I have never been a fan of Microsoft as an entity. I don’t like the way they operate. I feel like their hierarchy is antithetical to getting good work done. I think they are brazen, they are often playing catch up (Zune? Surface? Windows Phone?). This doesn’t mean that I hate every product they’ve ever made and to be fair there are very few huge corporations that I like, including Sony. Windows is like an every-other-edition thing for me win 95 was great, win xp was great, win 7 is still great – the others, not so much. I loved the OG Xbox. Hell, I loved the original controller THE DUKE (it wasn’t in all caps but it should have been). I loved the Xbox 360 until the Kinect came out which was the start of a pretty huge shift in the company that had them tumbling downhill until sometime this summer when they decided there was more money to be made in actual videogames and started 180ing all of their decisions. Here we are at the start of 2014 and I honestly feel like the Xbox One is the stronger console right now. Yes, it has less power. Yes, it costs too much. But it has more games, both retail and smaller digital offerings, it has more OS functions, it even has a far better video editor. If money is no object, the Xbox One will give you more entertainment even if most of it is at a lesser image quality.
So what happened? Well, Microsoft pissed a lot people off, they came in at too high of a price point, and if you buy a system for a launch lineup you are certifiably nuts. So, you can stop reading now if you want. Those are the factors that we all know are causing Microsoft to lose market share in places it once stood tall (namely Western Europe and North America). I don’t think most of this is up for debate but has anyone ever asked why? If you do, you’ll get a bunch of PR answers that don’t say anything but lucky for me I’m friendly with a few developers who have painted a picture of what has gone wrong and why.
Before the February reveal of the PS4 the industry as a whole felt like Microsoft was going to hit the ground running this gen with an amazing machine. Microsoft had been going around selling publishers on the entire concept of this machine that would become the center of the living room. It would connect videogames with TV. It would always be online. It would help publishers recoup or even block used game sales. It was known it was going to have 8gbs of ram. The general thinking was that it would be easier to develop for and it had this grand vision. Major publishers bought into the vision.
At this point we’ve all read stories about how the February reveal scared the crap out of Microsoft but what I’ve just recently learned is that it shook the industry as a whole. If you go back and watch it you will see Mark Cerny even point out that they were very coy when talking to developers about what they wanted out of a system. Sony’s approach of a developer-friendly machine was brilliant but what I think most of us didn’t know is that most developers didn’t know this until February. All of a sudden all of these vague conversations they were having with Sony which they brushed off thinking that Sony was going to do what Sony always does… make a convoluted and very custom piece of silicone. When asked for specifics even from huge publishers like EA and Activision, Sony was extremely tight-lipped about what they had planned. There were some third parties they were open with, for sure, but as a whole the industry felt like the PS4 was just floating in the ether and Microsoft had this amazing vision that they had gone on tour selling for the entire prior year.
After the February reveal Microsoft, and the rest of the industry, knew that the Xbox One wasn’t going to be the most powerful system. It wasn’t going to be the easiest system to develop for. There was still belief in Microsoft’s overall approach though. As things started to leak out about always online Microsoft committed what, in hindsight, was its biggest blunder. When Adam Orth took to twitter to defend the concept of an always-online system, while also insulting a large section of the United States, there was a huge uproar. What Microsoft took away from this was that people were offended about his comments about people who don’t live in cities. If they really paid attention they would have realized that the entire uproar was about the system being always online. This misreading of the situation led them to what may go down as one of the worst unveilings of a console ever. When Microsoft execs got up on stage in May and talked TV TV SPORTS TV and how everything was digital and the answers their PR guys and execs like Phil Harrison gave conflicted with each other and the entire thing sunk Microsoft’s entire vision. You have one chance to make a first impression and Microsoft blew it in a historically bad fashion. If they read the Orth situation correctly this could have turned out completely differently.
The bigger publishers were starting to get nervous before the Microsoft reveal when Microsoft delayed the unveiling from April to May and the tools they were giving developers were far behind what Sony had provided publishers after Cerny blew their doors off in February. Companies that had started to put all of their eggs in the Microsoft basket were quickly recalculating resources. The reveal debacle was the final nail in the coffin. When just 4 months earlier the entire industry felt like Microsoft was going to dominate this generation Sony had become the front-runner by a country mile. This was backed up after Sony laid the smackdown to Microsoft over their anti-consumer policies while revealing that their more powerful machine was also $100 cheaper at E3. Preorder numbers in the week following E3 were as high as 9 to 1 in territories that Microsoft won easily the prior generation.
