Most of today’s gamers (Xbox, PS4, and PC alike) find themselves engaged in the so-called ‘console wars’ from time to time. Whether it’s light-hearted banter between friends or heated exchanges online about which console bears the greater selection of gamer-friendly features, the premise is in itself an exercise in futility; the argument of “which console is better” is impossible to (rationally) defend. Rarely have the ‘console wars’ been fanned so hotly as they were during E3 2013, the largest press event prior to the then-next-generation consoles’ release windows. During (and after) their respective reveals (PS4 on February 21, 2013, Xbox One on May 21, 2013), fans took to examining every morsel of trickle-fed information doled out by the consoles’ developers. Many of the aforementioned individuals used their deductions to argue that their console of preference would reign supreme over its direct competitor.
What set a new precedent, however, was how vehemently many members of the Xbox community turned against Microsoft with the announcements of some unfavourable features planned for release. As such, partakers in the ‘console war’ (again, some light-heartedly, some less so) took up arms together, albeit to drive home differing perspectives.
Microsoft executives have discussed their reactions a number of times to a number of different outlets since the E3 2013 press cycle brought a great deal of the console’s planned features to light. This discussion, however, is not based on how the community impacted the executive’s opinions and feelings on the matter. The focus of my attention is how the war waged against Microsoft hamstrung a number of potentially industry-changing features planned for the Xbox One. It’s also very important to note that this is not in itself a critique of the Xbox community; of course Microsoft should listen to feedback and alter their course to make the masses happy. This is simply an examination of where the console could’ve ended up.
Rumour: No Disc Drive on Xbox One
When the Xbox One was formally revealed, an optical drive was shown to support Blu-ray discs that carried movies and games alike. Rumours had been circulating for some time (with unsubstantiated claims appearing as early as March 2012) that the console would be the first to transition into a download-only device. Community backlash against mandate for dependence upon high-speed bandwidth and a substantial data transfer limit left those without quality (or reliable) internet feeling isolated from the company they held previous-generation loyalties to. As someone with a modest download speed and penchant towards amassing physical copies, I counted myself amongst those that would’ve been discontent with the omission of an optical drive, but was willing to consider transitioning into an all-digital collection if digital download was the sole manner of getting them.
My rationale? Every single PC-gaming friend of mine lauded Steam and other PC-gaming digital storefronts as saviours to the platform with a never-ending stream of deeply-discounted games. The (in)famous Steam Summer Sale left many of my university colleagues dipping into their lump-sum student loans to build up a backlog of games that they could play during the school year. I assumed, then, that if the Xbox were to delve into digital-only territory that locked digital purchases to the gamer’s account, it might also stand to reason that Xbox customers could expect to see a similar trend in discounted digital titles for sale. After all, one of the big concerns in the publishing industry (circa 2009-2012) was second-hand game sales.
Major retailers such as GameStop/EB Games draw a massive amount of their revenue from ‘recycled’ game sales; so much so that some publishers sought to restrict online access to purchasers of second-hand titles unless they bought their own copy of the ‘online code’ that would come bundled standard inside every new game purchase; EA gained some notoriety for this move. They have since relaxed their stance (also due to community displeasure – a discussion for another time). If the publisher managed to attain a coveted 100% ‘new’ purchase ratio by means of digital-only, account-bound codes, the likelihood increases that deep discounts might arrive more frequently.
Part of the community’s disdain towards the first reveal of the Xbox One was that it would be priced $50-100 more than its direct competitor, the PS4 (which did not ship with a camera/microphone device). Many Xbox gamers, myself included, had not made purchase of a Kinect for the Xbox 360 in the years prior and questioned the value of a perceivably niche device, with reviews of games such as Kinect Star Wars or Fable: The Journey falling short to capitalize on the motion-input controls made available to the player.
