It’s been a year since I picked up a launch Xbox One and much has changed in that time. In fact it could possibly be one of the most memorable periods in Microsoft’s console history after the mistakes of last year almost sunk their fortunes. Considering predictions made previously of their fate, it was worth going back to see how some of that played out.
Who’s now in charge?
During 2013 it seemed no one had a clear idea of what exactly the deal was with Xbox One DRM or how to explain it clearly. On top of that, the boss began recommending gamers to instead buy a 360 if they don’t have Internet access. It was a communications and PR disaster.
Whether the features of Xbox One at that time were great or not, the message was so blurry and inconsistent that all Sony had to say was they weren’t doing anything differently and walked away with the win.
After that and in the wake Satya Nadella’s elevation to Microsoft CEO, Phil Spencer was given the reins to take over running Xbox and Microsoft Studios. It’s been a fairly dramatic shift from last year’s chaos but a welcome one.
This year there has been a far stronger focus on ensuring the message is clear and Phil has often been at the forefront, even responding to gamers directly via his Twitter account. And with the way the Xbox team has been clawing back respectability with rapid firmware updates and competitive pricing/packages it’s like the underdog mentality from the classic Xbox and early 360 years is back again and it’s good to see.
There has still been the odd stumble (Tomb Raider exclusivity) but this year these have been the exceptions to the rule and not the status quo as in 2013.
Sales and numbers
Not a lot has been given away by MS in relation to console sales. After the amazing start made by PlayStation 4 it probably seems useless to compare inferior numbers even if they are better than the 360’s own launch. Microsoft are likely happy with their own progress and until they get some wins on the board are willing to keep quiet.
One thing worth mentioning is that the PS3 suffered greatly at its launch, in Australia it originally cost double the price a PS4 is going for now. A lot of potential early adopters at the time were put off by that but this time around there was less of a hurdle. If anything I think it shows that Sony still has that massive fan base willing to jump in early despite being royally screwing over early on with the PS3.
Providing a Kinect-less package and shaving a hundred dollars off the price is likely to improve things for the Xbox One as will the themed consoles; the white Sunset Overdrive bundle has quickly become a rare item. But the truth is they are going to have to accept second place in sales numbers for the time being despite the recent boosts to US console sales.
Though there are signs that Microsoft’s price war has had some success thanks to massive sales during the Black Friday sales across the USA. It will be interesting to see if that can carry into the Christmas sales period.
What came before
Comparing the Xbox One to the PlayStation 4 isn’t really where gamers should be focused. It is with it’s predecessor the Xbox 360; a console that could arguably be considered one of the most influential and innovative systems made.
As it stands now after more than seven years on the market, it is still an extremely flexible device that helped make online console gaming become treated as a first class citizen, made a curated digital marketplace work long before the iPhone and gave us firmware updates that radically changed the user experience. Microsoft’s ability to adapt the hardware made it a formidable product.
That legacy creates a lot of expectation in that the Xbox One should be at least in feature parity with the 360. At this stage though it doesn’t always get there. One of the big gripes lately is with voice chat and new party system which can be flaky and don’t always feel as convenient to use as it was on the 360.
But we have to remember that the 360 started with little idea of the direction the industry would head, even if it eventually influenced that direction. That the console was able to evolve as much as it did over the years is a remarkable achievement; we went from the original “blades” to avatars in the “New Xbox Experience”, then to Kinect and the modern Windows 8 style interface we have now.
What has been big this time with the new consoles is how some of their most talked about features don’t exist in the hardware at all but in the cloud. Twitch streaming was one of the first sales points to be brought up with successes on both PS4 and Xbox One.
Another that had been pushed here a lot in Xbox land was the idea of there being plenty of powerful servers in the cloud to bolster your console’s capabilities. The first example of that was the drivatar system in Forza Motorsport 5 which used it to manage your AI drivers away from the console. It was an interesting concept that may have been more to demonstrate that the cloud doesn’t always have to be just about hosting games.
However its first big success may have been that; with Titanfall we got to see the advantages of the cloud hosting solution in not only allowing a fairer means to host games but to leverage that with additional AI to fill out the warzones with even more combatants.
Towards the end of the year we were treated to blockbusters with Forza Horizon 2 and Sunset Overdrive. These games were not only great examples of what the Xbox One can produce but also more new ways to leverage Xbox Live.
Horizon took advantage of Forza 5‘s drivatars and pushed a more seamless multiplayer mode. Sunset Overdrive‘s co-op modes were were just the tip of the iceberg; the game also incorporated a neat video blog called Sunset TV which streamed regular game news updates via screens within the game.
What’s back again
2014 could be called the year of the retread; some of the biggest games of the year are old titles spruced up for the new consoles. Admittedly these are great games receiving the facelifts (including Tomb Raider and The Last of Us on PS4) but it is concerning that these may ultimately get more attention than new titles. Having a new platform relying on a suite of old games to prop up sales seems a risky route to take unless you are Nintendo.
Not all sequels can be looked at with cynicism though; Forza Horizon 2 is not only a great racer but might also be one of the best games on Xbox this year. I would not have expected to say that about a racer twelve months ago but this one delivers and I think it is brilliant.
Of course it is great to see Halo: The Master Chief Collection bring all the games back again in what could be the best value game package of the year but it seems the rush to get it out before the holidays has left us with half a game. Having Halo without working multiplayer is like taking a couple of wheels off your car; sure you might still get there but it’s going to be bumpy. And Halo‘s fans do not like bumpy rides.
What’s just plain wrong
Thanks to Forza Motorsport 5, it seemed that micro transactions could be the bane of gamers for 2014. Being put into a situation where you buy cars in DLC and then not be able to use them immediately unless you have the in game credit, or spend more money to purchase that credit, was eventually going to irk people badly and it finally did. Credit to Turn 10 though; they reversed the decision fairly quickly and compensated gamers for the trouble. Not seeing a trace of it in Forza Horizon 2 was a happy outcome.
The real standout in this area unfortunately has been the amount of games that have launched in an unfinished state; with bugs impacting single player campaigns or multiplayer inoperable. The worst offender this year may have been DriveClub on PS4 but Xbox did not walk away from this unscathed with Assassins Creed Unity, Call of Duty Advanced Warfare and Halo MCC causing grief to players all in the space of a single month.
Call of Duty Advanced Warfare was patched up quickly and is now a great experience all round, but the others are still being worked on a month after launching. The lessons of Battlefield 4 were not learned by all.
What do we think?
This has been a big year of change for Xbox. To see history repeat itself again with a console manufacturer shooting itself in the foot a the time of a console launch is a madness I didn’t think we would see at this level again since Ken Kutaragi told the press that gamers would be willing to work a second job to afford a PS3.
But it’s perhaps fortunate that Microsoft’s success with the 360, its substantial warchest (thanks to Office, Windows and Azure) and a recent drive to reinvigorate itself has allowed Xbox to navigate through that storm and leave the console in a position where it can now stand as a very strong option in a competitive market.
If the shoe were on the other foot and Sony had a PR disaster impact the PS4 launch, they may not have been able to recover in the same fashion of Xbox. We might then have been living in the less interesting world of a console monopoly.
As a result of this, history is ultimately rewarding us consumers as the big players both now have to fight hard to win us over and secure their position for this new generation of gaming. Next year is no doubt going to be even more rewarding.
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