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How Microsoft has turned the Xbox One into the Xbox 720

Over the past couple of months, Microsoft has been through hell and back. The company announced its next-gen console to minimal fanfare, thanks to some seemingly draconian policies, while its competitor seemingly garnered all the positive energy the gaming industry had simply by staying the course. Amazingly, Microsoft rolled over on the policies it stood staunchly behind for the past couple of months, and now the Xbox One is more like an Xbox 720. We have so many questions – most prominently, what could’ve been.

The Xbox One is now just an Xbox 720

Is that a bad thing? Some people certainly think so. The name didn’t change, but the game sure did. Technically, the game is unchanged, in that the new (draconian or revolutionary, depending upon your taste) policies – recurring online check-ins and used games DRM – were removed. Now, the Xbox One is “simply” a more powerful console that will be host to the next generation of Xbox games.

As we’ve previously covered, the Xbox One’s specs – though nothing to scoff at – are inferior to those of the PS4, and will cost you an extra £100. However, every gamer knows that hardware power isn’t what makes a good game. So, gamers can now breathe a sigh of relief in knowing that the destiny of the Xbox One – a games console – will be left up to the games rather than prematurely decided by various forms of DRM.

Unfortunately, one of the policies Microsoft did not seem to roll over on is that of indie developers being able to self-publish. Phil Fish, creator of Fez, already announced that the sequel would not appear on the Xbox One because of this policy. Ostracising the indie community, which is currently as strong as it has ever been, isn’t the best way for a destiny determined by games to begin.

The Xbox One’s new media features are now unclear

In Don Mattrick’s letter that overruled the undesirable policies, he did state that the Xbox One will no longer have the family-sharing feature. This is, perhaps, an unfortunate loss, but certainly not worth the used games DRM, constant always-on check-ins, and mandatory Blu-ray-sized game installs on a relatively meagre 500GB hard drive (that’s only 10 dual-layer Blu-ray games). What will happen to all of the non-game media features – such as the cable box passthrough and live TV overlay – was not addressed. Hopefully, this means all of those features will remain unchanged – or perhaps, given the monumental scope of the policy reversal, maybe Microsoft itself doesn’t yet know the fate of these features.

What the Xbox One could’ve been

As someone who not only has a top-end gaming PC (on which most big name Xbox games eventually release), and was never quite drawn in by the genres Microsoft’s console is known for – sports, shooters, big men in big armour, big space men in big space armour – I didn’t so much mind the new policies. Sure, they seemed silly and arbitrary (and still do, mostly), but Microsoft kept referencing some “vision of the future” for the games industry that these policies and the Xbox One would herald. The company never disclosed details other than family sharing of games – a thing that Microsoft could easily re-implement similar to how Sony allowed five PS3 accounts to share games for the majority of the console’s life. So, what could that supposedly revolutionary vision have involved?

The first guess would be cheaper game pricing similar to Steam and its vaunted sales. The used games DRM, in theory, would prevent money from going directly to retailers instead of developers, which means games could be priced lower since (also in theory) more money would be coming in. Microsoft didn’t mention this, and it could’ve easily quelled the vitriol against the used games DRM: “Do you want to pay £30 instead of £40 for a new, next-gen game?” Yes please.

An always-on console could also force gamers to participate in some kind of MMO-style persistent world. We all know MMO-like functionality is the future of gaming – games like Destiny are already making this a core feature with its public battle zones – and there has been an increasing emphasis on multiplayer online gaming in almost every single high budget game for this generation. Imagine Sony’s oft-ridiculed PlayStation Home, the “PlayStation social MMO.” Home always had good ideas, but never quite found footing – mainly because a marketing team probably shouldn’t make an MMO.

Now, imagine Home, but worth more than a curious exploration a few times a year. Sony wanted Home to be the PS3′s operating system, rather than the minimalistic XMB. If a console was always connected, this kind of dream could become a reality. Granted, you can do this now and update the client with the world every time you log in as with any standard MMO, but that initial minute or two of everything loading – textures, players, your character and its equipment, weather effects, the UI, and so on – would severely hamper the usefulness of an operating system. If a console was always-on, an MMO-like operating system would run smoothly. In fact, automatic updates across every piece of media on the console could take place without you, never forcing you to come home from a long day of work ready to play, only to be blindsided by a 1.9GB update on a slow console network.

Microsoft’s image

Though Microsoft likely made many gamers happy in reversing its unwanted policies, the image of the company is forever sullied. Gamers will likely remember and fear a move like this from Microsoft for a long time, as Microsoft showed it is very capable of implementing what are seen as terrible features. The company may be forever saddled with the phrase: “Yeah, but Sony wouldn’t pull that kind of crap.” In effect, Microsoft is now that ex you have that did something traumatising to you, but is trying to make amends; either on the surface or deep down, you know that ex is capable of serious damage.

We’ll likely never know the real reasons that Microsoft decided to implement these policies, then stubbornly stand against every gamer that felt wronged for two or so months, even insulting and being condescending to them in the process. All we do know is that the Xbox One is no longer what Microsoft initially envisioned. We’ll find out whether or not that’s a good thing this Christmas.