Commentary: Xbox One forgot gamers

jkegley@herald-leader.comMay 30, 2013 

At long last, the third-generation Xbox — called the Xbox One — has been announced, and it marks mankind's biggest step toward a Jetsons-like future in which we talk to our home appliances.

"Xbox, on," we will say, and the Xbox One will spark to life. As a bonus, all of our friends can interact with us instantly through that magical series of tubes known as the Internet.

Which prompts the question: Why stop at entertainment devices? Blenders, coffee makers, washers and dryers — the possibilities are endless. "Toilet, flush," we will one day say. The commode will comply, and will post an update to Twitter.

Is this a future anybody has been clamoring for? Are gimmicks like speech recognition and a complete inability to disconnect from the rest of the world necessary? When did pressing buttons become so frowned upon? And why on Earth is the third Xbox called the One?

Those were the first of many questions raised by the device's underwhelming unveiling on May 21.

The Xbox One was pitched by hyperactive office-manager types as the ultimate and most immersive way to watch TV shows, Skype with friends and keep track of your fantasy sports teams. Oh, and something about video games.

In Microsoft's desire to sell us the center of the home entertainment experience, the company appeared to have forgotten the group that made the Xbox brand the success it is today: gamers.

Only a few new games were shown. Forza 5, Fifa 14 and Call of Duty: Ghosts look cool and all, and the new controller looks fantastic. But the system's gaming functions were overshadowed by announcements of restrictions that will essentially hold game players captive to Microsoft's whims.

For example, Xbox One games bought at retail stores will be installed to the system's hard drive, Microsoft representatives said, and games cannot be played on more than one user account. If you want to sell your game discs or lend them to a friend, the new user will have to pay Microsoft a fee to get access to the game content.

That implies that all Xbox Ones must be connected to the Internet to function. Otherwise, how would an Xbox One know whether a game disc had already has been installed on another user's system? Microsoft remained vague on the topic.

Gamers expected Microsoft to pitch immersion and connectivity as central to the Xbox experience. But we also expected that we could go to the store, buy a disc, put it in the console and play it — even without Internet access.

That's the way home consoles have worked for almost four decades now, and I've never heard anyone complain about it.

We gamers felt snubbed, even insulted. Maybe Microsoft doesn't care, because it is pitching the device as more than just a game system.

However, gamers are the potential early buyers. They're the people who spread the console gospel via Internet forums and word of mouth. It can't be good business to alienate us right out of the gate, especially when every non-gamer I know is perfectly happy with TiVo or Roku for TV viewing.

Who besides gamers watched the live stream of the unveiling of the Xbox One? Who else has visited video game news websites for scraps of new information? Frankly, who else cares?

Microsoft was the last major console manufacturer to pitch plans for its next console. Its biggest competitor, Sony, displayed its upcoming Playstation 4 in February.

The PS4 looks to be more gamer-friendly, but even Sony has been vague about used games and always-online restrictions. For all anyone knows, it could employ the same restrictions as the Xbox One.

If that's the case, what can console gamers do to protest? I can think of only one thing. Ever heard of the Ouya? It's a new Android-based game console that launches in June. Google it.

The Ouya has no disc drive and has to be connected to the Internet to work. But it makes up for that by being inexpensive and open-source, uninhibited by the restrictions that will plague the Xbox One.

It's an always-online system by gamers, for gamers. The big boys should take note.

Josh Kegley: (859) 231-3197. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

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