Sometimes things don’t go as planned. Microsoft’s Xbox One E3 pre-show press salvo on Monday morning lived up to its gaming-focused promise, the company spotlighting a gorgeous demo of Metal Gear Solid V alongside beautiful exclusives like Forza Motorsport 5, Ryse: Son of Rome, Sunset Overdrive, Crimson Dragon and Below. But Redmond chose to run silent about several controversial content usage policies outlined days earlier in an online FAQ. Later that evening, Sony, spying an opportunity to promote its PlayStation 4 as, among other things, not-Microsoft, demurely went for the console’s throat.
Sony’s either principled or opportunistic (you pick) rebuttal of mandatory Internet access and intrusive disc-based game usage policies was indeed a PR coup. But more importantly, it was also a meaningful coup. There’s no such thing as doing nothing in this industry — every choice is still a choice with potentially galvanic consequences. Holding your position is just as tactically significant a choice as charging someone else’s.
The Xbox One’s connectivity requirements happen to align, unfortunately, with the ongoing National Security Agency data-tapping debacle that’s been driving public paranoia way up. The notion that we ought to embrace a set-top box that sits in our most intimate spaces, watching and listening to us, always connected to the Internet or minimally connected once every 24 hours, collating and transmitting usage-related information about us to Microsoft…well, whatever else it is, Redmond has a message problem. And it’s done nothing at E3 to remedy that.
I won’t challenge the legitimacy of selling a device in 2013 with mandatory Internet requirements — something I’ve written about before. What I would challenge, is Microsoft’s vague explanations about why this makes the Xbox One somehow a superior device. Forcing people to be online all the time (or periodically) makes sense if you’re offering clear and compelling advantages. Microsoft hasn’t explained this — at least not very well. Yes, system and game updates will now happen in the background without our attention. But was anyone really bothered by these brief (and rare) interruptions on current-gen devices? Aren’t we, if we so choose to leave them connected, able to do this on the PS4 and Wii U, too? Nothing in this list of “features” explains why the Xbox One has to be connected or thereby delivers an experience you can’t have anywhere else.
The cynical view is that what Microsoft’s really up to by mandating Internet check-ins involves thwarting piracy, enforcing its restrictive new content licensing policies and gathering information about our usage habits to essentially study us — perhaps to improve services, perhaps to enhance or improve its (and third-party) marketing tactics. I’m not averse to all of those things in principle, I’m just averse to the bait and switch — the lack of full transparency. There’s a reasonable anti-piracy argument here, for instance, but Microsoft’s not making it. What’s missing from intelligent dialogue in 2013? Companies that level with us about this stuff instead of trying to bury it beneath shallow PR-speak.
And then we have Microsoft’s attempt to throttle disc-based gaming by deploying strictures that all but eliminate lending and leave you at the mercy of third-party publishers when it comes to reselling used games or having to pay secondhand unlock fees. In essence, the Xbox One afflicts disc-based gaming with a plague of disincentives and tries to usher gaming through a much more corporate-friendly, all-digital door.
Sony, correctly sensing the moment to deploy that approach isn’t now, with the used games ecosystem still flourishing, is pitching the PS4 as, among other things, a console that delivers next-generation gaming with the last generation’s comparably anodyne restrictions. That this wound up resonating with gamers (and in a broadly nonpartisan way), given where the secondhand market lives in 2013 and stands to for years to come, should surprise no one.
Reacting to Sony’s fan-pandering E3 jibes, Microsoft has been making the rounds with interviewers at the show, rhetorically tweaking its position by describing the Xbox One’s online connectivity requirements as “a future-proof choice.” And if you don’t have Internet access? “Fortunately we have a product for people who aren’t able to get some form of connectivity. It’s called Xbox 360,” said Microsoft Interactive Entertainment honcho Don Mattrick.
Mattrick’s questionable dichotomy in that deflection notwithstanding, what do those words really mean, “future-proof”? The implication is that Sony and Nintendo somehow aren’t, though the PlayStation 4 and Wii U are just as online-oriented as the Xbox One (as are, for that matter, the Xbox 360, Wii, PS3, smartphones, tablets and most modern computers). It’s an odd claim to make, one that doesn’t really mean anything at this point. No one’s offered evidence that requiring an Internet connection furnishes compelling user benefits a voluntarily online console can’t.
Let’s extrapolate that mindset to used games. Is the Xbox One somehow more future-proof because it drives buyers away from physical media and toward full digital downloads? Both the Xbox One and PS4 will serve up full digital game downloads, day one. Nintendo’s Wii U already does (though not yet for everything, to be fair — Nintendo leaves day one digital decision-making up to third-party publishers). Yes, the world’s gradually migrating to disc-less, all-digital media. Yes, disc-based used games will eventually disappear. The question’s whether shoehorning consumers into an all-digital world today while cutting them off from a still-vibrant secondhand market is a scintilla more forward-looking than the competition’s arguably more forward-looking choice, from a consumer standpoint, to embrace both.