What Matters About the Xbox One?

When it comes to Microsoft’s next-gen reveal, maybe indifference is best

Four percent. That’s how much of Microsoft’s operating profits come from their gaming division.
Think about that for a second. Since launching in 2005, Microsoft has sold over 76 million units, Red Rings and all, of its current-gen Xbox 360. Over 48 million players dutifully subscribe to Xbox Live every year, and it enjoys a fair deal more online success than merely serving as an over-glorified player for Netflix and Hulu.

Similarly, ask almost any console gamer out there for their gamertag and you’ll probably get an answer faster than you would if you’d inquired about the Playstation Network – the prospect of Call of Duty multiplayer firefights over PSN is a bit closer to shooting up ghost towns by comparison. Some among the nerdiest of us have even accepted “Achievement Unlocked” as a phrase in the day-to-day cultural lexicon when talking about accomplishments (though the number that might actually cop to using is probably significantly smaller).

All told, it’s pretty hard to argue that the 360, in all its iterative and peripheral forms, hasn’t been the most popular (and maybe most revelatory) product to come out of Microsoft’s Redmond campus in years, so it’s incongruously funny that gaming makes up such a small percentage of their corporate coffers. Where does that leave the newly announced next-gen Xbox One?

Oh yeah, and plenty of football.

Earlier this week, Microsoft seemed to give their knee-jerk answer to that question. In a somewhat incoherent show of force, they tunneled the sleek new console’s tech focus towards features like cable box and cloud-storage integration, as well as instantaneous smartphone-esque multitasking, with motion control and voice commands via a vastly improved Kinect 2.0.

That you could (and I’m paraphrasing here) “watch TV and play videogames at the same time!” was only one sentiment excited executives proclaimed to the world, matching the general tone of the console’s official unveiling. Meanwhile, the handful of actual next-gen game reveals that appeared outside of the questionably dog-friendly Call of Duty: Ghosts felt a bit sidelined.

A lot of industry peers covering the event cried foul, suddenly concerned that this Trojan horse piece of hardware wasn’t really doing much to cater to, y’know, people that actually play videogames. It’s not an unexpected reaction – in the ouroboric echo chamber that so often comprises a typical day in game journalism, the painful truth that we can’t seem to escape a bit of drama breaking out over something is pretty close to universal.

But consider Microsoft’s long-standing fiscal MO. If MS pulled the veil from the Xbox One with an assumed eye on set-top box entertainment over gaming proper, that’s because it’s a natural extension of their bottom line. We’re talking about a company whose majority profit share comes from the proliferation of Windows, from PCs to servers to the OS itself, proprietary productivity software notwithstanding. The “new” tack Ballmer and co. took at the announcement presser should be neither surprising nor particularly egregious.

Look at Xbox One’s interface – it combines the 360’s dashboard with pinch-and-swipe functionality of Windows 8. As consumer tech continues its push toward the sci-fi holy trinity of fully interactive 3D augmented reality, universal inter-device communication and incomprehensibly vast fiber-driven cloud matrices, why wouldn’t MS try to fold their gaming division into broader technological goals? This new console just embraces an increasingly intangible methodology we’ve adapted to interact with information.

The most telling corroboration here is in how Microsoft seems to be content to simply let the 360 fade into the sunset. Xbox One isn’t backwards compatible with the current console’s library of games, which isn’t exactly shocking given the amount of money hardware developers say it takes to maintain chipset compatibility versus the return on said investment.

The bigger perceived slight is that MS execs have stated they currently have absolutely no plans to support any kind of current-gen library re-release, or even to in part reimburse players who’ve spent the last nearly eight years buying digital-only 360 titles for Xbox Live Arcade.

Windows 8. Looks familiar, huh?

Tough shit, seems to be the message the company is touting to the millions afflicted. Your only recourse is to keep your 360 handy, likely to collect dust with however many other generations of now-dead gaming hardware.

“If you’re backwards compatible, you’re really backwards,” Microsoft’s head of interactive entertainment business Don Mattrick told the Wall Street Journal in a story timed with the Xbox One’s big day. (Mattrick also said the lack of 360-compatibility wasn’t really a big deal, explaining only about five percent of players tend to play past-generation games on a new console.)

Though seemingly bypassing so-called core gamers by first catering to a different market demographic – the affluent 30-something Men’s Health-reading bro who cares as much about living-room-tech-as-status-indicator as he does about the new Xbox’s deal with the NFL to support a suite of simultaneous console-exclusive live broadcast features – certainly speaks to where MS’ priorities appear to center, it’s hardly out of step with the ephemeral nature of evolutionary technology.

Your smartphone starts its death march toward obsolescence as soon as it’s activated. In a few months that new tablet will be replaced with a newer, trimmer model with a better screen, a faster processor and improved capabilities. And the wall-mount 4K 1080p tv you just bought? Manufacturing engineers are already hard at work on an iteration that makes it hopelessly out of date.

In one of the many articles I came across in my research, a commenter took issue with Microsoft’s 360-abandonment policy. “What happens in 12 years when another new Xbox is announced?” they asked. “Will it be able to play my Xbox One discs?”

Ohp it’s already out of date.

That doesn’t matter. The more we existentially digitize and upload our lives onto Google Drive and iCloud and whatever else, the more the concrete foundations of media forms erode. Like or it or not, at this point it’s almost inevitable that physical media forms as we know them may not even exist in 12 years. The impermanence of modern gadgetry is non-negotiable. (And maybe by leaving the 360 out in the cold, the implication is that at some point enough accumulation is enough.)

What this boils down to is a fundamental difference in business models. Unlike its competition, Xbox One is looking at games first and foremost as a business. The signs have arguably been visible all along: the gradual decline of indie support through XBLA (MS isn’t allowing indie developers to self-publish on their new console, either), the constant pushback emphasis of social gaming through Xbox Live over more artful uses of the medium, the incremental escalation of ads and commercial stakes crowding the 360’s dashboard real estate.

It’s the difference between Journey and Candy Crush Saga– games-as-art, so to speak, versus a more straightforward form of commerce. There are some things I like about the Xbox One. Individual trigger vibrations are a neat little flourish, the scanning tech working in the new Kinect’s totally overhauled guts is impressive and the notion of developers offloading in-game data to Microsoft’s cloud, freeing up the CPU for even greater polish is an interesting concept, even if it basically all but precludes a reality without the requirement of an almost-always-online connection.

There are some weirdly unsettling elements to MS’ approach too – namely the Big Brother-y always-on Kinect camera (oh the potential legal entanglements therein!) and how the system won’t let friends borrow Xbox One games due to a convoluted licensing issue that ties permission to play a game to your own XBL profile. What salve Microsoft is planning to offer any alienated 360 core remains to be seen. No matter what, it’s a paper chase.

Despite its mechanical innovations, I don’t necessarily see the Xbox One as especially forward thinking for videogames’ overall progression as a medium. At least thus far. If you’re more interested in pushing the boundaries of innovative design and storytelling, you may not view the console as anything more than a crass commercial cash-in.

The future of videogames: dogs.

That’s fine. Microsoft isn’t stupid enough to not have an arsenal of more gamer-centric announcements planned for next month’s E3 – whatever its financial mores, there’s no way Xbox One will completely desert the 360’s longtime loyal fanbase in its offerings. It’s possible that, between MS’ would-be strategic corporatism and Sony’s supposedly it’s-ok-to-be-offline, indie-loving stance, the line in the sand over how best to vie for the gaming dollar has already been drawn.

Either way, your detachment is optional.