An event as unprecedented as the Xbox 180 is, almost by definition, a fascinating thing to behold. A conflux of consumer anger, PR shenanigans, and general bombastic behavior from pretty much everyone involved turned the announcement of yet another new console generation into…something else entirely. Yet, for my money, I think the most fascinating thing in all this is not Microsoft reversing its policy in the face of backlash, but the new backlash against the original backlash in the face of the reversal.
Along with removing the online requirements and used game policy, Microsoft also confirmed that, “Downloaded titles cannot be shared or resold. Also, similar to today, playing disc based games will require that the disc be in the tray.” Some people, it seems, were looking forward to these features and others that are now almost certainly non-starters at Microsoft. For example, Cliff Bleszinski’s infamous tweets on the subject, accusing the gaming community of collective narcissism. A blog post from a Microsoft Dev team member sounds almost heartbroken.
The arguments they make are straightforward: “Used Games are making games unaffordable.” “The features are great but Microsoft has a problem expressing them.” “We accept these same restrictions on Steam anyways.” The first point is part of a larger issue, depending on how much of a blight used games really are, so let us set it aside for smarter people than me to think about. Regarding the PR issue, I absolutely agree that Microsoft failed to explain themselves. If Microsoft a clearer idea of what benefit these features would have for the end user, and expressed it consistently and simply, I have little doubt the proposed features would still be shipping with the Xbox One. However, the fact that they had such difficulty explaining why any consumer would want it is concerning in itself. With multiple confusing and conflicting reports about what the software actually was, it’s impossible to really say that the benefits would have outweighed the restrictions.
To talk about the last point, I’d like to point you to this post, which probably has the most concise and interesting argument for why Microsoft should have held fast. It begins with an apocryphal quote by Henry Ford, who says “If I had asked what my customers wanted, they would have said they wanted a faster horse.” Are gamers lacking imagination and scared of change? Maybe. But Microsoft still blundered. If they had a vision of the future in the Xbox One, they failed entirely because they refused to see why anyone might not want to join in.
Consider Steam, another service that has changed the way many of us buy and manage our games. Whenever companies try to emulate steam, such as Microsoft and Electronic Arts, they appear to forget that Steam was not built in a day. When it first launched along with Half Life 2, it was buggy, had an online requirement, and lacked the sales and community options that make the service so attractive today. With Microsoft, and to a lesser extent EA’s Origin, platform, the solution appears to be forcing gamers to use the new tech if they want to use your product. Take away choice, they say, and drag gamers into the future kicking and screaming.
Valve didn’t have the resources to force gamers to use Steam like that—or if they did they largely resisted the impulse. Instead they slowly iterated the design, removed bad ideas, and added new, good ones. Steam existed and continues to exist alongside all sorts of viable alternatives such as GOG.com or your local retailer. Steam became huge and revolutionary not because gamers were forced to use it, but because it had become useful to so many that the benefits were self-evident. Steam earned it’s users by simply being better than the competition.
The Xbox One had interesting and potentially fruitful ideas, but if it was a car among horses, it was still an early Model-T, driving on horse-and-cart paths. Cars would be the future, but they had considerable negatives and were simply not for everyone right away. Perhaps this is what Microsoft had in mind when they said “We have a product for people who don’t want to buy the Xbox One (cars) and it’s called the 360 (horses.)” If this were a straight metaphor, maybe this type of comment would fly.
But it’s not, and technology marches on. There is an alternative to the Xbox One that isn’t based on 7-year-old tech, and Sony is selling it. Sony may be offering a faster horse, but if Microsoft will only sell you a car if you trust them enough to kill your own horse. It’s one thing to ask people to try new things, but entirely different to demand of them absolute loyalty—especially when the good is so abstract and the bad is so readily apparent. A far better solution would have been to integrate some of these features some of the time. Even something as simple as an Opt-Out could have stopped this. Even if it’s terrible at the start, a console generation of iteration could have certainly made any well intentioned service all but mandatory on any console released 6-7 years from now.
I wish Microsoft had not given up on their idea, though I would not have bought one myself. I wish they released it, I wish it had failed, and I wish they took that as a challenge to make it better. I wish that, in E3 of 2017, Sony begrudgingly announced their own version of these features and we all felt the richer for it. There are good ideas attached to the Xbox One that I wish could see the light of day, but they’re tied inexorably to problematic implementation and a figurative gun to your head. A day will come when someone creates a new platform that changes the way we buy games, but if you think you can bring me there by sheer force, then I think I’ll just take my horse and leave.