Microsoft and Xbox One face fundamental problems, with or without DRM

It is and always was about trust. Microsoft and its supporters scrambled to say what Xbox One could and perhaps should be doing for a sustainable digital future, but to no avail. Sharing restrictions and online check-ins might yet be part of that landscape, but the verdict from games players is clear: they don’t want to go there via Redmond.

Even the guns-blazing conference at E3 was haunted by Microsoft woes. Why isn’t Rare remaking Killer Instinct? Probably too busy making anodyne Kinect games. Behind Capybara’s Below we see the ghosts of Xbox Live Arcade, Xbox Live Indie Games, and the hapless titles buried within them. If the six-year-old rumours are true then Halo 5 would have been a Bungie game (along with Halos 6 and 600) had the studio not escaped to make Destiny. Reflected in SmartGlass are Zune and Surface, two of the worst tech flops of recent years.

Now the trust is gone, just when it was needed most. With no immediate advantage to Xbox One’s abandoned DRM beyond an ill-defined Family Sharing scheme (possibly just a glorified demo system), gamers were supposed to imagine Steam, the place where prices are cheap and yet everyone wins. But why would they when 360’s Games on Demand service is so notoriously expensive?

After its incredible DRM U-turn, Microsoft has until November to formulate a marketable new strategy. With no outright winner in the launch game line-ups and ostensibly stronger hardware in PS4, it has to somehow achieve parity with its rival despite a deeply integrated, possibly essential Kinect camera. The good news is that it’s done this kind of thing before. The original Xbox had its price slashed from £300 to £199 barely a month after its UK launch, matching that of PS2. “This is a marathon, not a sprint,” remarked Xbox VP Sandy Duncan at the time.

Let’s assume a price cut, then, if the preorders don’t pick up. What else can Microsoft do? It could remove Kinect, of course, or at least let you turn it off. But wouldn’t that create a problem akin to the maligned Xbox 360 Core package, the disc-only unit blamed for shackling developers to optical streaming for the whole of current-gen? Take out the assurance of Kinect in every box and you might impede the progress of Kinect in general, squashing the market for Kinect games. Just as PS4 feels like PS3 2.0, furthermore, Microsoft would be selling us a souped-up Xbox 360.

That would not be good.

Unless the unthinkable happens again and Microsoft embraces self-publishing, Xbox is not fertile ground for the future of games on console – more a dry brush that throttles and starves. With all the fuss over its sprawling digital distribution agenda swept away, we’re reminded that Microsoft is anything but a digital publisher.

Telling developers to go find a publisher established in traditional retail, or demanding timed exclusivity on a single platform, or taking a slice of profits above the usual fee, is not the behaviour of a company that cares about games or even pretends to. Indeed, Microsoft’s loudest next-gen overtures have been to the various media giants Xbox One seems tailored to bring together. To a large extent, it’s a machine designed by the content providers and advertising partners that now pepper 360’s UI.

To truly appease games players and developers, Microsoft must backpedal further still. As if this wasn’t already embarrassing enough. It might have been forced to slash prices, but Microsoft has never had to completely revise its principles before. What happens if it does? How long before Xbox One is the spitting image of PS4?

Now that preowned games are definitely here to stay, there are two possible outcomes for next generation games; either we see the same old stuff from the old guard with endless DLC and microtransactions, or a more meaningful change. The industry’s largest studios have to start making smaller, more daring, more original games, games that people actually want – the kind of games powering the PC and mobile markets right now. Preowned isn’t there because gamers are cheapskates, but because it’s the one insurance they have against the old industry’s creative bankruptcy. That’s a problem that DRM can’t solve.

A suspicious public, a hefty pricetag, a compromised vision, skepticism over Kinect, a restrictive publishing model and big studio creative malaise; Microsoft has removed DRM, but Xbox One still faces a multitude of difficulties ahead of its launch.

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