These pre-order numbers led to them reversing many of their decisions in what are now referred to as 180s. There were certain things that Microsoft just could not 180 on, however. There was no time to make the system more powerful. It was going to take them a long time to change many of their policies that developers considered unfriendly. It also had to erase the stigma that the bad first impression left. Meanwhile companies like EA who signed massive deals with Microsoft including Titanfall and exclusive FIFA content were starting to publicly state they were “platform agnostic” because they saw the trajectory of each console. In many ways the publishers still haven’t caught up with the idea that the PS4 is the frontrunner. Many of the multiplatform ports at launch had the least effort put into the PS4 version, but because the tools were more advanced and the system was more powerful those versions still shined on the platform.
It hasn’t been a complete home run for Sony, however. Microsoft has a better launch-window lineup. While I enjoyed Killzone and loved Knack, Forza alone beats both, Dead Rising 3 isn’t perfect but it’s very, very fun. Ryse is also more fun than reviewers gave it credit for. Beyond that, which is strange considering Sony’s huge indie initiative, when it comes to downloadable games the PS4 has been pretty barren. Resogun was amazing, Super Motherload was fantastic but a very niche game and the rest has been, honestly, crap. Or old. 1080p Flower is cool, I guess, but the Xbox One has Killer Instinct, Peggle 2, Powerstar Golf (Sony, WHERE IS HOT SHOTS? YOU ALWAYS LAUNCH WITH HOT SHOTS GOLF!), Halo: Spartan Assault, Max: Curse of Brotherhood and Crimson Dragon. It also has a UI that has interesting TV functionality, the ability to multitask, and voice controls that actually work. It’s a great system.
The problem with it, however, is that it is still a Microsoft system. So many decisions have been made about this machine from executives who don’t know the first thing about gaming that it’s a mess. It has 3 OS’s, it’s underpowered, the Kinect is essential yet it still doesn’t have games; and while the voice detection is great the gesture control is flaky… and even worse it’s just plain slow. They could have accomplished everything amazing about the Kinect with a $10 microphone array. Also, when you look at the games almost all of them have a fatal flaw. I wondered how Microsoft could afford to make a game as complex as Forza 5 as a launch title because obviously launch is when there are literally the least amount of consoles that there ever will be in the console’s life cycle. The answer that Microsoft came up with was to have much fewer tracks, much fewer cars, add a longer leveling up curve and add microtransactions for the currency, and to release a $50 DLC pack on day one. They knew they couldn’t sell 5 million copies of the game so instead they decided to milk their most hardcore fans for every penny they have.
This translates over to many games. Ryse, Halo: Spartan Assault, Powerstar Golf, and Crimson Dragon all have XP/currency systems with microtransactions attached. The amount the MT’s affect the grind curve of the game varies from barely (Ryse) to a ton (Powerstar Golf). So if you ignore that the Xbox One costs $100 more, that almost all of their downloadable games are now $20, and that their entire first party lineup has been rejiggered to try to extract microtransactions out of you…. you have the superior system. That’s the entire shame here! If these games were crap, if the UI functions were bloatware, if this system sucked it would be so much easier to just write it off. That’s not the case though. Nearly everyone who owns a Xbox One is extremely happy with it because it is, despite ALL of these faults, a great system.
I recorded a podcast several weeks before the launch titled “Why the Xbox One will fail” and my main premise is that while the 180s were needed that what it did was turn the Xbox One into a weaker version of the PS4. This was slightly off the mark as the UI functionality is much cooler than I figured, but I do still think this will the Xbox One’s undoing. The power gap is going to get wider, not shorter, slow-moving publishers will be going into 2014 with the PS4 at the top of their list instead of the Xbox One like they had the year before. The future is much brighter for the PS4. But right now, right this second frozen in time, Microsoft has the better system. What led them to this position will make for a great book one day.
Microsoft is currently replacing people wholesale in the Xbox department. Sony proved that doing this can turn a division around completely (the story behind the PS3 launch is likely to be just as much a disaster). Hiring folks like Chris Charla and Jeff Rubenstein shows me that Microsoft are getting people who know games. Really, every decision they’ve made since a week after E3 has been good. The problem is everything they are stuck with from prior to then. I really love this system and hope to see MS keep pumping out good content for it. They just need to stop being Microsoft.
And Sony, you need to release some damn games.