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20 moments that defined Xbox: #10 — The Xbox One U-turn

By Luke Albigés,

After seeing Microsoft soar so high with the global success of the Xbox 360, it’s truly baffling to look back on the reveal of the console’s successor, Xbox One, and try to piece together where it all went wrong. Still, that’s what we’re here to do today as we reach the halfway point of our defining Xbox moments article series, and while some of this might make for pretty grim reading, at least Microsoft did eventually have the sense to listen to the vocal crowd and rein in some of the more extreme things it had planned for Xbox One, potentially saving the console from an embarrassing flop by doing so.

In early 2013, rumours started to swell about the next Xbox, which was expected to be revealed later that year. Reports suggested that it might require a constant internet connection with no option for offline play, with others mentioning a system that would use this constant connection to somehow track disc-based copies of games to make them only usable on a single console or account, potentially eradicating the used games market for the platform. Rumours circulate ahead of the announcement and release of every console — ‘insiders’ spilling things like it won’t have a disc drive, it won’t come with a controller, or it’ll be made out of ham — and as such, these should always be generously seasoned rather than taken at face value.

But in May that year, Microsoft finally held an event to reveal the Xbox One to the world… and a lot of those troubling concepts turned out to be entirely true. Worse, amid the sneak peeks at genuinely interesting things the new console could do, anti-consumer policies like preventing the use of used games, requiring a permanent internet connection, and having a mandatory Kinect always listening were dressed up to be made out to be positives. Despite those rare highs in the show, a lot of fans couldn’t look past these questionable decisions, with what should have been an exciting reveal event instead leaving a bad taste in the mouth. The backlash was real, with forums and comments threads across the gaming web ablaze with criticism of these new policies, and many hoping that the furore might be enough to make Microsoft address these concerns and walk back those features at E3, which was only a few weeks after the reveal. Instead, the firm used its E3 showcase to focus almost entirely on games, with just a short segment at the end talking about hardware in which the price was revealed to be $499. Sony must have thought all its birthdays had come at once.

As usually happens at E3, Sony was set to take the stage later that evening to show off its own follow-up console, PlayStation 4. PS4 was announced at $399, and Sony went in for the kill. The company dedicated an extended portion of its presentation to how PS4 would allow used games and offline play — Sony even put out a joke video on how to share games on PS4, mocking Microsoft’s proposal to lock the use of preowned discs. The crowd’s rapturous reaction to things that should honestly just be standard on consoles said it all: Microsoft’s vision for its next console had missed the mark with gamers. It was genuinely surprising to see Sony go in like that with a kind of aggression we’d not really seen from competitors in the market since Nineties advertising and while obviously some low blows were thrown, I can’t help but think that getting dunked on like this had a hand in what happened next.

Interviews and statements coming out of E3 from various Xbox folks seemed to deliver rather conflicting reports on these systems and measures, and it was hard to understand how any of the planned systems would even work. The week after E3, the angry mob got its wish… well, sort of. Xbox boss Don Mattrick posted a statement on how fan feedback from both the reveal and E3 had helped “reshape the future of Xbox One.” Some of the more troubling parts of the plan would apparently be dialled back, including the stance on used games and the always-online nature of the console. “You told us how much you loved the flexibility you have today with games delivered on disc. The ability to lend, share, and resell these games at your discretion is of incredible importance to you. Also important to you is the freedom to play offline, for any length of time, anywhere in the world,” Mattrick wrote, although his name has since been removed from the post as he left to head up Zynga the following month.

It wasn’t all good news, though. Part of the original always-online plan for Xbox One would have seen Microsoft pioneering new systems where digital games could be ‘traded in’ for credit on new ones, just like you can do with discs, or being able to play disc games without needing to even have the disc in the tray. By rolling back on the systems that would have made these possible, these useful and potentially groundbreaking features would also need to be sacrificed. A used market for digital games in particular is something that has been discussed since digital storefronts first became a thing, so being the first to allow something like that — a remarkably pro-consumer option, facilitated by anti-consumer ones — could have been massive for Microsoft, although that one one will have to sit in the ‘What If…?’ folder for a little longer now.

Ultimately, despite a few potential positives such as this that could have come out of the original vision, there’s no question for me that MS was right to rein in its expectations and restrictions to make Xbox One a much more user-friendly console. Damage was certainly done by that initial reveal, but it could have been so much worse, and there’s certainly an argument to be made that this U-turn saved the console from an embarrassing failure that could have massively damaged or perhaps even killed the Xbox brand. That’s to say nothing of potential retailer repercussions, either. Retail mark-ups on new software are famously fairly slim and on hardware borderline non-existent, so a push to destroy the preowned market (where retailers effectively get to set their own mark-ups by deciding both purchase and sale prices of used games) may very well have led to some stores and chains boycotting the system altogether, which could have proved catastrophic.

As luck would have it, though, Nintendo too was having a bit of a nightmare — customer confusion around what the recently released Wii U actually was led to the first part of the eighth generation being effectively a two-horse race between MS and Sony. While Sony certainly had the momentum out of the gates due to the PS4’s cheaper price point and some canny marketing, Microsoft being forced to play catch-up like this would eventually lead to some gamechanging new ideas and features that would turn around the fortunes of Xbox and get it back to the front of the pack. Expect to see a few of those discussed over the next couple of weeks, but you can probably take an educated guess at what at least one or two might be.

That’s all for now, but we’ll be back on Monday with a look back at the first of many attempts to give something back to the loyal Xbox user base and hopefully gain back both some good faith and a little ground in one of the busiest generations in recent memory. But for now, what was your take on that original Xbox One reveal? Would a used digital game market be enough for you to accept an always-online console? Was that U-turn the right thing to do in the end, or not? Let us know what you think!

Also in this series:

  • 20 moments that defined Xbox: #9 — Committing to Japan
  • 20 moments that defined Xbox: #8 — The rise of Kinect
  • 20 moments that defined Xbox: #7 — The New Xbox Experience
  • 20 moments that defined Xbox: #6 — Red Ring of Death
  • 20 moments that defined Xbox: #5 — Achievements
  • 20 moments that defined Xbox: #4 — Xbox Live
  • 20 moments that defined Xbox: #3 — Rare joins the Xbox family
  • 20 moments that defined Xbox: #2 — Halo: The perfect launch title
  • 20 moments that defined Xbox: #1 — The Xbox reveal

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