The overnight news that Microsoft is abandoning a lot of its plans for the Xbox One and going with a model analogous to Sony’s is one of the most disappointing decisions it has ever made. The inherent irony of moving away from an always-online future after being berated by those who spend their days bitching and moaning on the internet should not be lost on anyone.
In one fell swoop Microsoft has joined Sony in setting back the evolution of the console by a decade, and in many ways opened itself up to increased threats from companies like Apple, Google and Valve. In many ways today is a great day to be a PC gamer, because it now will have a decade or so more unimpeded evolution as the online focused gaming platform.
Make no bones about it, by retreating from a games distribution model that puts online first, Microsoft has ensured that discs will remain with us for another decade. It is a business model in stark contrast to that of its main competition – which isn’t the PlayStation 4 or Wii U. It hands power back to retailers and while it maintains the ability for gamers to buy games from overseas retailers, it strikes a blow against any move to a steam-like long tail retail model, with the accompanying downward movement of prices and long term availability of even the most obscure of games.
This stubborn, inherent reliance on disc based media seems insane in a world where stores like Steam, Google Play and the Apple App store exist. Imagine having to go into a retail store and purchase your apps, which would only work on a single device. Even the notion of going to a retailer and purchasing PC software is an outdated one, when you can get the same product for similar pricing online and have the facility to redownload it if you need to rather than keep track of a pile of discs.
After a long, drawn out death even the mainstream PC market has moved away from optical drives. Intel’s Ultrabook spec does away with them altogether, as does virtually all of Apple’s product lineup. Increasingly we are seeing laptops that give the choice of an optical drive or expanded storage capability through old school removable bays, and most of us around the PCTA offices haven’t built a PC with an optical drive in years.
It is also fascinating to see that Microsoft’s shying away from a digital model that is designed to accommodate a household with multiple consoles comes on the same day that people have discovered a potential game lending feature built into Steam. This model is in many ways analogous to the now abandoned ‘family’ concept of Xbox One game ownership, designed to make it easy for games to be played across several consoles without having to keep track of ever deteriorating discs.
At least Microsoft hasn’t backed down on its insistence that Kinect is compulsory for the console’s operation. By doing that Microsoft is ensuring that it will be used for more than just a novelty, for when developers know that every single person playing their game will have a Kinect installed and running they can properly incorporate it into their design. Sony, on the other hand, has relegated its Playstation eye controller to the realm of dodgy karaoke games and niche kiddy titles yet again by leaving it out of the console bundle in favour of beating Microsoft on launch price.
Kinect is now the last true next generation feature of these consoles, especially now that guaranteed online integration is being relegated to the scrapheap. Set that aside and all we have are x86-ified versions of current generation business models, where the only true ‘next generation-ness’ comes down to greatly increased memory capacity.
That is something that saddens this writer a great deal.