Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Xbox One: Initial thoughts, not altogether positive

The new Xbox has been revealed at a big event on Microsoft's campus in Redmond. It will be called the "Xbox One", coming out later this year.

The reveal announcement demonstrated some of the new capabilities of the new system. It has the ability to watch live TV, respond to very natural voice commands, instantly switch between tasks (like flipping back and forth between a game, TV, and/or web browsing), and even "snap" two applications side-by-side (much like Windows 8 "metro" apps), with the demo of watching Star Trek on most of the screen with IE on the right quarter browsing for tickets for the next Star Trek movie. It also showed how you could view an on-screen guide, much like a modern digital cable or satellite box. Also included was watching a sporting event on ESPN, and having a notification come up when a player scored that added points to your fantasy sports league (although as a background app or simply as part of the new ESPN app, it wasn't clear).

They then made a brief run-down of the system specs on the console (nothing surprising), the controller ("40 design innovations", basically coming down to "pretty much the same, just some things a little better"), and the new Kinect (which appears to be very much improved over the original).

Then, there was an announcement about Microsoft's cash cow, Halo: Stephen Spielberg is directing a live-action TV series. Not quite the Halo movie we've been hoping for, but still a pretty good deal.

As expected and previously announced, there wasn't a huge focus on games at this event — that has been promised for E3 next month. They did announce that there were fifteen first-party games due in the first year, 8 of which from new IPs. The games they did show included a new one from Max Payne and Alan Wake developer Remedy Entertainment, a new Forza title, and the previously-announced Call of Duty: Ghosts, the last of which being a somewhat more detailed talk about all of the new tech that the Xbox One makes possible in making a much more visually-appealing game (including comparing screens and models from Modern Warfare 3 to Ghosts). Unfortunately, no real game play was shown — although they did claim we were watching videos rendered by the game engine, they were all cutscenes. While they could be real-time rendered cutscenes instead of in-game video, it would be hard to stand behind that claim.

Ultimately, it looked cool, but nothing groundbreaking. We cut the cable cord nearly five years ago, so the Xbox One's ability to watch and control live TV from your cable feed is completely useless to me. The upgraded controller could be nice (although not a reason to buy a new system). The upgraded Kinect is impressive, though again it's not something I currently use that often even when it's marginally convenient (it's still faster to shut down the 360 using the controller or the freaking power button on the box than it is to navigate the menus by voice, and much faster than trying to use gestures). And while snapping apps side-by-side is convenient, it's hardly necessary when I have a smartphone and laptop within relatively easy reach, and the SmartGlass apps that make those devices useful, even if they're not "integrated" in the same box.

What worries — and even angers — me, is the information that's coming from off-stage. This is what we've found out from the press interviewing Microsoft executives and representatives:

  • The Xbox One may require an internet connection at least as often as once every 24 hours
  • The console will support larger friends lists (up to 1,000) and external storage
  • The hard drive is built-in to the console and cannot be removed or upgraded by the user
  • Game discs transferred to another user will require some kind of transaction with Microsoft before the content is playable
Keep in mind this is now Microsoft officials responding to questions, not rumors from "unnamed" or "inside" sources.

The internet connection requirement (if true; the person making the statement didn't sound entirely sure, though it does give the impression some requirement exists) is annoying and disappointing. The last time we had a sustained internet outage, one of my kids was annoyed that he couldn't play his browser-based game on his laptop, but my younger kids were happily playing on the 360. This seems to question whether that scenario will be possible with the Xbox One.

The larger friends list is long overdue, though I do hope it comes with some management features — I want more friends, but I want to be able to categorize them somehow. External storage is pretty standard, though there hasn't been any clarification whether it is limited like it is on the 360 (you can only have 32GB of any device usable at a time). This only slightly mitigates the next point, that the internal 500GB hard drive cannot be replaced. Either they have high confidence in their hard drive's failure rate, or they just don't care. I would have liked to see the PlayStation 3 option finally implemented (put in any hard drive you want) rather than a repeat of the 360 option (buy only these limited-sized, "official" hard drives at over-inflated prices), but this just seems like a giant step backwards (the original Xbox — which I can now no longer refer to as the Xbox 1, so thanks for that — had the same fixed hard drive feature).

