Some people say that the next console war is over before it’s really begun; looking at a lot of the post-E3 coverage, it’s hard to argue with those conclusions. After two (some would say) failed press conferences, Microsoft looks to launch an overpriced, Draconian, and privacy-crushing console just in time for Christmas. The problem comes from the fact that they don’t really have a traditional game console and they have a lot riding on the upcoming console cycle.
If you look at the last two console cycles (concerning Sony and Msoft – sorry Nintendo. You’re still relevant, but not for this discussion.), the launch was the deciding factor. The PS2 had such a big lead on the Xbox, that even after people started to flock to Xbox Live, it wasn’t enough to turn the tide. Sony had won, and even though as the cycle wound down Xbox started trending upwards, it didn’t matter: Sony had most of the money (I mean ridiculous amounts of money. They had around 150 million units out in people’s home.).
The next cycle saw the 360 come out strong at launch, and they won the West (all Msoft really cares about apparently). Even looking at worldwide numbers, noting that PS3 actually has more units sold, doesn’t really change the Western perception that the 360 beat the PS3.
The Economist posted this handy infographic a few weeks ago:
If Xbone wants to compete at the start of this next cycle (which technically has started if you spend any time at all listening to analysts and many in the games press), they are going to have to work their asses off before November to create a sense that $500 is better than $400 (and right now, there’s way too much negative press to justify that added expense). If enough people buy the PS4 at launch, Msoft will have to play catch up for 3 years (or more). They need to start working hard on shifting the public perception away from competing as a game console, because there is still a public perception around what a game console is and what it does and doesn’t restrict. Yes, they all have Netflix and Youtube. Yes, they all have those fancy IPs that we love. But if I were to give Microsoft credit, they’re doing something that doesn’t feel like a game console.
They have the money and connections to change their approach, so this is what they should do:
- Work with ISPs and cable companies and bundle Xbox Live with cable packages. Hey, if they want to be a cable box and the center of the living room, make that Gold membership fade into the confusing itemized monthly bill. What’s another 5 or 7 bucks when you pay $110 a month for cable and internet?
- Show all of the capabilities of the Kinect. And not the creepy, “Kinect knows when you’re sad” shit that I heard at E3. Context aware computing is fine in research and everything, but I don’t want my console to know that it’s pissing me off. Things that are cool enough to make people forget about big brother? Go check out the Project Illumiroom.
- Actually back up the softly spoken claims that their take on DRM will drop prices (because, frankly, that’s a bullshit argument as long as your leaked PR sheets show that Msoft Studios games will be $60 (Source [rumor]: http://pastebin.com/TpuMDSjv)). Yeah, I get it. If you can control the flow of games, you should theoretically be able to offer sales and whatnot. The problem comes from the public perception of Microsoft. If the public doesn’t trust you to do the right thing, for all practical purposes, you’ll have to prove them wrong.
- Get a little more technical. Msoft has tons of people in research, and they publish research all the time. Peer-reviewed journals are fairly free from PR-spin, and it would be a great place to start talking about specs (shameless plug, to be sure. Email me, Msoft. I can fast-track that shit).
Sony was able to say that people will have to be PS+ subscribers to play online, and no one gave a shit. Why? Because of used games, privacy, SimCity, and Diablo. The people in the audience were too busy clapping and yelling at the Sony presser (in response to Sony’s status quo approach to used game sales) to hear that statement, but then, even after people went back over the text, they didn’t care (I’d argue that a lot of people, myself included, have seen value in PS+ as is, so making it a requirement isn’t that big of a deal at this point. It made me buy a new harddrive a while ago, and the only bad side of PS+ is the game-gluttony guilt from building up a backlog as long as my… Well, it’s long.), but it doesn’t really matter. The press has already spoken.
Look at what happened to the stock prices last week:
Of course, to be fair. Numbers like that are full of shit. It looks like they are screwed, and there is a little dip or two. That said, this is what the last year has looked like so far:
It looks a lot different when you just change your perspective a bit, and that’s exactly what Microsoft needs to do.
That said, with that many employees and that much money, I can’t believe that Msoft has failed so miserably with their PR. Seriously. They need to send out a memo, telling management to shut the fuck up while they figure out a course of action. They need to distance themselves from Sony and Nintendo, because they are not going to be able to compete as a console in the way that we’ve all thought of consoles in the past.
A lot of us love Steam these days, but if we remember correctly, when it launched it was a pain in the ass, and it was sort of optional for Valve games at first. As it slowly wound its tentacles around us, we didn’t really notice that much. Next thing you know, we all freak the fuck out whenever the next Steam sale hits, and I’ll admit, I’ve been known to use the Steam keys off of a Humble Bundle purchase even when I have the DRM-free copy sitting there, waiting to be downloaded (A lot of honesty and self-loathing in that statement). Microsoft wants to come out and wall their garden off just a little bit more, hoping to control access to and from all points into the marketplace. I get it, but damn, let’s not freak out too much.
I’ll admit that a lot of their moves aren’t really that crazy, especially for the techs who have been creating the One over the last few years. They’ve been living and dying on the edge, and frankly, they’re building this thing on technology that seems far-fetched, but isn’t that crazy. Devices are usually on, sucking just a little bit of power out of convenience. Many of us have games that we play online rather consistently. If the Kinect worked a little better, I’d like it to know who was in the room, so it could be proactive and set up preferences for the person (and taking it a little further, turning off a horror movie because it noticed my son walk into the room or turning off porn because my wife walked in could be a pretty cool idea if done correctly.).
But (and this is a big but), with all of the concerns around privacy and eavesdropping and all that other shit, it was bad timing to say the least, creating a sense that people were going to shell out $500 to have big brother come in and set up shop in their living rooms. Yes, I understand that big brother is already here, collecting metadata and whatnot from all of our social interactions, profiles, and communications. But to many gamers, it seemed odd to make it even easier and out-in-the-open (But it’s probably a good thing that we’re talking about privacy these days. It’s kind of scary how much information we trade for a free app).
I will never count out Msoft (they made Vista for crying out loud, and they bounced back from that), nor do I think that the next-gen console war is over. And I don’t want to necessarily beat a dead horse about the PR nightmare that Msoft is experiencing.
Will they own the living room? They still could. I think that they might just need to quit fighting in the console wars; they need to start a new war that fits in more with their approach to the Xbone as a cable box on steroids. They’d be competing against Roku, Google TV, and Apple TV. While that seems insane, I think they’d have a better chance in that war. Gamers are a demanding bunch, but we typically only demand honesty and respect. For some, too much PR and not enough respect can undermine years of Xbox fanboyism. IGN polled 300,000 people and found that 81% thought that PS4 won E3.
At that point, it doesn’t matter if they really did or not.
[These comments reflect my own opinions, not that of Wouldyoukindly.com, and they probably don’t reflect the opinions of my wife. But seriously, she just said last week that Halo is on Xbox, and that was the single most intelligent thing that she’s ever said about video games, so there you go…]