Is Xbox One's media focus a sign MS is leaving the console war?

So the Xbox One presentation has just finished and I’m looking over the notes I e-scribbled as I pored the screen for what felt like the important points.

"TV experience"
“TV again”
“Runs live TV”
“TV integral”
“Instant switching between media channels”
“Snap mode - Like watching a film with a smartphone in your hand”
“Live action Halo series with Spielberg”

Hmmm. I think it’s safe to say that we’re seeing yet another lurch away from gaming for the Xbox brand. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about that at the moment, but I do know that I’m not in any way surprised. As I’ve written before, anyone who was paying attention to the bigger picture in 2001 would have seen it coming. Control of living room entertainment has been part of Microsoft’s big dream for years, and the original Xbox was the Trojan Horse foundation for a much longer game.

The world wasn’t ready for the idea of a connected, integrated multimedia living room 12 years ago. The idea existed only in the secret Long Term Planning for World Domination chambers of companies like Microsoft and Apple. But those companies knew that within a decade the world would have caught up with the vision, both technologically and culturally. A foot had to be wedged through the door early. And the nearest contemporary cultural fit for the kind of box Microsoft eventually wanted to make? A games console.

People were used to having those under their TVs. Consoles had been naturalised as part of that environment since the ‘80s. Stick a new console in the living room, give it a few exciting but not quite ahead-of-their-time online and media functions, and you’ve taken your first step. That’s why Microsoft didn’t seem to mind that the Xbox didn’t sell much more than the Gamecube. That’s why it rushed on to the 360 after what felt like far too short a period of time. The important work was done. The Xbox brand existed and the idea of a more versatile, connected console was established. The 360 went even further with the idea, and now we have the Xbox One, which feels like the ultimate realisation of the real end-game.

I can’t help but feel that Microsoft’s game-talk during the Xbox One reveal felt like a series of economical token gestures, designed to make maximum impact with core gamers while taking up as little of the presentation’s running time as possible. There was Call of Duty. There was a new one from the makers of Max Payne and Alan Wake. There was Halo. Big brand-recognition points for sure. But one of those titles was a multi-format game, one might take 100 years to develop, going off Remedy’s track record with the Xbox 360, and one was a live-action TV series.

If anything, Spielberg’s Halo show sums up the Xbox One presentation pretty beautifully for me. It was the point at which gaming segued into the wider multimedia environment, and at which one of gaming’s most iconic brands resolutely stopped being a gaming brand.

Don’t forget that the opening salvo of Microsoft’s Xbox One presentation was a lengthy, showy exhibition of the new machine’s exciting new innovations in the groundbreaking field of changing TV channels. While an undoubtedly cool bit of functionality, is Snap Mode really thrilling enough to require the kind of presentation it got? Does anyone really enjoy films more when they’re reading the internet and checking the football scores at the same time? Isn’t the system really, as I’ve accused Microsoft of doing before, just solving problems that don’t really exist in order to justify running time in a presentation?

And that stuff got a fair old chunk of running time. Way too much running time, with completely unnecessary repeat viewings. If actions speak louder than words, then the time Microsoft gave to innocuous—even potentially arbitrary—multimedia interfaces at the expense of objectively more interesting games seems to scream in one’s face like a banshee on angeldust. Of course, all of this could change at E3. If Microsoft’s promise of 15 year-one exclusives furnishes us with a legitimate, killer AAA line-up and not merely a few big hitters hidden amongst a raft of Kinect-powered XBLA games, then I’m happily on board for the ride. But right now, most of the Xbox One’s showboating next-gen bells and whistles seem to be built around channel switching and the console equivalent of pressing Alt+Tab.

With Sony proclaiming the PS4 to be a real game developer’s console (admittedly perhaps partially to build bridges after the user-unfriendliness of the PS3’s Cell Processor), I’m going to be keeping a very close eye on next month’s show. I reckon we could be about to see the two big hitters of the console war parting ways to fight on very different fronts.

To get up to speed with everything else there is to know about the Xbox One, check out our Xbox One info blowout.

You know that kid at parties who talks too much? Drink in hand, way too enthusiastic, ponderously well-educated in topics no one in their right mind should know about? Loud? Well, that kid’s occasionally us. GR Editorials is a semi-regular feature where we share our informed insights on the news at hand. Sharp, funny, and finger-on-the-pulse, it’s the information you need to know even when you don’t know you need it.

David Houghton
Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.