Why the death of Microsoft's Xbox One vision means we all lose
Commentary: By unbundling the Kinect sensor from Xbox One, Microsoft strips away the console's last differentiating element. The industry and gamers will suffer for it.
In defending the decision to strip the Kinect motion sensor from the Xbox One and sell a new entry-level console for $399, Microsoft executives Phil Spencer and Yusef Mehdi repeated the same whitewashed line: it's about consumer choice.
"If consumers choose that they don't want Kinect, or they want to add it later, we're going to make that available...in the end, I hope everyone sees that the experience with Kinect is the best Xbox One experience," Spencer told CNET following the announcement.
Hopes aside, Microsoft sent a strong signal with complex implications.
Microsoft knew that spinning the unbundling as a wake-up moment -- they're finally listening to consumers! -- was the most positive way to admit that pricing its console $100 more than Sony's better-selling PlayStation 4 had pushed the company into yet another corner it had to compromise its way out of. The new Kinect-free console goes on sale June 9, and is already available for pre-order from retailers like GameStop and Best Buy.
The Kinect sensor, Microsoft's second generation camera and motion capture peripheral, lets gamers control their Xbox One with voice commands and is both integrated into games as a secondary feature and used to design entire game experiences like the upcoming Fantasia, though its library is slim. Without Kinect, gamers have only the controller to navigate the console and its various entertainment modules, and Microsoft is already prepping user interface changes for its monthly Xbox update cycle to address any consumer concerns that might arise with the Kinect-less unit.
Admittedly, the Kinect separation is a pro-consumer move and one of Microsoft's only strategic options left to gain ground, having shipped to retailers 5 million units by March 2014 while Sony has confirmed it sold 7 million to consumers. Introducing the option of a cheaper console will undoubtedly boost sales while giving the gaming community, namely the forum posters and Internet commenters who wield sizable influence in crafting industry narratives, exactly what it had asked for all along. A win-win, it would seem.
Not quite. A pro-consumer decision doesn't always equate to the best outcome for the industry, especially considering that we got here by caricaturing Microsoft until it began tossing everything remotely controversial under the bus. In this case, stripping the Xbox One of its last remaining stand-out feature -- the last step in a gradual, painful reversal of everything Microsoft once tried to build a next-gen foundation out of -- had become inevitable and will leave gamers worse off in the long run.
Microsoft fumbles its narrative
Blame for Microsoft's trailing position in the console market clearly rests not just with those who skewered the Xbox One at every turn, but with the company's utter failure to stick to its guns, properly communicate its vision, and justify its higher price tag.
Microsoft botched the messaging around the Xbox One's launch, failing to initially disclose integral stipulations like whether the effort to enforce digital rights management policies would require the console to be connected to the Internet at all times, or whether the Kinect needed to be plugged in for the Xbox One to function.
Those mistakes, punctuated by the departure of top-level Xbox executive Don Mattrick for Zynga, has haunted the Xbox One ever since. The company knew, however, that it was boldly wading into uncharted territory, though perhaps too soon.
Xbox executives admitted as much, pointing out that it had attempted to force consumers into something they were not comfortable with in 2013. "For us, we probably said it was going to happen sooner than people were ready for it to happen. And I'm glad we've gone back to the disc model. People have to accept it," Albert Penello, a senior director of product at Microsoft, told Gamespot last fall. "The Internet bandwidth caps have to support it globally. Internet infrastructure has to support it globally. So it's going to happen, it's just a matter of time."
Penello's logic was emblematic of Microsoft's stance following the always-on change of heart -- resembling a confident prophet moving a bit too fast to usher in a bright-yet-untested future. It was a position Microsoft wielded gleefully into the November launch of the Xbox One, yet one that has since been radically eroded to passivity and pandering thanks to incessant community push-back and subsequent sluggish sales.
So Penello, who called the Kinect "as fundamental to the platform as the controller is in many ways," has now eaten his words while Spencer, who once said "the all-in-one system that we built is really about building a box that can play a role in all forms of entertainment in the home," had to sound the death knell for more than just the Kinect on Tuesday. The unbundling represents the last vestige of the Xbox One vision getting the ax. It has further flattened the game landscape and has halted the progress of next-gen gaming that goes beyond incremental graphics upgrades.
Same tired squabbles
Ultimately, the end result of the widespread pressure for uniformity in the industry will be a perpetuation of the more malignant undercurrents entrenching console gaming in its bloated, risk-adverse traditions. Instead of fresh takes that incorporate new technologies and take bold chances, we're now likely to get more of the same: more cycles of selling sequels and turning riffs on established game genres into franchises, all for what have become overly marketed PCs that just happen to be plugged into our TVs.
The fight for the living room, for fully realized next-generation entertainment that transcends gaming, has been reduced to the same tired squabbles that render console war discussions vapid and self-defeating. More choice for consumers has become Microsoft's forced doublespeak for an offering that closely resembles that of its competitor, a decision made solely to boost sales and keep fanboys from foaming at the mouth.
Because by unbundling the Kinect from the Xbox One -- a splintering of the peripheral's install base that may kill Kinect's future and, at best, will undoubtedly hamper game development that incorporates motion control -- we're left with two video game consoles that are essentially identical. Granted, the PS4 has a graphical edge, and the Xbox One cable-box functionality, though the former is entirely negligible to the everyday consumer and the latter now jeopardized given the One's reliance on the Kinect's IR blasting functionality to control your television.
After months of adamant defense of the Kinect's role in the Xbox One experience, Microsoft has yet again reversed its stance, bringing full circle a thorough stripping of nearly every interesting element from its console -- it's daring yet poorly handled promise of a disc-less future and digital resale program; its forward-thinking family-sharing plan; the motion and voice-controlled centerpiece of its entertainment vision. That means that the Xbox One and PS4 are not only barely differentiable from each other, but also at their core offer nothing substantially different than what their predecessors did nine years ago.
The central issue lies in the original promise of the Xbox One, the reality of where we are roughly one year later, and what was accomplished in the collective crusade. We did not need two separate consoles that do the exact same things, play pretty much the same games, and stream the same services you get with a $99 Roku. What we needed were real choices that represented not which console you wanted to play Destiny or Watch Dogs or Call of Duty on, but different systems that cater to wider audiences, provide different use cases, look forward, and aren't chained down to the status quo.
Microsoft tried to escape those confines of the console war and it failed, caving to nearly every demand put forth by the gaming audience with a shoulder shrug and a "maybe one day." Now, the Xbox is back to fighting a battle in which everyone loses.