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Xbox One: A Media/Gaming Console that Isn’t for Kids Anymore?

With its upcoming next-generation gaming console, the Xbox One, there’s no question Microsoft has endured another rough PR patch.

Xbox One: A Media/Gaming Console that Isn’t for Kids Anymore?

Jun 17, 2013 8:30 AM,
By Jason Bovberg

With its upcoming next-generation gaming console, the Xbox One, there’s no question Microsoft has endured another rough PR patch. At the recent Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) gaming conference, the new Xbox was thrashed by hardcore gamers for a number of reasons, including the new console’s online connectivity requirements, the default inclusion of the Kinect motion sensor, restrictions on used and shared games, and what those hardcore gamers perceived to be Orwellian features in both the console’s digital rights management (DRM) restrictions and the surveillance attributes of the aforementioned Kinect sensor.

Boy, the E3 crowd is an easily perturbed, paranoid bunch.

It would be gratifying to dismiss most of these high-maintenance gamers—similar to the way I might dismiss annoying, juvenile gamers during a death match on Xbox LIVE—but the unfortunate fact is that these pure gamers were the first audience introduced to the Xbox One, and their voices were the first to blast out into the wider world. And Sony, with its competing PlayStation 4, was only too happy to step into the fray and mollify the hysterical complaints with its more traditionally upgraded system.

“Traditionally upgraded system,” you ask? Yes, I think it’s pretty clear that Sony has gone the more expected route of next-generation console updating by simply pumping it up with more chip power, increased video and audio resolution, and an improved developer experience. The PlayStation 4 appears to be an excellent gaming device, and it’s no wonder it appeals to the E3 audience: It’s bigger and better, and more blazing than its predecessor. But it’s exactly what was expected: a beefier retread.

I’m not sure anyone should be surprised by the type of experience the Xbox One promises to deliver. Because the overall market is moving toward a more converged media experience, Microsoft is positioning the Xbox One as a living-room hub for not only online and physical media gaming but also streaming music and video, television, and home computing. Heck, the Xbox One’s intentions are evident right there in its new name—the “one” device that brings it all together. Microsoft’s new console will no longer be a competitor of just PlayStation 4 but more appropriately Apple TV, Google TV, and Roku. Microsoft’s thinking is easy to imagine: “Think of the built-in audience that we can bring to the all-in-one media experience! Millions of gamers will be buying an Xbox One anyway, and now we can introduce them to the consumer experience we’ve been building with Windows 8 and Windows Phone.”

Will that strategy work, particularly now that the company is at the epicenter of yet another PR disaster? Microsoft just cannot seem to properly communicate the benefits of its consumer products and services in the right way to the right audience. It has struggled recently with Windows, Windows Phone, and now with Xbox, its most successful consumer brand. This is a company that always seems to be fighting an uphill battle, trying to establish its place in the midst of a hostile marketplace. But there’s just no denying the fact that Microsoft has taken some big forward-thinking leaps over the past year, and many of these leaps are misunderstood.

A lot of that has to do with the cloud and the age of digital media in general. With its new OS, Windows 8, and the latest version of its office productivity suite, Office 2013, Microsoft has made a clear reach for the cloud, emphasizing the importance of its SkyDrive and Windows Azure solutions. Cloud interconnectivity and a seamless experience are a reality between Windows 8 devices, Windows Phones, and now the Xbox One. Whereas the PlayStation 4 is still locked into a physical, disk-based gaming, the Xbox One has embraced that new era of online computing and sharing.

Clearly, a lot of people have reacted strongly since the E3 conference, but I wonder how regular users will respond in the longer term. Yes, I can already see that the hysterics coming out of E3 have colored media reports and thus a portion of the wider public, and anti-Microsoft sentiment is fairly strong these days, thanks again to the company’s inability to communicate a strong message.

To me, that message might be right there in my title. Perhaps what Microsoft is trying to do is move away from the adolescent aura of gaming and into the more mature arena of digital media—or, at least, evolve into a device that doesn’t just provide a place for anonymous brats to “pwn” one another but also creates a rich, layered, flowing entertainment/education experience for kids and adults alike.

As I mentioned, many of the initial complaints about the Xbox One come from a place of misunderstanding. In my eyes, the DRM controversy is muted when you see that it will let you log on anywhere, from any device, to play your games and enjoy your other media experiences. You’ll either sign on remotely, or Xbox One will do it for you automatically at night (the reason for the need for Internet check-in.) Plus, in this day and age, we should all be accustomed to the online all the time necessity: We do it with our phones already. And I don’t think DRM is the evil that those hardcore gamers pretend it is. For years, piracy has been affecting developers’ incentives to make games. Microsoft is taking a standardized approach, tackling it upfront, whereas Sony will have to deal with it at some point—probably in a more confused, chaotic way.

All of this feeds into Microsoft’s goal to be in the center of the living room. Like many other companies (Apple and Google), it wants to establish that kind of ecosystem—games, movies, music, AV, and telephony—on the big and small screens. The Xbox isn’t just about games on disc anymore.

But how many of Xbox’s current fans want that kind of converged experience?

I know I do, but of course I’ve been a fan of Microsoft’s new ecosystem from the start. The company’s Windows 8 OS, to me, is an excellent touch-based experience (although it’s admittedly pretty lousy on non-touch devices, which glutted the market at Windows 8 release time), and it extends almost seamlessly to my Windows Phone 8-based Nokia Lumia 928, thanks to SkyDrive. On my Surface Pro device and my phone, the Xbox Smartglass application is just waiting for my new Xbox One to complete the living-room picture. I’m no doubt the ideal customer in Microsoft’s mind, but conversely, Microsoft is also finally realizing an ideal experience for users like me who have been waiting too long for that kind of tech convergence. My home office and media room were already outfitted with Microsoft technology—in the form of my family Windows 7 PC and my Xbox 360. Now, the next-generation versions of those devices will offer an unprecedented level of mobility and communication.

An exasperated Microsoft engineer recently took to the blogosphere to defend his company’s policies against all this misunderstanding. His first point? “The thing is, we suck at telling the story.”

That’s all too true, and in an age of juvenile political bickering and anonymous venom-spewing all across the web, if you “suck” at communicating a message, you can doom yourself to failure, even if excellent, forward-leaning products are coming out your ears.

That Microsoft engineer had some very interesting closing thoughts in his diatribe. He said that Microsoft is trying to find a balance between consumer delight and publisher wishes. If the company caves too far in either direction, it ends up with a non-starting product. The Nintendo Wii U goes too far in the consumer direction, with little to no third-party support. The PlayStation 4 is all about status quo. Xbox One is trying to push some things, at the expense of others. It has vision. “Honestly,” he finished, “if you care about anything other than pure games at all, then Xbox One is greater than PlayStation 4. If all you do is play games, and nothing else, then go with PlayStation 4.”

For me, the choice is clear.

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