People are cheering.
Sincere, enthusiastic cheers. People clapping with a level of excitement you normally hear from kids who see a pile of presents under a Christmas tree. There’s even the occasional “Woo!” from the crowd. From the audio alone, something is obviously worth all this noise. Something new, something exciting. What could it be? What incredible thing has people so worked up?
A man is standing on a stage changing television channels with his voice. At the time, some people considered it revolutionary. Today, it seems ridiculous that anybody cared.
This month marks the three year anniversary of the very first reveal of the Xbox One. In Redmond, Washington, livestreamed around the world, we learned the name, functionalities and design of the latest generation of video game console. Microsoft saw it as a bold step into the future. A new way to experience entertainment, communication and commerce for everyone and it was delivered with a conviction that indicated this platform would be a leader in the 21st century for all others to follow.
Everyone else saw it as a confusing mess. In the hours, days and weeks that followed, chaos reigned. It costs how much? It’s always online? Is Kinect mandatory for it to work or not? You can’t play used games? Wait, you can but only if the Xbox checks if you’re online? All the time or once a day? Why is Phil Harrison saying one thing but Major Nelson saying another? Where are the games? What the hell is fantasy football? Why is that man smiling? WHY IS THAT MAN SMILING?
Since the unveiling, Microsoft’s subsequent tsunami of reversals on its all-in-one, always-online future was flat out bonkers. A month after showing the world the Xbox One in all its glory, the mandatory online functionality was removed, along with any restrictions on used games and region-locking. A few weeks later, Microsoft announced that their revolutionary all-seeing eye Kinect would no longer be required for the Xbox One to function. But Kinect will still be included with every Xbox One and that would never change. Except a year later Microsoft started selling Xbox Ones without Kinect. In October 2015, Microsoft claimed the “vast majority” of Kinect owners still used the device. Less than a month later, the Kinect hand gesture function was removed via a dashboard update.
A mere twenty-four hours after the reveal of the Xbox One, Microsoft’s Don Mattrick told the Wall Street Journal that “If you’re backwards compatible, you’re really backwards”. At E3 2015, backwards compatibility was announced for Xbox One and has become one of the more exciting aspects of its design. As it stands today, even the name of the console makes no sense. No longer is it the One device for all your entertainment. It’s virtually unrecognizable compared to the box that was first shown to the world in 2013.
After all these twists and turns, the Xbox platform should be dead in the court of public opinion. Microsoft’s video game division should be cast into the annals of history alongside the Sega Saturn, Guitar Hero DS and holy hell do you remember somebody actually made a game about the murderous private military contractor Blackwater and sold it for money? How gross was that? Did you buy a copy? How’s it feel knowing you’ll go straight to hell one day?
But it’s not dead. Somehow, it’s hanging in there like a string of Cliff Bleszinski’s angry tweets or a season pass nobody wants. It almost feels like the Xbox One is now being manufactured out of sheer obligation rather than any sort of passion for a revolutionary future. How does it remain? Is it the software? There has indeed been some great games developed for the Xbox One. Ori And The Blind Forest, Sunset Overdrive, Halo 5, Quantum Break. Hold on, there has to be more than that. There’s got to be a slew of games that you can only get on Xbox One that aren’t timed exclusives or also available on PC.
Not counting the titles I’ve already mentioned or Kinect games, there’s the troubled Halo: Master Chief Collection, Forza Motorsport 5, Rare Replay, Crimson Dragon, Powerstar Golf, Raiden V, Fighter Within, Voice Commander (North America only) and Azito x Tatsunoko Legends (Japan only). Despite double-checking and then triple-checking, I’m 99% sure that’s your lot. Games that you can only get on an Xbox One. For almost three years. Any way you cut it, that’s a positively tragic lineup.
You can argue about console wars and Wii U vs PS4 all you like but for Microsoft to have more games about attacking things with motion controls than Halo or Gears Of War games over the course of three years is downright bananas. And that’s just for people who aren’t tired of those franchises quite yet. Oh boy.
