In a four part article, we’ll be taking a look at the current state of play for Xbox One. Two years on from its release, we’ll explain how the console has moved on from the initial doom and gloom that accompanied its announcement, turning it into the powerhouse of a console that we now know and love.
Part I – The One-Two Punch of Doom
I’ll never forget May 21, 2013. I was so excited for the Xbox One reveal. I told my boss that I was taking a two and a half hour lunch so I could go home and watch it live. I remember even telling him he could fire me if he wanted (we were good friends so I knew he wouldn’t). The Xbox 360 had become such a focal point of my entertainment time, and ultimately the reason I identify myself as a gamer, that I felt like a kid on Christmas morning. I sat down on my couch, had a soda, and prepared to bear witness to what I thought would be the greatest gaming machine ever made. And then it began.
If Don Mattrick had just come out on stage, pointed at the box, and pointed at the screen while they played footage of COD, Ryse, and Forza 5, everyone would have been in awe. But that’s not what he did. In hindsight, Mattrick’s biggest downfall during that conference was that he made the decision to say words on stage. I’m sure most of us have seen the video on YouTube. It sounded something like: “TV, TV, TV, COD, TV, TV, TV. Oh, and don’t forget TV.” On top of unveiling what seemed to be a new type of cable TV box, they made core elements of their new product seem utterly confusing at best – game sharing, anyone?
The small part of me that’s a fanboy tried to justify all of this. “They’re just wanting that 10 second clip that moms will see on CNN. The games will come at E3,” I told myself. But deep down I knew this was the equivalent of watching your favorite baseball team go down 7-0 in the top of the first inning in game seven. Your heart says they can come back, but your head knows it’s most likely over as long as the opponent does what they should do. And that’s what Sony would do a few weeks later at E3.
In the weeks between the Xbox One reveal and E3, confusion reigned supreme. In the age of social media, where few people allow facts to get in the way of their opinions, this spelled trouble for Microsoft. This is especially true when there were very few clear cut facts to counter the things being said. Public perception of the Xbox One became something that painted it as a giant VCR-looking-thing that hates gamers and won’t allow you to play if you don’t have an internet connection. For those of us who weren’t so quick to sum it up, a lot of questions still remained. Why is the Kinect mandatory? How does this game sharing you were talking about actually work? If my internet goes down, am I unable to play even purely single player games like Ryse? The most troublesome thing about these concerns is that Microsoft was mostly quiet about it. They’d only release vague statements about how the focus will be on games at E3.
When E3 actually arrived, Xbox led off with the first conference of the day, as has become the norm. It was actually a pretty good conference. Until the final minute or two. They showed off Ryse, Call of Duty, Forza Motorsport 5, and many other games. They all looked beautiful. Don Mattrick came out and talked about the all-in-one nature of the box – again – and went on and on about Kinect. Most of us were able to overlook that because the games looked so good. Then, at the end, they sent poor Phil Spencer to the wolves to present one of the biggest buzzkills I’ve ever seen at E3. Phil took the stage and announced that the Xbox One would be coming in November…at the price point of $500. The arena went mostly silent. Even the Titanfall reveal at the very end couldn’t save it.
Despite this, the reception to Microsoft’s conference was positive overall. People were pre-ordering the Xbox One throughout the day on Monday. Then, Sony took the stage Monday evening and delivered blow after blow until the Xbox One was on the ground in the fetal position. Looking back, there were moments in that conference where Sony was being childish at best. “This is how you share games on the PlayStation 4” comes to mind. But Sony accomplished one critical thing that Microsoft had completely failed to do: deliver a clear message about what their product does and who it was for. Then came the final blow: Jack Tretton announced on stage that the PlayStation 4 would release at the price point of $400. A full $100 less than the Xbox One. This announcement led to a full minute-long standing ovation from the crowd in the arena.
The remainder of E3 was essentially damage control for Microsoft. They were placed in a position where they had to defend the mandatory inclusion of the Kinect with the console, the always online DRM, and the price point. Their efforts became nothing short of a disaster on that front, too. Facing a barrage of questions about how the always online nature of the box might alienate a portion of their customer base, Don Mattrick answered with: “we have a product for people who aren’t able to get some form of connectivity, it’s called Xbox 360.” Regardless of how true it may be that gaming, and society in general, is moving more and more towards a state of being always connected, this statement was indicative of how out of touch the leadership at Microsoft really was. At a time when they needed to be easing people’s concerns, they were doubling down.
That statement was made by Mattrick on June 12, 2013. On July 1, he was no longer the head of Xbox and no longer employed by Microsoft. In a statement, the company said he was leaving to explore other opportunities – namely to be the CEO of Zynga – but does anyone really believe that? The timing was way too much of a coincidence. On May 21, Mattrick revealed what was to be his crowning achievement, then just six weeks later decides he’d rather oversee Farmville? Sure. The likely reality is that for a company as visible as Microsoft, being embarrassed in public fashion the way they had been was beyond unacceptable. Add to that the fact that they still had to try to sell the Xbox One to consumers. They desperately needed to change the message and the image of the console, and any attempt to do that with Mattrick as the face of the brand would be as disastrous as the previous six weeks had been. In the eyes of gamers, he was the figurehead for everything that had happened, so the reality is that he had to go.
Mattrick leaving wasn’t the first step Microsoft took in attempting to quickly change the perception of the Xbox One. I can only imagine the heated meetings that probably took place in Redmond after E3 2013. On June 19, just one week after E3, Microsoft announced a complete abandonment of the DRM, daily online “check-in”, and game sharing policies. Some saw this as a panic move, and in the U.S., where “flip-flopping” is seen as weakness, Microsoft was ridiculed. Looking back though, how was this not the smartest and only possible move they had to make? They had to do something, and doing it sooner was better. By doing it in June, they could absorb the criticism in June and July, and by the end of the summer they’d at least have a chance to make the conversation be about what the console can do again.
Despite their best (albeit late) efforts, the Xbox One was being outsold 3-1 by the PlayStation 4 in the United States when the consoles launched in November 2013. That number was extremely concerning because it was in the U.S. that the Xbox 360 dominated. Clearly, Microsoft still had a lot of work to do if they wanted the console to be seen as a viable option by the public. In order to do that, they would have to not just reverse policies, but reverse the perception that the PlayStation 4 was the only console out there that was pro-gamer.