No longer as truthful as should be deserved, some names, places and events deliberately vague to protect identities that aren't mine

Saturday, 15 June 2013

One (singular sensation...)

So.. Let's talk about the Xbox One.

There's all kinds of rants going on about the features announced about the Xbox One, so I figured the crowd isn't exactly going to get any louder in relative terms if I add my voice into the mix.

I'm actually a supporter of a lot of the things most people are bitching about.  And yes, I'll start by admitting I was never going to be a potential PS4 buyer.  I like Halo too much :P

The Xbox One is supposed to be part of the 'next-generation' of consoles.  It's a successor that builds on an established franchise, yes, but the entire point of the new consoles, especially with regards to the PS4 and Xbox One, is that they are supposed to be the flagships in what will be the next generation of consoles.  When you step up a generation, the point is that there's generally a leap, it's supposed to take a new approach and inevitably people gripe about it because we don't like change.  Remember the change from keypad mobiles to touchscreen keypads?  The sudden change (or even lack of) haptic feedback took a LOT of getting used to for a lot of us.

Microsoft has tried (and arguably failed) the 'next generation' trick recently, with Windows 8.  I admire them for what they set out to do: recognizing that we are moving into a world of tablets and touchscreens, the way we interact with a UI is evolving, at a seemingly increasingly rapid rate as technology grows in leaps and bounds and the commercial processes for putting that once-futuristic technology into every aspect of our life equally grows in great strides.  So they got rid of the Start button, a mainstay of Windows for decades.  Everyone knows, that everything, sooner or later, can be found from the Start menu.  And that was the problem.  When they removed the Start button, no-one had any idea how to access things that weren't already there on the screen in Windows 8.  How do I change the settings, how do I change the layout, the background, what if I want to  run a program I don't use very often, how do I bring up the system specs etc. Windows 8 has a lot of issues, but to me, that was the biggest issue with the Start function.  Not that they got rid of it, but that Windows as a UI had been built around the Start button for so long, it wasn't obvious to anyone how to use a version that did away with it, and people are generally pretty impatient in terms of how long they're willing to persevere with non-intuitive technology.  Removing the Start button was supposed to signify a total rethink about how users interacted with the Windows system and the technology it drives.  It failed, but I admire the idea behind it.

That's kind of where I stand on the Xbox One.  I think what the Xbox One is trying to do is exactly what should be expected of a next generation console.  Think of the 'futuristic' media and entertainment technology  we're all familiar with from every 80's sci-fi movie.  And even more recent stuff like Minority Report or <...>.  It shows a world that is completely connected, in every way.  The media we have on our computers connects with our TV, connects with our phone, connects with us out and about.  It updates, adapting and adjusting for local weather, traffic, whatever.  We envisaged this as the way technology would work in the future 3 decades ago and more.  And this is very much the end goal technology has looked to over the last few years, driving the smartphone revolution, phablets, the iCloud, Windows Media Center, Skype phones as effective land-lines, you name it.

Well, with that said, how in the hell did you think all this future tech was gonna happen?!
Of course the Xbox One is permanently connected to the internet; of course it requires an input system that relies not just on predetermined button presses, but can learn to read your movements and understand your voice; of course it's designed with the idea it will integrate with your other technology in a way that is so ubiquitous it seems almost invasive to us (though arguably, Apple has been ahead of the curve on this one for years, though equally, it has less hurdles to overcome).  As I said, this is exactly what I think should be expected of a console that is supposed to be indicative of the "next generation" of console technology.  Consoles aren't gaming stations anymore.  They're not glorified DVD players.  They're not something to keep the kids occupied that isn't as expensive as a PC or a Mac.  And we don't expect to be constrained by formats anymore.  Multiplayer gamers want to play with their friends whether they have an Xbox, a Playstation, a Mac, Windows or Linux.  We want the same list of friends and contacts as we have in our email clients, phones, skype lists etc.  With the same ability to separate and divide according to privacy.  It's what we expect more and more out of our technology, but the underlying things that allow that to happen, that drive that, that will give us our hoverboards and our lightsabers and auto-drive cars, we're going to kick up a huge fuss about.

That's not to say I'm oblivious to the shortcomings of the Xbox One.  All that future tech, the ubiquity I mentioned earlier, we ARE a little uncomfortable with all of that.  We don't want people video calling us on toilet walls, or asking us how that pair of crotchless panties is working out for us, or getting fired by a message sent to our home during dinner one evening.  The PRISM scandal is all too topical and indicative of a 1984 society in which our every feeling, thought, and action is monitored, not by the CCTV used to deter crime or obvious designated systems, but by everything's in our daily lives; our chats to grandma over the phone, our weekly shopping & travel habits via rewards cards and credit histories, the social groups we move in - we're simply not comfortable having all this monitored so overtly just yet.

The Xbox One can, and should offer a lot to those who want to (and can) be connected 24/7 - the prospect for evolving gaming worlds could herald a new era of MMORPG developers who I'm sure would be all too happy to find a way to reignite their continually declining revenue streams.  But I fully agree that requiring a connection every 24 hours is going to push people away from it.  There's a strong contingent of people out there who avoid Ubisoft and EA games precisely because they require a constant connection.  And for some people this is simply too onerous a requirement.  My parents have broadband, but they live in the country, it's shitty broadband, it cuts out, it drags like a dog in bad weather, it's never gonna cope with a 24/7 online streaming demands.  They easily could have implemented a system that would have required an online connection only once every 30 days - which seems to be the current market-acceptable time interval for compulsory syncing services - leaving decisions of 24/7 connectivity to game and app developers.  Even streaming services - which by their nature demand a constant connection - are increasingly finding ways to allow "offline streaming" by downloading a TV show or movie at a time.  People still want, and expect, the option to play their games on a rainy day, when they're cut off from the world.  Everyone's internet goes down and we all know it usually takes a good 2 weeks till the company gets it up and running properly again, so 30 days seems adequate.

The Kinect sensor is a mandatory piece of kit for the Xbox One, and again, it arguably needn't be.  You can have the option of it adding a whole range of extra content, and new ways of interacting with the console and all it's media, but why is it necessary?  And there's no backwards compatibility, which is always going to be an issue, and is just dumb on a lot of levels, but then that's going to be a growing problem in the next few years as the internal architecture of computing components, and how technology works at its underlying fundamental levels (as in more underlying and fundamental than the programming language) goes through a complete overhaul.  But I still agree that backwards compatibility is a huge issue at the end of the day.  And then of course there's the US/EU & UK pricing.  Now I fully concede I'm somewhat desensitized to the habit of just changing a $ sign to a £/€ and making a tidy profit on the extra mark-up due to too much US travel, but in an increasingly global world, making an extra $100 or so off people just because they live in Germany simply doesn't fly.  People are monumentally stupid.  But when you actually say "we think you're stupid" to them, angry (consumer) mobs tend to be surprisingly effective at voicing their anger one way or another.

The Xbox One has a lot of problems.  I really like what it's trying to do.  I don't think it will work, and I am counting down the days until Microsoft makes a backtrack on the internet connectivity issue.  It's a shame, but I don't think consumers are willing to accept the 'restrictions' of an Xbox One system just yet.  Not in a "they'll grumble but eventually get used to it" way, I really don't think the market is at that point where it will accept these things as inherent requirements yet.  But then the problem is, isn't an Xbox One without all the things that people are currently throwing up a huge fuss about just an Xbox 360 with some faster processors in it?  Where's the next generation in that?

EDIT:  Penny Arcade's comic today sums this up beautifully:

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