Wednesday, June 26, 2013

#61: The Xbox One: A Series of Fixes

I do not think I need to tell you guys all the things that have gone on regarding Microsoft and the Xbox One (X1). If you are reading this, then you are likely already aware of the controversies surrounding the X1 since the initial February launch, along with the ensuing backpedal only a few days ago as of the time of writing. There is no real point in reiterating all of that here. Having said all that, with all that has gone on recently, there has spawned what could be referred to as a reverse-backlash, where people were angry that Microsoft responded to both its critics and low pre-order numbers. This movement was born in response to Microsoft cutting some of the consoles more interesting features, citing that the online check was necessary to maintain them. While I find these claims dubious, for reasons cited by both Eurogamer and Gamasutra, that's again not the point of this article.

What I want to talk about is what the Xbox One could have done in the first design to make the new console more palatable to initial audiences. To be clear, I will not be focusing on the TV features nor any of the PR surrounding that. The scope of this article will be solely on the technology and policies with regards to the gaming side, because that's ultimately what matters. I feel that there are five major changes they could have made in the design they first revealed so that it would have been more successful. Two of them are changes that have already been made, two are commonly cited complaints that remain on the console, and the last one will probably be very controversial, as I am sure I will get a lot of flak for it. Though I am not an expert in the fields of business nor engineering, I have some knowledge of programming and operating systems. I do not have any reason to believe that what I propose would be particularly difficult. Final disclosure: I am an unashamed fan of the Playstation brand, so my stake in Microsoft's success is only in that I wish that the competition they provide forces Sony to continue improving. Having said all of that, my proposals to “fix” the original design of the X1 is as follows.

The first one I would throw out there would have been to remove the 24-hour phone-home scheme. A common criticism Microsoft received was that a constant check like this, while not terribly problematic for the vast majority of demographics, could still be an issue in quite a few circumstances. One of the most notable we have seen talked about are people serving abroad in the military. Those who serve are typically given incredibly scarce access to the internet, and solid access is prohibitively expensive as noted by Robert Rath in his Critical Intel column on the Escapist. I do not know if this is the case in many other countries, but in America the military is very well respected. When any major companies upset service members, that company really suffers in PR, which results in lowered sales. Whether or not that is a good thing is up for debate, but it does happen and often.
Also noted by Rath, such an internet check would stifle organizations like Child's Play, which provide games to hospitalized children. I know this does directly affect Microsoft's bottom dollar. However, Child's Play is one of the few things the industry as a whole can point to when major tragedies happen and games are blamed for them. While helping sick children is the goal, it has the added side effect of helping the industry stave off legislation that politicians are more than willing to impose on it. Aside from these two groups, the internet check does impact those who travel a lot and people who have weak connections and limited data caps, which European countries are very well known for. The infrastructure simply is not there yet. Perhaps it will be more feasible a few years down the line, when solid internet becomes completely ubiquitous, this kind of feature can be considered. As of now, it simply inconveniences too many people.
The other primary concern with this feature alone was Microsoft's ability to maintain servers in all regions constantly. Just the other day as of the time of writing, Xbox Live went down for some users for a few hours. While this is no longer a concern in light of recent events, in the theoretical where the X1 maintained its initial course, depending on when a given user last signed on with their console, this could have resulted in being unable to play games on the console for several hours. Having a need for the console to ping home to Microsoft's servers results in an unspoken contract forming between the company and its users. When mandating that users have to phone home once a day, Microsoft tacitly accepts the responsibility to maintain those servers at all times, keeping maintenance times as low as they can possibly be. This results in an increased cost of keeping those servers running, as many publishers of tacked-on multiplayer in games found out the hard way. Just this one feature, which was thankfully removed, would have caused a lot of problems in terms of consumer inconvenience and added costs to all parties.

The next thing I would have recommended, as they have again already done in the new design, is to remove the region lock on the system. Region locks have always been a sketchy part of the industry. The reason often cited for such practices is the difference in prices between different regions, meaning that it can sometimes be cheaper for a person to import a game from outside the country than it is to buy the version made available in that person's country, even when including tariffs and shipping charges on imported goods. As a result, with the exception of the PS3, people who wanted to buy imported games would need to either modify their existing console to support games from outside regions, which is easier said than done, or just buy a console from that region as well.
The problem comes that in combination with the aforementioned internet mandate, even imported consoles would not work for countries outside of Microsoft's list of supported countries, because the servers simply would not be there. This was evidenced when it was revealed that Poland, where The Witcher developer CD Projekt is based, would not receive the Xbox One on launch day. In other words, the developers of a game touted quite early on in the Microsoft press conference would be unable to use the new console to play the game that they developed. Game commentator John Bain, more commonly known as TotalBiscuit, also noted that out of the top 25 countries that view his videos, 8 of them would not have had access to the X1 at launch. While this issue was resolved, and thus is no longer a concern, it would have again shut Microsoft out of a number of potential audiences.

