Gamers to Microsoft: We don't need no stinking ecosystem in our living room

xbox one e3 2014 e3 2014

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In its day, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 was the life of the living room, the guy that brought the wings and beer on game day. But then the Xbox One began showing up—the weird guy who passed out tofu dogs and insisted on holding the remote.

On Monday, Microsoft took the Xbox One, surrounded it with cool new friends, and carefully avoided mentioning any of the interactive services that the Xbox One originally launched with. Phil Spencer, the company’s Xbox chief, made it clear that the company’s E3 keynote in Los Angeles would be about three things: games, games, games. (It’s a lesson Sony learned, too—check out the PS4 exclusives it announced at the show.)

“Our goal is to make Xbox One the best place to play games this generation,” Spencer said.

xbox one spencer 2 e3 2014

Unlike the Xbox One launch, Microsoft and Phil Spencer did not show a single second of “Family Feud”.

It hasn’t been. Microsoft’s Xbox One launched strongly enough, selling 2 million Xbox One consoles in 18 days. But over time, the console’s $499 price tag—$100 more than the competing PlayStation 4—turned into a boat anchor. And the services that Microsoft built into the One—Internet Explorer and Skype, to name two—apparently haven’t been as well-received as Microsoft hoped.

And that, quite frankly, is somewhat surprising. In a world busily erasing the lines between notebooks, tablets, and smartphones, the living room still stands alone, and aggressively so. Yes, video services like Netflix are holding the door open for video streamers like Roku to slip in. But if Microsoft can’t right the ship, the Xbox One would be another example of a device—remember Google TV?—that tried and failed to supplement the cable box.

Too many cupholders

If there’s any magic recipe for success in the living room, it can be found in the last generation of consoles. Quick—did you know that Sony’s PlayStation 3 can surf the Web?Maybe, if you own one. But even if you do, you wouldn’t think to even open its Web browser—you have a phone nearby for that. Meanwhile, the PS3 played to its strengths: games, arguably the best Blu-ray player of any device, and apps connecting users to Netflix and Sony’s own music and video stores.

About the only reason that Microsoft’s Xbox 360 outsold the PS3 was its extensive lineup of exclusive games, complete with the Halo series, Gears of War, and Fable, among others. Now, it appears that the pendulum is swinging back Sony’s way.

microsoft don mattrick xbox one launch sad

Poor Don Mattrick. If only the Xbox had succeeded, he wouldn’t have to work at Zynga.

Microsoft seemingly forgot that lesson when designing the One. Gamers started glancing at one another during the Xbox One launch, when Don Mattrick, now chief executive of Zynga, began uttering phrases like “harmonizing your experiences” in the living room and “building the future of interactive entertainment”. Gamers wanted to hear the magic word, “games,” and to hear it over and over.

With the Xbox One, Microsoft tried to extend its ecosystem from the home office PC to the living room. But the One struggled on a number of fronts: its integrated Kinect controller worked only somewhat effectively; it broke compatibility with the Xbox 360; Microsoft charged $100 more than the PS4, and an additional $60 more for access to services like Netflix and multiplayer gaming; there was that used-game fiasco; and so on. Microsoft arguably made the One too many things for too many people, instead of satisfying its core audience of gamers.

Get your ecosystem out of my living room

Since then, Microsoft has quickly backpedaled, scattering mea culpas left and right. Most recently, it moved many entertainment services outside the Xbox Live Gold tier.

”On behalf of the entire Xbox team, I want to personally thank you: the millions of Xbox owners around the world,” Spencer said at E3. “We’ve been humbled and amazed by all of your comments, ideas, tweets, but most importantly, your support. Your feedback showed up in the console we launched last November, and in the monthly updates we’ve delivered since. You are shaping the future of Xbox, and we are better for it.”

xbox one sunset overdrive 4 e3 2014

Microsoft is banking on new games like “Sunset Overdrive” to help lure gamers back to the fold.

If you compare the Xbox One to Google TV, as I did, it succeeds. But as a game console, it’s clearly struggling. Even Microsoft’s E3 surprises weren’t surprising.

Again, it’s not that easy to point out a single flaw in the Xbox One that can be named as the culprit for its lack of success. But it’s worth pointing out that so far, the two companies who have aggressively tried to push their ecosystems of software and services into the living room—Google and Microsoft—have been punished by poor sales. Sony may have a line of smartphones, but the PlayStation line hasn’t tried to do too much.

Well, not until Monday evening. Sony began building out its mobile gaming platform with the launch of the PlayStation Vita in 2012, but the ties between the PlayStation consoles and the Vita have remained tenuous. But with a slew of hardware and services announcements at E3, including the “Project Morpheus” VR gear; PlayStation TV; PlayStation 4 Remote Play, which allows you to stream games from a PS4 to a Vita; and the PlayStation Now cloud gaming service—well, Sony’s creating its own little ecosystem, too. What’s different is that Sony’s efforts are designed for gaming, with a secondary focus on digital entertainment. 

sony playstationtv

Sony came out swinging in its own E3 presentation.

Microsoft getting back on track?

Perhaps the most important step that Microsoft has made was its recent announcement that it would hand back the graphical horsepower set aside for Kinect and allow developers to use it for their own games. The loudest cheers heard at Microsoft’s speech came when executives announced games running at full 1080p resolution, and at 60 frames per second. That will help erase the Xbox One’s reputation as a relative lightweight, graphically speaking—until 4K TVs become commonplace, that is.

We expect PCs to do just about everything. Smartphones, too. But history is telling us that once we get home, kick off our shoes, and sink back into the sofa cushions we’re done fiddling about. We want to watch a movie, or play a game, and we want to do it, now. I've wondered before whether Xbox gamers really want to be accessible via Skype, so that their boss can reach them at 10 o'clock at night. Maybe enough is enough.

That’s not to say that a multipurpose console like the One can’t succeed. It’s just that Microsoft’s competition may not be just Sony, or Nintendo. Instead, it may be Sony, and Roku, and a smartphone—and Microsoft may face a bloody fight on each and every front.

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