This week I had my first go on an Xbox One. At a secret London location a bunch of journalists and techie types like me got introduced to the new system and had a chance to play some of the games under development. Here’s what I thought.
Each new generation of consoles to date has brought an order of magnitude greater gaming performance. I remember my first experience of a Sega MegaDrive after the Master System, and the SNES after the NES. These were big leaps forward with pixels shrinking and realism growing by great bounds. More recently the Xbox360 and PlayStation 3 brought what had been top-end PC gaming to the everyday console world, wowing millions.
With the Xbox One such a great leap forward was not so apparent. The demonstrations I saw didn’t all wow me with their graphical fidelity. Sure there were some spectacular moments (hello Ryse: Son of Rome) and the visuals were full and rich. If I had a really keen eye for these things, they were probably measurably better than the current generation. But not eye-poppingly so.
However, to take this as a criticism would be measuring the Xbox One by the wrong benchmarks. As endless flops have proved, great graphics does not equal great gaming. The innovations the Xbox One brings offer much potential to improve gaming, just not in purely visual ways.
For a start there is the user interface. Kinect is no longer a bolt-on. With four times the fidelity, 3D and infra-red imaging, the new sensor seems immensely capable whether you’re standing or seated, in light or dark. Its new wide angle view means you can operate it much closer to the TV, ideal for smaller rooms.
The expectation is clearly that voice and motion will be your first choice control options, not a novel extra. This represents the proper start of what is potentially a very big shift in our relationship with technology.
Next is the cloud. Microsoft has invested in 300,000 new servers to support the Xbox One. These are designed to augment the processing power of the unit itself, but also to enable a much more consistent multi-platform experience for games. Take Project Spark for example. Though not using the Xbox cloud (I don’t believe) it is illustrative of the potential. This is a game about making games. You can design on the Xbox itself, or on a Windows tablet or PC. The game scales to the available platform, making maximum use of the Xbox’s capabilities when you play there, but enabling a good enough experience on a less powerful tablet.
This type of (cliché alert) Martini gaming — any time, any place, any device — is potentially very addictive. Watch your colleagues closely: that may not be a Powerpoint they are working on.
Then there is the store and particularly the pricing options. Killer Instinct is a resurrected game brand much in the style of Street Fighter II, that amped up the concept of combo moves and had some influence on future games of the one on one fighting genre. The new version isn’t hugely sophisticated but it’s great fun to play (although I’m biased: I still play Streetfighter 2 occasionally). It’s the pricing that’s really interesting. You can play for free but only one character will be available at a time. You can play the whole game as a single character of your choice for $5 but there are a bunch of upgrades you can unlock by spending a bit more. You can unlock all the characters for $20, or all the characters and all the upgrades for around $40. This is about the price of a normal game, but the point is that there is much more scope for casual or pocket money entry points.
When you combine these factors with the Xbox One’s entertainment credentials — and let’s be clear, the if the battle is about gaming prowess, then the war is for entertainment — I think you have a fairly compelling proposition that will attract both the hardcore traditional gamers, but also the more casual gamers who have been sucked in by Angry Birds, Cut the Rope and FarmVille.
In summary, the Xbox One looks to me to be a competent competitor for the power gaming crown. But that’s not what will secure its victory. The range of ways that it has to engage different members of the family at different points throughout the day is its real strength. And if Microsoft nails the execution of those different touch points, the Xbox could be a living room fixture for a very long time to come.