A Few Thoughts On The Xbox One

A Few Thoughts on the Xbox One

The Xbox One was not made for you. Let’s just rip that Band-Aid off right now. You are reading an analysis of the announcement of a new console on a video game website that’s not called GameSpot or Joystiq, which means that the followup product to Microsoft’s Xbox 360 is not made for you. You, undoubtedly, are more than a passing hobbyist in the field and probably use your 360 and PS3 and Wii to play video games. That’s not surprising, I’m sure, but you have to understand that there are tons of people out there that own these devices and use them solely to watch Netflix or Blu-rays. This is who the Xbox One is aimed at.

Granted, it still is a more-than-capable gaming console what with 15 unannounced (but confirmed) exclusive titles that we’ll probably be seeing much more of at E3. And with a new controller that seems to address the biggest complaint—the lack of a properly functional D-pad—and integrates some new technology to push the peripheral forward, it is still very much a video game-playing thing. But yesterday was proof enough that Microsoft wants more than just gamers. So let’s get into it.

The Name

Xbox One

I actually kind of like the name, even if we’ve yet to settle on an acceptable abbreviation; the current leaders are the X1, which could be confused with the Sharp X1, and the Xbone, which has obvious, tumescent problems. It definitely reflects the emerging philosophy from Redmond that this new Xbox will be the entirety of your home entertainment setup. It will handle movies, TV, games, music, and whatever else you want. The “one” means what they’re striving for: to be your one utility for fun. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I jive with all of that, but I do like the name.

The question, of course, is the future, which can be broken down more simply into two further inquiries. First off, why not go the Apple route and just call it the Xbox? People cracking jokes about database problems obviously don’t know how databases work, but it makes sense for this to be a distillation and unification of everything the 360 wanted to be but couldn’t. Second, having such a definitive name with some serious finale subtext implies (and corroborates some things floating around out there) that this could be the last piece of Xbox hardware to come out for a long time. It could ostensibly just be firmware updates that keep it fresh, a notion that raises the point of if Microsoft has already bought into the idea that this will be the last console generation.

The Specs

Xbox One

The gist of it is this: an AMD Jaguar-based 8-core CPU, a DirectX 11-compatible AMD GPU, 8 GB of DDR3 RAM, 500 GB of internal storage, USB 3.0, HDMI in, HDMI out, and a Blu-ray drive. Wired got an exclusive look at the Xbox One and revealed that it uses a system on a chip (SoC) design that is actually quite similar to what the PS4 will be using. And the 5 billion transistor count is likely to be the total between the CPU and GPU since, as Game Front so astutely points out, “AMD’s FX-8350 eight-core desktop CPU has roughly 1.2 billion transistors, and the AMD Radeon 7970 desktop GPU has about 4.3 billion transistors.”

What’s more interesting is the RAM. You’ll notice that the 8GB matches the PS4’s 8GB, but it is DDR3 instead of DDR5. DDR5 runs at a lower voltage and higher speeds (a simplification: it’s how the GPU and CPU utilize the 32-bit memory controllers per channel) but DDR3 is way cheaper. This will likely lead to both a price and performance discrepancy between the Xbox One and the PS4 with the former being more affordable and the latter being more capable.

The Xbox One runs purely on HDMI display output, an obvious advantage over the PS4. This is because games developed for Sony’s device will have to account for the fact that some players may not be having an HD experience and UI must be adjusted accordingly. With an all-digital setup on the Xbox One, developers can count on the fact that their players will be able to consume a baseline of quality so text doesn’t have to be blown up and the like.

Also, you know what the Blu-ray drive makes me think of? HD DVDs. You know what thinking about HD DVDs makes me do? Laugh. Heartily. Forever.

The Peripherals

Xbox One controller

There’s the new controller, which looks pretty good. Mostly. There’s some part of me that really likes the jellybean-like face buttons of the 360’s controller as these feel a bit too…industrial. But from what I hear, the sticks are great and the D-pad actually works like a D-pad now, not to mention it feels much more like a solid product, which is great because the original Xbox and the 360’s controllers always felt a bit too plastic-y to me. The triggers also look way different. They’re much less like triggers and more akin to the pedal-like shoulder buttons of the DualShock 3. They do, however, have rumble, which sounds interesting. If it can be applied to how you press the triggers, it could have fantastic implications on input design.

