Microsoft's latest messaging about the Xbox One is a confusing and unfortunate mess. After shifting their marketing strategy several times since the console's 2013 launch, the company's executives seem uneasy to support the Xbox One in the far future. The Xbox brand barely competes with the Playstation in this generation, and it seems lately that Microsoft is too willing to give up on the Xbox One. Therefore, I sold mine.
A few days removed from it, I thought I’d feel worse selling my access to a current generation gaming platform. I've locked myself out of playing Xbox One-exclusive games for the rest of the console's lifespan. Still, I have no regrets.
Why? Let's breakdown these most recent Microsoft headlines:
- They're finally open to cross-platform multiplayer
- Their games are coming to Windows 10 (not the ideal way for PC players, but that may change)
- Their future-looking Hololens AR headset is not priced well for consumers (and may not be enhanced by the Xbox One)
- The Xbox One console itself may be shifting towards hardware revisions in an iPhone-like upgrade cycle.
The company is not the market-dominating force they once were during the Xbox 360 generation, now finding themselves in the unenviable position Sony and the PS3 were in a few years ago. Microsoft's troubling Xbox PR history includes failed promises (remember the Kinect?) and keeping false hope alive (the cancellation and subsequent revival of the game Phantom Dust). This recent round of news isn't encouraging either. However, unlike Sony's previous misstep, Microsoft seems to want it both ways this generation, distancing themselves from the Xbox One yet still moving forward with a future gaming business plan.
Opening up Xbox One games to be more accessible with other systems should be an exciting moment for the console, especially compared to its abysmal launch pitch and half-hearted all-in-one entertainment box promise by Microsoft. Unfortunately for Microsoft, people who enjoy cable TV programming are abandoning cable boxes in favor of individual channels or networks as apps (the cord-cutters watching shows on Netflix, Hulu, or HBO Go). These features aren't exclusive to the Xbox One or any device today, but as the predominant sales pitch, the Xbox One hardly stood out from others. Similarly, people who enjoy video games don’t want their games relegated to a storefront submenu. For all of Xbox One’s dashboard improvements, I still had a hard time finding my games.
Instead of progress, Microsoft's more recent promise of a more open platform reads as a desperate 180° from its original messaging. Stuck with the reality that the Xbox One isn't selling well at retail, their box is discounted frequently and underpowered compared to the PS4. Xbox One versions of games, compared to their PS4 counterparts, seem to have more load times, less frames per second, and can't sustain good overall performance consistently. Additionally, bundling the hardware with their popular franchises isn’t moving many consoles. The new IP Titanfall, an early Xbox One title, sold more Xbox Ones than the more recent Halo 5: Guardians. It’s a bad situation for Microsoft as they try to throw the next Forza game and Quantum Break onto PCs, after the terrible situation of temporary console-exclusive Rise of the Tomb Raider not selling very well on Xbox One. Additionally, how will cross-platform multiplayer work when the architectures of Xbox Live and PSN are different? Sony is open to the idea, but the technical and legal hurdles may prove to be too much for Microsoft's olive branch.
As someone who likes games generally though, the scenario is even worse still for consumers who backed the wrong console horse. Imagine owning the Xbox One as your only console and enjoying playing Titanfall, Sunset Overdrive, the Forza franchise, the Halo games, Killer Instinct, Ori and The Blind Forest, or Rise of the Tomb Raider. These are the purported blockbuster “killer games” exclusive to Xbox One. Yet now, some of these games came or are coming to PC; so why did you buy that console in the first place? It’s odd to have to justify your purchase to anyone, but Microsoft is similarly putting Xbox One buyers in a weird spot. They are asking consumers to continue supporting the Xbox One when they haven’t done the same, and rewarding that loyalty by backing future projects on platforms other than the one you bought. Cuphead, the one game I was looking forward to on Xbox One, is also coming to PC.
Xbox Live's free Games with Gold program and new backwards compatibility for 360 games, in their own way, function as a kind of Microsoft apology and acknowledgment that Xbox One owners haven’t had much to look forward to. To add insult to injury, the strong Twitter conversation between Xbox division head Phil Spencer and loyal Xbox fans on some of this news has been disheartening for both groups, to say the least.
