Microsoft’s senior mathematicians, driven by little but a mini-fridge of Mountain Dew and a love of Annie Get Your Gun, have done it again. Only 8 years after trumping Sony’s paltry Playstation 3 with the Xbox three hundred and sixty, they’ve responded to the Playstation 4’s recent unveiling with the ‘Xbox One’; paying their dues to The Matrix and Thunderbirds by claiming the only integer that matters.
If you watched the unveiling last week, you probably caught onto their chatter fairly quickly. As the name suggests, they’re hoping that the Xbox One will become ‘the one’ device in your living room, supplanting everything from your cable box to your phone – the ‘one device to rule them all’, if you will; a machine so influential that it warrants nothing less than destruction in Mount Doom.
Needless to say, it’s a reductive approach, but one emblematic of Microsoft’s recent efforts. Their new machine has fifty-bajillion whatsermajiggers inside it. Xbox Live now has trillions of doodads. Billions watch television. Millions play games.
At some point, cold, hard maths told them to ignore the boring old demographics and instead target the elusive ‘average consumer’, and it’s left us with a barrage of catch-all faces: Call of Duty, CBS, Spielberg and Skype, all carted out in an attempt to target everyone, ever. The possibilities are infinite; the results seem to be anything but.
The Xbox presentation was full of gurning suits; innocuous non-entities pushing talk of ‘connectivity’ and ‘innovation’ but showing little more than a glorified TV guide. The Xbox brand was wheeled out like a trauma victim, the stage lit in the Xbox’s toxic green if just to keep the audience docile. Don Mattrick, Microsoft’s resident hype-man, told it straight: the Xbox is a product; a good to be bought, used and discarded just as soon as Google invent a way to beam the BBC into our mind’s eye. Then he gurned some more – his face contorted from an unedited hour of smiling – and left his audience to stew.
Admittedly, I’m sure that the ‘average consumer’ – the nuclear father with time to kill and money to burn – will love the Xbox One, and in the grand console willy-waving war, Microsoft can tally him down as a ‘plus one’. As a poor European schmuck, however, I fear I might have to step out of the equation.
I don’t claim to be an analyst, so I’m not going to tell you the Xbox One is destined to fail – far from it. If one thing is clear, it’s that Microsoft have crunched the numbers, and I’d imagine the brand alone is going to make this console a steamer-load of cash, even if it turns out to be little more than a shiny husk running Windows 95. However, I do claim to be a ‘gamer’ (that being: someone enthusiastic about games, as opposed to the tactless asshole typified in online discussion), and from that perspective, I posit that Microsoft have a lot to prove.
On the surface, there are the obvious matters: the difficulties of independent development, vague hardware specifications, and the increasingly volatile subject of DRM; but dig just a bit deeper and there are bigger problems – the issues of representation that are distancing Microsoft from the ‘core’, tech-savvy markets that once provided their products with a backbone.
The ‘gurning git in a suit’ routine is bad enough in itself, but it’s patronising – if not downright insulting – when there’s little in the way of software to support it. It’s clear that Microsoft are attempting to create a ‘lifestyle’ device, and yet they’re presenting it with such a cold, corporate image that it’s hard not to get angry. Steve Jobs once said that Microsoft ‘has no taste’, and nowhere is it clearer than here, in the domain of the gurn.
Microsoft either needs to come up with a ‘lifestyle’ ethos to match their hyperbole – a la the original Playstation’s ‘More powerful than God’/ ‘let’s get smashed and play Wipeout’ campaign – or they simply need to provide us with some compelling software.
Of course, all things deserve a sense of perspective, and there’s relatively little we can glean from an hour-long press conference that could accurately predict the future of the Xbox brand. In just ten days’ time, E3 will allow us to speculate further, but both machines are clearly in for the long-haul; the future of which would be near-impossible to predict. I’m willing to give both Sony and Microsoft the benefit of the doubt until both machines are out, if just because I’ve been surprised before, and expect to be surprised again.
Though I think it’s fair to say that I remain skeptical. Microsoft’s soullessly statistical approach to the new generation no doubt marks a turning point for console development, and I fear it’s a turn for the worse.