Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Xbox One, Day One: The Confessions of an Antisocial Gamer

So here's my take on the way Microsoft think they'll take over your living room. For the uninitiated, there more on the Xbox One here.

MSteve Bellmer and the new Xbox Oney pj’s made a shock appearance on my doorstep at 7AM this morning. It was hellishly early, I won’t deceive you, but I didn't want to miss my neighbour before she went off to work.

'Good morning!' I shouted over herbaceous divide. 'The new Xbox One has just been unveiled. Exciting times, aren't they?'

Clearly impressed, my neighbour clutched her purse to her chest and quickly climbed into her Clio. The sound of the locks engaging encouraged me to wave my milk bottles but it was the screech of her tyres that told me that she too was very upbeat about the next generation of home games consoles.

Last night, Microsoft threw a rug over Steve Ballmer and unveiled their newest class presidents who looked good on the eye and nothing like a Mel Brookes comedy monster. They also unveiled their newest games console, though, as I type that, I realise I’ve already made a beginner’s mistake. We have to be very wary of mentioning games. Microsoft certainly was. Judging from the launch, the Xbox One is more about new ways of watching TV. And, no, that’s not another mistake. You remember TV, don’t you? It was that thing you used to watch before you discovered that games are actually much more fun…

From what we know so far, Xbox One is the biggest and best TV guide that you’ve probably never wanted. You can change channels with your voice (cue Alan Partridge: ‘Xbox, can you make pornography come on my telly please?’). You can access exclusive marketing hype about your favourite shows from within your favourite shows, thereby allowing you to miss your favourite shows. And because we are still very much in a post-Wii world where consoles are meant to be about families, connectivity, and being part of a larger social experience, the Xbox One will allow you to see what shows are ‘trending’ across the Xbox community. That’s right: more chances for the big boys to tell you to watch whichever overhyped franchise they’re currently selling.

‘Only on Xbox will TV become social’ was last night’s promise and that’s why, first thing this morning, I thought it best to grab a quick word with my neighbour. If we’re going to sharing TV planners, I think it's about time we moved to first name terms and we shared cupcake recipes.

Or perhaps not…

Call me an unreconstructed dragon-slaying space marine with a Mario-complex but I've never really been that interested in connectivity, social networks, or having the family around to share an unfeasibly large sofa whilst laughing like escaped axe killers as we disco dance to Rihanna’s latest. Kinect seemed like a terrible idea when it launched and the ability to bark orders at my TV has not changed my opinion. I also have a terrible blind spot when it comes to that place where social media lives with its cats that look like Hitler. I'd much rather be in a tavern in Skyrim’s Tamriel filled with non-playable characters than any social hub where bright Californians can invent ways to allow my dog to Instagram me. And positively the last thing I want whilst playing an RPG set in some mystical land where I'm the only person able to communicate with dragons is to have notifications popping up to tell me that Alan Carr has just had his teeth fixed and ‘bird flu’ is suddenly trending on Twitter.

If I’m honest: I'm not even all that interested in being social. I have the real world for that and the specs are pretty good: persistent 3D without glasses, haptic feedback. When it works, it's even better than the business of virtual befriending. When it doesn't... Well, isn’t that why God/Peter Molyneux invented single player gaming? So, I suppose I’m not entirely sure why Microsoft wants to make an all-encompassing media hub so central to their future, or, rather, I think I do understand it but I resent their presumption immensely.

Their presumption is in believing that you’ll buy into this evolving world of new (usually chargeable) services, micro-transactions, and digital content stored on ‘the cloud’. They’ve called the machine the ‘Xbox One’ because they want it to be your ‘one’ console, your ‘one’ media centre, your ‘one’ companion in the living room. That’s pretty presumptuous in itself and we haven’t even got to the gaming part... Because for ‘gaming’ you should actually read ‘media consumption’ and for ‘consumption’ think ‘as aggressive as pulmonary tuberculosis’. Make no mistake, behind the friendly ‘this is about you’ message is a concerted effort to pull you into a cold business relationship that keeps you connected to their servers for as close to 24/7 as they can get. The advent of cheap 69p games on mobile devices has encouraged companies to look into dark places to increase their revenue streams. Forget the next Skyrim or Halo selling at £40 a time. The real money is down among the pennies where you find habit-forming devilry such as Candy Crush, games that might lack depth but wiggle deep into your brain like some South American blood parasite and encourage you to part with money in such small amounts that you hardly realise that they’re feeding off you. Microsoft is going back to square one by realising that controlling the means on consumption is everything. ‘Control’ should really have been the byword of the evening. Control what you watch and what you play. These are big ambitious plans to control your living room and that’s why Steve Ballmer’s absence from the launch felt so incongruous.

With the Xbox One, Microsoft seem to have virtualised their current leader: this machine is a big powerful personality that wants to push its way into your living room and change the way you watch TV, whether you like it or not. Myself, I can only speak as a long-time gamer who still treasures his Elite badge circa too many moons ago. I’ve seen great consoles fail (Dreamcast) and I’ve witnessed the Xbox 360 triumph, despite suffering possibly the most notorious design flaws of recent memory. I’ve also sat through enough E3 presentations to know not to get excited by 90% of the features the marketing people start whooping about. The bottom line is that I’m not sure that our viewing habits can be changed, even through a huge act of will on Microsoft’s behalf. It feels ominously like Windows 8, which also fixed many things that never needed fixing and attempted to change the way we work. For Xbox One, somebody has figured out how to do something before they’ve figured out if that thing needed doing. All the social connectivity guff might be great if you’re a fashionably chin-whiskered Californian cyberjock called Rick and you have hundreds of friends who you go meet in the coffee shop to play some ethical bluegrass banjo whilst drinking squashed coconut off the back of your Segway. If you’re a surely northerner after a grim day working in Manchester, you’d probably want to lose yourself in a world free of hashtags.

Consider that for a moment. One of the genuinely novel innovations that technology could yet offer us is the ability to simply disconnect. Nintendo understood that perfectly when they launched the 3DS. Glasses-free 3D is no gimmick when it presents possibilities of a paradigm change that takes you deeper into a game. The Xbox One, in contrast, seems utterly rooted in the familiar. It is also reminds me that consumers of technology exist in two discernible groups: those of us who genuinely love innovation and technology and people who think they love innovation and technology. Microsoft’s unveiling felt like sitting watching ‘Click’ on BBC News 24 when I often start thinking: ‘Do these people really understand what’s exciting in technology? Do I really want to change my TV channels by winking or have restaurant menus emailed to my washing machine so it can be sure to use the right detergent with my underpants?’ Microsoft has so far unveiled a great deal of gimcrackery and gimmickry, sock puppetry disguised as innovation. They must now begin to show us what we want rather what they want to sell us.

And with that: ‘Xbox off…’


  1. Don't kid yourself. Anybody who gets excited by a Maplin catalogue is going to buy an xbox.

  2. Ah, talkingspats, you're wise to my nature but this time I think you might be wrong. It's a nice looking product but I'm becoming increasingly excited by the new PS4. More powerful and without all this Kinect arsery. I think Sony are probably more interested in gamers and deserve our custom. Microsoft need to remember their core audience and this week's unveil showed a distinct lack of respect.