But what if you are? What if you’ve had your fill of four Gears games (not counting the remake), ten Halo games and eight Forza games? It’s possible you just might want something fresh and new. On that day in 2013, if you didn’t want those games or Call Of Duty, you pinned your hopes on the newly announced Quantum Break which was revealed that same afternoon. In 2016, Quantum Break has just been released. In terms of Xbox One exclusives, those three years were as lean as Dom’s wife in Gears Of War 2.
If there’s one universal memory of the day of the Xbox One reveal, it’s Don Mattrick. At the time, he was President of Microsoft’s Interactive Entertainment unit and ostensibly the face of the new console. Between May and June 2013, Mattrick copped the brunt of people’s outrage in regards to the Xbox One culminating in the now infamous Geoff Keighley E3 interview where Mattrick said “Fortunately, we have a product for people who aren’t able to get some form of connectivity, it’s called Xbox 360”. A quote which immediately ranked high in the realm of colossal PR disasters. By telling their loyal fans around the world that you weren’t worth their time if you didn’t have a decent, reliable internet connection, Mattrick was instantly ridiculed and entered the halls of internet legend.
Less than a month later, Mattrick was gone. A lateral move to a $50 million-per-year salary at mobile gaming giant Zynga, it would be two more years before he moved on again. His last known public appearance was co-hosting Vancouver’s BC Innovation Council’s summit in January 2016 which showcased, among other things, augmented reality unicorns on smartphones. Since then, there’s been barely a whisper. As far as the internet is concerned, Don Mattrick is staying out of the spotlight.
Yusuf Mehdi, who was then the head of Xbox Marketing and the man who spearheaded the TV via Xbox One with Kinect aspect of the unveiling, has not gone far. Now the Corporate Vice-President of the Windows and Devices Group of Microsoft, Mehdi spent months following the Xbox One reveal defending the reversals and changes to their vision for the future. But despite his best efforts, he’ll always be remembered as the man who said “TV” dozens of times that day instead of “games”.
I happily own an Xbox One but to be honest, I’m increasingly unsure as to why. I had fun with Titanfall back in the day but since that very bright light fizzled out, this box is now a Minecraft and WWE Network machine. Two things I can access on pretty much any other device. When it was unveiled, it seemed the Xbox One was designed to appeal to any possible human being that has ever existed with its Frankenstein-esque melding of TV, sports, voice commands, motion controls, movies and er, games. The presentation also focused heavily on Skype, which made sense since Microsoft shelled out $8.5 billion for it just two years prior. But despite them spending more money than I’ll ever see in ten lifetimes, I still have never used Skype on Xbox One. And as for the Kinect camera, I think I sold it for around $30 at a Cash Converters last year.
The trajectory of the Xbox One in the last three years is something you could not invent. Well, I suppose you could if you were an escaped lunatic trying your best to destroy the legacy of the Xbox in between babbling about chemtrails and making human flesh toilet roll holders. To try and explain to a complete stranger just how Microsoft went about designing this device followed by all the events that came afterwards would be an exercise in futility. It’s a deranged and unbelievable comedy of errors.
It’s not all negative though. The Xbox One versions of Elite Dangerous and The Long Dark are astounding. The instant switching between games and apps still works mostly as advertised. The Xbox Game Preview Program acts as an Early Access venue for more obscure games and hopefully it will continue and thrive for all types of developers. And this year’s E3 potentially has some big game announcements as well as a rumoured hardware upgrade. Fingers crossed that this year they drop excitement bombs big enough to take your head off.
Until then, that weird box that sits under my TV will remain. It’s not what it was meant to when it was first shown to the world in May 2013 and it is certainly unsure of what it wants to be today.
It’s still early days. This generation is just getting started. Right now, the Xbox One is a piece of technology that’s simply clinging on in the hopes of finding an identity. Nevertheless, I’ll cheer it on. With sincere, enthusiastic cheers. Because despite its almost suicidal beginnings, it still has a crazy amount of untapped potential. Let’s hope it doesn’t go to waste.
This article was originally posted on Kotaku Australia on 23 May 2016.