As we head into E3 this year, it’s easy to remember how different things were back in 2013, when both the Xbox One and PS4 had been announced, but there were still many questions about each system ahead of the event.
The dueling press conferences during the show from Microsoft and Sony made for one of the E3′s most memorable years. In Microsoft’s event, it was clear that the Xbox One still had confusing used game polices as it did when it was revealed months earlier, heavily pushing consumers toward digital consumption. The One also still required an internet connection to check in with Microsoft once a day, and the Kinect was promoted as an absolutely essential part of the console. The Xbox One arrived with all these problematic issues, and a final price of $500, perhaps the biggest unwelcome surprise of all.
Sony seized the moment, using their conference to unequivocally state that the PS4 would function almost exactly as the PS3 before it. Game discs worked both new and used, with no restrictions. The PS4 would function properly even if disconnected from the internet for more than a day. Both announcements brought raucous cheers from the live audience, but the crowning moment of the conference was the reveal of the price. The PS4 would be $400, a full $100 cheaper than the Xbox One.
The only word to describe the turn of events for Microsoft was “humiliating.” The company was forced backpedal all throughout the show, with then-Xbox chief Don Mattrick (pictured) telling fans and journalists that they had an offline console if people wanted to buy it, the Xbox 360.
Naturally, that pitch didn’t go over well, and Microsoft went on to reverse nearly all of its controversial policies mere weeks after the event. They eliminated the disc restrictions and online check-in requirements that had gotten fans upset enough to say they widely preferred the PS4 to the One in post-E3 polling.
Now, a year later, Microsoft has finally put the last piece of the puzzle in place, divorcing the Xbox One from the formerly required Kinect, cutting $100 from the price while freeing up usable power in the process for developers. That $400, console-only SKU launches tomorrow, June 9th, the same day as their E3 press conference.
With Microsoft’s going first again this year (their event is at 12:30 PM PT, with Sony’s at 6:00 PM), the question is, have they learned their lesson?
Out of the “big three” tomorrow, it’s probably hardest to read Microsoft’s game plan at this point. Sony will obviously reserve a big slice of time to debut Project Morpheus to the public. Nintendo at the very least will have a new Zelda game to brag about, but may surprise us all with announcements for future hardware, or the reveal of their mysterious “quality of life” tech.
But what will Microsoft show? What should they show, in order to redeem themselves from their infamous performance last year? And what should they avoid?
Microsoft is in a very awkward position with Kinect now, and it’s hard to envision what role the peripheral will play in their event. In previous years it’s been an essential part of the show, and their most technologically advanced demo in terms of how they’re “moving gaming and entertainment forward.”
That’s not really an argument that can be made anymore, however. While the Kinect may have a loyal, niche fanbase, the 2.0 version yoked to the Xbox One is now widely regarded as a mistake, whether Microsoft can say that outright or not. As I argued when the separation was announced, the technology, for all its potential, was never ready for prime time. Voice and gesture controls that work only 70-80% of the time leads to frustration among users, and neither Microsoft nor its developer partners have ever made a convincing case that that Kinect has worthwhile gaming applications outside of dance and fitness titles.
I understand why Microsoft didn’t announced the price cut and Kinect unbundling during the show. It’s not really a proud moment for them, and not something you really want to hear greeted with cheers. But I also don’t think it would be wise for them to bend over backwards explaining why it is that this is just great news for the peripheral and that they’re thrilled with how it’s performed and been received. There’s no way to say that without it ringing completely hollow.
The only way the Kinect should be prominently featured is if Microsoft debuts some new grand piece of technology that requires the peripheral. My thought has always been that if Microsoft did want to hop into the VR ring with Facebook’s Oculus and Sony’s Morpheus, the Kinect being able to sense a player’s body in addition to the typical headset would give them a leg up on their competition. But in this age of constant leaks, there have been no rumors to that effect, and as such, an announcement like that would be pretty shocking.
To Microsoft’s credit, they have put their nose the grindstone and churned out nearly every change to the Xbox One that their fans have requested over the course of the past year. From the major items like used games, always-on and now the Kinect and the price, to minor ones like real-name ID, external storage support and entertainment apps being moved outside the Xbox Live Gold paywall. But now I have to wonder what’s left for them to announce on stage, outside of exclusive IPs and some new apps, if not some big new piece of tech.
My theory is that Microsoft will try to play it safe this year, avoiding controversy in an attempt to live down what took place in 2013. That means lots of Halo 5 footage, maybe some cool exclusive sequels like a new Gears of War for Xbox One, maybe something unexpected like a new Crackdown or an old Rare property brought back to life. Hopefully some promising new IPs. I’m desperately hoping they don’t devote a quarter or more of their event to Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, but that seems rather inevitable given the fact that they always treat COD like an exclusive.
Is that enough, however? I worry about the Xbox One’s positioning going forward if they really don’t have any huge surprises on deck. They’ve finally caught up with the PS4 in terms of features and price, but now Sony is moving forward with Morpheus. Nintendo (despite obvious, looming problems) is riding a wave of good headlines from Mario Kart 8 and has the power to have a successful event (live or otherwise) based on the right combination of franchise sequels. I’m not sure Microsoft has that same power with just Halo 5 (which isn’t a surprise at all) or even a theoretical new Gears game. And those are without question its two biggest exclusive series.
Microsoft has served their sentence. They’ve “fixed” the Xbox One into more or less the system fans wanted, but I worry now that they may be too afraid to try anything all that new and radical, lest they risk another revolt. I hope I’m proven wrong and there is something huge they’re hiding, but I think they’re going to need more than 20 minutes of Halo 5 footage and a few exclusive announcements to stand out this year. And given how the Xbox One has been trailing the PS4 specifically, they need something that’s going to get people talking as much as Sony’s Project Morpheus. Let’s hope that happens, and that we’ll never see them suffer through another year like 2013 again.
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