What we don’t know, though, is what those two extra buttons do. They are most likely just what they’ve always been—Back and Start—but the iconography suggests that they have deeper, system-wide utility that goes beyond showing scores in Call of Duty and pausing a game. Also, notice that they moved the guide button to the top. This is probably in response to the thousands of people each day that accidentally pop up the dashboard when they just want to skip a cutscene.

Kinect 2.0

And then there’s the Kinect 2. It is, without a doubt, an upgrade over the first Kinect device. It features a 1080p camera (an incredible bump up from the current generation’s 640×480 RGB camera) and, probably, a nicer IR camera. I say probably because it is doing things that the first Kinect just wasn’t capable of doing like discerning a heartbeat and generating a night vision mode to facilitate low-light environments. It’s much more able to track fingers, facial expressions, and throngs (six) of people. From the demos shown at the announcement that include seeing actuated musculature, weight distribution, and a wider, taller view with better depth of field to accommodate closer ranges and bigger players, this seems to be the Kinect they wanted to make the first time around.

It is, however, massive. It looks like a slightly longer mishmash of a Jimmy John’s sandwich and a Subway sub. It’s big. And it’s required. And that just kind of goes along with the general oversized look of the Xbox One itself which, as shown in this video from Kotaku, is somewhat of a beast, too. And you’ll notice that it has a two-prong power connection which means a likely sizable power brick having to be tucked away in your otherwise elegant-looking entertainment system setup.

The Services

Remember when I said that the Xbox One wasn’t being made for you? This is why. If you want to get super cynical about it, here’s a handy recap video:

It’s a bit mean, but it’s also funny because it’s true. The focus is on television and sports—or at least this particular presentation was—which are both very mainstream ideals. That is not to say, however, that this stuff isn’t handy or neat. Being able to go instantly between watching TV and doing anything else on the console is pretty fantastic, though I’m not sure how much use I’ll get out of that.

But it is indicative of a larger movement in console usage. One of the reasons we like using our smartphones and iPads for everything is that they’re always ready. You don’t turn these things on and off with each use, so now the thinking for the Wii U, PS4, and Xbox One is why should consoles be any different? The Xbox One, in particular, will keep everything in a low-power state so that you can just walk into the room and say “Xbox on” and get going. To me, voice controls seem a lot like QR codes (an interesting and potentially effective use case but ultimately too much of a hitch in the usage process to feel organic), so I don’t think I’ll be using that (at least for now), but keeping things in a low-power state seems like a smart move.

Beyond that, everything seems to be related to swappable states of the console. At any point, you can just stop playing and the state of your game will be saved. Or your movie or whatever. Anything you want to pause can be paused and stored for later consumption. This plays into the “magic moments” feature of capture clips of games that can be shared on Xbox Live and YouTube, which may ring PS4 bells in terms of capabilities. In fact, just as you can play as you install games on the PS4, you can do the same on the Xbox One, though the similarities behind their actual functionality remains to be seen.

Xbox One

This is what people talk about when they mean always-on. What they mean when they say always-online, however, is drastically different. Kotaku asked during a press Q&A as to whether or not you could go for weeks without connecting to the Internet. Microsoft vice president Phil Harrison responded with, “I believe it’s 24 hours.” You have to be connected to the Internet with your Xbox One at least once every 24 hours. That much we know, but we don’t know what happens when you hit that threshold. Does the console shut down? Are you locked out? Or can you simply not access installed games and media but can still use discs? There are a lot of questions to be answered.

The interesting thing, though, is that it feels a lot like there are so many questions because Microsoft hasn’t made any concrete decisions yet. Things like the 24-hour limit are settings that can be changed at any time, so it could be turned off completely at some point. It seems that after the SimCity fiasco a while ago that Microsoft wasn’t sure what to do. They wanted to keep things based on the cloud and cloud operations (in fact, some operations and calculations for games can be offloaded for server-side processing), but I guess the question eventually became how to frame it to be palatable to the jaded mainstream.

I live in a major metropolitan area where my Internet connection is stable and reliable. Many people, in fact, live in such areas, but thinking of people who often find themselves in areas with shoddy power or Internet is distressing. What they to do when they have lingering blackouts and can no longer access their games and media? It’s a tough question to answer, but some of the always-online possibilities presented for the Xbox One seem rather intriguing. You can Skype call with people whenever you want and possibly integrate video and voice chat into dashboard and game functionality. Perhaps multiplayer simply because augmented singleplayer with constant, synchronous input from all over the world. The potential is incredible, but the roads that lead there are alienating. It’s a tough spot, for sure.

