9 Wishes for Microsoft’s Next Xbox, Whatever It’s Called

Here's what I'd like to see a new Xbox-whatever-it's-called embrace.

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Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

Citing the usual sources-who-shall-remain-nameless, Bloomberg reports what everyone’s been assuming all year — that Microsoft‘s going to launch its next game system sometime in late 2013. All that seems left to deduce, then, is when Microsoft’s going to lift the curtain: at the E3 video games expo in June, or a Microsoft-specific event.

I was hoping they’d wait another year or two, frankly, since nothing about the Xbox 360 feels dated to me, but assuming 2013′s now inevitable, here’s what I’d like to see a new Xbox-whatever-it’s-called embrace.

Don’t make graphics the selling point. I don’t care about better graphics. Not the way I used to, back when all the cool kids had 3dfx video cards and pass-through cables, and ran special executables to make Quake and Tomb Raider look extra-nifty on PCs.

You can make the argument that Skyrim and Oblivion were just prettier versions of Morrowind, that Grand Theft Auto IV was an easier-on-the-eyes repeat of Grand Theft Auto III, that BioShock was a mass-market version of System Shock and that both Halo 3 and Halo 4 were Halo re-skinned (settle down, I liked Skyrim, GTA IV, BioShock and those two Halos plenty).

I’m just saying that if what’s next amounts to Call of Duty: Photo Ops or The Graphically Mind-Blowing Scrolls or Halo’s Awesome New Polygon Parade, well, that hamster wheel’s getting pretty tiresome, isn’t it? For all the guff we give the Wii about its last-gen hardware, some of the most interesting games this generation — hello Super Mario GalaxyXenoblade Chronicles, Metroid Prime 3, The Last Story and Zelda: Skyward Sword – are on Nintendo’s no-one-plays-it/can’t-do-HD/still-better-selling-overall console.

Besides, I’m ready for something like Call of Duty: Not Tactically Brain-Dead at this point, aren’t you?

Don’t over-think Xbox LIVE. My favorite thing about the Xbox 360 isn’t the games, it’s the game-space they live in: the colored-tile interface, the simple but efficient friend system, the achievement hunt and gamer score overlay, Xbox LIVE Arcade and Xbox LIVE Marketplace’s top-notch indie fare. Whatever’s next still has to live in 1080p-land, just like the Xbox 360 (it’ll be awhile before we’re running ultra-HD TVs, and current HD has a lowest common denominator of 720p). Given how well Xbox LIVE and the Xbox GUI work already, I’m not sure we need a radical reinvention when the next Xbox arrives.

Unbundle stuff that isn’t intrinsic to Xbox LIVE. Netflix isn’t. Neither are Hulu Plus, Skype, YouTube or Amazon Instant Video. Sony got this right on the PlayStation 3 by drawing a friendlier paywall between free and paid apps. Microsoft continues to get it wrong, however much it wants to crow about Xbox LIVE’s financial success. Of course you’re going to pay $60 a year for all the other legitimately Xbox LIVE-paywalled features — stuff like Party Chat, Cloud Storage, Xbox Music and most of all, multiplayer/matchmaking. It’s the principle that’s galling: having to pay to access apps no one else charges for. (Alternately, just scrap the dichotomy and make Xbox LIVE membership a requirement, period — you’d probably tick a few people off, but at least you’d be consistent.)

Fix Kinect. I’ve never been a great fan of Kinect as shipped — not in the living room, anyway. It may be a creative boon for tinkerers on the PC side, no argument there, but as a gestural interface, it’s more like The Clapper 2.0 (even as a voice command interface, it’s still slower and less dependable than a remote). Of course Kinect’s going to improve, but if Microsoft wants my vote, I want real accuracy — none of this shoddy 75%-of-the-time stuff. When I’m not rolling it out for party-novelty-hour, it’s just too sloppy. And regardless of any of that, please understand that I will never, ever want to play air-Gears-of-War (but that yes, I’d love to play controller-free, family-style games that work all of the time).

Don’t just roll out Apple TV, Xbox-style. Apple TV, Roku, Google TV, existing game consoles — no one’s got the interactive TV thing figured out yet. Part of the problem, whatever the business arguments for or against, is that people really want a la carte TV programming from a live TV box — to subscribe to HBO and Showtime, say, but not CBS, ABC or NBC, or to have CNN and C-SPAN but nothing else. Trouble is, providing anything like a la carte service is currently out of Apple’s and Microsoft’s and Google’s hands.

Barring that, people at least deserve streaming content portals that don’t routinely shuffle content in and out (as both Netflix and Hulu do) because of licensing/financial issues. Whether Xbox TV turns out to be a standalone, budget-priced, Windows 8 set-top that only plays casual games or it’s included in the core system, if it’s just another overlay for Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, with live TV folded in and a few nifty interactive features on the side, the only place we’re boldly going is the status quo.

This rumor about augmented reality glasses makes me nervous. I know Google’s already teasing the tech, but anything I have to wear while gaming, especially around my head…let’s just say we’re all pretty gun-shy after decades of awful “virtual reality” gear, not to mention the recent stereoscopic 3D craze (arguably a gimmick to sell TVs and charge a premium for movie tickets). If this is happening, it can’t be gimmicky, and it can’t be like Kinect, i.e. novelty before functionality.

Blu-ray would be nice, but isn’t necessary. Sure, Blu-ray and DVD still offer extras streaming providers don’t, like commentary tracks and making-of featurettes, but I’m tired of upgrading each time the standard changes (just wait until ultra-HD arrives). Yes, the next Xbox needs more media space so we’re not seeing multi-disc games or ugly compressed video (hello Final Fantasy XIII), but as Nintendo’s shown, you can accomplish that without embracing a playback standard. Were it between having Blu-ray playback and lopping $50 or more off the retail price tag, I’ll vote for no Blu-ray.

Make sure it’s good and finished. Don’t pull a Wii U and force everyone to download a massive day-one patch as soon as they connect to the Internet, which even then doesn’t provide all the functionality you hyped beforehand.

Yes please, call it simply “Xbox.” What else is there to say? I’m tired of numbers. And it’s a whole lot simpler than “Xbox Begins.”