On a dreary Tuesday morning in Redmond, Washington, Microsoft took to its Xbox Campus stage to reveal its next-generation console, the Xbox One. I spent many hours of my life yesterday writing about all the things the big black box can, cannot and may be able to do, so if you want to get into the nitty gritty, head on over to TG’s news roundup. Today, though, I want to share my own ramblings on what Microsoft’s ambitions appear to be with its new machine.
The Xbox One is not a gaming console. That’s the first thing Microsoft wanted to make clear to us yesterday. It’s not like the Wii U or the PlayStation 4 or even the Xbox 360. It plays games, and that’s where its roots are, but it’s nothing less than a general media hub. You don’t kick off your presentation of a gaming console with a demo of easily changing TV channels. You don’t bring out Nancy Tellem or Steven Spielberg to excite gamers. You just don’t.
If I had to give it a rough sketch, I’d say the Xbox One is like a tablet, on your TV screen, controlled by your voice, which does multitasking better than most devices on the market and will come with a diverse selection of entertainment content. Oh, and it also has the benefit of playing games.
This is a Microsoft Box, with Skype and Bing and Internet Explorer and Xbox Music and Azure and Windows all mashed together. The gaming wing of the company, the Xbox brand itself, is now just one piece of a larger all-in-one machine, instead of a central focus on its own.
The Xbox One’s almost perverted focus on multitasking demonstrates this. It’s a machine made for the attention deficient, for the people who can’t walk down the street without checking their smartphone notifications, or the people who instantly open up 10 separate tabs whenever they boot up a web browser.
Skyping with your spouse while you play Call of Duty? Go for it, and enjoy having a conversation where you don’t really have to have a conversation. Pausing your Assassin’s Creed IV mission to check on the score of the Monday Night Football game? You’re a big shot now, so you get what you need whenever you like. The Xbox One is going to be expensive — because it does so much, and because it’s two devices in one — and it wants to make its owners feel like they’re living in the future accordingly, for better or worse.
Does any of this sound familiar? It should. The Xbox One lets us do what most of us in the connected world have more or less been doing for the last decade. Besides the zippiness of the Kinect’s voice navigation, most of this isn’t new; it’s just more streamlined through one device and on one television.
‘But who cares about all this stuff?,’ those who lamented Microsoft’s event yesterday will say. Well, people. People use lots of apps on multiple devices, sometimes at the same time. People play fantasy football. People still watch regular TV. More people are using more of the cloud on a daily basis. And lots of people have thought that they must have things that aren’t crucial to everyday life before. This isn’t radical thinking. It’s life today. The only outstanding question is whether or not Microsoft can convince these people that the Xbox One can suit their needs.
Gaming doesn’t exist in a vaccum, away from the rest of the rest of the tech world, even its most hardcore proponents want it to. Game consoles have not been “just game consoles” for about a decade now, and the Xbox One is an evolution of that line of thought.
(Also, I’ll note that the Xbox One’s Snap features could very well have some use to gamers. If you’re stuck in a particularly challenging game, having the ability to pull up Internet Explorer right there and look for tips or hints would be pretty handy. If you’re waiting for the One’s ‘Smart Match’ feature to put you in a multiplayer lobby, it’s nice to have a little TV screen right there to pass the brief time. Cool.)
Not surprisingly, all of this focus on things-that-are-not-games has pissed off ‘core’ gamers, the kind that actually care enough to watch console reveals on a Tuesday afternoon in the first place. I can understand why it did, because again, this conference wasn’t about them.
This was about Today’s Consumers™, the kind that are still a few years away from cutting the cord, that are starting to feel inconvenienced by all of the different computers they’ve burdened themselves with, the kind that mostly plays the games they can’t help but know like Call of Duty, FIFA or Madden. They’re a meticulously researched mainstream.
Microsoft says that the games will be flowing in at E3, and so I can’t fairly judge their stance towards the core crowd until then. But if yesterday was any indication, Microsoft’s concerns are beyond those of Sony, which is doubling down on its attempt to be the gamer’s game console, and Nintendo, which is selling a $350 paperweight until it actually releases more software. I don’t think this is a completely dumb idea, as long as we take the Xbox One in the larger context mentioned above.
I think Microsoft understands itself. It understands that Americans bought the Xbox 360, so the few games it showcased focused on things Americans like – guns, cars, and grown men in pads hitting each other – and its Live TV platform will be America-first at launch. It understands that millions of people use the Xbox 360 to mostly watch Netflix, so it’s trying to make its console more bulletproof to possible gamer disdain by deeply fleshing out its multimedia offering. It understands that Halo and Call of Duty and other blockbusters are going to sell consoles to millions more people regardless of what they do on the multimedia end. It understands that it was never a favorite of indies, so it’s not bothering with them and all the care they require. It understands that the internet in its core markets is improving, so it’s building a box whose technology will be stay relevant by the end of its life cycle.
This is Microsoft playing to its strengths, in essence. This is its reality. Microsoft was not, never was, and never wanted to be a gaming company; it wants to be a life company, one that provides products for your work and your play. And instead of trying to fall into the trap of “saving” game consoles from their oft-predicted oncoming death, it’s trying to bypass the issue entirely. It isn’t abandoning games, it’s just cutting the fat, and hoping that its non-gaming offerings will be good enough to bring in new segments of the market. I don’t know if it can. I do know that not everyone is going to like that, though, and that’s okay, because a natural part of being all-in-one is that you can’t be everything-for-everybody.