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Opinion: Why the Xbox One u-turn is both a blessing and curse

Scrapping loathable DRM services can't be stupid, but it has also diluted Microsoft''s next-gen vision, writes Andy Robinson

On May 22nd in a Seattle airport bar I shared a reflective conversation with another journalist, as we attempted to deconstruct Microsoft's well executed, yet wildly controversial Xbox One unveiling.

Two months prior I'd been lucky enough to have also crossed the ocean to attend Sony's PS4 event. And I must confess; sitting in that terminal pub, staring jetlag-addled into my pint of Sam Adams, I was struggling to recall a single next-generation console game that, visually at least, had truly impressed me.

An immensely impressive E3 showing would eventually trample those concerns, but my departure lounge daydream remains nonetheless relevant.

For the first time in memory, an unprecedented 8-year console lifespan has resulted in next-generation launch titles that have been matched by, and in some cases exceeded by, the visual capabilities of common PCs.

Earlier this year Crytek CEO Cevat Yerli told CVG that he didn't expect next-gen launch titles to look much different from his own PC title Crysis 3. And he was right; Killzone: Shadow Fall, Forza 5 and co are all visually comparable to the four month-old shooter. In fact, on certain settings the Crytek FPS looks better than all of them.

So I turned on my bar stool and asked my writing peer the important question: If it's not fancy graphics that new machines can rely on to wow players' senses, then what, this time around, will define a 'next-gen' gaming experience?

Microsoft's brave, future gazing Xbox One digital policies offered an answer.

"I admire Microsoft's bold steps in designing a system which it believed would be relevant in a market wildly different to the one we know today"

Calamitous pre-owned restrictions aside, It was difficult not to admire Microsoft's bold, if not entirely sensible, steps in designing a system which it believed would be relevant in three, five, even ten years from now - in a market wildly different to the one we know today.

That meant an entirely connected audience, digital-only games with mandatory disc installs, a powerful Kinect sensor with every box, and the welcomed option to take your digital game library with you wherever you go.


If it wasn't polygons and shaders that would justify the $500 upgrade, then surely it would be a new model of daily game updates, persistent online worlds and games that react to the player's mood, heartbeat and finger movements.

Three weeks later and the mood among game developers was complicit. Off the record, some high-profile studios expressed to me their delight at finally being able to shape experiences for a truly connected console. Today's world might not be totally ready for Microsoft's digital vision, but there's little doubt that over the coming years its strategies will help shape the future of console gaming.

Yesterday's dramatic Xbox policy u-turn means that, sadly, that all-in digital future may take a little while longer.

Following unprecedented pressure from the media and the public, that divisive online check-in requirement has been axed. Discs will work just as they have done since 2005 (they must remain in the console). Titles can be downloaded on day of release, but users will no longer be able to share their digital games with up to ten family members.

Also, since discs are now required to run physical games, the ability to multi-task and near-instantly switch between games has been severely weakened.

"Microsoft has weakened the underpinning features that made its system truly next gen"

But the most disappointing consequence is that, since an online connection is no longer mandatory on Xbox One, those evolving digital worlds and 'cloud-powered' single-player titles will almost certainly be less comprehensive than initially promised.

Games studios would certainly be willing to update games to a one hundred per cent online audience, like on PC, but what happens when that population is halved? As with the original Kinect and hard disks on Xbox 360, a divided audience now means that the dream of releasing something raw and iterating on it (which, as Minecraft proves, people actually like) has become a lot more complex.

Forcing digital rules on the incompatible physical market was always the main issue with Xbox One, and in that respect the u-turn brings welcome news for the pre-owned market (though less so for publishers and developers). However, by rewriting its vision, Microsoft has weakened the underpinning features that made its system truly next gen.

As it stands, that futuristic, always-connected box we fantasised about in a Seattle bar has been transformed into something more familiar - and it's arguably only a Kinect-shaped omission away from the exact set-up we've been using since 2005. And surely, that can't be the future of console gaming.