Editorial

What has me excited, disappointed and curious about Xbox One

The Xbox One will have an interesting E3 if reaction to its Tuesday event was any indication

When Microsoft announced the Xbox One on Tuesday, the potential of a console pairing games, televisions and movies in a nearly seamless manner instantly excited me. While I'm certainly excited for Xbox One, however, there were things I was disappointed or curious about.

Microsoft may have put on a great presentation, but there's still a lot of question marks about the Xbox One and what it's truly capable of – there may even be more questions than there were answers, as much of the supposed announcements at the event had already been leaked months in advance. When the console was being announced, I was excited about everything presented. Following the presentation, however, media outlets at the event asked important questions that should give gamers pause about their excitement.

Excited

Television integration at long last
I'm a big fan of quality television programs (if you're reading this and you don't like "House" or "Scrubs" you should resign yourself to the fact that we'll never be friends), and I'm also a big fan of quality gaming experiences. Combining the two with Xbox One gives Microsoft's upcoming console a leg up in the battle for the living room, given the lack of such entertainment services in competing consoles.

Unfortunately for Microsoft, gamers all across the world are a group quick to judge. If a console's announcement doesn't focus exclusively on gaming, expect a major complaining session from a vocal group of users. Perhaps they don't care about entertainment offerings beyond the variety where you shoot Russians in the face or loot dungeons, but I do, and I'd wager the majority of Microsoft's users do as well, even if they aren't as vocal.

I'm extremely happy with additional entertainment capabilities.

The One Guide used not only to view television listings but also video-on-demand and trending shows is a nice way to keep abreast of what's going on in television, and interactive applications and features that work alongside content is equally fantastic. There are plenty of gamers who will continue to whine, scream, kick and moan when a console dares do anything beyond play games (especially when a company actually has the audacity to emphasize those features), but I don't really give a damn – I'm extremely happy with additional entertainment capabilities.

Exclusive games
Phil Spencer, corporate vice president of Microsoft Game Studios, claimed Xbox One will launch 15 original games within a year of its release, eight of which will be new franchises. Two of those games were revealed at the event, Remedy's Quantum Break and Microsoft-owned Turn 10 Studios' Forza Motorsport 5. Remedy has yet to make a bad game as far as I'm concerned, and Microsoft's Forza series has proven its quality over the years. 

Another of the new franchises will be Crytek's Ryse, a game I've been anticipating since it was announced for the Xbox 360 two years ago and later became a current-generation Kinect title. With the revelation that the next-generation Kinect will feature more precise tracking, lower latency and work with a Xbox One controller, Ryse could end up being a killer game. A presenter at the conference even seemed to allude to the game when he said users could move their controller to bring up a shield – certainly sounds like a hack-and-slash game set during the Roman Empire's dominance to me.

Spencer said more exclusive titles are in development for an Xbox platform than at any previous time, an amazing fact when considering that Microsoft has 22 game development studios that work with a variety of platforms but have focused on the Xbox 360 and Kinect in recent years.

Three operating systems and multitasking
​Hallelujah! Perhaps the biggest pain in the ass regarding the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 is that neither console features an interface that is particularly fun to navigate around. Sony showed its own multitasking solution with the PlayStation 4, but Microsoft's taking on the problem in a more unique manner.


Multitasking and snap view will be handy features when using Xbox One.

By using three operating systems – an Xbox operating system for games, an operating system based on the Windows kernel for applications and a third that will be used to easily switch between the two environments – Microsoft is hoping to take advantage of its core strengths. Users will be able to snap applications or services to separate sides of their televisions, much like Windows 8, making for a pain-free experience when you want to play a game and keep up with the score of a sporting event, for instance.

The possibilities of what apps will be available for the console is nearly limitless, given the Windows kernel. Yes, developers will have to remake apps in some fashion, but it's likely Microsoft has considered that and will make the process relatively painless. Having apps such as Skype available will help Microsoft achieve its dream of the true all-in-one living room device.

Disappointed

Indie development
When I started writing this article, nothing had been announced about indie development on the Xbox One. I thought it was a questionable move, but I decided to wait to publish this article since there was some conflicting information being reported about various aspects of the console. In recent days, however, Microsoft essentially made it clear why it didn't announce anything: because there was nothing positive to announce.

Ever since Microsoft launched indie development for the Xbox 360, a large number of those developers have rallied against how the company treats them. Some have released statistics illustrating as much. But while Sony is placing an emphasis on indie development with its new console, Microsoft appears to be taking the opposite route – odd, considering you'd think independently released apps should be at home on a system that uses the Windows kernel.

