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If ever there was a week Phil Spencer might have expected to celebrate, this was surely it. On paper there was nothing but good news – the launch of the Xbox One S, the highly anticipated anniversary update going live and the start of a strong month of titles on Games with Gold. But while there has been plenty of praise for all three of these milestones, the overriding sense I’ve been reading and hearing is something that’s really got me thinking. It wasn’t adoration, nor was it the usual online rage. It felt different to those, it felt like … indifference?
Now I’m not arguing anyone should feel sorry for a huge company like Microsoft, with their massive global operations, record-breaking acquisitions (and write offs) and billion dollar annual profits. I’d also like to think that my fanboy days are over – as a gamer first, an owner of both Xbox One and PS4 and just generally having found better things to argue about in my advancing years. But it’s part of a pattern I’ve noticed for a while and it’s something that has me fascinated. Just like the UK Labour party, it seems Microsoft is battling momentum as much as the opposition.
Of course, there are winner and losers each console generation and it’s a big enough market to sustain more than one platform. Last time out it was Microsoft that led, as Sony suffered from a console that was hard to develop for and expensive to produce. This generation it was maybe just Xbox’s “turn” to struggle and, yes, back in 2013 there were plenty of good reasons for it doing so. But what feels different this generation how much the Xbox has changed since those days and just how little difference it has made. It’s no surprise that the Xbox hasn’t caught up with those incredible PS4 sales figures – they are record breaking after all. But what has surprised me is just how little impact those changes seem to have had on attitudes.
With the policy reversals, regular software updates, fan-requested new features, free backwards compatibility, Xbox play anywhere and new controller options the Xbox One in 2016 (either model) shares very little with the version of the machine that launched. But while the changes have transformed the platform, the reaction has stayed stubbornly familiar. Now, with a revised version of the console itself Microsoft has played its last card. It’s smaller, slicker, better featured and even marginally more powerful – and still the response is, well, “meh”. To me, it now looks like there is simply nothing that Microsoft can do is going to be enough to win people over this generation. The Xbox One S could be exactly what was needed, but gamers and the gaming press simply can’t seem to get over that disastrous launch period.
Viewed in this light, those reactions have started to make more sense to me. More importantly, they also serve as a real warning for any upcoming console launches. You may have more opportunity to fix things than ever before but first impressions can still make or break your product. For the Xbox One, every improvement only seems to serve as a reminder of those previous mistakes. Microsoft launches a slimmer, lighter and generally slicker console? “Why was the original built like Elvis during his comeback special?”. Adding Cortana and engineering commands to work via headsets too? “You just rendered those Kinects you forced on us even more pointless” (for what it’s worth, I still quite like mine and use it nearly daily). Launch a feedback portal and actually act on lots of what people have said? “Desperation”, “Another Xbox 180”, “But you should have had [insert idea here] at launch”.
Don’t get me wrong, these criticisms are totally valid (whether I agree with some of them or not). But my argument is that they are also totally irrelevant – a pointless game of shoulda woulda coulda when we could be focusing on the here and now. It’s especially true for anyone just joining the current generation, who now have a choice between two fantastic consoles and a library of incredible games whichever they choose to go with. But it’s also true for early adopters like myself, whose machines are nearly unrecognisable from the ones that launched – thanks to those exact policy reversals, patches and of course some healthy competition. And that’s why I care about this situation. Not sympathy, not fanboy-ism, but competition.
As much as I dream of a single system that plays everything, it’s a market that needs competition to drive innovation and keep everyone honest. Gamers don’t have much power but their comments and their spending are both important ways to make themselves heard. And I’d argue that there are clear signs that Sony is getting lazy having received a free pass for so long. There have been some great or high profile games on PS+ (Rocket League and NBA2K16 for example) but the value of what’s on offer has clearly dropped since the heady days of the PS3. Sony’s definition of “backwards compatibility” is basically laughable. Along with the dismissal of EA Access, it’s a clear attempt to push PSNow – a service that could be great but notably costs nearly twice its nearest competitor. Their stance on cross play is equally understandable but just as equally anti-consumer and their silence in response to calls from developers is telling. Sony have a great console, some fantastic games and a clear dominance. Only two of those things are good for gamers. Blind loyalty leads to bad decisions.
Forgetting what’s come before, we now have two great systems for gamers to choose from (sorry Nintendo but even you seem to have forgotten about the Wii U). Microsoft’s revised machine is smaller, lighter and (marginally and occasionally) more powerful than the one it replaces with an even better controller. For anyone into movies, it’s also one of the cheapest 4K Blu-ray players on the market. If you buy one, you’ll have access to a great library of new games as well as any digital titles you owned on Xbox 360. If you opt for the Playstation you’ll get something similar. Different but equally great exclusives, typically sharper graphics, Spotify integration, access to PSNow and probably a bigger list of friends already waiting for you to play with. Choose whichever suits you now – not how they compared three years ago. Either way, 2016 is a great time to be a gamer.
And not far down the line we have more good stuff coming on both platforms. If Xbox One owners choose to upgrade to “Project Scorpio”, the games will just work. If they don’t, new releases will still be available and your shiny white Xbox One S will play nice with your new 4K TV when you are ready to get one. Playstation owners will soon be able to explore Virtual worlds with PSVR, stream more as PSNow evolves and can also look forward to whatever form the “Neo” ends up taking.
And if you fancy something completely different? Well, the Nintendo NX is just around the corner …