I wanted to sleep on last night's Xbox Reveal event as, in the immediate aftermath, hurrying to get news bulletins prepped and posted, I wasn't sure that my immediate reaction could be trusted.
The parody videos and snappy edits of the event (such as the one below) have already begun to emerge, and if you didn't get the message yesterday, it's clear in the light of this morning: Microsoft are gunning all-out for the living room space. Not just games, not just films or music or TV or internet, but everything.
That's the whole point of the Xbox One. That's why it was named in this manner. It's designed to be an entertainment one-stop unlike anything we've ever seen before.
In many ways, just like Sony's press conference, Microsoft's was more of a statement of intent than anything truly revelatory. However, that's where the similarities ended. Sony presented a show aimed clearly at gamers, gaming communities, and the developers and publishers of those games. Nearly everything in that show, even the lengthy waffle about social features and hardware gimmicks, most were couched in the context of the PS4 as a games console.
By contrast, Microsoft were careful not to describe the Xbox One as a games console on a single occasion.
It puts the dedicated games industry media in a difficult position, not to mention consumers eager to know about the console's games potential. For you and I, there was precious little to hold onto, and few of the questions that we had going in were answered in any meaningful fashion. The Xbox One will be a Smart TV box, an impressively intangible TV remote, a media centre, a streaming hub, a motion-control plaything, a communications window, an online portal of Windows 8, Live, Skype, and Bing.
It will not be anything like the Xbox 360. It won't even run that console's games.
For a tech industry that has been getting smaller in terms of its products over the last few years, the Xbox One represents something of a U-turn. It's an enormous machine that looks like the bastard child of a burnt NES and an ancient VCR. Although the improvements made to Kinect 2.0 mean that smaller gestures will work, you'll still need to clear out room for the rather hefty camera, not to mention an enormous TV. Microsoft have confirmed that Live TV will need a set-top box, hence the HDMI-in port on the Xbox One, and an Xbox 360 to take advantage of that games library you've been sitting on for a while. The word is that the 500 GB hard drive cannot be removed or upgraded, that to obtain more space you'll need external hard drives. More boxes, more clutter. Suddenly, the all-in-one solution to the living room looks a little less impressive.
On reflection, the interactive TV aspects and the multitasking opportunities are very promising. Multitasking on Xbox One might remove the very need to pull a smartphone out of the pocket to check relevant information. SmartGlass is an inconvenient app that's still slower than just opening up a mobile web browser, but if the Xbox One and Kinect 2.0 can respond to commands at the speed shown during the reveal, that could be very cool indeed. Of course, just how many features will make it out of the States at launch is under question, with Live TV certainly not making it abroad.
But we weren't there for that.
Beaming this press conference through Xbox 360 consoles and via Xbox.com, it seems a little odd that Microsoft would make games so much of an afterthought as they did. They breezed through the specs, they failed to explain any of the controller's new features, the games that weren't mentioned weren't explored, and the trailers left us dazed and confused. How will Remedy be blending TV and gaming together? What does that even mean? Microsoft announced that there'd be 15 console exclusives for the Xbox One, eight of which would be original IPs, and then swiftly moved on. Telling us little, showing us even less seemed to be the order of the day.
Given that it was pretty much their user install base watching this, a core gaming audience that has sustained the Xbox 360 throughout its lifetime and whooped and hollered at the appearance of Call of Duty: Ghosts, it seems odd that Activision's big hitter was shuffled in at the end after a return to the choral refrain of TV! SPORTS! TV! SPORTS! With an audience of gamers watching, Microsoft chose to ignore them pretty much completely.
I can pinpoint the exact moment that I felt the Xbox One reveal shut the door in my face, and it came when Don Mattrick invited NFL Fantasy fans to taunt their friends. Every negative stereotype about Xbox LIVE that exists today came to mind, along with a firmly US-centric focus, in an environment built around interacting with live television rather than necessarily promoting games. I'm not saying that's necessarily a bad thing for anyone else, but it certainly wasn't what I was looking for.
And there's the rub. This presentation wasn't for me, or you, or any gamer, not really. It wasn't for Sony's Playstation department or Nintendo. It certainly wasn't for games developers, eager to get a taste of what this new machine might bring. It was for Apple and Samsung and Valve. But they're not the ones who'll be buying this machine. Apparently those people will be consumers eager to surf the web on IE by waving their hands in the air, interrupting games and TV shows to make Skype calls on the big TV screen, and for some reason using SmartGlass to, well, god knows.
More worrying, though, were the dribbles of wishy-washy info that emerged after the show. Microsoft's enormously confusing Q&A post presented the vision of a console that will present consumers with some form of online DRM, but as a trade-off won't require you to be always-online. Oh, and there might be fees for second-hand usage, but apparently the console will still somehow support pre-owned habits. And Xbox LIVE Gold will still be in operation, in some fashion, whatever that means.
Sony refused to show us the console, but left us with concrete answers and a firm idea of the PS4's focus. Microsoft showed us their machine and yet left us all bewildered, with more questions than when we'd started. We'd hoped that this event would put some of the chundering rumour mill's mess to bed. But it span the damn thing faster.
It's a ballsy move, this shooting for a larger slice of the pie by targeting an enormous, unidentifiable mass of entertainment consumers, but it was inevitable. Microsoft's movements over the past few years -- those godawful Metro updates to the Xbox 360's dashboard, an increased focus on the marketplace formerly known as Zune, and a rebrand to reflect a product that doesn't make you instinctively gag -- these have been done in increments, steadily diluting Xbox as a gaming brand. Now, at least, the master plan is clear, and Microsoft doesn't have to hide its anti-consumer tendencies any more.
Tread softly, Xbox One. We had dreams of a more open platform, fuelled by a connection between console and PC that Microsoft would have been perfectly poised to provide. You trod on those dreams.
We'll have to wait until E3 and beyond to assess the Xbox One as a gaming platform, that much is evident. But the worry is that Microsoft have spread themselves too thin, and are fighting a war for the living room on multiple fronts, using weapons that have all been in existence for months if not years. Pricing will be key, both for the console itself and whatever subscription plans the suits in Redmond are cooking up. No matter how much Microsoft played them down last night, the games will be crucial too, perhaps more than ever now. The core gaming audience picked up the Xbox 360 because it came first. Now, however, it'll come down to exclusives services, convenience, and value.
Gabe Newell is probably laughing his arse off.