The Xbox One - Eighty?

By Jonathan Barnes, 2 years ago
Earlier today, Phil Spencer (like a gamer's Moses) brought down digital tablets from high to proselytize a new gospel from Microsoft. No longer would gamers be required to purchase a Kinect with their Xbox Ones. From the beginning, many gamers resented Kinect being forced upon them and the higher price point the bundle required. Developer buy in to the Kinect has always been lukewarm at best (outside of notable exceptions like Harmonix and Twisted Pixel) and the critical reception has been much the same. Today's move not only prices the Xbox One more competitively with the PlayStation 4, but also walks back the past year of Microsoft hype. This is both good (for most gamers and developers) and bad (for Microsoft and a few developers). Let's take a look at some of the salient points.

The Kinect Was an Albatross

In today's environment and economy, dollars matter. Back at E3 last year, I felt that Sony dealt Microsoft a killing blow when they delivered everything gamers wanted at a lower price point. The only hope Microsoft had out of the gate was to make the One's promise of being an entertainment console as much as a game console a reality.

While it is doing that to an extent, gamers have spoken loudly to this point; they preferred Sony.

That isn't to say the Xbox One isn't selling well and hitting expectations for Microsoft. To date, the Xbox One has sold better than the 360 over the same time frame. Developers have bought in, games are coming, and Microsoft has continued to improve the experience, one of the hallmarks of the previous generation.

That being said, the March NPD numbers don't lie. Sony has sold over seven million PS4s while Microsoft has shipped five million Xbox Ones. While this gap will probably be seen as a drop in the bucket as this new generation matures, it's still a telling number. Gamers were/are speaking and Microsoft is now listening. By dropping the Kinect (and the price) the gamer choice becomes that much harder and comes back to a basic question of which exclusive franchises, features, and experiences do you prefer?

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The Kinect Made the Xbox One Special... Sort Of

As someone who purchased his Xbox One with a Kinect, I was eager to see what it had to offer. I hadn't gotten into the Kinect wave with my 360 due to room size requirements and a lack of games that interested me (hold that thought), so I was excited to see what new functionality Microsoft's baby would bring to my living room. The results were/are mostly good. Voice controls work at about a 90% reliable rate, the auto-logging in is super handy, and the ability to navigate my television with my voice is certainly novel.

But that's about it.

Beyond the (few) times I've said, "Xbox, record that," most of my interaction with Kinect has been "Xbox, on" and "Xbox, turn off". While the voice interface was far from perfect, Microsoft seemed committed to improving and perfecting the experience. More than anything else, however, the ability to use the new box with my voice and gestures felt "next-gen" more than any of the (limited) gaming experiences I've had to date.

In short, Kinect felt like a novelty. It was/is nice to have, but that's about it. Kinect was a bonus, not a system selling/killing feature. I'm glad it's there, but wouldn't miss it if it weren't.

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We'll Miss It When It's Gone... Maybe

While many gamers were celebrating the removal of the Kinect in a fashion that might have been more appropriate in Oz, at least one developer was less than pleased. Harmonix, developers of the upcoming Fantasia: Music Evolved were less than enthused at Microsoft copping out on the peripheral (we can call it that now, right?). Harmonix's Director of Publishing & PR, John T. Drake (of Twitter and Diet Coke fame), tweeted the following shortly after the Microsoft announcement:

Oh, great. Super great.
Nick Chester, Harmonix's Publicist and friend of the site, backed up that sentiment shortly thereafter:

Now Kinect designers have to work extra hard to innovate and make solid software. Good thing we were already doing that!
This is going to be the heart of the new problem Microsoft will be facing after pulling their seemingly irrevocable support for the Kinect; they're leaving developers in the lurch.

Harmonix and other Kinect-focused developers can't help but feel slighted, they were developing and operating under the impression that every Xbox One would come with Kinect and that alone would broaden the potential audience for their games. That promise is now gone and the install base will be divided the minute the first Kinect-less console enters the market. From a personal perspective, I can't help but ask myself, "Would I have bought the Kinect if I was given the choice?" Honestly, it's a tough decision and I'm sure other gamers will now wrestle with it as they make their next-gen choice.

Let's be honest with ourselves, the only way Kinect would ever gain acceptance (and support) from the gamer base at large would be if it had killer games. The only way it was going to get killer games was if it had an overwhelming install base. The only way it was going to get an overwhelming install base (without killer games preceding it) was if people had to buy it. That's gone now, and with it is the certainty of amazing games that will rely on the Kinect. One can't help but wonder what we might be missing out on.

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What Now?

Brace yourself. E3 is coming. More than just a meme, today's decision put the One on more equal footing with the PS4. With a year of new console development time under their belts, developers are probably going to unveil the big guns at this year's show. If the last generation was any indication, years two and three are really where games begin to hit their stride and begin to catch up with the horsepower of the new hardware. With the disparity of hardware and price now put aside, the biggest thing that will set the PS4 and Xbox One apart will be the games and experiences they offer. Some technophiles may crow that the PlayStation 4 boasts greater horsepower at this point, but so did the PS3 last generation. It all comes back to games, services, and developer buy in. Both consoles are/were selling well enough before today's announcement to urge that developer buy in (go ahead and pour one out for the Wii U) and moving forward, it's not hard to assume that many gamers who were on the fence about their next-gen buy will be swayed by today's moves.

This year's E3 is stacking up to be one of the biggest in years. While we can probably expect a slew of sequels to get some screen time, a new generation is ripe for new IPs, and new IPs (if exclusive) can move new consoles (see Titanfall).

The biggest thought moving forward is the dirtiest secret about these console wars that many partisan gamers won't acknowledge; the competition is good for gamers. With Sony and Microsoft on more-equal footing, they have to work extra hard to gain users. Today's other announcements about Microsoft dropping the paywall for apps and continuing Games with Gold onto the Xbox One show that Microsoft means business and is gunning to close this initial sales gap.

I come not to bury the Kinect, but to praise it. It was/is a novel concept and a neat piece of tech, it probably deserved a better fate than Microsoft kicking it to the curb. Cool things could have (and still might be) done with it and it might have really changed how we experience media, not just games. That being said, it's all but an afterthought now and it really will be (as Chester said) up to developers to convince gamers to buy in, because Microsoft has seemingly cashed out.
Jonathan Barnes
Written by Jonathan Barnes
Jonathan has been a news/views contributor since 2010. When he's not writing reviews, features, and opinion pieces, he spends his days working as an informal science educator and his nights as an international man of mystery.