Why the Kinect-less Xbox One signals the death of Microsoft's grand console ambitions
On Tuesday, Microsoft finally, truly smothered its dreams for the Xbox One. Lofty ambitions and powerful technology, all laid to rest at the feet of indifferent gamers, sacrificial lambs slaughtered in an attempt to fix the horribly broken narrative surrounding Microsoft’s next-gen gaming console.
Flash back to a year ago. I was sitting on a couch at 2:30 in the morning, exhausted from running around all day at the E3 gaming expo, when I saw the now-infamous interview between then-Xbox head Don Mattrick and Geoff Keighley.
“Fortunately, we have a product for people who aren’t able to get some form of [Internet] connectivity—it’s called the Xbox 360,” said Mattrick, a smug grin across his face.
Watching Mattrick bust out that line was like watching someone pull the pin on a grenade and then drop it at their own feet. It was gutsy in all the wrong ways—the type of business-corporate garbage people already expected from Mattrick, who with his plastered-on smile had all the robotic charm of Tom Cruise onstage.
But there was no denying Microsoft had a vision for the Xbox One. A vision few gamers really wanted, sure, but it was a vision the Xbox team had spent years putting together. And by golly, they were sticking to it.
Until suddenly they weren’t.
On Tuesday Microsoft announced an Xbox One freed from the shackles of the Kinect, its $100 pack-in camera that was arguably the core of the entire Xbox One experience. With the announcement, the Xbox One will match the PlayStation 4 in price ($399) starting June 9.
People celebrated, and why shouldn’t they? While those who bought an Xbox One with Kinect often tout the benefits, Microsoft has yet to provide a compelling use case to skeptics. With the PS4 rapidly pulling ahead in sales figures every month, Microsoft needs a Hail Mary to save the Xbox One. Maybe this is it.
And yet there’s the old saying: “You can pull the Xbox out of the Kinect, but you can’t pull the Kinect out of the Xbox.” Everything—and I mean everything—on the Xbox One was designed with Kinect in mind. You turn it on with Kinect. You turn it off with Kinect. You navigate menus with Kinect. You search with Kinect. You (supposedly) play games with Kinect.
Kinect was it. Kinect was the small, dumb plot of land Microsoft staked its claim on. Have you ever tried navigating the Xbox One without the Kinect, using a controller like some sort of old-fashioned peasant? Of course you have, because the Xbox One’s Kinect is still not the best piece of hardware, and it bugs out and makes everything a bit more cumbersome than it should be.
But that’s not to say navigating the console with a gamepad is preferable. Why? Because Microsoft built everything around Kinect. Navigating the Xbox One’s UI with a gamepad is a gigantic pain, just like navigating Microsoft’s Metro interface with a mouse and keyboard is a pain—these are setups designed for very specific use conditions (Kinect and touchscreens, respectively) that most users flat out rejected.
Pulling the Kinect out of the Xbox One is a necessary move, undoubtedly, but it has all the grace of a rabid monkey disarming a bomb. At this point, Microsoft is left with Frankenstein of a console, pieced together from the putrid remains of an old Xbox 360 carcass and the shining vision-on-a-hill of what the Xbox One was intended to be.
Sowing the seeds of destruction
Let’s leave aside all questions of whether the PlayStation 4 is more powerful than the Xbox One. Let’s leave out technical considerations of DDR5 versus DDR3 RAM, sub-1080p resolutions, and the like. Not because I don’t find those topics interesting—I certainly do, from an academic standpoint.
But the Xbox One’s problem has always been one of narrative. And unfortunately for Microsoft, the narrative of Xbox-One-minus-Kinect isn’t necessarily better than before. Were you really holding off on the Xbox One because of the Kinect? Undoubtedly some of you were, and I hope you have a fantastic time with your new console.
There’s a bigger story, though, in Microsoft’s backtracking.
Microsoft flubbed the reveal last May. It set up a press conference that was watched mostly by the core gaming crowd, only to ignore most talk about games and focus on the Xbox One’s role as an “all-in-one entertainment device.”
Then the Xbox One cratered at E3. This was the big moment—a chance to show off the grand future of the Xbox. It turned out every horrific rumor we’d heard was true: Always online; no used games or rentals; a mandatory Kinect; very little focus on independent developers.
And to top it all off, that $500 slap-in-the-face price tag, $100 more than the PlayStation 4’s.
But Microsoft had reasons for it all. The online component was essential because Microsoft planned to use its server network to handle off-site computations for games. You couldn’t sell your used games, but you could share them with family and play games without the disc in the drive. Kinect, as I’ve said, was hardwired into every single aspect of the system from navigation to the Xbox One’s planned video features and games. This was the vision of the Xbox One. This was, according to Microsoft, the future of games.
What’s more, everyone expected Sony to follow suit. But Sony didn’t toe the line. Instead, it spent E3 focusing on a strong lineup of games (including a number of anticipated independent titles) and highlighting its offline capabilities.
Microsoft blinked. It took less than a week for Mattrick and Co. to strip out the always-online component and the used game restrictions—and, in the process, to put a bullet in the family sharing and disc-less play plans. The much-touted cloud computing system was derailed because developers could no longer count on an Internet connection. Games like Forza Motorsport 5, which were planned as always-online titles, suddenly needed to rethink that approach.
Loose ends and broken dreams
And with it went the Xbox One. What we’re left with now hardly resembles Microsoft’s vision, and that’s not a good thing.
There are loose ends all over the place—holes where planned features were ripped out wholesale. They’ve tried to turn the Xbox One into an Xbox 360 with better graphics, but the Xbox One was never intended to be an Xbox 360 with better graphics. It was intended to be...well, whatever Microsoft thought it was making with the Xbox One. “The savior of your living room,” or whatever—the idol to which your entire entertainment center must bow down before powering on.
Consoles change. Go take a look at the original Blades interface for the Xbox 360 compared to the Metro-style interface we ended up with at the end of the console’s lifecycle. Look at Perfect Dark Zero versus the best of last year’s crop of 360 games.
Narratives are harder to shift, though. Sony never recovered from its broken narrative in the last console generation. Sony came into the PlayStation 3 era arrogant, riding high on the PlayStation 2. Pricing its successor at $600 killed all of goodwill Sony enjoyed, and the Xbox 360 became the de facto standard for eight years, leaving the PlayStation 3 as “that console you use for Naughty Dog games.”
There’s a specter haunting Redmond. The Xbox One’s ghost will never go away. Even now, there are millions of early Xbox One adopters stuck with a high-priced peripheral they may not want. There are developers out there making Kinect games who suddenly realize Microsoft considers them disposable again. (Sorry, Harmonix.) There are untold others who still think the Xbox One has an always-online requirement, or who heard through the grapevine that the PlayStation 4 is the console to get. And why not? Sony gave you exactly the console it intended.
Could this last, monumental reversal be enough to put the Xbox One on people’s radar? With a couple of great games in the barrel, sure. E3 will be Microsoft’s proving grounds once again.
But there’s no vision here. Don’t mistake this for anything except a desperate attempt by Microsoft to put out the fire—a fire it started by dousing itself in kerosene and all but handing Sony a match.