‘It’s Not Me, It’s You’: Microsoft’s Search For Their (Xbox) One True Love…

Don Mattrick and the xbox one

IMAGE: Don Mattrick and the Xbox One (Microsoft)

It seems almost a farcical understatement to say that the events of the past fortnight in the videogaming world have been unprecedented.  Not since DIY enthusiast Dr. Victor Frankenstein broke out the corpse-digging shovels for his last amateur craft project has there been so dramatic an example of a creation turning against and destroying its creators as Microsoft’s Xbox One.

…Maybe Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Within the space of a week Microsoft went from adamantly – even arrogantly – defending their product’s proposed requirements (an always-on internet connection; a mandated camera that could not be disengaged; the end of game ownership in exchange for game licensing at Microsoft’s ultimate discretion, etc) in the lead up to the electronic trade show, E3 (June 11-13), to utterly disavowing those policies in a public announcement (June 19), declaring that – after listening to their consumers – their new system would no longer require constant contact with their servers in order to function, and that they would no longer be restricting the ownership and trade of already purchased, physical games.

Whether one agrees with the ultimate decision or not, inarguably, some kind of public relations about-face was required given the landslide of public opinion that had turned against Microsoft over the preceding months.  For much of this year the message out of Microsoft – whether a product of hubris, or just extraordinarily misguided publicity – has appeared to continue a patronising trend in consumer relations that had began snowballing after their creative director Adam Orth instructed those who were uncomfortable (or incapable of) using their ‘always-on’ next generation console to ‘#dealwithit’.*

For some potential customers, these policies (and a non-optional Kinect camera and microphone apparatus that had to remain always connected to the internet) had indicated a disturbing trend toward potential corporate violations of privacy** – so much so that a bill, called the ‘We Are Watching You Act’, was being drafted for the US congress in an effort to restrict and monitor such observation.  For others, Microsoft’s position was needlessly alienating, with regional areas (and even whole countries) full of consumers unable to ensure the stable broadband internet connections necessary for the system’s operation.  Indeed, members of the US military on deployment (traditionally a faithful target audience for the Xbox 360) felt that they would be entirely ignored.  Still others were affronted by the apparent attempt to circumvent consumer rights of ownership and copyright law by forcing all games (even disc-based sales) to effectively become licensed, and thereby not applicable to the first sale doctrine.  And all of these negative perceptions of Microsoft seemed to culminate spectacularly in their main competitor’s E3 press conference, in which an unadulterated roar of approval met Sony’s announcement that they would not be imposing similar restrictions on the PS4.

Certainly, it was a frustration that I had found myself sharing, as, with every week that wore on, it had started to seem as though Microsoft were going to great expense to inform me – in the most elaborate, garish way possible – that they were breaking up with me.

After all, over this past console generation I have loved my 360 dearly – and looking back, have no doubt that the Xbox was the most satisfying experience I could have desired.  There was the first Mass Effect; Halo: Reach; there was the additional Grand Theft Auto 4 content; Gears of War got me through a rough patch; I even found myself going through a weird Forza phase; and for all of the littered broken promises they left in their wake, The Fable series were some goofy, power-fantasy rpg-lite playgrounds.  (I had, however, jumped on board after they’d finally pulled their heads out of their …not-for-heads-places… and corrected the cheap, overheating fault that kept self-destructing their product.  No doubt I might well have felt differently had I been forced to suffer their ridiculous red ring of death, and the gauntlet of jackassery I have subsequently heard ran their service repair process at the time.)

It seemed like a no-brainer that I would head into this next console cycle naturally upgrading to whatever Son-of-360 would turn out to be.  Not because of some ridiculous console-war fanboyism or anything (I would have lovesed me some Uncharted and Journey; and The Last of Us?  …come on!); it seemed natural because overall Microsoft appeared to have a bead on what I wanted as a customer…

But (literally) every single thing that I subsequently heard about the Xbox One*** since its announcement became evidence that I was no longer even a sliver in the consumer demographic that they want to chase.

I have never been an online gamer – I log on only for game updates and to download dlc – so the idea of being obligated to stay connected seemed an immediate, needless restriction that already appeared more ‘nanny-ish’ than ‘revolutionary’.****  Despite Microsoft’s trumpeting their wonder, I don’t (and do not want to) understand what ‘fantasy football’ is, and having been alive for a number of years, I’ve got a system worked out for my television viewering and internet usering that I’m pretty set with, so the Xbox’s proposed domination of my lounge room fell on deaf ears.*****  Meanwhile, Microsoft seemed intent on quashing the media that I do care about – independent developers not already signed to publishing labels were being effectively locked out of the market.

Similarly, I cannot describe the contempt I have for Kinect.  Besides the cute Sesame Street game from Double Fine that I can see a potential audience for, it seems little more than an excuse to make completely rational people periodically behave like constipated chickens; so forcing me to own one, having it seemingly inextricably bound to the gaming experience they demand I have, and telling me that I am not allowed to switch the leering little thing off, was a conflagration of revulsion.

And I remain a proud Luddite in my beliefs about the physical ownership of media.  Coming from the world of literary publishing, where, digital and physical sales are commonplace, I found Microsoft’s proposed system a disturbing and unprecedented targeting of consumer rights.  After all, if you buy a digital book for your reader you are (just as you are with Steam) entering into an agreement in which you understand at the point of purchase that you will not be able to sell the product on after you have read (or played) it.  It is why such sales are frequently less expensive than their physical counterparts – because it is built into the agreement that you have made between consumer and publisher.  When you choose to buy a physical book, however, you have ownership of that object, and can sell it on to used bookstores, to Amazon, give it to a friend, or prop it up on a fold-out table at a garage sale.  So Microsoft changing the rules wholesale to force all games to be ‘licensed’ rather than ‘owned’ struck me as an extraordinarily aggressive move that, again, was rather alienating.******

And after all of that, in the wake of questions about their restrictive policies, Microsoft effectively dismissed the customer that I remain as being unworthy of entering the new generation of gaming that they foresaw.  Xbox president Don Mattrick stated that, ‘Fortunately we have a product for people who aren’t able to get some form of connectivity: it’s called Xbox 360‘.

