News, Views, and Reviews
Microsoft was in a strange position yesterday. Months have passed since Sony’s PlayStation 4 reveal back in February. Those months were full of speculations and rumors about the what the next Xbox would and would not do. This was Microsoft’s chance to set the record straight, confront those rumors and challenge the competition. When the 60 minute presentation started yesterday, I was literally on the edge of my seat. Full of confidence and enthusiasm, Don Mattrick took the stage and revealed the new “Xbox One” console. For some reason, Microsoft chose to make this presentation “classy” instead of aggressive or competitive. In a way, it reminded me of Nintendo’s presentations, and that’s not a compliment.
Described as an “All In One” system, the One isn’t just a multi-media entertainment device, capable of playing games, movies, music, videos, surfing the internet, and making Skype video conference calls, it’s capable of doing all of that simultaneously. The presentation started strong, and impressive, as Mattrick demonstrated the One’s capabilities. While watching a movie or playing a game, you can shrink that window and “snap” another application to the side of the screen. You could search for related material on the internet or Netflix, for example, or call a friend or a group of friends and have a video conference on Skype. While that was happening, you could check what was playing, live, on broadcast TV, or check a schedule of your favorite shows, and then go back to the movie or game you were playing. Mattrick also demonstrated that all of this could be accomplished with gestures and voice commands to the Kinect (2.0) or by using a mobile device like a smart phone or tablet. Of course, a traditional controller can still be used, and the updated controller looks amazing. Mattrick pointed out the three input devices several times: controller, Kinect, or Smartglass. He also revealed that the Xbox One has three operating systems that make all this possible: the main Xbox OS for playing games, a Windows 8 kernel that makes the multi-tasking, multiple windows and “snapping” different apps on the side of the screen possible, and a third OS that handles the input devices that control the other two operating systems.
So far, so good. The capabilities sounded really impressive, and Mattrick went on to discuss how Xbox Live was going to be improved for the next generation. Looking back, I think this is where Microsoft started missing some opportunities. They should have been more competitive here, as they very, very briefly touched on some key points: Xbox Live was going to expand to 300,000 servers worldwide, provide stronger coverage, and use advanced “cloud” technologies. This was their chance to point out how Xbox One is going to match – or even beat – the PS4’s online capabilities, feature for feature; instead, they made a few throw-away comments about “the cloud”, “sharing brag clips”, and “remote play” using Smartglass. In some ways, it was pretty convenient for Microsoft, that Sony spent nearly an hour in February explaining how all of that is possible. The Xbox One reveal, then, could briefly say “we can do that too” and move on to other things. I just think they were TOO brief, and like I said, too “classy” with their Xbox One reveal.
This was also the opportunity to squash the rumors that have been buzzing around the internet, and show that Microsoft is prepared to fix some of its past mistakes. By not mentioning the rumors at all, at least not during the 60 minute presentation, Microsoft toed the line of appearing confident in their product – and appearing out of touch about what people were saying about them. This attitude reminds me of Nintendo, and how they seem to operate in a vacuum, in their own little fantasy land, oblivious to their competition or current trends. I’ll give the presentation credit for one thing: Microsoft knows what its strengths are, where it has been successful, and it definitely showed that they are going to bolster those strengths. I think the only weakness the presentation acknowledged was the lack of first party games that Xbox has compared to its competition. Again, this was almost too brief to even notice, but Microsoft vowed that 15 new, 1st party games will be released within the next year, 8 of which are brand new IPs. That’s awesome.
But this leads to the second mistake Microsoft made with their presentation yesterday: they are keeping the big game reveals “secret” until E3 in June. This was to be expected, in fact, this was explained several times before yesterday, that this event would showcase the hardware and some of its nifty features, but we would have to wait until E3 to see the games. However, many people expressed their disappointments with the 60 minute show, and I think I understand what went wrong. The “nifty features” of the new Xbox One sound really cool in theory, but a lot of people aren’t seeing the “big picture” just yet. They didn’t see HOW those features will benefit playing video games – because Microsoft didn’t SHOW them. What makes this decision even stranger, is that Microsoft DID announce one of those “secret” games in their show: Forza 5. We’ve heard rumors and speculations they were developing it, so it wasn’t a BIG secret, but they DID show a game. That would have been a great opportunity to detail how the multi-tasking capabilities of the Xbox One will improve playing games in the next generation. Instead, it remains a missed opportunity, hopefully one they can correct at E3 in June.
