What Games Are: Cometh The Hour, Cometh The Xbox?

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a veteran game designer, creator of leading game design blog What Games Are and creative director of Jawfish Games. You can follow him on Twitter here.

One of the memories that sticks with me most about the launch of the Xbox 360 was a silly analogy about inhaling. I can’t remember who said it, but the general idea was that it had a concave body to convey breathing in, perhaps a precursor to exclaiming joy. It was as daft as it sounds, but for a while there the 360 was indeed a breath of fresh air.

Xbox 360 had a lot going for it, from online connectivity to a much simpler architecture that developers preferred over the PlayStation 3. In its first few years it maintained the position of being a very games-focused console. Xbox 360 was the home of indie games, for example, and digital distribution. It widely popularized the notion of achievements.

But three, maybe four, years ago Microsoft started to push bigger ideas. It left a lot of the gamer-ish stuff behind and redesigned the console’s dashboard toward a media focus. Over a series of updates, Xbox slowly went Metro, became about Netflix, avatars and Kinect. Most of these innovations didn’t stick so well, and the cost they incurred was significant. Xbox 360 went from being a clear proposition to a complex and all-over-the-place machine.

Many Kinects were sold, but few people actually used them for long. Many channels of TV content were brought into the fold, but finding room for them essentially killed its indie games market and lost a lot of credibility with that group. Ultimately, the successes of these divergences were generally mute. (18 billion hours of video sounds like a big deal until you break it down per unit over a year.)

This is the problem with long hardware cycles (Xbox 360 is 8 years old). Lacking annualized releases of better technology (for some reason the console industry still believes it has to carry on this way), the platform story grows old after a couple of years, leading to the urge to accessorize. Often in so doing it loses itself in the ensuing cruft, and then needs a big reset. All of which leads up to Tuesday’s news: the big event in Redmond to unveil the next Xbox. And boy does the company need it to go well.

Perception-wise, Microsoft has had a bad couple of years. Windows Phone may have won a number of plaudits for its looks, but nobody really went for it. Windows 8 sold a ton of copies, but most users sort of hate it. Surface had a glitzy launch, but people are still buying iPads. That leaves Xbox as Microsoft’s one remaining big consumer push. This one has to go right, or lots of talking heads will start to ask if there’s any market that Microsoft can get right any more.

The reason the company has had a lot of these issues, I think, is that it’s bad at listening. Microsoft consistently gets lost in grand visions, visions that only it can afford to develop, and produces super-complicated propositions that nobody loves. All those years spend trying to convince the public about Windows Live services. All that time spent trying to bring us around to using Bing. All that wasted effort trying to unify user interfaces with Metro (which at its heart is just a bit broken, as has been said over and over) and who really cares? Grand visions that lose the plot are Microsoft’s forte.

Yet, gaming folks are pretty excited about the next Xbox. Will it feature new horsepower? Guaranteed. Will it have Kinect baked into the box itself? Probably, but they don’t care. Will it require an Internet connection? Maybe, and they’re not sure what they think about that. Will it have lots of content partnerships? Undoubtedly. Will it copy Sony’s idea of a Share button on the joypad? Perhaps. Will there be a Halo game on it? You know it.

Will it actually be anything fundamentally different, though? It doesn’t sound like it, but that may not be a bad thing. There is often an assumption in tech blog circles that the audience wants permanent revolution, but often it doesn’t. Often it just wants the thing that it knows works, and if that thing gets that job right then it’s happy. The console gaming audience generally doesn’t want consoles to do anything fundamentally different. It tends to embrace features that are additive to its core desires, like online multiplayer or achievements, but all it wants are big TV games with joypads and mad graphics. Everything else is optional.

There are maybe 150 million console gamers around the world, judging by platform sales over the last few generations, and they love their expensive splashy videogames. They’ve never particularly cared for the frilly extras, like avatars, but that doesn’t stop them buying in. They like that their consoles have ESPN on them, but those are not crucial purchase decisions. They’re not convergence customers in the way that some PowerPoint deck in the depths of Redmond probably drew a few years ago to justify unified interfaces, but again they don’t mind as long as it’s not going to get in the way of playing Dishonored. For those people, the next Xbox is exciting because of the prospect of an even more-lavish Call of Duty and an even more-next-generation Skyrim. All they really want is a box that they believe can deliver that experience.

The risk for Microsoft is if it screws that message up.

When videogame platforms live too long, their platform holder often loses sight of its core competency. When the PlayStation 2 was over it had explored so many areas of the market that it was impossible to convey all of them in one coherent story. Sony tried, with the PlayStation 3, but the result was so confused that developers only really heard “it’s over-complicated” while consumers heard “it’s $599 for Ridge Racer.” This is a business built on razors-and-blades thinking.

A similar thing is happening to Nintendo with the Wii U. The Wii was a wonderfully simple device with a couple of very smart accessories (like the Wii Fit) and a raft of dumb ones. By the time the Wii U came around Nintendo seemed to have lost its sense of focus that drove Wii, instead releasing a very confusing machine. Now it’s paying the price.

The biggest risk for the next Xbox is if Microsoft departs so far from its core audience that the audience feels turned off. If the company comes out only talking about transmedia, television tie-ins, movies on demand, instant messaging, Internet Explorer, phone syncing, emailing from your couch, holographic avatars, Spotify subscriptions, Twitter integration, Facebook integration and party gaming then I fear for Xbox’s survival. The gamers will ask “Yes, but, where’s the games Steve?”

At its heart, the next Xbox needs to simply be about the games the games the games. Will Microsoft actually listen this time?