Early off the Blocks; Why the Xbox One-80 Was the Right Choice

Wednesday, July 3, 2013
Many of us are still riding the rage bus fueled by Microsoft's E3 conference this year. While Xbox hate is trending, even after the reversal of the DRM and digitally focused model they presented  on stage, I'd like to take a moment to ask us all to take a step back, if you can. I want to make it clear that what follows is the opinion of this writer and should not be taken as inside information or literal fact.

I am a lucky person in that I need not ever be forced into choosing between consoles. I understand that I will eventually come to own each in turn. It is a necessity of this craft that I be able to work on as many platforms as possible. Because of this I have actively tried to quiet my knee jerk reactions to Microsoft's initial reveal. I have made conscious choices to avoid getting caught up in the debate.

There has been backlash against Microsoft at every turn. From the cost of Xbox Live, to the DRM, to the removal of said DRM. We are a fickle bunch indeed. At some point it's important to mention that one cannot always have the cake and eat it too. I honestly believe that what Microsoft wants above all else is a solid install base. This is why they have reversed their initial announcements and made the Xbox One a disc based machine. While there are still some that feel they should have stuck to their guns, I firmly stand by my reasoning that they have done the smartest possible thing they could have in this situation

In any competition, there is someone that gets antsy. Always at least one that is so raring to go that they beat even the starting pistol. In the case of the next generation consoles, Microsoft was that one. I saw their vision as something akin to Steam for consoles. Something you could take with you, unrestricted by the need for discs and your personal console. While I love the idea of this (as I'm sure many do) I do think that Microsoft made a fatal error in judgement by basing their new console around this idea.

Chief among the arguments made by those that support Microsoft's original position for the Xbox One (I refuse to call it the XBone), is the statement that even the ubiquitous and universally loved Steam was hated when it first arrived. Let me be frank for a moment and say without fear of public outcry, that it was hated because it's initial models were shit. It took Steam a long time to get on it's feet. The early product was restrictive and difficult to navigate. What Steam is now is a far cry from those dark, early days.

The Xbox One could have gone down that same path. Fighting through unfamiliar territory to eventually arrive at a point when the good outweighs the bad. When the difference between owning a game and leasing licences is finally negotiated in favor of all. When the prices actually drop and the infrastructure is such that an Internet connection is less a requirement that a forgone conclusion.

Steam has always had a leg up in this because it is software only. It requires no specific machine other than any generic PC or Mac to operate. The home computer has long been associated with a regular internet connection. So much so that the two are almost inexorably linked when thinking of the medium as a whole. Consoles are a different animal altogether. A three to five hundred dollar investment on a dedicated machine built for the sole purpose of entertainment. An Internet based system that functions primarily as a receptacle for digital distribution is a damn difficult sell to a customer base accustomed to owning something they can just plug into a television and play.

Taking a longer view, by backing off the digital dais the Xbox One was initially set upon, Microsoft has allowed itself to take it's "vision" in steps. Having a lot more clout than many other companies, Microsoft has an opportunity to be a bastion for reasonable Internet connectivity. The US is the primary install base for Microsoft in this and all of it's consoles to date. Unfortunately the US lags behind so much of the world in reliable connectivity, with many areas of the states relegated to thirty to forty year old cable networks and some stuck with dial-up equivalents only.

In this possible push for reasonable rates for high speed connections and deconstruction existing cable companies bandwidth throttling policies, Microsoft could take steps to establish a more substantial digital distribution network for it's games. Perhaps by enabling gold subscribers to use discs as a base for their games but allowing "disc free" digital options for the same games over Xbox Live. Those games purchased through Xbox Live could be accessed from any console connected to the Internet. In a sense, this is having the cake and eating it too.

Offering publishers the opportunity to make their games available on "day one" for even five to ten dollars less than the same game from any major store could take advantage of Xbox Live's existing membership without completely alienating those players unable to connect regularly. First party titles such as Halo and Forza could offer additional bonus DLC for digital purchasers, or even offer more early access to multiplayer betas or themes and achievements.

Sony has already said that they are very interested in offering a more robust digital distribution model for it's consumers, and PlayStation Plus is the first inkling of what that can be for gamers. Additional bonuses for core consumers and the reliably connected, without totally shunning all it's other customers without the benefit of solid high speed Internet.

I feel that I understand where the Xbox One was going when it was first announced. I was also very upset that it had taken such drastic steps towards that destination. I do not think that the console market is quite ready for a primarily digital model. It has been taking steps towards that for years now, but it's still too early to make that big a leap. The market and the customers need to be allowed to adjust and flow with the shift as advances make that a more accessible option.

The argument that all consoles are eventually going to be digitally based so we should just go ahead and embrace it now is shortsighted. You cannot expect someone to commit to a digital structure when they are still struggling with a 56k connection, not to mention all those gamers in the armed forces that are deployed overseas. They are among some of the most faithful players out there, and to immediately negate their importance by introducing a console that simply will not function in their common conditions makes no sense, business or common.

Those of you who feel that the Xbox One has been crippled by the reversal, take heart. This is not a sign of a dissolved vision. It is a delay at most. Those things like account and game sharing are not abandoned, they have been shelved temporarily. Rest assured, these things will return, but only once the Xbox One has established a solid base. Those who cried out for the reversal, be glad that your numerous voices were finally heard. You've helped solidify a more rational business plan for the Xbox. Change is coming, but hopefully it will be change that we can prepare for.