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ANALYSIS: Xbox One - One console, two strategies, three unanswered questions

Michael French
ANALYSIS: Xbox One - One console, two strategies, three unanswered questions

Xbox today unveiled a device pitched as 'Instant, Simple, Complete'. Alas, the announcement was anything but.

I and hundreds of other journalists will be hammering out their OpEds and perspectives on today's Xbox One showing.

Did Xbox manage to catch up with Sony's PR head start? What do we make of a device that is simultaneously a Windows and Kinect powered IPTV set top box and next-gen games console? What questions remain unanswered in the 19 day wait to E3?

For me, I think you need to first go back to the first page and ask what on earth an Xbox One is.

As with Sony's February unveiling of the PS4, Microsoft today fell into a number of jargon black holes, gravity wells ripe with puff and hyperbole that undermined years of R&D and a device that appears to be feature-rich and an instant hit with some powerful third-parties.

Xbox One is "alive" they told us. It is a "lag-free, instant experience". It uses something called 'snap' that lets you watch TV and search the internet at the same time. An actual moment passed where an Xbox exec said that the high-end body-tracking Kinect functions were 'games and science stuff'.

In the relatively dry run through some of the smart features, Xbox almost forgot to spell out its plan here.

And that's a shame, as the real message is wonderfully bullish: Xbox knows that in pure numbers terms it is the top dog in town. 360 has conquered a generation - a generation of hardware, and a generation of young men.

The device's successor is a set top box. It plugs into the established Xbox Live platform with added TV and DVR functions, has improved controllers (voice, motion and button) plus last but not least (although Microsoft talked about them least) high-end games with bigger graphical oomph.

Xbox One is a service sold in a box that pumps out content from the biggest names in entertainment: Paramount, ESPN, EA, Steven Spielberg and Activision.

As a proposition, that as a thing for retailers to sell and the games industry to make content for is the ideal heir to the 360 throne. Incremental improvements and ultra-populist content.


THE BOX UNDER THE TELLY

The TV element of Xbox One is hugely important, but I imagine some commentators may be sniffy about it at first.

Understandably: Microsoft spent almost 30 minutes talking about some of the least sexy next-gen console features ever seen. You can Goog--sorry, Bing for information about one movie while watching another; you can record TV and switch back and forth between live shows and the dashboard; the programme guide will show you what is 'trending' on Xbox Live. Well blow me down.

But look at it from Microsoft's point of view, and this is an attempt to broaden out a device that has already cut through pretty significantly, even displacing 'PlayStation' culturally as the catch-all mass-market go-to phrase to describe video games.

We know Xbox has a strong bloodline of games, supplied by third party and occasional* first party brilliance - so Microsoft must be thinking that it will leave the games to its partners.

Instead Microsoft will push hard into TV content, and 'entertainment' functions that add more reasons for retailers to sell, and consumers to buy, an Xbox One.

(*I know they also announced a raft of first party productions today. 15, with eight of them new IP to be precise. But Xbox's ten year history of big console game development is, truthfully, sketchy - and the one first-party game announced today, Quantum Break, was essentially fluffed with little to no explanation how this TV-game hybrid is executed.)


X STILL MEANS UNKNOWN

There are lots of unanswered questions, of course.

There was no mention whatsoever of how this platform operates as an ecosystem for developers. Is the Marketplace for games dead or alive? Is there still an XBLA ghetto? What about day and date digital releases? Maybe there are no changes at all to create continuity - we already know that gamerscores and achievements will carry over to the 'new' Xbox Live - but we just don't know yet.

And while Xbox One is not 'always on' and it's not deliberately designed to stop the preowned games market, it will likely allow 'second user fees' to be charged by publishers. It remains to be seen how that will be implemented, if at all. Retailers tell us they have been told zero, which strikes me as a PR blunder here - as these are the very people Microsoft should not be upsetting this early on.

Tensions and apprehensions about the answers are understandable, and Microsoft will have to push through a swathe of confused or angry reports today on those elements. That stuff is proof how much developers care about their products and how protective retailers are of their business. It's up to Xbox to put them at ease or show them what other opportunities are out there.

The fear of course is that in looking for its own opportunities - sidling up to Hollywood talent to make a Halo TV show, for instance - Xbox has forgotten the people that put it where it is, the people in the industry that had faith in the first place.

There's a 19 day wait until E3 and we're promised more information and may even get some assurance then.


FORMAT OVER FUNCTION

But the other striking impression I had from today's announcement wasn't what Xbox didn't say, but what it did say - and how that compares or contrasts to Sony's PlayStation 4 unveiling earlier this year.

I think the result lays bare the core strategy for the two devices. And while the aim is the same - create the best console, sell the most games and hardware - the approaches are almost polar opposite.

As the respective companies' own execs put it:

PS4 is "designed by developers for developers".

Xbox One is "designed by gamers for gamers"

My extra take:

PS4 is designed as a reaction to what Sony has done.

Xbox One is designed to secure what MS wants.

PlayStation 4, as we were told over and over, is about games developers of all sizes. It is a platform built as a direct answer to past foibles. It's easy to make games for, has a better online system, and has renewed developer support. It is a symbol of Sony redressing past sins in the games industry.

Xbox One is focused on Microsoft's ambitions beyond the games industry. It's friends with JJ Abrams, you know. It hired someone from CBS to make a Halo TV show. A man from NFL or some such, literally said that Xbox One means it is "going to be easier to play fantasy football with this device". I don't know who that stuff is for - but Microsoft thinks there is an audience to find for it.

(Media voyeurs may also find it interesting to compare how Sony and MS actually executed their announcements. Sony just flew everyone it could to one location in New York. Microsoft however arranged a string of briefings over the last few weeks; some were taken to MS HQ a few weeks ago - some retailers were briefed around the same time - while some flew over to see it live today and get hands on, some of us watched it at a screening streamed to a nearby location, the rest watched it at home in their pants. If you're a journalist and ever wondered where you sat on MS' press pecking order, well now you know.)


END OF PART ONE

Ultimately, however, today's details were just the first step in the Next One story.

At the livestream screening in London today, Xbox staff were keen to stress that the unveiling of the device was the 'First part of two part story'.

We have to wait until E3 for more detail on some actual games, the price and the date.

Right now, MS staff can be proud that months of secrecy and information control has lit up the games media like a Christmas tree.

But today felt like Christmas Eve, not Christmas day. And if Xbox One is "ready when you are", as claimed by Xbox boss Don Mattrick, then we are ready for more information.

Or as Microsoft's new friends in TV-land would say: To be continued.

 

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Tags: Microsoft , Xbox One , Xbox , xbox next

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