Microsoft's spectacular u-turn on Kinect yesterday took us all rather by surprise, and when it happened we ran the gamut of emotional responses from incredulity to consumer joy to bitter disappointment to cautious positivity. The Xbox One continues to move further and further away from the brief laid out in the botched presser that streamed worldwide this time last year, abandoning its contentious digitally-focused future riddled with gimmickry for something a little purer.
The message from Redmond over the past few weeks appears to be one of cleaning house, getting rid of the stench that Don Mattrick left behind, and clearing out the cobwebs that had built up around Microsoft's comms array. In Phil Spencer, Microsoft appear to have found their relatable Nice Guy.
Ditching Kinect is a disappointment because it once again showcases the disingenuous manner in which the Xbox One and its bundled camera were launched. Kinect went from being integral to essential to optimal, and now, to a luxury. Creating a Kinect-less Xbox One package is an initiative to be celebrated -- we love choice here on Dealspwn, and anything that gives consumers more power to game the way that they want, potentially opening up the Xbox One's audience, is surely a good thing. But it leaves a bad taste in the mouth on one hand because it feels like the past year has been a waste in certain quarters. Instead of working to make Kinect an integral part of things (and the UI is actually utterly broken without those voice commands) it seems as though Microsoft have sort of just given up. Now there's no incentive to develop games for the camera, no guarantee that the install base will have the camera to hand as Kinect-less bundles begin to roll out, and a tacit admission that mandatory Kinect, however cool it might be, is wasted in the console space.
Bring on the shovelware.
But as disappointing as Microsoft's squandered opportunity is, the fact that they wasted a year doing bugger all while the camera was compulsory means its easy to say goodbye to the thing without shedding the merest hint of a tear. And so, UI aside, Kinect is dead weight -- if we can now pick up an Xbox One without the camera at a cheaper price, then that's a win. Better yet, it's another gimmick out of the way that we no longer have to talk about, meaning that we can get to the games. And Phil Spencer is all about the games.
This has been a year of tossing and turning and flipping and flopping for Microsoft. But if Don Mattrick's reign as the Head of Xbox was typified by the seeming prioritisation of multimedia over games, then it looks like Spencer is here to rectify that. Since his promotion at the end of March, the word from Spencer has been "revisiting".
“There are two sides to the ledger,” he said in an in-house interview with Larry Hryb back in April. “There is a lot of learning that I did as a leader in the organisation, when I just heard how our message resonated with people and some of the decisions that we made, that I think were actually the wrong decisions, and we had to revisit those decisions.”
But it's clear that there was a timeframe in Spencer's mind even then. E3 is the biggest event in the gaming calendar, it's all about making noise. But the last couple of shows have been focused predominantly on things other than games -- the big announcements have been based around hardware and services rather than a colourful slew of gaming awesomeness. This year, however, Microsoft have an opportunity to get back to basics.
“E3 is a big time in our industry,” he added. “We know that this E3 is really important for us. People are looking for ‘okay, what is this change in Xbox, and what does it mean to have a Head of Xbox that’s really focused on games?’ E3 is a great gaming show and I want to make sure that when we’re there, the fans hear us and understand why we’re there.”
I posed the question in the podcast yesterday "why now?" for this Kinect announcement. Wouldn't it have been better perhaps to wait until after E3, or even use E3 as a springboard to announce a Kinect-less bundle to rapturous applause and a whole bunch of I-told-you-sos? But Jon's answer was spot on: E3 presents a chance to light the fuse for the gaming explosion that happens every year in October/November, and it's clear that Spencer doesn't want anything getting in the way of that. E3 is the first chance for him to stamp his mark on the gaming scene, to deliver an emphatic indication of what Microsoft's outlook will be under his leadership, and to court the gaming community with positive incentives, exciting new initiatives, and, above all else, cracking games.
The incentives and initiatives have already begun, Spencer is getting those out of the way as quickly as possible. That's why Kinect is going to be optional, that's why he's turning Games With Gold into something relevant to Microsoft's flagship, new-gen console, that's why the streaming paywall is disappearing. It's no-brainer stuff, it's stuff that we've been banging on about for a while, but he's less than two months into the role as the tip of Microsoft's gaming spear, and he's making decisive changes -- that's exactly what Microsoft needs. Spencer is putting out the fires that Mattrick left burning so Microsoft can start rebuilding that connection to their fanbase in winning fashion at E3, and that's exciting.
There's an authenticity to Spencer that Microsoft have been sorely lacking. The cult of personality counts for a lot when it comes to E3, and how Microsoft have longed to be able to whip up the same degree of loyalty and friendly reputation that Sony have managed to cultivate over the years. That comes down to communication and accessibility, but in Spencer, Microsoft might well have found their man. Phil Spencer came up through the ranks at Microsoft Game Studios. He knows what it takes to make games and he's an avid fan of playing them. Gamers can identify with him and also look up to him in the sense that he clearly knows what he's talking about. There's a sense that instead of a buzzword-spouting machine, Spencer has the interests of the common gamer at heart, and that if he bled, it'd probably be Xbox green.
There's a long way to go still. Xbox Wire, though incredibly useful, still comes across as a pretty sterile, all-too-clinical means of getting the message across. The more visible Spencer is, the better it'll be for Microsoft, the Xbox One, and its fan base. Getting rid of Kinect is one thing, but the Xbox One UI will need some tweaking without voice commands available as standard. But ultimately, it all comes down to the games.
"I'm gonna lead with a gaming focus and making sure that's where we're led. That's the North Star for the organization," Spencer told Engadget when asked what his primary goal would be in a company with so many aspects for him to oversee. "Winning with the gamer first is gonna be something that drives the organization."
The driftwood has been cut loose, the ship has been steadied and the course set, and it seems likes there's wind in those sails. For the first time in a little while, I'm really very excited for Microsoft at E3 this year. They have the momentum, they have the right man it would seem at the helm. Let's see if they can go the distance.