Any amount of online requirements, though, is still always-online, so make of that what you will.

The Used

Forza Motorsport 5

So being vague about always-online is understandable, if a bit unfortunate. It can all change at the drop of a hat and probably will be based on reactions to yesterday’s presentation. A little more clarity would have been nice, but I can live with this amount of ambiguity until E3. What’s unacceptable, however, is how they addressed used and shared games.

“We are designing Xbox One to enable customers to trade in and resell games. We’ll have more details to share later.” That’s the official word based on the Q&A. However, things quickly get murky. According to Wired, it will cost a fee to link games to a second account. But then, according to the @XboxSupport Twitter account, “Again, there is no fee to install the game. Your friend will not pay a fee.” So which one is true?

I guess both could be true. Maybe there’s a trial period. Or maybe @XboxSupport was confused. All games are to be installed on the hard drive, and games can be installed without the disc present. So games, obviously, are tied to specific gamer accounts, but how is the content of the disc tied to the game that is connected to the account? You can, based on the no disc requirement, sign into your account on another Xbox One and download and play your own games, so is this the no-fee sharing they’re talking about? And then there’s the whole issue of offline play. How does that affect game-account verification and used/shared games? Albert Penello, senior director of product planning at Microsoft, told Engadget that they do account for “household” sharing so that family members on the same console can play games not necessarily attached to their account.

Call of Duty: Ghosts

But how? In fact, how everything? How does it work? While the always-online functionality explanation can be understandably deferred, not addressing how used and shared games work is borderline unacceptable. It’s less than three weeks until E3, but these are pressing questions that demand immediate attention. Always-online is a gradient knob that can be turned. This is a board of switches and no one knows what any of them do.

This, of course, leads into the question of whether you own your games or if you license games. CD keys were an interesting progenitor because they simply were verified via a hashing algorithm put into the game’s bootup process. But then these keys began to require an Internet connection for server-side verification. Now, that has given way to needing to use Steam or Origin or whatever to even access your library, but the consolation in many cases was that once you started playing, you didn’t need the connection.

Diablo III and, of course, SimCity went for a different tack; an Internet connection was required the entire time you played, and now instead of individual games, this connection requirement applies across the board for an entire console. So instead of being able to pop in a disc and play, the entirety of this device’s capabilities are tied to an array of servers that, should they go down, will prevent you from using the Xbox One as anything besides a doorstop. This, of course, has an adverse effect on backwards compatibility: there is none. At least you can still put in a cartridge into your SNES or N64 and go back to play that. But once the servers go down for the Xbox One’s games, you won’t be able to play those ever again.

Licensed. Not owned.

The Presentation

Xbox One presentation

Compared to Sony’s presentation, the Xbox One unveiling was disturbingly anemic. Jason Shreier summed it up pretty well with this tweet:

While a bit reductive and not accounting for the fact that Microsoft’s ability to show on a stage wasn’t atrocious, it is a fairly accurate representation of the knee-jerk reaction everyone had to the proceedings. We didn’t see much except for a bunch of pre-rendered footage of sports things that fed into a confusing EA partnership, something involving Remedy Games’ Quantic Break (which no one knows anything about aside from that is Professor Slater from season one of Community), and Call of Duty: Ghosts. For all the seemingly evergreen popularity of the franchise, it also appears as though most people are simply tired of hearing about first-person military shooters even if they aren’t all totally and completely tired of playing them just yet. The dog stuff was fun, but it only made a rather bland presentation at least slightly upbeat.

The Conclusion

Xbox One

So basically we got hardware, a dog, and a lot of questions that go unanswered. It would be disappointing if it wasn’t for the fact that E3 is so soon, where the 15 Xbox One-exclusive games will probably be revealed and more information will be provided regarding used games and always-online requirements. The most interesting thing to note, though, is that the Microsoft press conference is first during E3 and Sony is dead last. Will Microsoft continue this narrative and build up the supporting struts around their push of services or will Sony get the last laugh and walk away from Los Angeles the (ephemeral) champion?

Believe me when I say that I, along with everybody else in the industry, have no fucking idea. But this will be an interesting year.

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