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Opinion: Xbox One's tough value proposition Exclusive

Opinion: Xbox One's tough value proposition
June 10, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander

June 10, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing, Exclusive, E3

We were promised a great deal after Microsoft's Xbox Reveal in May. So did this morning's E3 press briefing deliver? Gamasutra editor-at-large Leigh Alexander remains as skeptical as before.

Back in 2006, a pressured Sony found itself in a new position: roundly trumped by Microsoft's Xbox 360 in the consumer appeal department. The company's Kaz Hirai made a statement that most viewed at the time as characteristic of the tragic arrogance that put the PlayStation brand in a position of defeat to begin with: "The next generation doesn't start until we say it does."

What if Kaz Hirai was right? Heading into E3 after an underwhelming Xbox One reveal and a series of grievous communication fumbles, Microsoft looks a lot like it's been rushed. When it comes to big consumer questions like their rights to buy and sell pre-owned games or whether the console will require an always-on internet connection the company's given answers that confused even the passionate enthusiast games press -- bringing into question its ability to explain its value proposition to the gadget-hungry, big brand-loving American living room it seems to be pitching for.

Following the party line

Skeptical game fans and industry watchers have been waiting for E3 -- and the games that should prove crucial to the new console's appeal. Microsoft's press conference, however, opened with games plenty of people have seen already, like Metal Gear Solid 5, World of Tanks and Minecraft. Easy to wonder whether the company's doing a good job of proving it's a more interesting gaming platform than the home computer.

Following the Xbox One's initial unveiling, I thought that by aiming for the "rec room" television altar of yesteryear, the company demonstrated an oddly slow-moving strategy for a world that increasingly favors development on open platforms, multitasking across multiple devices and more consumer-friendly digital rights management. Microsoft showed plenty of the games audiences have been clamoring to see -- but very few of them illustrated the sort of meaningful innovation we'd expect from a new console generation.

E3 presentations are hardly known for natural enthusiasm, sentimentality or spontaneity, but familiar presenters were especially leaden this year. Crytek's Cevat Yerli is normally an effusive man; we're used to seeing Ted Price enthuse on behalf of Sony. But most of the presentations were uncomfortably party-line -- even an exciting franchise like Dead Rising is still a third installment, with a biker theme that actually seems to rob the franchise of its distinction in a time when there are quite a lot more zombie games than there once were. CD Projekt Red's John Mamais is the thousandth person in the world to say something like "truly next-gen epic fantasy", and there is nothing he can do to make that phrase sound refreshing or exciting.

An audience that has outgrown its offerings

We knew there would be a Battlefield 4. People have bemoaned Microsoft's unlikeable "Points" system for years, so a transition to real money is the least audiences would expect. Even the demonstration of Spark Project, which suggested the intriguing possibility of letting players build and control worlds and their time of day featured adult men awkwardly saying "boom" and "badass" in a way that only highlighted the way the gaming audience seems to have meaningfully outgrown its offerings. The ambivalent tone only underwrote the idea the Microsoft might not be quite sure what it ought to say or to whom.

After the initial console reveal, the generous opinion would be that Microsoft is aiming at families and tech-heads, not gamers. After its E3 presentation, we see the company is angling for the broadest swath of the core market. Its brief look at console exclusives -- something with a gun? Something with Master Chief? Titan-something? It read like more of the same, remixes of the past flatly swathed in the trappings of newness.

The occasional flicker of unfamiliarity, like Swery's D4 or the new Capy game, can't outweigh the deadening generic feel of Microsoft's hollow E3 show. I watched it live in London, alongside the EToo conference, where fans and local developers packed a bar to watch along. When Phil Harrison asserted that Microsoft is more committed to indies than any other developer, the room erupted in laughter.

This is not enough; this is far from a $500 value proposition. This is only another Xbox. This is only another listless, enormous question mark hanging over the future of the traditional games business.

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