What Games Are: Welcome Back, Xbox One

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a games industry consultant based in Seattle and the creator of leading game design blog What Games Are. You can follow him on Twitter here.

This time last year I wrote up my deep reservations about Microsoft’s Xbox One. Comparing it to the Spruce Goose, I called it a technological marvel that solved last year’s problem. I faulted it on its size, on its focus on TV, and on its short-head approach to games. Overall I said it was an example of a product that was out of step, one which thought television was still the first screen and fighting a battle for the living room that seemed dated. 

To its considerable credit, Microsoft understood its missteps early. It ditched its complex DRM-driven plans after Sony poked fun at them over and over. It canned the requirement for the box to be always-online. It gave much more prominence to its ID@Xbox indie program and started trying to make up for a lot of PR damage in that area. It heavily pushed on Titanfall as a big innovative killer app. In short the company realized that for all its high talk of becoming a meta-box for all media everywhere, it was still in the games business.

However there was still one major roadblock: The oversized, over-engineered, impositional and kinda NSA-ish webcam called Kinect.

What Are You Doing Dave?

While the reaction in the games press to the news that Kinect will no longer be mandatory has largely been positive, the tech press is full of talk of Microsoft backing away from “the future”. But Kinect represented a future that nobody wanted. Kinect was already dead. That’s the part that the tech press doesn’t seem to get.

Kinect was dead a year after the original version launched. It was a novelty, perhaps a neat add-on if you were into waggle-driven party games, but it was never a serious thing. Sure Microsoft sold a lot of them, but Kinect’s story had already been played out by Sony with EyeToy or Nintendo with Wii. In both cases the lesson was that waggle is fun in a cheap-and-cheerful sort of way, but it gets old fast. 

Kinect should have been thought of solely as a way to breathe life into an aging system with a passing fad. But Microsoft was bewitched by its potential narrative. Kinect became yet another example of a console maker losing touch with the simple truth of the console business (gamers like to sit on couches and play awesome games with joypads) and getting lost in its own bullshit. 

Kinect came to fruition right around the time that Microsoft convinced itself that the solution to all its problems was Metro. It was that time of one-interface-to-rule-them-all and of willfully disbelieving that live tiles weren’t such a great idea. What sort-of made sense in phones became the dictum for tablet, for PC and for TV, and the company excitedly tried to sell us all on a big ecosystem play. One massive misstep in that vision was Windows 8. The other was Kinect.

Xbox One got tagged with a sales-killing requirement of bundling a Kinect camera in with every system. And not just a little one, oh no. The next generation Kinect was huge, with a massive camera that looked like the child of HAL and the Eye of Sauron. Microsoft insisted over and over that the camera wasn’t just a peripheral but core to the whole experience. You would have to plug it in to use your Xbox One at all times. It would stare at you, unblinking, forever. 

For some reason the company couldn’t understand why that was a major mood killer. So it went to market with a console that had all this weight attached, at a price $100 higher than its savvier-looking competition and fueled by the MBA-ish logic that says customers come around if they’re promoted hard enough (If my first law of technology is “Any revolution that doesn’t work imperfectly doesn’t work” then my second is “You can’t buy resonance“).

But, finally, reality brought sanity. The good news is that the Microsoft has managed to get to the place where it could unbundle Kinect in such a short space of time. That can’t have been easy to do, a sort damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t decision. But it’s absolutely the right move.

Let Games Be Games

Kinect was Microsoft’s version of Sony’s infatuation with Blu-Ray on PS3. It was a vision imposed on a gaming product for corporate reasons. It was part of that sad living room narrative that sideswipes tech executives from time to time, the notion that there must be a meta-market out there for a product that does all the games and all the movies and all the music and all the things at the same time. Since desktop computers do that, the reasoning goes, there must be an equivalent room on the couch.

Maybe there is, but if so that device is the tablet, not the TV. The TV is for concentrated use cases only, and customers have long been comfortable with buying devices that tailor to those use cases. They’ll buy DVD players, they’ll buy DVRs, they’ll buy media streamers for their Netflix and they’ll buy gaming consoles. What they won’t do is buy meta-devices that do all of the above equally. They just don’t want under-the-TV PCs guys.

The last step for Xbox One’s road to recovery (well except for the name, but we’ll just have to live with “Xbone”) will be to de-emphasize the TV angle and get back to games. It does no harm to have Netflix and Amazon Instant Video and available on the system, but all of that cable box menu selection stuff just isn’t an interesting feature (especially as the system doesn’t even act as a DVR). Certainly not at the expense of games.

Last year has been spent learning the lesson that imposing grand corporatist visions on users is dumb, and it seems like a lesson that’s been well-learned. Let the next year be the one where Microsoft gets comfortable with the idea that it’s still in the video games business, and in it for its own ends rather than as a stepping stone to some fantasy living room. While the tech blogs may gripe that this makes the console seem less futuristic, on the plus side it will start to look like a product that gamers may actually want to buy.

When game makers big and small start to feel that Xbox One takes them seriously and gives them prime positioning on the system’s home screen, the narrative around the console will become positive. When gamers start to see lots of game choices as their first and foremost options, they will start to believe that the system has an identity. Then, not unlike the way that Sony recovered from its own self-hoisted petard, Microsoft’s Xbox One will stop looking like the platform that doesn’t know what it wants to be.

Welcome back, Xbox One. Looking forward to seeing what you do next.