Microsoft blew the Xbox One launch on every possible level

After watching Microsoft’s Xbox One unveil yesterday, I came away with one overwhelming impression: Redmond doesn’t understand its audience anymore. If the company is going to fix this mess it’s just made for itself, it’s going to need the best damned E3 in the history of video gaming. The problem with the Xbox One launch isn’t that the features Microsoft announced are bad, rather it’s the ocean of things Microsoft didn’t say.

Microsoft showed us some nifty capabilities (voice commands, fast task switching), and some tidbits on how the Windows kernel and Xbox operating system have been cross-leveraged to create a different product. That’s all well and good. What the company utterly failed to demonstrate, however, was any compelling narrative as to why I should want to put one of these systems in my living room next year.

Yes, the Xbox One can seamlessly switch between content, but why would I shove the TV content over by a third of the screen when I can pick up my smartphone and surf to IMDb or Wikipedia if I have a question? Try doing the former with a significant other (or at least with my significant other). It won’t end well. Skyping on the TV is nice, but it’s not a feature I’ll ever, ever use.

Why didn’t Microsoft demonstrate how fast switching can be used to open walkthroughs or YouTube videos when you get stuck playing a game? That’s a legitimately awesome feature. Even on a PC, not every game responds well to an Alt-Tab – there are times I’ve used my phone to look up game data because the game engine crashes if it loses focus. Why didn’t Microsoft link this feature back to gaming?

Developer ecosystem, OS capabilities

When Microsoft was bringing the Xbox 360′s ecosystem online, its XNA development studio was a critical piece of the puzzle. XNA was built and marketed to allow individuals to build games for Xbox Live Arcade and other Windows devices. Now XNA is gone, and with the Xbox One launching “sometime this year,” its replacement took centre stage at the launch event today. Just kidding! Actually, it’s just gone, and Microsoft hasn’t said a word about what replaces it.

If you think this doesn’t matter, it’s because you haven’t thought through the implications of the hybrid OS model the Xbox One uses. The Xbox One isn’t just a console with the capabilities of a PC, it’s an x86 device running a customised operating system based on Windows. Can it run apps? Can it actually install Virtual Studio and self-compile/test its own code? Will Microsoft integrate Windows Explorer-level network sharing, so you can see your Xbox as a device on the home network and copy files to and from it as you would another system?

These aren’t make-or-break capabilities, but being able to use the Xbox One as a computer for the purposes of viewing email, PDFs, or even Powerpoint presentations could be a really nice bonus to the usage proposition. No need to keep the laptop handy if you’re expecting an email. If Kinect 2.0 is as powerful as Microsoft implies, it might be able to handle speech-to-text conversion – and that opens up new possibilities for the Xbox One as an access device for the legally blind.

You’d think Microsoft would take at least a little time to talk about how it intends to leverage its enormous Windows ecosystem to enhance offerings on the Xbox One and vice versa. And you’d be wrong. But the company did confirm that Kinect is mandatory in all games, and since the system never turns off, Kinect is actually on – and potentially spying on you – all the time.

This is a malware risk, for obvious reasons, but it’s also a new profit centre for the company, which filed a patent last year on a method of using Kinect to monitor an entire room to confirm that everyone watching a movie or other content has purchased an individual license for watching that content.

Instead of Gears of War, we got Big Brother. But wait – there’s more.

