Creative Accounting


Microsoft dropped a pretty large bomb last week. Effective the first week of June, it will be possible to purchase an Xbox One with no Kinect. Colour me amazed. More after the break.

So, this announcement is coming off the back of exceptionally anemic sales numbers for the Xbox One. This is largely, in my opinion, a result of the terrible showing the system had at E3 and other shows last year where Microsoft announced some less-than-favourable marketing strategies for their new console.

I am, of course, talking about the Orwellian vibe they gave the Kinect in the first place, coupled with the system turning into a big, black paperweight if it couldn’t phone home and the removal of the ability to buy, trade and loan used games.

So, let’s look at this for a moment and see how Microsoft responded to these initial PR issues. Then we’ll see how they could have been avoided. Finally, we’ll look at their latest move, and assess whether or not it bodes well for them. (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.)

At E3 in June of 2013, Microsoft was set to unveil what we already knew must be coming – the new Xbox.

I’ll admit, I was pretty excited. I’m a fan of my 360, and I loved what were, at the time, the exclusives. Namely Mass Effect. (My friends can tell you I practically drool at the mouth any time someone says the word “Normandy”.)

But I have to admit, it was the beginning of the end for me. They announced what I consider to be a disreputable business model.

I was being told that my system had to have a 24/7 connection to the Internet. That in and of itself isn’t a big deal. I have DSL 10/15 (Shut up, I live in Canada) and unlimited bandwidth. But this struck me as silly. What if I had an outage? What if there was a storm and I had power restored before internet? Could I play my system? No. It would have frozen up, causing me to have to wait ’til my access was restored. Then I’d get to sit in a queue to have my console switched back on by the mothership.

Could I buy used games from my local independent retailer or my local EBGames where I used to be employed? Nope. Not unless I wanted to pay a fee on top of purchasing a game.

And please, I don’t buy for a second the idea that this is a form of DRM. No offence to the third-party developer, but once the game has been sold? You’ve made your money. What I choose to do with my software at the point is my business (providing I’m not infringing on copyright, of course).

But to have the likes of EA with their hands in my back pockets waiting to accept a “modest fee” for using software they’ve already been paid for was ludicrous. Absolute insanity.

(Aside: I recognize that DRM is nothing new, and there are already forms of re-upping your software out there. Assassin’s Creed 3 does this. If I want to play online, I need to purchase a new passport. This was dropped for AC4. But it’s not unreasonable. I didn’t purchase the game new. If I want access to all the digital goodies the collector’s edition would have come with new, I am certainly interested in that small fee. In fact, I paid it happily. However, not paying it didn’t bar me from the single player experience. Though in retrospect I wish someone had because the game was atrocious.)

Less than a week after E3, Microsoft was already on the back foot, and, for the life of me, I can’t think of a better response than the one they gave, even if it was milquetoast as best. In the release, they thank gamers for their passion. Their passion?

I’m sorry, Microsoft, but what you witnessed wasn’t passion. Passion is when the community decides the ending they received isn’t up to par and they hold the developer accountable.

This was an outcry of rage. We were being told how, when and where to enjoy our hobby. It was corporate over-reach run amok. We spoke out. It was fixed. But not before Sony had its day in the sun.

Sony, during the same conference, really didn’t need to do much to appear better than Microsoft. Their four-point plan went something like this:

1. Show up.
2. Tout merits of system.
3. Point at the Xbox and say “We aren’t doing that.”
4. Profit.

Easiest. Show. Ever.

Ever since then, Microsoft has been playing catch-up, and now we’re starting to see the results. By the end of the second quarter, Sony had sold an impressive 7 million units, accompanied by nearly 21 million pieces of software. Microsoft, on the other hand, was approaching just 5 million. (Please note I recognize the three month difference. But let’s face it, it’s not like more systems get sold after the holiday rush than during it.)

I attribute this to both the difference in price and the aforementioned PR issues.

Now, however, Microsoft is attempting a new stratagem. The Kinect, their motion-sensing all-seeing eye of Sauron, is being removed from the bundle. This drops the price of the console by $100. They believe, I think, that this well help sales figures.

I believe they are right in the short-term. In the long term, however, they are crippling themselves.

Developers are, I assume, still going to be using the same kit they’ve had since square one. This is going to cause something I greatly dislike: delays.

Why delays?

Well, now we have to have two development cycles in one. One that allows the game to played with Kinect activity, and one that doesn’t. This can work perfectly fine if the framework is already in place to do this anyways (see Mass Effect 3, which was the best use of the microphone I’ve seen), but is going to cause delays in all other areas.

Then we are going to run into the issue of exclusivity – games that require the Kinect. These already existed on the 360, but not on triple-A titles. That’s not a guarantee here. I feel bad for the third parties out there who are now saying “Well, now we need to adjust the software to allow for controller input for certain things.”

I understand the desire to make the console more affordable. The PS4 is certainly my choice at the moment (especially for its ability to upload to YouTube and stream to Twitch), but the price point isn’t the stopping point for me (though I concede it could be for others).

What’s stopping me is the flip-flopping. Microsoft is starting to seem like it doesn’t know what it’s doing with the Xbox One, which is a shame given the fun I had with the Xbox and the Xbox 360. I enjoyed the hell out of both consoles.

They need to start a back-to-basics campaign to save themselves at this point. A marketing campaign that says “We are about games and the playing thereof.”

I also suggest they keep the Kinect as part of the console. I think it’s a great idea that hasn’t had its time in the sun yet. It needs to be given to developers who can make the most of it in certain aspects. Like the giving of orders in Mass Effect 3, or the interaction Lionhead Studios showed with Milo so many years ago.

Being able to track human movement isn’t important, and to do it to the degree that would allow total immersion is far too expensive at the moment. Couple that with the complete lack of force-feedback for the Kinect and, frankly, I’d rather use a controller.

Use it for what it is. An addon. Use it in games like LA Noire. I would have loved being able to walk to something I could pick up and look at and using gestures to do that with the Kinect. That would have made me pick the game up for my 360 as opposed to my PS3.

Use it for mini-games. The hacking in Mass Effect 2 would have been fun with the Kinect. This is what it excels at. Not being the controller. Motion sensitivity works when a controller is used in conjunction. This is why the Wii Motion+ is still the best iteration. This is why Sony copied Nintendo last generation.

There is something to be said for innovation, but not when it comes at the expense of gameplay. There is something to be said for console security, but not when it alienates players at the expense of making a corporation feel secure. There is something to be said for DRM, but not when it stops me playing a game I paid for.

Microsoft is learning some important lessons right now. I hope they take them to heart. I already want an Xbox One. I already want a Kinect. Now, I want a reason to need them.

I’m looking to Microsoft’s E3 showing to deliver that.

Creative Accounting

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