Deep inside Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, WA, dozens of photographers stood beneath neon-green lasers to crowd around two bulletproof boxes. Inside were the new Xbox One game console and its updated controller and Kinect sensor, attracting DSLRs and GoPros like high-res honey.
The boxes appeared beyond the view of giant HD cameras, which had just broadcast an hour-long Xbox One reveal conference to an online audience of “millions.” Games were teased, projects were announced, and consoles—er, console—was named.
As expected, the anticipated event answered as many questions as it asked, revealing things like its Kinect sensor (updated!), its guts (RAM!), and its shape (TiVo!).But a lot was left unexplained, and the Redmond crowd of 200 journalists, designers, and producers from around the world filed out of Microsoft’s makeshift event tent to seek more answers around the Xbox campus.
With one exception. A small group held court precisely between the two bulletproof boxes to catch up. It was an elite little circle, full of high-ranking game makers and execs, and Electronic Arts COO Peter Moore asked 343 Industries executive producer Kiki Wolfkill, “What are you driving now, a Lexus?”
Other Microsoft employees were nearby, talking about high-end cars and “matte finishes” before Moore pulled out his iPhone and turned it horizontally so that an Aston Martin could fill the screen for all to see. “I’m on my third one.”
The rest of the day tried to sell us on the few bits Microsoft was ready to reveal so far: how the not-so-new controller feels, how Kinect 2.0 functions, how Xbox One will become more powerful over time. But this high-rollin’ car exchange proved the most telling.
With only an hour to spend on its conference broadcast, Microsoft focused that time on its target audience: young men. Not families, not kids or punky teens, and certainly not the inspired, artistic gaming fans that swooned over the first February tease of Sony’s PlayStation 4, which bent over backwards to assure small-fry designers and indie auteurs that this was their Station of Play.
Instead, Xbox One came out of the womb big and dumb: sports, cars, sports, Halo TV series, sports, Call of Duty. Update your fantasy sports team, then swipe your fingers to change the screen to a high-octane blockbuster film. As a gaming fan, I hated it. As a business-minded numbers guy, I got it. Sony’s tease event may have reached for the dreamers, but Microsoft placed the pre-ordering fanboy crowd in its Call of Duty crosshairs.
It’s not hard to find the archived press conference online already; you too can relive its awkward moments, like a cheeky intro video promising that “we’ll stop watching and start feeling… alive! Alive! Alive! Alive! Alive!”, or a Microsoft dev insisting that people love purchasing movie tickets on their TV screens while crowding out whatever movie they’re currently watching. Truly, the only thrill of attending that portion was sneaking a peek at the teleprompters (and beating the rest of the world to revealing the console’s new name by approximately 3 seconds).
Not to mention the lukewarm crowd; before the proceedings, a writer complained in line that “It’s gonna be a really hard sell to people, to tell them, hey, you need to buy this [new Xbox].” Afterward, one of many white men in nice suits approached another man, in dumpier get-up, to furiously shake his hand. “Did you have a good time? You did? I hope you did!” The nicely dressed man said that in the rapid-fire way that people do when they don’t really want to hear the answer to the question.
I was curious about another cross-section of reactions, so I, ahem, snuck into the Commons. That’s Microsoft’s enormous mall-slash-food court, and you can’t get in without someone buzzing their MS badge on your behalf. A gentleman gave me a glare, then said, “I guess you’re just getting food” before doing me the honors.
I could’ve gotten so much more, though! The Commons comes complete with a ski/bike supply shop, a credit union (now with its own Windows Phone 8 app!), a makeshift post office, four cell phone stores (hope you like Windows Phone 8!), and a jazz quartet playing smooth tunes for nobody in particular. I skipped all that and grabbed a slice of pizza—airy dough, weak sauce. I expected better. With sad taste buds, I sat at a second-story table and noticed the employees.
This was not a room of launch or announcement merriment, but of gaunt, overworked faces. Surely they weren’t all from the Xbox team, but they were all invested in its future (considering tie-ins from groups like Skype and the smartphone-friendly Smartglass feature). Just looked like Tuesday in here—another day to hate Greg from down the hall, another day to bitch about rushed schedules leading up to another Xbox One reveal coming up in only 20 days.
Technically, I could’ve waited for an official Xbox tour, which came within an hour of my sad pizza. Gaming celebs like Larry “Major Nelson” Hyrb and Eric “e” Neustadter showed off Xbox Live’s “NASA mission control” room where all worldwide gaming traffic is monitored at all hours. “This room has been running non-stop since the summer of 2002,” Neustadter said, other than the time the room’s special dedicated backup generators died during a Seattle snowstorm.
A former Air Force engineer named Bob Brown was kind enough to show off Xbox’s accessories labs, where dozens of Xbox One controller prototypes were being poked, prodded, shaken and thrown by robotic hands. Remembering that he was talking to so-called games journalists, he assured us that the office wasn’t all heartless robots; in order to be ready for “consumer-level” usage, he said, “we do the Cheeto test. We do the Pepsi test.” (Methinks he meant Doritos and Mountain Dew, but never mind.)
