If fans and the press talked about Microsoft and Sony like American political parties, then the Xbox One would be labeled this election season’s John Kerry, flip-flopping all over the next-gen gaming landscape. The lack of cohesive direction started with the original plan to require systems to be always online and potentially block the sale of used games, but Microsoft reversed itself in the face of public outcry.
The Kinect sensor was originally intended to be connected to any Xbox One system at all times, but that requirement was eventually, and thankfully, removed. Headsets weren’t initially supposed to come in the console’s box, but that also changed.
Even a simple, sensible path to publishing indie games didn’t exist as the console accelerated ahead of launch, and the indie game program didn’t see a substantial launch until ID@Xbox’s full reveal in March. (The best offering of that series so far, Super Time Forcedebuted today.)
This week we’ve seen two other sacred cows of the Xbox division slaughtered: media apps no longer have to live behind an Xbox Live Gold paywall, and more importantly, the Xbox One is no longer “built around the Kinect”. included in every box. Both are welcome changes and bring the Xbox One up to price parity with its great rival, the PlayStation 4. I fully believe they have put Microsoft back on track to compete in the next-gen gaming market. But before I argue on behalf of Redmond, please forgive me for a small moment or two for laughing at Kinect’s apparent funeral.
Recovering from “thousands of hours”
Kinect was the annoying, rightful child of the Xbox division. For starters, it has sucked up resources in more ways than one. According to Xbox chief Phil Spencer, “thousands of hours of engineering” went into Kinect to get it to where it is today; that’s a lot of time that could have been spent elsewhere. The console also took a performance hit, thanks to its supporting microphone and camera features.
Worst of all, the Kinect continued to be propped up and excused, as the snooty offspring of a rich man lined up to take over a car dealership, as something worth paying a higher price for. to connect. After Kinect for Xbox 360 was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to impose a significant, game-killing lag on its motion detection, Microsoft began hinting at its successor’s higher fidelity and speed.
But when it came down to preview events, Kinect for Xbox One continued to disappoint. All talk of higher bus speeds and higher resolution cameras fell into proof-of-concept demos, most notably one I personally tested at Microsoft’s Redmond campus, where players could control a combative robot in a series of Tron-like hallways. Lunges, arm waves, and more continued to suffer from noticeable lag, similar to the best Kinect action games, and Microsoft representatives had the guts to say that “development is still in progress.” That shouldn’t have excused a project iterated since Kinect’s retail debut in 2010.
Why haven’t developers rushed to release motion-controlled Kinect games in large numbers, now that the sensor comes with every console? Honestly, I suspect every developer knows that the sensor isn’t enough. That’s the same reason why Microsoft’s demos always focused on voice rather than hand waving as a means of controlling the system interface. In my months of using Xbox One, I’ve found repeatedly that the newer Kinect’s handheld navigation system is generally less accurate than the Xbox 360’s.
The only advantage the new Kinect has over the old Kinect, which is a high-resolution camera to recognize details like fingers, has yet to see an actual, testable application in games or the system dashboard. It’s possible that Microsoft might dump some impressive Kinect games onto the E3 show floor in early June, but this week’s announcement suggests there’s no great Kinect-powered software waiting in the wings.
Parity in all respects?
With that gal out of the way, I want to applaud Microsoft for disinheriting the cocky, undeserving boy. I’ve seen bureaucracy and inaction at Microsoft kill deserving projects and prolong stupid projects in equal parts, which is why I believe this flip is far from a flop.
It’s easy to fly fanboy flags and jump to some simple conclusions about Microsoft’s place in the next-gen console wars. Microsoft’s system is slightly less powerful than Sony’s. The online store has fewer indie games than Sony’s. Hardware sales are slower than Sony’s.
For all the factors pointing to Microsoft’s early console shortage, however, at the end of the day, neither system has a lot in the way of exclusive games that prove at a glance that “my system is the better system”.
So far, Sony’s best AAA offerings on PS4 include a gorgeous but uninspiring kill zone continued, a leg-there-done-that infamous sequel, and a barely better than PS3 sequel to MLB the show. Microsoft’s AAA exclusives aren’t much better: gorgeous but thin Forza Motorsport sequel, a fun, graphically disappointing one Rising dead sequel, and the Ars-loved, online-only shooter action of Fall of the Titans. I’m in favor of Microsoft’s current list of exclusives, but I don’t blame anyone for getting in the way of Sony.
So we don’t have any of the next generation contenders as a clear winner in exclusive content so far, nor is any one system amazingly more powerful. That’s great news for the system that’s currently lagging – and I mean Xbox One, not the dead-end Wii U. Microsoft knows this, because this week’s announcements aren’t the stuff of Sega Saturn-level desperation.
Instead, Microsoft is using a pre-E3 announcement to remove all trash from the dinner table. Xbox’s price is now the same, and so is the subscription service which now mainly offers bonuses and premiums, rather than just expected access to media streaming. That only makes sense if Microsoft has a feast in store for E3 – and obviously Sony is in a good position to spoil the party with its own exclusive products and franchises (although it’s worth noting that the recent departure of Naughty Dog’s staff each The last of us or Not charted follow-up announcements).
Either way, Microsoft has shed as much distraction and unnecessary clutter as possible for the real test: the second Christmas season, which often predicts the long-term winner in the battle for next-gen console sales.
While it’s fun to indulge in the gloating of Microsoft’s repeated weaknesses and reversals, the company has managed to refocus on potential competitive parity. I’m going to make some popcorn and save myself a prime seat for this year’s E3. This is gonna be fun.