The game disc transference makes me the most angry. What they have said so far, is this: when you buy a game, you must install the contents to the hard drive (once games start using all 50GB of a Blu-ray disc, that 500GB storage space is going to disappear quickly), and that disc becomes locked to your ID. If you take the disc to a friend's house, you can use that disc and install the game on their hard drive and play it with your ID for free. But, they cannot play it on their ID unless they pay a "fee" (which has been explained as the retail cost of the game) to "unlock" it.

Essentially, this makes all games subject to the same restrictions as Xbox Live Arcade games and DLC — the original purchaser can play it anywhere, but they cannot share, trade, or sell it to anyone else (except anyone on the purchaser's original console, at least in the case of the 360). And we already know how I feel about that. It places unnecessary restrictions on the content that can even prevent family members in the same house from using content. And now they want to do that for all games, including the ones on disc. Essentially, the "install from disc" step becomes identical to the "download from Microsoft's servers" step.

Even if you accept that and consider letting multiple people install from one disc instead of the internet, where each additional person just pays Microsoft to unlock it, consider Microsoft's idea of "retail price" does not actually mean "what you pay in a retail store" (unless you include Microsoft's own physical stores, where game prices seem to follow the same resistance to change as they do in their Arcade).

Oh, Microsoft is promising that they have designed some way to actually trade games. If you believe this, then at best it will be a simple license transfer tool that lets you move the license with the physical disc you intend to sell/give/trade/etc. Or maybe it will be as simple as letting them have your original registration key, which, once they use, will inactivate your copy on your Xbox One. (Could be most friendly to third-party resellers like Play N Trade, who could just insist games you bring in for trade include the registration code.) Worse, they will require some payment for the privilege. At worst, their "more details to share later" will be as meaningful as "we're working on making the 360 backwards-compatible with all original Xbox games".

Funny, the 360 was "designed" to be able to play traded and resold games, too. I like how that works better.

This week, my son decided he wanted to find a copy of Star Wars: Battlefront II for the original Xbox. See, his cousin had loaned him his copy while he was staying here, and he played it and loved it. But you can't buy the game new anymore, so he's searching for a used copy. It's not easy, considering the game is long out of date, and major resellers aren't carrying games for that system anymore. But once he does find a copy, he is all but guaranteed that he'll be able to play it on our original Xbox (and the 360, where it happens to be compatible). Now I have serious questions as to whether that will still be the case for the Xbox One, either when it is the "current generation" or when it has been long past its "end of support" life.


Chris said...

In general, I agree with wholeheartedly. The one question I have is do you have a source for saying that the "fee" MS has mentioned will be full retail cost of the game? I haven't seen that mentioned before your blog.

Yakko Warner said...

In a Kotaku interview with Microsoft corporate VP Phil Harrison:
"The bits that are on that disc, you can give it to your friend and they can install it on an Xbox One," he said. "They would then have to purchase the right to play that game through Xbox Live."

"They would be paying the same price we paid, or less?" we asked.

"Let’s assume it’s a new game, so the answer is yes, it will be the same price," Harrison said.

Chris said...

Thanks. Somehow, I just don't see that working out well for them.

Yakko Warner said...

Well, it's already lost them my sale. After sleeping on it, I'm still angry.

JediChric said...

What Cyber didn't know at that time is that a family can have access to the game if one person buys it in the household. For instance, if I buy the game, my son, and wife can play it at the same time without them having to buy a second copy of the game. I just need to install it on their One's. There are gaming couples in GeezerGamers that this would save them a fortune through the console's life cycle.