Perhaps a bigger issue is the curation of the Xbox One game marketplace.

Forcing indie developers to work with publishers it not a good solution. Publishers – Microsoft included – aren't going to waste resources unless there's a clear benefit for them, which not all indie developers can provide. That doesn't mean the platform should be unavailable to them. Yes, it's Microsoft ecosystem to do as it pleases, but a bad decision is a bad decision. Now, indie development is effectively the same as Xbox Live Arcade development for the Xbox 360, though Microsoft is scrapping the Arcade and Indie terms altogether for the Xbox One.

Perhaps a bigger issue is the curation of the Xbox One game marketplace. Indie developers already claim it's a pain in the ass to find their games, so how easy will it be on the Xbox One? If Microsoft's the one determining how games are showcased, it's unlikely the smaller developers will get the same showcases afforded to multimillion-dollar games. And in the case of listings, few people are going to seek out indie games when sorting alphabetically or by genre.

What Microsoft's revealed thus far about indie development for the Xbox One isn't good. It's possible a big announcement is being saved for Microsoft's Build Developer Conference next month, but you'd think it would quell any fears right off the bat and show some signs of support for indie developers.

Bundling and requiring Kinect
I'm not a hater of the current-generation Kinect, nor am I obsessed with the motion-tracking sensor, but I do think people should have the choice of whether or not they they have to purchase and plug in the sensor. As it stands, Microsoft refuses to allow users that choice.

The next-generation Kinect sensor comes bundled with Xbox One and is also required to run the console, as it has to be plugged in for the console to work, even though it's essentially unnecessary for those who don't want to use it. Even if aspects of the console require Kinect to work, it's hard to imagine Microsoft being unable to make it so Xbox One could operate without the sensor. So why require it? Most likely because Microsoft wants all its users and developers playing with an exclusive technology, and requiring all Xbox One owners to use the device means developers will practically have to support it. That's a nice idea in theory, but it could also hurt sales among people who don't want a Kinect.


Will Kinect finally be accepted by the hardcore gaming community? Right now that doesn't appear likely.

Not everyone is going to want to use the new Kinect, just like not everyone wants a touchscreen on their Windows desktop. As it stands, Kinect is a secondary input option. That's not to say there aren't good Kinect-exclusive games, but the majority of Xbox games are best played with a controller. The hardcore gaming community has already turned its nose up in disgust at the current Kinect, but it's possible the dramatically reduced latency and ability to use the motion sensor in conjunction with a controller will change some minds. At the same time, however, if the standard controller is capable of controlling everything on the console, why not offer a less expensive version of the Xbox One without Kinect?

I've actually turned off my current-generation Kinect not because I don't like it, but because it's such a pain in the ass when I'm using entertainment programs such as Netflix. The sensor has a knack for always assuming that I want to interact with it, no matter where my hands are or what I say. I can be typing on my laptop while sitting on the couch, and it will somehow assume I want to use the motion controls. Even if the next-generation Kinect is more accurate, it won't matter if these nagging habits aren't fixed.

No confirmation on DRM, Internet requirements
Much has been made about the supposed "always-on" requirement of Microsoft's next-generation Xbox, and though Microsoft said it won't require a persistent Internet connection, it hasn't officially provided much details beyond that. What exactly does Microsoft mean when saying, "No, it does not have to be always connected, but Xbox One does require a connection to the Internet." Does that mean it has to be connected every month? Every day? We don't know.

When I was in college, I lived in a dorm that had free wireless service and no ethernet wall jacks, yet consoles were barred from connecting to the network. If it would have been available when I was in college and had even a connect-once-a-month requirement, I wouldn't have purchased an Xbox One as it would have been essentially worthless. This obviously isn't the most commonplace situation, but it's not hard to imagine a decent chunk of people facing similar problems.

Does that mean it has to be connected every month? Every day? We don't know.

Another matter is how Microsoft will handle game sales. According to Microsoft, codes will be sold with each game, and users can then install games to their hard drives (a requirement) and not worry about inserting the disc again as the game will be playable by anyone on the console as well as the Xbox account that installed it, regardless of what console that account is used on. That's great in theory, but it also effectively kills the joy of lending a game to a friend, and the used game market will change as well. That's why Microsoft said it is "designing Xbox One to enable customers to trade in and resell games," but what exactly that entails also isn't being said. And what about game rentals? We still don't know.

