I get it: With Xbox One SmartGlass, Microsoft wants to be the Prima of hybrid tablets, the Piggyback Interactive of digital travelogues, the GameFAQs of collectible vade mecums. Who knew?
I was expecting something more like Sony’s PlayStation 4 app from SmartGlass, to be honest. The PS4 app, helpful as it can be, is basically an online portal to the PlayStation Network that lets you view friends, browse Sony’s PlayStation Store (a link that brings up your browser) or thumb through Trophies. You can also remotely power the system up or down, which is fun for impressing kids, but glorified TV remote turf.
Xbox One SmartGlass, by contrast, offers content that you can’t access on the Xbox One at all.
Take the SmartGlass companion app to a game like Crytek’s Ryse: Son of Rome. I’ve been tinkering with it on a Surface Pro for the last couple of days (Microsoft plans to support iOS and Android devices, and the apps are available now, but won’t work with Xbox One until November 22, so I wasn’t able to test them). To access it, you’ll launch the Xbox One SmartGlass app itself: an interface-within-an-interface that mirrors your Xbox One’s screen, and responds just as fluidly, since it’s rendered natively and not a remote screen-scrape feed.
If you want to send a friend a message, you just type in the SmartGlass app interface (which is both faster and more accurate than using a gamepad, as you’d expect). If you want to watch game clips you’ve saved to the cloud, they’re a tap away, as are achievements, messages and your Xbox One profile info. You can even tap a controller icon at bottom-right and summon a touchscreen version of the Xbox One controller if you just want to swipe the Xbox One’s cursor around from across the room, wielding SmartGlass as a wireless trackpad.
It’s all appreciably multiscreen-friendly, and I imagine someone sitting at a desk (like me) or on a couch, a SmartGlass-ready tablet parked near their TV screen or lying in their lap, flipping between activities, checking in with friends and keeping tabs on achievements while simultaneously playing a game or watching a movie. The Xbox One multitasks like no one’s business, but SmartGlass is Microsoft recognizing that even with side-by-side features like Snap, sometimes it’s preferable to divide and conquer.
But that’s not why you’re going to want SmartGlass; this is: Tap a SmartGlass tile — in this case we’ll focus on Ryse — and you can launch a game on the Xbox One remotely, or if the game’s already running, summon its companion app. The companion app to Ryse is a world unto itself, packed with stuff you had no idea was even in the game if all you’ve seen of Ryse is Ryse.
There’s “Ryse by the Numbers,” for instance, a stat aggregation tool you can sweep left or right, Metro-style, to pore over scads of insightful metrics. Let’s run through mine: 15% of my friends have played Ryse (which is to say, 15% of my friends are other members of the press with Xbox Ones), none of my friends have completed the game, 50% have unlocked [spoilers], 0% have played such-and-such map, one’s played multiplayer, we’ve all launched the game X many times and so forth. Not exactly need-to-know information, but interesting just the same. None of this information is available on the Xbox One itself.
Slide over to “Campaign Timeline” and the content shifts from interesting to essential. Here, you’ll discover collectibles that appear along a bar in rough proportion to their appearance in a game chapter. Each collectible includes an instructional videos revealing its location and an unlockable “read more about this” option, like the collectible diary in Naughty Dog’s Uncharted: Golden Abyss. If you bring up the standalone “Collectibles” view, you can see everything differentiated by collectible type and precisely how many you’ve found of each so far.
There’s more: Want to scan related game news (events, articles, videos, all in one place)? Leaf through Crytek’s illustrated dissertation (100 pages!) on what inspired the game? Plumb Ryse‘s missing “manual,” which offers additional level-by-level narrative context? You can, but only on SmartGlass, raising the stakes for completionists who can’t live without knowing this stuff.
Most contemporary games fold their collectible hunt index into the game itself, so you know where you’re at on a percent-complete spectrum. But with a game like Ryse, if you’re playing strictly on the Xbox One, none of this stuff is visible. That’s a problem if you’re allergic to the implicit presumption that second-screen gaming — including vital meta-game metrics — is now de rigueur, where aspects of the experience live on a device that isn’t the one you just paid $500 for.
You could argue a pillar of good game design is that games need to include all the basic floors, walls and ceilings necessary to orient yourself in the gameplay as well as meta-gameplay hunt. Ryse on the Xbox One topples that pillar, dichotomizing crucial metrics and forcing you to pick up a SmartGlass-enabled phone or tablet.
On the other hand, you could argue this is what print obsolescence looks like. No one’s publishing a Ryse strategy guide, but if they were, this makes it pointless. Sure, game publishers could and probably will strike deals with strategy guide publishers to limit companion app content and drive strategy guide sales, but I suspect this is the future: an interactive, updatable, non-dead-tree complementary interface that puts real-time hooks into your media center, and not just a passive adjunct to but an extension of that media center.
Sound disconcerting? If you already have a Windows 8 or RT device, you should be set: the Xbox One SmartGlass app is free. If you have an iOS or Android tablet, I presume the interface is going to work the same. I have no idea what this looks like on a smartphone, but — see the screenshot above — I wouldn’t want to drive the Ryse companion app on anything less than a tablet-sized screen. If you have none of the above, say you’re still carrying around a flip-phone and your computer’s a Mac or a Chromebook or a Linux rig, there’s a substantial piece of the Xbox One’s pie you’re going to miss, and for better or worse, I suspect that’s just as Microsoft wants it.
Update: I gave Ryse the old college try on my iPhone 5, and received this message at launch: “The Ryse SmartGlass Companion is currently available on tablet devices only.”