It was an extraordinary and rather petulant position to take; and given that his competitor was effectively (in the instance of E3 literally) standing beside him, with a more powerful, cheaper, less-personally-invasive machine, that is clearly going to have just as wide an array of third party games, it was so belligerently, self-righteously asinine a statement that it beggared belief.

Indeed, on mass, it was hard to think of an advertising campaign filled with more contemptuous disregard for consumer choice in a competitive market.  And yet they seemed so sure that they were connecting with someone…  So smugly positive that they were at the head of the pack…

The only way that I could contextualise it is was that Microsoft were positive they were on the precipice of a media revolution – that people like myself were all just waiting to be dragged kicking and screaming into the future where we would thank them for their Promethean wisdom; that this kind of entertainment proselytism would prove so self-evidently grand that it needed no justification.  But Microsoft is a company that has been wrong before (…sure, Zune’s been doing great; people still clamour for Microsoft Password; and Windows 8 and Windows ME were two of the most beloved product launches in history, but sure there were some less-dizzying highs too… maybe I’ll ‘Bing’ some examples), and their stubborn demeanour, and inability to articulate the great benefits they foresaw, only hastened the perception that they were headed for another debacle.

And so – even though I had no idea why they were so adamantly targeting me as consumer baggage they were happy to have sloughed off – it was clear that I was being sent a ‘Dear John’ letter with a HDMI input.  Suddenly, after years of being charmed by Microsoft, I was going to have to go with the other guy, no matter what.  And I was a little shocked to realise that I was fine with that.  At least he wasn’t talking to me as though I were stupid, or like I was wasting his time. (…Wait, why am I dating a guy in this scenario?)

And I guess I’d always have those memories of the times I farted on people in Fable.

…But then came Microsoft’s back-peddle: conceding to allow people to use their system offline, should they wish, and to own and trade physical games as they always had (…that camera was going nowhere though).  Perhaps the result of customer feedback; more likely a result of their competition throwing spit-balls; but either way it was an answer to that uproarious cheer that echoed from Sony’s press conference hall…

After all, what gave Sony’s E3 presentation such punch was not that they had schemed or plotted or undercut themselves to throw a wrench into Microsoft’s plans.  It was that they were simply offering a next-generation experience that built upon and evolved what consumers already seemed to love.  Their general tone was, ‘Of course we won’t impose weird, needless restrictions on the media that you purchase and own…’  And once the applause had died down, the implicit follow-up question of, ‘Yes, why would anyone do that?’ left hanging in the silence weighed heavy on their competitor’s proposed practices.

I suspect that many people (myself very much included, despite my abiding love for my 360) will continue to be steered away from Microsoft’s next-generation offering by the obligation of an unwanted, but required Kinect peripheral (where Sony allow you the choice of controllers), the strangling of the Indie developer market (while Sony seem devoted, this time around, to fostering an independent publishing avenue), and, frankly, the (paranoid) knowledge that Microsoft probably still harbour this long-term intent, and might well swing back around to that way of thinking later in the console cycle, but I am heartened to see that this response at least indicates that Microsoft are at last aware of their consumers that they were supposed to be seducing.

Adam Orth twitter message

IMAGE: From Adam Orth’s twitter feed

* Orth was actually fired for this exchange – which in hindsight seems extraordinary given that he was merely expressing (if somewhat acerbically) the position that Microsoft itself went on to espouse.

** And given Microsoft’s inclusion in the accusations currently circling around the existence of an NSA and FBI ‘PRISM’ program, perhaps not entirely unfounded.

*** Including the name itself, if I’m honest.  There’s already been an Xbox one, hasn’t there?! Are you pulling some Back to the Future nonsense, Microsoft?! Have pity on my linear conception of temporal existence…

**** Not to mention that I live in a country in which we have data-limits on our internet usage plans, so the idea of a machine chugging away freely downloading and sending information without my express ability to control it, was yet more needless cost and frustration.

***** And again: have Microsoft forgotten their own nightmare with the Red Ring of Death?  Can you imagine if people really do invest in this one-box-to-rule-them-all concept, and another such short-sighted fault starts tanking people’s machines?  ‘Sorry, you have to give over your entire entertainment media centre to us to fiddle with for an indeterminate amount of time,’ is not really going to fly like it did last time around.

****** And again: from my laughably meagre understanding of copyright law, potentially illegal, no?

[earlier versions of this ramble were inflicted upon the good people of AWTR]

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One Response to “‘It’s Not Me, It’s You’: Microsoft’s Search For Their (Xbox) One True Love…”

  1. I wonder if the always-on feature was also meant as an anti-piracy measure. IIRC that has been used in some PC games – don’t ask me for names, seems I didn’t play them, but I do seem to remember complaints about Ubisoft’s games. Piracy is quite a problem for games publishers after all. And it concerns writers as well. There was a campaign by some German crime writers last year against it (fun fact: when they put a man in a Guy Fawkes mask in their advertisements, it prompted Anonymous to hack into their computers … good to know that the proponents of free speech can tolerate criticism so well). It must be much harder to protect a text-only product from piracy then a game, where the makers can spoil pirates’ fun with other methods than always-on, too.
    Anyway, good to know that consumer feedback (or fear of the competitor) can have an impact. Now it remains to be seen what the final product will be like.

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