The problem with the Xbox One is that it’s visionary.
It has two big features that I’m sure looked amazingly innovative on internal PowerPoint presentations, but that in reality are major disadvantages. The first is Kinect, and the second is digital distribution.
Kinect is an amazing piece of hardware. It does things no other input system can do. Unfortunately, gesture-based input is fundamentally flawed. When you abandon a physical controller, you give up the immediate tactile feedback that you get from holding a physical device in your hand. When you press a button on a physical controller, you know that you’ve done something because of the nerve signals travelling back up your arm. But when you “press a button” with a gesture-based system, the feedback has to be visual or auditory. Even if the hardware itself has virtually zero latency, your brain doesn’t. It takes longer for these abstract cues to be processed than the low-level tactile feedback you get from your fingertips. What this means is that gesture-based systems always feel laggy and sloppy. It’s not a problem you can fix with better engineering. It’s a by-product of how your brain works.
Kinect is a design fiction. It looks like a huge leap forward. But when you try to translate that transformative vision into a user experience, you discover that it’s irreparably broken. Aside from a few limited niches like dance games, gesture-based control actually makes interacting with the Xbox more cumbersome and less immersive. But Microsoft couldn’t bring themselves to walk away from the fantasy. Instead of abandoning the Kinect as a failed experiment, they doubled down, making it an integral part of the system. Which is kind of weird, because when you look at the games they’re showcasing, none of them make significant use of the Kinect. It’s a central part of the system only because top-level execs at Microsoft have a Minority Report vision of the future and are trying to force that science fiction fantasy into reality.
The second visionary feature is a little more subtle, but just as damaging. The future of all media is digital distribution. Eventually we’ll all download everything instead of buying physical media. And once everything is digital downloads, you have to have some sort of DRM to prevent rampant piracy. However, that future isn’t here yet. People still buy games on disk and will continue to do so until broadband connectivity is as ubiquitous as running water.
Microsoft’s mistake was treating disk distribution as a just another method for transferring bits to the user’s hard drive. The Xbox One is built around the idea that you don’t play games off a disk, you install games from a disk. Once you make the disk a delivery mechanism instead of an ongoing data store, you have to have some form of DRM. Because if you don’t need the disk to play, there’s nothing stopping you from making as many copies as you want. And if you have DRM then you need a persistent internet connection to manage it. The requirements follow logically from treating disks simply as a delivery mechanism.
The beauty of both of these visionary decisions (from Sony’s perspective) is that they’re difficult to undo. Once you make the decision that the Kinect is required, dev teams will build their games around that assumption. In fact, they were probably pressured by Microsoft into using the Kinect as much as possible. So you can’t just drop the Kinect without breaking a lot of games. This makes it much harder for Microsoft to match Sony’s lower price – they’ve locked themselves into shipping every box with an expensive peripheral.
The digital distribution decision is similarly hard to undo. Microsoft can’t just say “Okay, no DRM! Share away!” because their install-from-disk model would lead to lots of lost sales. But changing how the operating system works at this date is a risky proposition. They’ve got one unified framework for handling game files. They treat all games as the same sort of entity – a digital file on the internal hard drive. Removing DRM would mean going in and creating an entirely new parallel way to handle loading disk-based games. That’s not a change you want to be making when you’re five months from launch.
My bet is that Microsoft won’t change a thing. The negatives of the Xbox One aren’t accidents. They’re the inevitable consequences of Redmond’s corporate vision of a highly-connected world of ubiquitous immersive tech. Abandoning them would require a degree of self-awareness that I don’t think it’s possible for a corporation that size to possess. Instead, I expect Microsoft to hunker down and power forward, gallantly marching toward the shining city of tomorrow they see shimmering in the distance beyond the desert sands ….