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The Next Xbox – Microsoft’s Battle With The Consumer

This past Monday, my Xbox LIVE gold subscription expired. Normally, I’d have jumped on it and made sure I’d either had a rolling subscription or a cheap code purchased online, but this time, I couldn’t bring myself to fork out the cash to renew for another year. My four-year tenure with Microsoft’s “premium” service has come to an end. I can’t foresee a time in the coming months when Microsoft can woo me back either, because based on recent events, it seems they’re waging some kind of war on their own consumers.

Until yesterday, a quick browse across the gaming press, forums and blogs would have you believe Microsoft were in trouble right. A Twitter-happy creative director all but confirming the highly controversial rumoured “online-only” feature in the as-yet unannounced Next Xbox, and the alleged price points of $500 (which would translate to around £400/450 in the current market) are pouring petrol to a fire that’s creating an awful lot of smoke for the gaming press to see, and from my point of view, giving Microsoft a lot of work to do in preparation for E3. There is a groundswell of support for Sony from a huge number of developers on the back of GDC, with the general consensus being that Microsoft are being increasingly arrogant in the run up to the new machine (codenamed “Durango”)’s release, similar to Sony’s attitude that led to the shaky PS3 launch.

Firstly though, let’s talk about that incident last week. A Microsoft employee who really should’ve known better typed something on Twitter that he probably shouldn’t have done about an “online-only” console. The fallout was quite unlike anything I’ve seen recently, and it’s almost exclusively thanks to Microsoft’s extended silence on their next-gen plans. Forums exploded with the news, primarily thanks to the flippant attitude of Adam Orth, the employee in question. Admittedly, the conversation between Orth and a Bioware developer may well have been “a bit of banter between mates”, but it should not have been held in a public forum such as Twitter. Orth’s initial comments and the following (rather poor) analogies were open for all to see, and were not directed at anyone in particular. From absolutely all angles, it looks like the next Xbox is going to need an internet connection to do anything at all, whether that’s play a single player game or indulge in Bungie’s hugely ambitious multiplayer-focused Destiny.  It was revealed early on Thursday morning that Orth has left Microsoft, although it is not clear if he resigned or was fired for the comments that were made.

The backlash to this saga was enormous, with many vocal consumers saying they would not purchase a product with such a strict policy. Many different sources were all “confirming” that you would need an internet connection to do anything on Durango, and if it went down, you would have three minutes to find the connection again, or you would be taken out of your game and thrown into a troubleshooting screen, regardless of whether you were playing an online multiplayer game or not. The sheer number of factors that this threw into the mix was dizzying. There could be issues at Microsoft’s end, at the consumer’s end, in the middle with the ISP, all of which would essentially leave the end user with a brick until service was restored. Immediately this led to questions of a PSN-style attack, which if this system were in place would’ve left millions of gamers unable to play a single thing for over a month. Similarly, it led to comparisons to SimCity and Diablo3’s disastrous launches on the PC. Both primarily single-player franchises which were largely unplayable (and in the case of SimCity, still not entirely fixed) for a long time after launch. Xbox LIVE has traditionally struggled at Christmas due to the influx of new users, and the thought of the system buckling, leaving potentially millions of consoles useless, was a tough thought for most people.

A few folks took to the internet to defuse the furore, including Paul Thurrott, a long time and well respected tech journalist who has connections within Microsoft. Paul compared the next Xbox to the likes of the Roku box in a recent tweet, saying “Roku is always on, where’s the outrage?”. The major difference is that the Roku (And AppleTV etc) is designed exclusively for the purpose of streaming media. No connection, no content. The Xbox was designed to play games. Games purchased on a disc and played on a TV. At no point is an internet connection required to do that, and this is where Microsoft appear to be falling down. Of course, there could be another angle to the “online-only” story that hasn’t been announced yet which could leave all of the detractors with egg on their face, but the story as the majority see it now does not paint a pretty picture. Thurrott also hinted that the price of Durango may well be in the region of $500, or $300 with a subscription. Without knowing the price of the PS4, we can’t draw realistic conclusions, but it’s safe to say both boxes may well be a bit pricey!

One piece of solid news to come out this week was the decision by Microsoft to sell off its IPTV services, and “focus our consumer TV strategy on the Xbox”. A number of prominent games journalists have a suspicion that Durango is going to be a cable box primarily, and a games machine as an afterthought. Whilst this may be connected to the “online-only” rumour, I can’t see how it’s going to work for Microsoft outside of the USA. The content providers simply aren’t available in the UK to make something like this worthwhile. On Wednesday, the pendulum swung back the other way and multiple sites reported that Durango will not require an internet connection to launch games and applications. However, it will focus on being a go-between for your TV and cable box, which correlates directly with this news. The manner in which this was put out suggests to me that it was a controlled leak by Microsoft, potentially as a means of severe damage control, but I think the damage has already been done with a lot of consumers. Some outlets are still reporting that the “always-on” connection will still be needed, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see what Microsoft confirm.

Why then, is my decision to not renew Xbox Live GOLD related to all of the above? Put simply, there’s not enough to keep me there. The Durango unveiling will have to be pretty mind-blowing to get me to part with my cash again. I don’t play as many online games any more on Xbox LIVE. I’ve grown tired of Call of Duty lobbies filled with pre-pubescent Americans telling me how many times they’ve violated members of my family, or questioning my sexual and ethnic orientations. I know, party chat is a great way to avoid all of that, but ultimately the experience is still the same. Microsoft hide simple features behind an unnecessary pay wall. Want to watch something on Netflix? All of the other consoles on the market right now let you do that with no charge, other than your £6 a month for the service. However, with LIVE, I need to pay a further £3. The “war on the consumer” line at the top of the article may be hyperbole, but Microsoft need to take a look at what Sony are offering with Playstation Plus (of which I’m a member) and seriously adjust their online strategy. Sony offer the vast majority of LIVE’s services for free, and if you’re happy to pay, you get things like cloud saves (as with LIVE Gold), and access to full PS3 titles thrown in for the same price. Given the reports about Microsoft’s arrogance to developers with regard to Durango, I can’t see anything changing with their stance on multiplayer gaming. After all, if people are prepared to pay, why change? Well, there’s no way that I’m prepared to continue to pay the same amount of money for something with so many features being offered up elsewhere for free.

With the Durango reveal set to take place on 21 May (according to all sources),  they’ve obviously got a lot to bring to the table. With the negative buzz surrounding the “online-only” rumours however, it’s got to be one hell of an event to turn a large number of gamers around. If both the big next-gen consoles end up costing in the region of £350/400, the vast majority of gamers will need to choose between a PS4 or a Durango unit. With both machines rumoured to be similarly spec’d, the individual features and exclusive games of the machines will decide the early front-runner. If the initial rumours are confirmed, and one of the “Features” of Durango could stop you playing any games based on any number of factors beyond your control, Microsoft might as well hand the early running to Sony and the PS4 on a platter.

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