Kotaku recently reported that Phil Harrison, corporate vice president at Microsoft's Interactive Entertainment Business, said he thought the console had a 24-hour offline limit, meaning users have to connect at least once every 24 hours. He also apparently said that games are associated with a user's console and Xbox Live profile and if a game was loaned to a friend, he or she would have to pay full price for it (in the case of a new game, at least). Microsoft, on the other hand, has said it's not confirming either detail at this time.

This surely isn't the last time these topics will be brought up. How Microsoft responds to them at the E3 gaming conference next month could very well dictate the success of Xbox One among hardcore gamers.

Curious

Television content deals
Prior to the leaked information that Microsoft would pair its new Xbox console with set-top boxes through the use of an HDMI input port and IR blaster, it was rumored that the company sought to make deals with content providers to provide a la carte methods of subscription. With the embarrassment of the television industry as it is in the U.S., however, Microsoft likely got pushed around and quickly realized it wasn't feasible to work with companies that demand low-quality channels be bundled with their flagship counterparts.


Xbox One will have TV integration, but cord-cutters will have to look elsewhere – at least if they live in the U.S.

Simply put, the U.S. has lagged behind the rest of the world in terms of IPTV services, and the cable and satellite industries have their hands tied by content providers that sell their channels in bundles. Microsoft had a chance to change all that, but even one of the most powerful companies in the world can't stop an entire industry bent on screwing over consumers. 

Users outside of Microsoft's home country may see the true culmination of Microsoft's dream all-in-one device, as the console will work seamlessly with IPTV in regions that support it. For U.S. customers, however, it's unclear what options Microsoft will provide to those that want to cut the cord and rely on over-the-air signals. Microsoft says it wants to enable live TV on Xbox One throughout the world, "whether that’s television service providers, over the air or over the Internet, or HDMI-in via a set top box (as is the case with many providers in the U.S.)," but the details of how it will achieve that for non-subscription customers in the U.S. is murky.

The Xbox One has neither a coaxial cable input nor TV tuner, so those who rely on over-the-air broadcasts will be out of luck unless Microsoft has another trick up its sleeve.

What will Microsoft show at E3
Yes, Microsoft said 15 exclusive games that will launch alongside the console later this year, but only two exclusives were revealed at the Tuesday event. Sony, by comparison, revealed five exclusive games at its PlayStation 4 announcement event on Feb. 20, though several multiplatform games were also mentioned or shown at the event.

Microsoft will have to show that games aren't considered an afterthought.

It's not really a surprise that more games weren't revealed, as Microsoft previously stated it would use E3 as its platform to showcase games. Microsoft wanted to use its Xbox One reveal event as a way to showcase the full capabilities of the console – and there certainly were plenty of relevant features to mention. Still, it's also easy to understand why gamers are upset more games weren't revealed. Microsoft is moving the Xbox hardware away from being classified solely as a gaming console and moving it toward the all-in-one moniker, and if it wants gamers to respect that, it will have to show that games aren't considered an afterthought.

The only way Microsoft was going to woo the hardcore gaming community was if it showed nothing but next-generation games for an entire hour. That clearly wasn't going to happen given Microsoft's focus with the console, but it could win that audience back if it has a strong E3 and clarifies what its DRM policy will end up being for the Xbox One. If Microsoft manages to show nearly nothing but games at E3, gamers will certainly forget any bad taste they had when the Xbox One was first announced.

Where are the ads
Microsoft's revised the dashboard of the Xbox 360 several times, and each of those updates typically come with new features and services. Another thing they typically come with, however, is more advertisements.

The first Xbox 360 featured no ads, but subsequent versions have slowly found ways to bring in more and more ads at the forefront of the dashboard. Microsoft has even actively recruited new ways of advertising on the Xbox 360 dashboard with its NUads, capable of interacting with users through Kinect. The company has called NUads part of advertising's future, though it insists no information will ever be stored from interactive advertisements.

It's somewhat odd, then, that Xbox One's dashboard was bereft of any advertisements whatsoever. Yes, there was a "recommended" section, but no actual advertisements. It's possible Microsoft simply moved all the ads inside apps, similar to how its apps for Windows 8 and Windows RT feature ads, but it seems unlikely there will be no advertisements at all, especially given how successful the company has been getting advertising partners.

The Xbox One dashboard is a thing of beauty in how simple and elegant it looks – it could very well be the best implementation of Microsoft's Metro design language yet. I'm sure Microsoft knows that, but I'm equally sure Microsoft wants to squeeze every penny possible out of the Xbox brand, and that may include keeping advertisements in the new console – the only question is where they'll go.

Images via Microsoft

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