Microsoft’s (Reluctant) Changes to Xbox One Could Save It
By now, you’ve heard that Microsoft has relented on the absurd prohibition against Indie developers who lack a major publisher. After a growing number of complaints about the restriction that led more than one high profile indie developer to angrily denounce Xbox One (never mind constantly looking bad compared to Sony, its chief console rival), the company has finally seen reason. Xbox One will be a home for indie developers after all.
But that it had to see reason at all is a problem, and it provokes a serious question. Just what the hell was Microsoft using for guidance as it developed the Xbox One?
It’s unlikely we’ll ever know for certain, but we can effectively rule out market research or consumer feedback of any kind. From the beginning, Xbox One seems to have been designed to be precisely the opposite of what its potential customers would actually want to purchase.
Today’s news is only the latest about-face for Microsoft in a summer filled with PR disasters and intense criticism. As none of you have forgotten, the company previously backed down entirely on Xbox One’s onerous DRM and user restrictions. But that only happened after a series of needless humiliations it could have avoided.
First, Adam Orth’s painfully obtuse “deal with it” response to complaints about rumors – which later turned out to be true – that the console would be a crummy deal for consumers led to Orth’s (almost certainly forced) resignation. Next was Sony’s truly entertaining face-slap to Microsoft at E3 2013. Sony announced that PS4 would have no DRM and no restrictions on the ability to freely trade games. This was immediately followed by an absolutely brutal mockery of Xbox One.
If that wasn’t bad enough, former President of the Interactive Business Don Mattrick offered a tone-deaf response when asked what people who could not access the Internet, such as overseas military personnel, were supposed to do if they bought an Xbox One. “Fortunately, we have a product for people who aren’t able to get some form of connectivity” Mattrick’s glib response went. “It’s called Xbox 360.” That response prompted The Navy Times to blast Microsoft for committing “a sin” against armed forces members. Mattrick’s departure from Microsoft has been presented by all parties as amicable and inevitable, though one can be forgiven for assuming, as I do, that it was related to that serious PR blunder. But whatever the reasons behind it, Xbox One’s problems were probably bigger than the Xbox division itself.
Consider that after reversing course on DRM and user restrictions, Microsoft also said it was forced to remove some of Xbox One’s more interesting features, among them the ability to access your games from any Xbox One console, and the ability to digitally share your titles. This kind of one step forward, two steps back approach continues today, as it was also confirmed that the dev kit functionality won’t be available at launch.
Cynical observers might assume this is petulance on Microsoft’s part. That it only deactivated the digital sharing features to spite the people who complained about DRM so loudly it had no choice to listen, that any delay in making Xbox One a self-publishing forum for indie devs is similarly bitter. But that sounds exactly wrong to me. What I think we’re seeing isn’t the actions of a company locked in its bedroom, listening to Smiths albums at top volume. It suggests that Microsoft, from the beginning, had no idea at all that any of these features, or lack thereof, would present a problem of any kind.
By all appearances, Microsoft is a company whose industry dominance at this point is probably a matter of size and precedent, rather than actual power. (I’ll leave it to you to compare this to real world nation-state analogues.) The latest stock report provides particularly brutal evidence of that. The company has for almost a decade chased desperately after its competitors, while at the same time, making particularly odd decisions that seem designed to ensure it will do so forever. Take its decision to kill the highly buzzed-about Courier tablet. That tablet was in development well before Apple unveiled its iPad, and could have positioned the company to dominate in the mobile friendly era. Instead, they’re scrambling to sell Surface tablets, and failing.
A company that big tends to have a culture dominated by its past, and by people who are intimately connected to it. And Microsoft has that in abundance. The new head of the Xbox Division, Julie Larson-Green, has been with the company for 20 years. And current CEO Steve Ballmer has been with the company since 1980. These are people with colossal achievements on their resume, but who have really only ever known what Microsoft does, not necessarily what it should do.
Maybe that’s why every reversal of Xbox One-related policies has the feeling of a company that is only slowly, and grudgingly, accepting that it cannot yell at its customers until they do what it would like.
We might be annoyed by Microsoft’s laughable claim, when confirming the switch on indie developers, that “Our vision is that every person can be a creator. That every Xbox One can be used for development.” We know this isn’t true, or else this functionality would have been built into the console from the start. But we can, at least, observe that we’re seeing, in real time, the company paying attention to its consumers for the first time in over a decade.
Which means we can probably look forward to the announcement of a Kinect-free Xbox One before November, no matter how strongly the company denies it.