Imagine looking at all this news and thinking about buying an Xbox One. Do Microsoft’s latest moves inspire confidence in their product? Will you need an Xbox Live login to play games from their unified PC/Xbox-inspired Windows store in the future? Is the Xbox One the solution from someone transitioning from PC to living room gaming?
Remember that Microsoft is largely forcing people using Windows 7 & 8 PCs to upgrade to Windows 10, perhaps pushing people onto an operating system they are unsure of. Years ago, Microsoft tried Games for Windows Live to bridge the gap between console games and PCs, but it discontinued the poor performing program in 2014. The more successful approach thus far for bridging this gap has been to convince developers to program Xbox 360 and Xbox One controller support for PC games, not the other way around. Elite: Dangerous is the one exception to this rule, though it too is a game that adds more features and spin-off sequels on the PC.
Forcing PC players to accept Windows 10 and Xbox One players to accept feature-poor versions of games compared to their same PC ones aren’t the best ways to attract new customers. Microsoft’s universal app approach to selling Windows store games is the icing on the cake: Rise of the Tomb Raider has less features and is more locked down on the Windows 10 release than the Steam version of the game, an issue Epic Games founder Tim Sweeney protested not too long ago.
Anecdotally, I haven’t touched my Xbox One since October 2015. Rare Replay got me to revisit the console for a while and Rock Band 4 was fun (until redownloading my old DLC songs became a hassle), but Halo 5 failed to sink its hooks into me the way other Halo games have. Peggle 2 was my most played game on the console, which was available early in the console’s lifespan. Most of my Xbox Live friends (who were very active during the 360 days) haven’t logged in more than three years. The friends I play games with, for the most part, moved on to the PS4, preferring to play multiplatform games like FIFA and The Division on Sony’s box. The Xbox One is looking more like the Playstation Vita these days, barely supported by its creators.
In 2016, the notion of console wars or console-loyal fans returning seems backwards. Fans of games should want games to be released on as many platforms as possible, for as long as they can be supported by their platform holders, players, and developers alike. Selling platform-exclusive games is an outdated business practice. Only Nintendo gets away with this approach because they largely develop and publish their own games. Notice, however, how mass-market games and indie ports alike don't get released Wii U or 3DS, though the NX is rumored to be changing this.
Sony and Valve seem confident in their first-party development efforts, marketing and developing new ideas like PSVR or the Steam controller, while still courting third-party developers who make system-agnostic games. For example, Street Fighter V's multiplayer has cross-platform play, and Rocket League's thriving online community can play each other on multiple platforms. Similarly, the rumored revision of the PS4 is enhancing their VR headset, unlike Microsoft, whose $3,000 HoloLens headset isn't adding any value to the Xbox One. Everyone is looking to expand their walled gardens, while Microsoft is trying to stay afloat by keeping everyone playing in theirs.
Maybe the Xbox team understands all this and is trying to be at parity with everyone else. Microsoft may be looking at the success of PC gaming, with endless libraries of downloadable titles playable on many hardware configurations, and trying to apply the whole PC concept to resurrect their latest console. In the meantime, the Xbox One is undercutting their own user base. What form the Xbox One hardware upgrades might take isn't obvious yet, but producing new attachments will probably lead to more costs to Xbox One owners. But again, Microsoft's comments are confusing; Phil Spencer walked back comments on the concept of an upgradable Xbox One on the Major Nelson podcast:
What a mess.
My friends who are Xbox One owners frequently ask me what games I’m playing, and nine times out of ten, I recommend a game that, unfortunately, isn’t available on the platform. For the gamers stuck with a barely supported Xbox One in their living room, this complicated situation sucks. Microsoft is not holding up their end of the bargain.
I received $200 for selling my Xbox One, which is half of what I originally spent on it. That hardly seems fair for the amount of money and time I’ve spent supporting Microsoft, the Xbox, Xbox 360, and Xbox Live, for almost a decade. At this point though, I’ll take what I can get.