In learning more about the device’s capabilities, though, my faith in the Kinect 2.0 (hereafter simply ‘Kinect’) was instilled as another possible means to change how games interacted with their players; not strictly the other way around. Had Microsoft enforced its Kinect-connected policy (or at least bundled one in every sale), developers would know that the Kinect technology shared a 100% adoption rate amongst purchasers of an Xbox One. This would lead towards a larger market demographic, and therefore make the investment in Kinect-centric features in games more economically viable.
Briefly, for those unfamiliar with the product, the Kinect 2.0 bears a number of biometric feedback technologies that accurately scan the operating area of the Xbox:
- People within the field of view can be identified through facial recognition
- Heart rate/pulse can be determined through microscopic changes in body temperature
- A person’s skeleton can be tracked (which forms the basis of movement-based gestures accepted by the system).
Combined, this information has enormous potential to make a direct in-game impact where immersion is paramount.
Take, for example, a (theoretical) new entry to the Dead Space franchise; the tale an engineer’s struggles with a horrifying alien race in a handful of sci-fi, deep-space locales. The games are famous for being filled with jump-scares as vicious enemies burst out of air vents, from underneath floor panels, down from the ceiling, and more. One trouble with relying upon these mechanics, however, is that they come to be somewhat predictable as the player gains the ability to ‘read the room’ and see potential areas for ambush.
If Kinect 2.0 took the helm and fed information to a ‘scare system’, developers could use those details to truly scare (most of) their players. Heart rate and facial expressions could be measured congruently in order to determine an approximate stress level, and the various types of jump-scares could be introduced at the height of a player’s stress levels to achieve maximum effect. In turn, repeated exposure to specific types of encounters might lead towards diminishing returns; the ‘scare system’ could compensate by keeping the encounter rotation laden with effective, stress-inducing, segments of gameplay that are felt keenly by each unique player.
Moving beyond the potential application of Kinect 2.0 to the horror games of the generation, we can see now that Microsoft’s mandate for Kinect inclusion with every bundle has been overturned and bundles are abundantly sold without them. One positive note, however, is that game developers may now leverage the extra processing power, previously required by the sensor, to aid in their games’ performance. Diablo III: Ultimate Evil Edition was the amongst the first to take advantage of the infrastructure revision so that it could bring a 900p60fps experience up to match the same game’s 1080p60fps standing on PS4.
Why did the gaming community rebel against the notion of bundled/mandatory Kinect sensors sold with each console bundle? It’s difficult to pin down specific reasons without introducing a great deal of conjecture, but some primary factors seem to stand out from the rest when reviewing comment threads or op-ed pieces online. The price, first and foremost, brought the cost of an Xbox One above its camera-less competitor, the PS4. Secondly, users were concerned about privacy limitations; if Kinect data were permitted to leave the console and find itself in Microsoft’s servers, it would run the risk of sharing immensely personal in-house information with those that have no business accessing such private parts of the world. Furthermore, concerns over graphical quality ran rampant with a never-ending debate between the visual differences of 900p/1080 resolutions often employed by the Xbox One and PS4, respectively. Gamers of all sorts value visual quality in this largely aesthetic storytelling medium, but many others place enormous stock in a game’s ability to immerse the player in its own world as the truest of tests available. Including biometric feedback to enable dynamic element (such as those with my Dead Space musings) could be a missing link in blending gameplay with storytelling/immersion tactics.
Xbox Daily Checkins for DRM
Early plans indicated that the Xbox One would have to check in once per day to authenticate the licenses held on-console and check for patches or updates available for installed titles. Granted, the console does still carry out similar functions (checks for updates on launch, limits digital titles to those with verified access), but some developers (notably Insomniac Games, speaking of then-upcoming Sunset Overdrive) hoped to support their games with minor tweaks, even as often as on a near-daily basis as needed, to help shape the game world more dynamically. This practice is often referred to ‘hot patching’, and is not limited to Sunset Overdrive or now-defunct plans for daily console check-ins. Gearbox Software, developer of the Borderlands franchise has used these updates in the past to address minor concerns in the code that didn’t warrant a major patch in and of themselves. Hot patches bypass the time-intensive update approval processes from Microsoft. Minor bugs could be patched out, content added, and more.
