I’m not going to start this with a drawn-out bashing of Microsoft’s Xbox One policies. You probably know all about that stuff by now. The over-focus on TV. Restrictive control of used games. Draconian online DRM mandates. The death of game ownership. None of it’s good, and I don’t think I need to go over it again. Rather, this editorial is about how simplistically Microsoft tried to side-step all of those issues yesterday, and how Sony’s effortless addressing of them made that side-step all the less effective.
It seems Microsoft thought that games would be enough to make the problems go away. They’re not. Moreso, the attitude that an hour of flash-bang sparkle and shiny next-gen textures would counter-act the vileness of the systems underpinning the Xbox One’s operation is both arrogant and insulting. Rather than temper its condescending master-and-puppet relationship with its customers, Microsoft’s method of dealing with the issue just compounded it. ‘Give them enough shiny baubles, they’ll forget about the consumer-rights bomb ticking quietly inside away each and every one' I won’t stand for that, and you shouldn’t either.
It’s not that Microsoft’s games line-up was bad. It wasn’t. It was a decent selection indeed, if you ignore the dearth of third-party exclusives. But games were never the problem. The problem is that having a collection of great games in your house is no big joy if you don’t actually own those games and are being constantly beaten over the head to not-own them in the ‘right’ way. And yesterday Sony found no hardship at all in showing up that problem as one that needn’t even exist.
Microsoft is now in major trouble. It would have you believe that its excessive invasions of your consumer freedom are necessary; that they make media more secure and will help cut out the pulsating tumours of piracy and profit loss that are slowly killing AAA gaming. But Sony, the platform-holder that has suffered more than any (opens in new tab) at the hands of hackers during the current generation, doesn’t want any of it.
At this early stage it’s impossible to quantify the exact amount of goodwill Sony garnered with its gleeful eschewing of all that the Xbox One stands for, just as it’s impossible to quantify the amount of dung Microsoft currently finds itself mired in. But suffice to say, there’s a lot of both.
It seems now that nothing short of a total policy reboot will turn the Xbox One’s fortunes around. I suspect that MS was hoping for similar announcements of commercial practice from Sony; that the kind of restrictions riddled through every stage of the Xbox One game-playing process would become industry standard, as many have predicted for the last couple of years. Sony blew that notion to pieces yesterday, leaving Microsoft looking not like the first over the parapet of console gaming’s inevitable dark future, but a selfish crank woefully out of step with the real world of gaming and the culture that fuels it.
Microsoft seems to have hoped, via the distraction of new games and the assumed adoption of its policies elsewhere, that what seemed like problems in the days after the Xbox One’s initial reveal would soon go away, blending into the background of the new games industry to become No Big Deal. That hasn’t happened. It may eventually, of course. As consoles become an increasingly digital environment, the gradual seeping in of online DRM is certainly a possibility. But it’s not happening soon, and it’s not happening anything like as bluntly as Microsoft has pitched its own approach.
So what can Microsoft do? The only answer surely is humility and a turnaround on the way the Xbox One operates. Given that the Xbox One’s problems are driven by policy and operating system rather than hardware, system updates could fix things, either pre-launch or incrementally afterwards. But I feel that we’re too far down the line for that. I also feel that Microsoft’s evasive, ‘let’s just try to get away with it’ attitude at E3 depicts a company far from that way of thinking. I fear that MS is more likely to stay quiet, releasing the machine 'as is' and relying on the uniformed nature of the less hardcore gamer to see it through the early sales period. But how those less-informed gamers will react when the truth settles in a few months after Christmas is anyone's guess
Whatever happens though, don’t allow yourself to be distracted by the shiny bells and whistles of a superficially exciting games line-up, particularly during this starry-eyed period of early next-gen dazzle. That goes for any company you’re looking at. If consoles are being sold as service platforms now, as all the major first-parties are eager to convince us they are, then they must be judged upon the overall service they provide. Keep that your focus, make informed, holistic buying decisions, and you won’t go far wrong.
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