In its day, Microsofts Xbox 360 was the life of the living room, the guy that brought the wings and beer on game day. But then the Xbox One began showing upthe weird guy who passed out tofu dogs and insisted on holding the remote.
On Monday, Microsoft took the Xbox One, surrounded it with cool new friends, and carefully avoided mentioning any of the interactive services that the Xbox One originally launched with. Phil Spencer, the companys Xbox chief, made it clear that the companys E3 keynote in Los Angeles would be about three things: games, games, games. (Its a lesson Sony learned, toocheck out the PS4 exclusives it announced at the show.)
Our goal is to make Xbox One the best place to play games this generation, Spencer said.
It hasnt been. Microsofts Xbox One launched strongly enough, selling 2 million Xbox One consoles in 18 days. But over time, the consoles $499 price tag$100 more than the competing PlayStation 4turned into a boat anchor. And the services that Microsoft built into the OneInternet Explorer and Skype, to name twoapparently havent been as well-received as Microsoft hoped.
And that, quite frankly, is somewhat surprising. In a world busily erasing the lines between notebooks, tablets, and smartphones, the living room still stands alone, and aggressively so. Yes, video services like Netflix are holding the door open for video streamers like Roku to slip in. But if Microsoft cant right the ship, the Xbox One would be another example of a deviceremember Google TV?that tried and failed to supplement the cable box.
Too many cupholders
If theres any magic recipe for success in the living room, it can be found in the last generation of consoles. Quickdid you know that Sonys PlayStation 3 can surf the Web?Maybe, if you own one. But even if you do, you wouldnt think to even open its Web browseryou have a phone nearby for that. Meanwhile, the PS3 played to its strengths: games, arguably the best Blu-ray player of any device, and apps connecting users to Netflix and Sonys own music and video stores.
About the only reason that Microsofts Xbox 360 outsold the PS3 was its extensive lineup of exclusive games, complete with the Halo series, Gears of War, and Fable, among others. Now, it appears that the pendulum is swinging back Sonys way.
Microsoft seemingly forgot that lesson when designing the One. Gamers started glancing at one another during the Xbox One launch, when Don Mattrick, now chief executive of Zynga, began uttering phrases like harmonizing your experiences in the living room and building the future of interactive entertainment. Gamers wanted to hear the magic word, games, and to hear it over and over.
With the Xbox One, Microsoft tried to extend its ecosystem from the home office PC to the living room. But the One struggled on a number of fronts: its integrated Kinect controller worked only somewhat effectively; it broke compatibility with the Xbox 360; Microsoft charged $100 more than the PS4, and an additional $60 more for access to services like Netflix and multiplayer gaming; there was that used-game fiasco; and so on. Microsoft arguably made the One too many things for too many people, instead of satisfying its core audience of gamers.
Get your ecosystem out of my living room
Since then, Microsoft has quickly backpedaled, scattering mea culpas left and right. Most recently, it moved many entertainment services outside the Xbox Live Gold tier.
On behalf of the entire Xbox team, I want to personally thank you: the millions of Xbox owners around the world, Spencer said at E3. Weve been humbled and amazed by all of your comments, ideas, tweets, but most importantly, your support. Your feedback showed up in the console we launched last November, and in the monthly updates weve delivered since. You are shaping the future of Xbox, and we are better for it.
If you compare the Xbox One to Google TV, as I did, it succeeds. But as a game console, its clearly struggling. Even Microsofts E3 surprises werent surprising.
Again, its not that easy to point out a single flaw in the Xbox One that can be named as the culprit for its lack of success. But its worth pointing out that so far, the two companies who have aggressively tried to push their ecosystems of software and services into the living roomGoogle and Microsofthave been punished by poor sales. Sony may have a line of smartphones, but the PlayStation line hasnt tried to do too much.
Well, not until Monday evening. Sony began building out its mobile gaming platform with the launch of the PlayStation Vita in 2012, but the ties between the PlayStation consoles and the Vita have remained tenuous. But with a slew of hardware and services announcements at E3, including the Project Morpheus VR gear; PlayStation TV; PlayStation 4 Remote Play, which allows you to stream games from a PS4 to a Vita; and the PlayStation Now cloud gaming servicewell, Sonys creating its own little ecosystem, too. Whats different is that Sonys efforts are designed for gaming, with a secondary focus on digital entertainment.
Microsoft getting back on track?
Perhaps the most important step that Microsoft has made was its recent announcement that it would hand back the graphical horsepower set aside for Kinect and allow developers to use it for their own games. The loudest cheers heard at Microsofts speech came when executives announced games running at full 1080p resolution, and at 60 frames per second. That will help erase the Xbox Ones reputation as a relative lightweight, graphically speakinguntil 4K TVs become commonplace, that is.
We expect PCs to do just about everything. Smartphones, too. But history is telling us that once we get home, kick off our shoes, and sink back into the sofa cushions were done fiddling about. We want to watch a movie, or play a game, and we want to do it, now. I've wondered before whether Xbox gamers really want to be accessible via Skype, so that their boss can reach them at 10 o'clock at night. Maybe enough is enough.
Thats not to say that a multipurpose console like the One cant succeed. Its just that Microsofts competition may not be just Sony, or Nintendo. Instead, it may be Sony, and Roku, and a smartphoneand Microsoft may face a bloody fight on each and every front.