Had the daily check-in been included in the console/operating system’s core functions, we may have seen a more agile manner of game development and bug-fixing/content-introducing. Instead, we remain under the regulations of the approval process carried forward from the previous generation of Xbox updates; patches are rolled out as available, but not until they’ve been approved by Microsoft and given a cursory testing examination.
Many potential customers voiced similar criticisms as they had for the digital-only purchasing option proposed for the console: many people live in areas without reliable internet, or a network connection at all. It would be unacceptable if the console were to ‘brick’ itself for those residing or travelling outside of internet-accessible areas for more than 24 hours. This requirement was one of the first to be retracted by Microsoft in an early attempt to regain the trust of their fanbase.
Game licenses sold (both digitally and physically):
To encourage product portability, Xbox One games were planned to be tied to a user’s account, regardless of whether the purchase was made digitally or in a brick-and-mortar store for the physical copy of the game on-disc. To the best of my understanding, the disc would simply be a means of bypassing the bandwidth requirement to download; games would be restricted to the purchasing member’s account and any other players sharing the console. As an additional perk, when that player visited someone else’s house/console, the game could be downloaded and played without bringing the disc along, relying instead upon the registered license. Ultimately, these plans were scrapped simultaneously with the DRM enforcement, though some user-friendly options persist in the Home Gold option that permits sharing of a members’ digital purchases with other accounts playing through the purchaser’s home console.
Setting up game licenses to a user’s account would have allowed them to share games with one person (at a time) within an up-to-ten person “family”. Familial verification was not needed, and players were left “to define a family unit” as they saw fit – Microsoft was okay with digital gamesharing amongst circles of friends. Fans were excited at the prospect of sharing digital game licenses, but cared not for physical license sales or 24-hour DRM checkin (which would’ve been necessary to validate that people within the group were actually permitted to play the shared content). When the other two features were scrapped, this one had to be given up as well, much to the dismay of those that had hoped for digital sharing.
In its place, Home Gold was brought forth that would allow players to share their digital games with other people sharing access to the console. With the Xbox 360, the owner of a digital title would have to be signed in on the console to allow any other players to launch the game. Now, anybody on that console may access the digital library of any players that have assigned that device as their ‘home’ Xbox.
Understanding What Was Given Up
Without seeking to deliver a fire and brimstone sermon towards the end of this article, it’s important to note that the vocal minority, unwilling to compromise in the direction of progress, effectively held some major aspects of this console generation back. It’s almost a certainty that the next generation of the Xbox family (not counting 2017’s Project Scorpio) will begin to transition away from optical disc games as faster, more reliable internet makes itself available more broadly. What comes alongside that, if anything, remains to be seen, but there is always a chance that specific policies may not pander directly to everyone’s manner of enjoying the video games we’re here to talk or ready about.
Do I dislike the Xbox One in its current revision? No, not at all – I’m very fond of this system, and hold very few concerns with its current operations. I’ve personally transitioned into a digital-only games library 200+ strong, but even with my fibre internet connection, there are times that I cannot authenticate through the Microsoft servers and are left waiting for such a time that I can even log my profile in. Minor concerns, but an overall efficient system for the games and multimedia that I employ it to undertake.
I would personally like to urge every person reading this article to consider long-term or broad-scope implications to future features introduced. There is (almost) always some form of well-founded, focus-group-studied, feedback that the developers have used to arrive at their decision; even if it means a small leap of faith from their customers.
Author: Markus Piil
A staunch supporter of the technical arts, Markus has been working as a software developer for two startup tech companies in Western Canada. Gaming aside, he likes adventuring in the mountains, camping with the wife, and playing metal tunes on the guitar.