The Xbox What Could Have Been
It seems crazy to think about now, but it was only about a year ago that people outside of Microsoft were made privy to the Xbox One. While opinions differ over the strategy and points of emphasis of that public unveiling, it is certain that Microsoft was intent on forging ahead in laying out a bold vision for entertainment in general, not just gaming. The subsequent months were replete with ill-advised statements by Xbox executives, rampant misinformation, and a public relations thrashing at the hands of a Sony who had just spent an entire console generation taking their lumps. When it saw the world would not go quietly into that good night, Microsoft was surprisingly amenable to reversing many of those ambitious visions laid out in its initial press conference in May 2013. Consequently, it is not much of a surprise that Microsoft has decided to once again lead into the future via strategic retreat by opting to remove the Kinect as a mandatory piece of every Xbox One.
Undoubtedly, this news has been met with much applause within the broad gaming community that has never really accepted motion controls in general and the Kinect in particular. I’ll admit that the concept of waving your arms and talking to your console in order to achieve certain objectives causes no shortage of strain on my eyes as I test just how far a person can roll them in indifference. That being said, this latest reversal on the part of Microsoft does make a tiny bit wistful. My misgivings and skepticism about Microsoft’s initial vision aside, the Xbox One was at least supposed to be a step forward, bringing us closer to the place I think we all know we’re going. Instead, the Xbox One is just a game console and that’s a darn shame.
I understand, though. While the new-fangled VCR doppelganger dubbed the Xbox One has been performing quite well, it is still in the shadow of the much more popular Playstation 4 (due in no small part to image-bruising mishandling in the months leading up to launch, and $100 difference in price point). Microsoft is clearly making an astute decision in rendering the Kinect an optional peripheral. What bothers me is this: the future isn’t supposed to lose. If human history is the long tradition of inferior ideas giving way to better ones, we find ourselves in a perhaps unprecedented situation. I applaud Microsoft for initially playing the long game in attempting to make the console space more closely resemble the experience PC gamers have been enjoying for years now. It is clear that they were endeavoring to insulate game makers from the predations of a second-hand games market that often eats their lunch. What’s more, it seems they were trying to achieve many of the same ends that SteamOS is currently tackling (i.e. family sharing). The problem was that Microsoft didn’t show that they were going to be good stewards of this responsibility, a perception arguably verified by their many reversals. It seems as though they were pitching an idea about the future that they were not quite ready to truly go to battle for.
Consider this my obituary for the Kinect. While there are millions of them already in homes and certainly many more that may be purchased as a peripheral, the days where developers may have been open to making unique experiences designed around it are most likely gone. It’s in Playstation Move territory now. The Xbox One is like a kid who decided to forego attending college to perform cutting-edge medical research so he could stay home and eat Fritos. I like what we have and more of it isn’t necessarily bad but we’ll never now good we could have it unless we actually move forward. Even if Microsoft badly bungled the messaging about how it was going to take us there, I can’t help but imagine that they would have gotten us somewhat closer to a better place. The value in experimentation alone would have been invaluable, but now we’ll never know. At least in the context of the Xbox One, we’ll never know how useful a refined natural language navigation utility will be. We’ll never know about the breakthrough that takes motion controls from gimmick to indispensible. We’ll never know how wide-scale digital distribution will transform the console gaming market and how many studios will be able to keep their doors open as games don’t find their way to a Gamestop shelf. The future isn’t supposed to lose, however imperfect the road there is. I fear that in this console generation, though, it did.