In Xbox’s model shop, three 3D printers crank out up to 20 tweaked prototype controller designs a day; the process is solid enough that those 3D prints can be assembled with circuit boards and used in games almost immediately. As for Kinect testing, the Xbox team has built an anechoic chamber, surrounded by at least three feet of fiberglass wedges at all sides, to isolate how Kinect responds to noise from any angle. (They also had replica “living rooms” across the street for real-world Kinect testing, but, well, that’s not as cool to stand in as a dead-silent anachoic chamber.)
The meatiest part of the tour came from what had been billed as “getting up close and personal via interactive experiences”… which didn’t sound too promising. But ho, an actual controller!
Microsoft finally let us touch the danged thing, and as my snack-loving pal Bob had pointed out, since the controller structurally stuck to Xbox 360's version, the designers could focus more on aesthetic tweaks. Specifically, this pad’s all smooth lines; no parting line, no screwholes, and a battery pack that unsticks by being turned 90 degrees. As someone who constantly sticks his fingernails into remote control crevices, I felt a little delighted by Xbox One’s OCD reprieve.
Otherwise, it was a predictably comfortable controller; it felt a little fatter in my hand without being bulkier or bigger, which reflected mostly in pressing down on the trigger buttons on its rear. It felt like they didn’t push as far down, which the designers said was thanks to how fingers now lay on that part.
Also, the thing came with a surprise! Microsoft put together a weird demo to show off its new “impulse trigger,” which adds separate, distinct rumbles to the top-left and top-right of the thing. The demo had no gameplay, but it sent rumbles through the Xbox One controller that simulated gaming events: car driving, riding in a helicopter, conjuring a spell in your hand, and so on. At its best, things like fluttering heartbeat pulses across the pad’s surface, and the distinct difference between a car’s motor rumble and its braking, felt awesome. Maybe not $300-600 awesome, but awesome all the same.
Also on hand was a requisite Kinect 2.0 demo. At its best, it proved that this Kinect won’t suffer from overly bright or overly dark rooms, thanks to a light-ignorant mode that benefits from a whopping 1080p camera. Also, once I had an opportunity to stand and dance in front of the thing, I got up to about 5 feet away from Kinect 2.0 and was still in the camera’s field of view. Well, it seemed like 5 feet. Microsoft always uses the largest damned living rooms to demo this stuff, but it definitely appeared kinder to smaller (read: real-life) living rooms.
Unfortunately, it’s Kinect, meaning it still suffers from a lag delay when processing your body and turning it into an in-game skeleton—the exact way most Xbox 360 Kinect games work. The lag isn’t nearly as blatant as 360's, certainly, but without a game experience to test the visible lag, it’s hard to say whether it’ll cramp my bowling score. Worth noting: I am a famed Kinect apologist, infinitely hopeful that its motion-sensing chops will some day truly turn me into a flailing Star Wars kid, and as such, I took my brief Kinect 2.0 opportunity to try some game-like maneuvers. The most crucial was faking a baseball swing, which Kinect 360 chokes on because it doesn’t offer a full-forward, skeleton-friendly pose. Kinect 2.0 seemed to better understand the sideways stance, but the on-screen avatar still glitched a noticeable amount, limbs eerily popping in and out of view. (Worse, Kinect 2.0’s still not smart enough to recognize that a person is turned all the way around, even in spite of a much higher-res infrared array that picks up all matter of fine clothing details.) “It’ll get better,” Microsoft reps insisted, just as they did with the first Kinect.
The demonstrator also keyed up a super-zoom on users’ faces, which then showed off monitors for a user’s mood—and even heart-rate—by picking up subtle signs in the face and neck. It struggled enough to identify whether the tester’s mouth was open or closed, though, so until someone tests the thing with a heart-rate monitor, consider the feature junk science.
And… that was it. Nothing at the event resembled a videogame in any way. We couldn’t interact with super-charged Xbox One apps like ESPN or NFL; we couldn’t even try out the “snap” features, which let users hold their hands up in the air to pinch apps into and out of the view.
We were kept a Kinect living room’s length away from the full experience, an intentional move to keep people hyped about the June E3 reveal-part-deux, but that meant the few details of the day carried that much more weight. I enjoyed a brief chat with a General Manager from Xbox’s Media and Entertainment Group, but by “enjoyed,” I mean “met someone very nice and charming,” not “received any useful information that illuminated what to expect from apps on Xbox One.” I asked her point-blank about the event’s focus on young males, as opposed to recent Xbox events that celebrated kids and the family; her responses were a coy, “Keep your eyes peeled” and “Look at what we have on offer for Xbox 360 already.”
That’s not good enough for a gaming fan like myself. Microsoft had an opportunity, particularly in post-conference interviews and tours, to remind us in the press about how this so-called “new generation” of video games can bring a wide audience together, but instead, they wasted a substantial amount of the day high-fiving the Cheeto/Pepsi/Call of Duty bros. Call it an official sales strategy, then: The Xbox One, or at least the little of it we know for now, is the One for bros.