While both of the above issues have been rectified by Microsoft, the next two are still legitimate concerns that some cite when talking about the new Xbox. One of the biggest of these issues is the Kinect included with each and every X1. Let me be clear on this, I am absolutely not against having a Kinect packaged in. If we are all being totally honest, devices like the Kinect could never be successful as add-ons to a console sold separately simply because developers cannot be sure if a given customer would have it. We saw this with the 360's Kinect and the Playstation Move and Eye peripherals from this generation. Guaranteeing that a customer has Kinect gives developers more freedom to experiment with it. The problems stem from two different points.
The first and easiest to tackle is the fact that adding this accessory raised the price of the console by $100 compared to Sony's new console. While consumers will likely accept a Kinect bundled in with their Xbox One even if they did not desire it, raising the price of the console causes concerns because it forces those consumers who are not interested to spend more money despite that disinterest. For consumers looking into which next generation console is the best for them, this is a tough pill to swallow. I understand that the Kinect was expensive to develop and produce, but since new consoles are always sold at a loss anyway, it makes so sense to pass the entirety of the Kinect's cost onto the consumer. Obviously some of it does need to be passed on, but I would imagine a $449 system is easier to market than a $499 one.
The other issue here is a lot tougher to deal with. Because of the way the Xbox One's hardware was designed, the system literally cannot function unless the Kinect is turned on. According to Microsoft Support, which is honestly suspect given the schizophrenic nature of their post-E3 PR, the X1 will only activate when users say “Xbox On” to their Kinect. Given the recent PRISM scandal, which revealed the Microsoft along with many, many other companies were giving information regarding their customers activities to the NSA, trusting Microsoft with a sensor in their own home is no longer an easy sell. Others may even be concerned that the information will be used in a private capacity to sell to other companies, which Google and Facebook openly admit to doing themselves.
While I personally do not believe Microsoft has any ill intent with the Kinect and have been assured that it will have tons of privacy options on it by sources working on the device, mandating its use does leave them at a distinct disadvantage when the conversation has switched to government spying on a domestic level. Even without the recent scandals and even with privacy settings, getting consumer trust will be incredibly difficult. There are benefits to the inclusion with a Kinect and it does seem core to the design of the new console, but the way it was included can leave a lot to be desired.

While perhaps less critical, another commonly issued criticism of the new Xbox is that indie developers still cannot self-publish. To be fair, this is the status quo for Microsoft, as the 360 also imposed this rule. However, independent developers are becoming much more influential than they were only a few years ago. Considering that Sony and even Nintendo have made reaching out to these smaller studios a priority, lowing the price of admission and allowing for self-publishing, this seems like an odd policy to maintain on Microsoft's part. I can respect having a division of Microsoft Studios at the ready to publish indie games and help them onto Xbox Live if needed, but to force every developer to use that window seems like a mistake. It is a perfectly viable method for some and maybe even most, but not appropriate for all. Independent developers are very useful in their own right. With lower budgets, it becomes possible to experiment with new and interesting game design ideas, which the AAA developers can then adapt for their own use, pushing the medium forward. In the future, it will be necessary to make it as easy as possible to release games on a console. There will be a lot of bad games that we will see as a result, but we will also see tons of great gems that would otherwise get passed over. Not allowing them to self-publish will result in turning away quite a few great games that the competition will easily snatch up and take for their own.

My final recommendation is going to be a little controversial, but I do legitimately feel that it would have improved consumer reaction to the console. In order to better sell the vision of an all digital console, I feel that it might have been a smarter move to not even sell discs on the Xbox One. The way Microsoft was trying to sell this new console as, in a sense, a digital-only service with features that could have potetnially even given Steam a run for its money, a smart idea would be to just double down and only make games available as digital downloads. The way the system was originally sold, and I am simplifying to a degree, the disc would include a code that provided a user access to both the data on the disc and a digital version of the same game. Once the code is input, the disc essentially becomes a more efficient installer for games that are bound to the Xbox Live account. It has no real purpose beyond being an extra trip to the store to buy a game that could just as easily be bought online for less effort and the same rewards. Since the disc becomes a redundancy, removing it hurts very little and allows for benefits to both consumers and publishers.
Since all purchases would be tied to a given Xbox Live account, there is no longer a need to check for an internet connection every 24 hours, so games that would otherwise not need online connections can be played normally. This alone solves a number of problems, because being unable to have a connection for a week or even months would no longer be an issue. While a user would no longer be able to purchase games or install new ones without a connection, playing a game without internet in the event that said person is deployed, travels, is a sick child in a hospital, or something else entirely is still possible. It would be possible to load game onto the system when strong internet access is possible to make up for the times when it is not. For the consumers, this would lead to unlimited and unhindered access to games and the enabling of the used game marketplace/family sharing Microsoft had in mind. For the publishers, it guarantees that nearly 100% of all sales will be legitimate sales, with no threat of piracy until someone finds a way to hack Microsoft.
The other benefit this would have is that it eliminates the expectation that used copies of games can be resold or lent to others. When a physical product is being sold, the default expectation is that it can be resold. This is not true of purely digital goods. Digitally distributed software is almost never expected to have the ability to be sold to Gamestop or some other third party. When Microsoft allows discs on their system, they are bringing with them the expectation of unhindered used games sales. When said expectation is violated so thoroughly, because the X1 is primarily a digital service, the backlash was inevitable. It was a case of trying to, and I hate this phrase, “have your cake and eat it too”. There was no real way to avoid it. It was bound to happen, which is why I consider allowing the option to buy discs to be a mistake.

In the end, this is all incredibly easy for me to say. After all, I am not subject to any kind of bureaucracy nor I am beholden to shareholders. All I am is a guy who watches and comments on the industry. It is extremely easy from my position to make comments like this when I am not concerning myself with engineering problems or maintaining deals and agreements with outside parties. Microsoft rightly deserves much credit for changing in direct response to consumer feedback, which I whole-heartedly approve of. However, after the number of blunders and gaffes made only recently, getting back in the good graves of consumers may be more difficult than simply retracting policies and improving consumer friendliness. There is still a long way to go, but also plenty of time to keep improving the Xbox One until launch day, which I am sure the engineers at Microsoft at hard at work doing. Either way, this console war is now much less one-sided and much more-interesting.

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