The third mistake MS made with their presentation – it was simply too short. It started out strong: revealing the new console, the updated controller, the new Kinect, the multi-tasking capabilities, all of that was really exciting. But then Microsoft gave up their stage to other announcements. They revealed their new Xbox TV division, a department dedicated to developing exclusive TV content for Xbox Live, and proudly announced that their main project will be a HALO TV SHOW! Produced by Steven Spielberg! They announced a partnership with the NFL to provide exclusive content and fantasy football tracking during live coverage of their games. They announced a partnership with EA Sports for exclusive game content. That EA Sports presentation ate up a lot of time Microsoft could have used themselves, but it did help demonstrate some of the capabilities of the Xbox One, and how the next generation in general will have improved graphics, animation, and artificial intelligence. But, it literally gave the stage to EA to make some big game announcements that they could have made at their own presentation in June.
Speaking of big game announcements, the stage was abandoned by Microsoft at the end of their show as they allowed Activision to debut their highly anticipated Call of Duty: Ghosts. I found it peculiar that the announcer even claimed that the debut was going to demonstrate the multi-tasking capabilities of the Xbox One – but what we watched was really just a game trailer. That trailer ended as a cliffhanger, for the Call of Duty game AND the Xbox One. That was it, the end of the show. Nobody came back on stage or anything. “To be continued – at E3!”
Strangely, then, the best stuff about the Xbox One was demonstrated and discussed AFTER the presentation. The Xbox 360 has an impressive controller, but the Xbox One controller is said to be even more sensitive and accurate, and they’ve somehow reduced the nearly non-existent latency even further. They’ve even added rumble feedback to the triggers (!?) and reconfigured the battery pack on the back to be less intrusive. The Kinect (2.0) device now has super sensitive cameras, reduced latency, and can literally see in the dark. That was one of the coolest things I saw yesterday, and it wasn’t part of the main show. They demonstrated a man standing in front of the Kinect, and showed two screens: one was a regular camera view of the man and the room, and the other showed how that room looked to the Kinect. Then, they turned the lights on and off, and even had the man wave a flashlight around. The Kinect IGNORED the lights! The screen showing the Kinects point of view stayed the same, regardless of the lighting conditions. That’s really impressive. Microsoft squashed some of the rumors after the show, too, like the fear the new Xbox would be an “always online” device, that required a mandatory internet connection to function. No, the internet isn’t required, but obviously if you want to watch TV or movies or play multi-player games online, you’ll need the internet.
However, one confusion remains, regarding used games. That was the other big rumor, that the new Xbox wouldn’t allow used games, at all. Well, it turns out games will have some sort of registration code, and that code will be good for one Xbox, one profile. Other profiles on the same Xbox can play that game, and the game can be played on other Xboxes – provided that someone logs in with that original profile. Or, additional codes can be purchased, but Microsoft didn’t say how much that would cost. Games have to be installed to the hard drive before they play. These are the things that reminded me of Nintendo’s presentations – the whole attitude of not paying attention to what other people are saying, and ending the presentation with more questions than answers. Still, at least some things were clarified after the show. I just think that Microsoft either should have had a longer show or not given up the stage to EA and Activision, and they could have had a more competitive tone.
Overall, I’m still impressed with what we saw, and I’m hoping that the presentation at E3 will be stronger. We don’t have a release date (sometime by the end of the year) or a price, or names of those exclusive games MS promised. We also don’t know how MS will continue to court indie developers, and that’s something that Sony made a big deal about back in February. Neither Sony or Microsoft have given us prices for their online services, either. My guess is that they will end up offering more or less the same options: a “free” version that includes some services like matchmaking and Netflix (which means MS would have to drop those features from their paid option down to the free version) and a “premium” version that will offer some sort of bonuses or incentives like free games. All of those servers and services aren’t free, so Sony and MS need to pay for them somehow. At any rate, hopefully we’ll get more information at E3!