The hardware and gaming unveil that wasn’t

See if you can spot the difference. Here’s Microsoft’s press release for the original Xbox 360 announcement on 12 May, back in 2005:

“With more than one teraflop of system-floating point performance, a three-core PowerPC-based CPU for the most-advanced artificial intelligence and physics processing, a custom ATI graphics processor, and more than 512MB of memory for the ultimate in visual fidelity, the Xbox 360 hardware is a perfect blend of power, elegance and balance. Fabled game studios such as BioWare Corp., Bizarre Creations Ltd., Bungie Studios and Rare Ltd., as well as legendary Japanese game creators Hironobu Sakaguchi, Tetsuya Mizuguchi, and Yoshiki Okamoto, are harnessing the powerful Xbox 360 platform to create exclusive games for Microsoft Game Studios. Equally commanding, game-changing publishers such as 2K Games, Activision Publishing Inc., Capcom Co. Ltd., Electronic Arts, Tecmo Inc., Namco Hometek Inc., Rockstar Games, SEGA of America Inc., THQ and Ubisoft Entertainment – just to name a few – are flocking to Xbox 360.”

It took less than two weeks for the first in-depth articles to go up detailing every aspect of the CPU and GPU. Compare that to what Microsoft’s PR department released yesterday:

“An eight-core, x86 processor and more than 5 billion transistors helps make lag and load times a thing of the past so you can instantly jump between a game and your entertainment at lightning speed or run a host of apps right alongside your game with no loss in performance.”

Measuring system performance based on transistor counts is so bass-ackwards, they ought to have scored the unveil with Kriss Kross. Adding insult to injury, the company is playing coy with facts we already know. As of the time this article was published, Wired’s story still claims the Xbox One is based on a 5 billion transistor SoC built on 40nm technology. Engadget says 28nm. GCN and Kabini were both native 28nm designs, which means AMD would’ve had to do entirely different products for both CPU and GPU to make a 40nm product. It’s not a trivial mistake. Someone’s wrong here, but Microsoft can’t be bothered to tell us who it is or give out the information publicly.

Tech specs, in and of themselves, aren’t the best way to build user engagement, but they’re a set of figures that people pay attention to. Talking about hardware is a natural way to talk about software, and talking about software is the best way to start talking about games. And games are what we’re here to talk about. Sure, instant-on, fast-switching, and communications software are interesting, but no one buys an Xbox so they can Skype grandma. Instead of major game unveils, we got nothing but pre-rendered footage.

Yes, the big game unveils are coming at E3, but just how rough is the current console if Microsoft can’t debut more than a couple of trailers using nothing but pre-rendered footage just weeks before the E3 date? More to the point, what does that say about the likely quality of the games in question? EA is guaranteed to vomit up a sports title for every platform in existence (sans Nintendo) and anything with “Call of Duty” stamped on it is so derivative, you already beat it in 2004.

The two games worth mentioning? One, Quantum Break, was demoed for roughly 30 seconds and consisted almost entirely of FMV with a single scene of a ship hitting a bridge (see the above image). Forza 5 was legitimately gorgeous (pictured below), if you like racing. That’s it. Steven Spielberg showed up to talk about how excited he is to be working on a Halo TV show, as if this had anything to do with the Xbox One.

Again, the problem here isn’t that there’s something wrong with racing games or Call of Duty. These games sell millions of copies. The problem is, when it came time to show off the depth and breadth of the new console, Microsoft dropped the ball, tripped on it, and broke its own arm.

Glimmers of hope

The good news is that journalists who were able to go backstage and get hands-on time with the console came back with a lot of positive feedback. Clearly the console has some strong points. The panel Q&A sessions that took place after the main event were another place to get details on the Kinect sensor and controller. Feedback on both of these items was quite good. Clearly Microsoft has put a lot of work into creating better peripherals that drive better gaming.

But that doesn’t change the fact that the functions and capabilities of the Xbox One that needed to be front-and-centre yesterday were pushed off into after-event panels or doled out as exclusives, while the actual event was a flaccid illustration of a few cool concepts and next to nothing in the way of a unifying experience.

The Xbox One is technologically impressive, but I expected that. It integrates capabilities that the Xbox 360 could only dream of and it’s clearly designed for a more flexible software base. Well and good. Yesterday, I was waiting for Microsoft to articulate a reason why I should buy this console. Not “Buy it instead of a PS4 or a Wii U.” Buy it, period.

I’m still waiting.