What Games Are: Xbox One Is Microsoft’s Spruce Goose

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.

During the 1940s Howard Hughes spent millions developing and building a plane with the largest wingspan in history and a huge carrying capacity. The Spruce Goose was meant to solve a problem of moving troops and material for the second world war effort, but by the time it was tested, the war was already over and the plane’s engine technology was being superseded by jets. Even with more money at his disposal than Solomon, Hughes could not convince the world that his propellered giant had a place.

I think it might be a similar story for the Microsoft Xbox One.

What’s Xbox One Good For?

Even at a physical level the Xbox One idea just doesn’t work for me. For one thing, it looks huge and ugly, like an old Toshiba VCR. Its next-generation Kinect is farcically large for what amounts to a fancy webcam, and the console also needs to be connected to your cable box in order to serve up all of its television features. That’s a lot of technology to find room for under your TV set at a time when everything else seems to be getting smaller.

Unlike the miniature Apple TV or OUYA, Xbox One demands pride-of-place and lots of room, and when I put those two ideas together it just doesn’t work. It fails my wife’s test of asking that our living room not be overrun with technology. It fails the small-apartment test, the small bedroom test and the crowded family home test. The fact that the Kinect needs to be attached before it can even be switched on merely reinforces that fact.

And even after all that, what is Xbox One’s core function?  TV TV TV. TV you can control with gestures. TV you can command with your voice. TV that can be sidebarred. TV that can trend, find, recommend and socialize. Transmedia TV. Gamelike additions to TV. Halo the TV show. It’s a fancy remote controller, an adjunct to your existing services whose job is to make it slightly easier to search for Game of Thrones. It’s also a way to have Skype chats with friends while watching Star Trek, listening to both friend and film speak over each other in real time.

What else? A music player perhaps, but doubtful one that will work with your iTunes library. A social networking device if you can get voice recognition to actually work. A Netflix box perhaps, but what isn’t these days? A games machine, but not for all of the varied types of innovative games that now populate your smartphone. Only the big and the bold will do for Xbox One.

When you say it like that this new console does seem rather odd, doesn’t it?

The Short Head

What started when the Xbox 360 went from a much-beloved home of indie games in 2008 to a monotone Metro-powered top-10s machine in 2011, Xbox One continues. It’s what Chris Anderson might call aiming for the short head. Microsoft only wants to talk big, top 10, top 25. It seems to believe that that’s the only conversation that anyone cares about.

As part of the event, Microsoft had Electronic Arts showing us a demonstration of a new game engine delivering water dripping off NFL players’ helmets and UA fighters getting slow-mo kicked in the face. It had Activision showing Call of Duty clips and dog animations that gave the Internet plenty of GIF ammunition. It had next generation Forza.

These are all big-game plays, and between showing them off and talking about key partnerships, the implication is that Xbox One intends to use a strategy similar to the old Nintendo Entertainment System. That is to say: tentpole releases only, nothing but strikes. No great depth of diversity, but instead a system targeted solely at mass audiences. Madden-as-a-service, hooked up to your real NFL tv shows and fantasy games. A way for big connected plays to capture all of their value and place Microsoft at the heart of gaming.

Subsequent revelations seem to confirm this. The lack of a viable way for independent game makers to publish on the system is a big one, especially in an age where every other device does. The lack of backwards compatibility (in the Xbox universe “backwards compatibility is backwards thinking“) is another, although less so. And the third is the very confused message regarding buying and installing games, especially used games. It screams of a concern only with big new things.

All three say “we only want the big stuff, that’s all that matters”. This platform holder does not believe in the long tail and intends to spend zero time worrying about it. It only wants the biggest media experiences, the key apps, the banner games. It has concluded that the rest of the market either doesn’t exist or isn’t worth chasing. The market wants big TV, big shows, big games, big sports, big plays. Or does it?

But What If We Won’t Go Big?

There is often value in making a very clear choice as to who your customer is. Apple does it all the time, preferring not to enter a bunch of cheap markets and instead hold onto the value of the premium computer user both through hardware and software. Microsoft’s big bet seems to be the same sort of idea, that there is a high value gaming and TV audience out there wants a big vertical solution, wants all of this awesome tech and premium games, features up to the eyeballs and so on. The central idea of Xbox One’s all-in-one promise is basically a console for those who can afford it.

The problem for me is that that’s exactly the same argument that Sony tried to make with the PlayStation 3, one of power and promise and Blu-Ray movies, and it fell flat on its ass. It relies on the idea that there is such a thing as a premium-priced gamer out there, and historically this has always proved to be untrue. The console industry’s most successful business model tends to work more like razors-and-blades (cheapish machine, expensive games that can be traded) because that’s what the teenagers, students and 20-somethings can afford. With Xbox One being set up the way it is, it seems only targeted at people who can afford premium all the time.

And, just like PS3, there are simpler and cheaper options on the horizon. Back then it was Wii. Now it’s OUYA and Steamboxes.

TV may suck, but it doesn’t suck so badly that most people want to spend $4 to $500 to fix a menu problem. It’s also not used in the same mode as when the “owning the living room” idea was born. Nicholas Lovell characterized Xbox One as an example of a brilliantly executed plan based on faulty strategy. Meanwhile, Leigh Alexander called it “a desperate prayer to stop time” and go back to an era when we all consumed entertainment at the altar of television.

What both are picking up on is the rise in personal technology like the laptop, smartphone and tablet and the decline of the living room as a battleground. Rather than the battle being about owning rooms, it’s about personal screens and personal connections. Alexander writes how she didn’t watch the Xbox Reveal event on a television, but on a computer while talking on a phone and using a netbook. Lovell writes about how personal technology largely circumvents the need for worrying about television at all.

They make the case that today’s problem is not about cramming tentpole features into big boxes to bring everyone back to television, but rather how to acknowledge that television has become the second screen. More lightweight Apple TV that shows your HBO Go iPad stream, less 2001-style entertainment monolith. More consoles that are nimble and unobtrusive, and provide app-style game experiences with app-style liberal game making conditions. Less heavy handed overbearing grand plans that leave everyone behind.

The failure to adapt to this new reality makes Xbox One looks like the console for last year’s man. Live TV is a mode of watching that many people don’t do any more because they have long-tail services like Netflix and Hulu. Rather than watch scheduled programming like a sucker, they sit in and watch the entirety of Arrested Development as a batch. Rather than stare all eyes-a-goggle at the big screen, they have other devices open and switch back and forth. The living room of people all sitting around their Kinect dancing for joy and swiping over to read Internet Explorer is not a real place, and never will be.

Microsoft’s Cognitive Dissonance

Maybe there was a time when owning living rooms made sense, but not any more. It’s almost incomprehensible to watch how singularly Microsoft seems not to acknowledge how times have changed. “Not getting it” doesn’t even begin to describe the cognitive dissonance that watches the world diverge in thousands of app-shaped directions and concludes that it only wants to be able to watch NFL while tweeting, playing Madden and racing.

Victor Hugo once said that “one cannot resist an idea whose time has come,” but the corollary of that is that one cannot perpetuate an idea whose time has gone. Microsoft can continue to dream like Howard Hughes of a grand world in which we all hook up our consoles and Kinects to our cable boxes and then sit around Father Television to watch The Price is Right. But it’s doing so at the expense of a market that it helped to create, while searching for a customer which arguably no longer exists.

Alas, it seems more like Xbox Done.