as the Medal of Honor franchise.

Microsoft has also struck a deal with the NFL to introduce Xbox exclusive content in major network broadcasts of American Football matches.

Xbox One padThe inclusion of so many capabilities aimed entirely at TV confused and upset many people in the games world who were there to hear about games.  However, the strategy was clear – Microsoft aims to own the living room.  The current Xbox 360 is already a capable media device, supporting streaming media services like Netflix and Spotify as well as playing DVDs, CDs and bringing social networks to a house’s main TV.

Xbox One EA SportsThere were games.  Electronic Arts came on stage to announce the next generation of their major sports licenses – NFL, NBA, NHL, TBC and FIFA.  They looked incredibly slick, the increased graphical capabilities and processing power means that every bead of sweat and blade of grass looks incredible.

Once again though, it left a lot of people underwhelmed.  These are hugely popular franchises, but increasingly better graphics are exactly what’s expected from these annually updated titles.  What many people felt was missing was the real next-generation content.  What’s different?  How will online gameplay, or the Kinect sensor change the way the games work?  The short answer is, we don’t know yet.

Xbox One CollarDutyThen Activision introduced the next generation of their massively massive Call of Duty franchise, showing side by side comparisons of the current Call of Duty titles, with the forthcoming Call of Duty: Ghosts.  Again, the response from the games world was conflicted.  It looked gorgeous, but outside a few brief clips, one of the unique selling points was the inclusion of a photo-realistic, motion-captured militarised dogs (and in a expression of today’s fast-moving, meme-driven social media, before the launch event had finished, the dog himself already had a spoof Twitter account, which in under 24 hours has picked up 14,000 followers).

That was it.  Thank you, Cleveland, we’re out of here…

The launch has left a lot of people in the games world somewhat deflated.  The games which were mentioned were the key franchises, they looked prettier, but what’s actually ‘next-generation’ about them?  The focus on TV was ‘irrelevant’ to many, who want to buy the latest, most powerful games machine.

From Microsoft’s point of view, it made complete sense.  It puts them, front-and-centre (literally if you want your Kinect to work) in the living room and the whole launch was focused on the mainstream audience out there, the sports fans, Call of Duty players and people who will think a few hundred dollars on a device which does everything, as opposed to a smart TV, which doesn’t get CoD, is a good investment.

This does leave a number of problems…  The TV capabilities are primarily aimed at the US market, how it will work in the rest of the world remains to be seen.

Xbox OneThe early adopters and the hard core gamers, who will be standing in line to buy an Xbox One the second it comes out, will be driven by the games available.   15 exclusive launch titles were promised, with eight of those based on new intellectual property, but no other information was provided.  It’s left the gamers feeling ignored and as a passionate and vocal audience, they’re expressing their displeasure quite loudly.

However, the major video games expo, E3 takes place in Los Angeles in just over two weeks, where the mainstream TV watching audience don’t even get through the doors, so it’s odds on that Microsoft will create a gamer’s paradise, with every major developer and publisher demonstrating and showing their new Xbox games.  So the current negative coverage could flip entirely fairly shortly.

PS4 - LaunchThe disappointment for the wider industry however, was the lack of any information outside the huge triple-A console franchises.  With a growing number of developers now focusing on smaller, digital only titles (the majority of developers in Scotland for example), there was nothing.  No news.  As Microsoft pioneered the ‘independent’ games channel, with the Xbox 360 indie channel, it’s unlikely that smaller developers will be forgotten.  However, given Sony’s new focus on indie developers at their recent PlayStation 4 launch and Microsoft’s seeming indifference to the problems with the indie games channel as a viable marketplace, it’s left many developers pondering their options.

How the Xbox One will interact with other devices such as smartphones, tablets and computers was also absent.  With more and more ‘gamers’ now playing games almost exclusively on their non-dedicated devices, Microsoft either had to bring integration and second screen capabilities to the table, or ignore it completely.  Bar a single example of using a smartphone as a remote control, so far they seem to be ignoring it completely…

Interestingly, it was what wasn’t mentioned on stage at the Xbox One launch which has picked up the most social media buzz.  Four very key points were not simply glossed over, but entirely ignored in the hopes that nobody would notice…

Xbox 360 Games CollectionThe new Xbox One will not be backwardly compatible.  So the collection of Xbox 360 games which many players have spent the best part of a decade building, won’t run on their shiny new Xbox.  This also includes Xbox Live Arcade and Xbox indie games.  Microsoft have now stated they have no plans to bring any of these titles to the new Xbox One.

The Xbox One will also lock a newly purchased game to one Xbox user account.  The company provided many confusing and conflicting answers to the press about this ‘feature’, but it boils down to copy protection and ensuring that users pay for content.  Xbox One games have to be installed on the console’s hard drive.  Once a game has been associated with your user account, you CAN lend it to a friend, but you can’t both play it at the same time.  If your friend wants to do that, they have to pay online to ‘unlock’ the content.  This radically affects the pre-owned games market, where you can buy second hand games for a greatly reduced price.  Exactly what the unlock prices will be, or how this will work with games which have been traded-in or re-sold remains to be seen.

Even the Xbox Kinect came in for some criticism regarding privacy issues.  The new camera system recognises very subtle movements and can track a user across an entire room.  It also has a sophisticated microphone to enable voice commands (in fact  several people reported that while they wee watching the live stream of the launch event on their Xbox, the commands from, Yusef Mehdi, the presenter on stage was triggering their own Xbox 360).  The Kinect is on whenever the Xbox One is on, leaving people feeling uneasy about the data it’s capturing or the possible exploitation of that data by Microsoft – or carefully selected marketing partners…

Xbox One 003Finally, the Xbox One will demand an internet connection.  Not continuously, but every console will have to log in at least once a day if the games are to continue to work.  This has caused some of the greatest controversy, as countries with sporadic or poor internet access, or players who simply don’t have broadband feel like they’re being excluded.  Many recent games which have demanded a constant internet connection – Diablo III and SimCity have been widely criticised for poor service, inability to play and users being unable to access accounts or games they’ve already paid for.

Microsoft is not new to this business.  The Xbox 360 has been progressively improved and updated to incorporate new elements and give users new features.  It’s clear from the launch event that the company wants to own the living room and become the media centre of choice for every household – not just the hard core gamers.  The risk they’re running, at least until E3, is that their most ardent supporters are currently feeling neglected, sidelined and in some ways persecuted, for their loyalty and early adopter status.

It’s telling that over the course of the launch event, Microsoft’s share price dropped, while Sony’s climbed an equal amount.

It’s far too early to say how the next generation of consoles will shape up against each other, but it’s fair to say that Microsoft’s focus at the launch event has raised more questions than it answered.

Roll on E3…

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