The power of the crowd: how critical and consumer feedback made Xbox One a contender again

Xbox One black

At August’s Gamescom conference Sony Computer Entertainment’s Andrew House gloated that “while others have shifted their message and changed their story, we were consistent in maintaining policies and a model that is fair and in tune with consumer desires”.

The line garnered some laughs, but it ignored the very real effects of Microsoft’s responses to its dialogues with gamers over the months since Xbox One’s announcement. The company has worked hard to be seen to match Sony on every level, and in some respects may have even surpassed its competitor.

“I think when you create a vision of the future, you paint the vision of the future that you are most excited about,” says Microsoft’s Phil Harrison. “But we got clear feedback that some of the things we were proposing were perhaps a little too far into the future. So we changed. We took feedback from the community; we changed our plans. We think that’s a good thing.”

Microsoft’s policy reversals have been dramatic. Following a disastrous E3, it immediately cut Xbox One’s insistence on a permanent Internet connection and 24-hour check-in for digital titles, as well as the system’s region locking and restrictions on lending and reselling games. Negative feedback to an always-on Kinect – made especially troublesome in light of Microsoft’s cooperation with the NSA’s Prism programme – meant Kinect would no longer be required, even if you had no choice but to buy one with the console.

A headset found its way into the box, a self-publishing model for independent developers was revealed, and the messaging was improved and carefully reworded. Microsoft’s Azure cloud technology was better explained with the mention of dedicated servers available for any game requiring them, indie development was opened up by the chance to turn any Xbox One into a devkit, and Killer Instinct was never a free-to-play game after all.

“Of course [the company’s messaging problems] hurt in the short term,” says Ken Lobb, partner creative director at Microsoft Game Studios. ”We’re not blind, right? Did they hurt in the long run? We’re going to have to find out after we launch. We knew what we were going to do with indies. We knew what we were doing with Killer Instinct. But when someone comes in and asks a question about something we’ve decided we’re intentionally not going to talk about until a certain date, sometimes you get half answers. There’s no such thing as perfect PR.”

Yet Sony came dangerously close to a perfect PR campaign while Microsoft was busy making mistakes. Those areas where it had the edge, however, have been eroded by Microsoft’s policy shifts. Today, PlayStation 4’s most visible advantages lie in price and power, and on the latter point, many observers claim that the difference isn’t as pronounced as was once suggested – at least when viewed in balance.

“[PS4’s] DDR5 is basically 50 per cent more powerful than DDR3,” says Gaijin Entertainment CEO Anton Yudintsev. “But the memory write is bigger on Xbox One. So it depends on what you’re doing. PS4 is more powerful, but you can’t just write to the memory, you need to read sometimes.”

Xbox One now has more CPU power than PS4, while PS4 retains the advantage in GPU speed. “They maybe have a little more GPU,” says Lobb. “We have eSRAM [embedded memory] and crazy bandwidth to that eSRAM. Which is going to be better in the long run from a developer [perspective]? We’re going to see as the games go head to head. A lot of it will come down to – as always – which exclusive teams push a piece of hardware best.”

Here, right now, Microsoft has an edge. The £80 price disparity between the two consoles will be a decision maker for many, but for others, Microsoft’s exclusives are more convincing than anything Sony has shown on PS4 to date. Killzone is no Halo; DriveClub, now delayed, never looked like measuring up to Forza; and Dead Rising 3 now looks like a smarter bet for open-world mayhem than Second Son.

Even a second-tier title like Ryse makes a stronger case for its host hardware’s graphical capabilities, at least, than anything set for PS4’s launch day, while no next-generation multiplayer game can match Respawn’s work on Titanfall – an exclusive secured with Microsoft’s financial backing, and a game utterly reliant on the company’s cloud to synchronise its AI and provide dedicated servers as and when needed. Microsoft’s own studios and its willingness to open its chequebook has ensured that Xbox One has 12 months’ worth of exclusives that stand against the best ever seen in a launch year.

But speak to the developers behind those games and they say that, for all the policy changes and new strategies, nothing has really changed at all. Removing mandatory Kinect? “All of the experiences of Xbox One that are better with Kinect – with voice, with gesture, with identity – are still fundamental parts of our platform,” says Harrison. “They continue to be key parts of our strategy but we do understand there are cases where you want to take Xbox One into a room where you don’t have the ability to have Kinect set up, so we support the ability for the machine to function with Kinect disconnected.”

And removing the mandatory online connection? “Thankfully it didn’t change our development,” says Forza 5’s creative director, Dan Greenawalt. “It wasn’t what I expected – I’m just being honest there – but we had architected in such a way that it wasn’t too difficult to make it work, even with the changes. If you only connect intermittently, you still get the benefit [of the cloud] because most of the number-crunching isn’t happening in realtime, in a sense.”

“Even when we thought the console would be always online, there’s always a time when the connection goes down, so we always had plans for an unconnected experience. It didn’t change anything for us, really,” says Kinect Sports Rivals executive producer Danny Isaac. “We haven’t changed anything,” says Lobb of his teams. “One of the guys on my team is creative director on Killer Instinct, I’ve got Chris Novak over on Ryse; we’ve changed nothing. The only thing that’s really changed is now you have to have your disc in when you play.”

So if it was this easy to get things right, how did things go so wrong? “Because you want to change the world,” says Harrison. “You want to influence the thinking of the world with your technology and the way technology is used. I think, in part [due to] feedback from the community, some of our more progressive or more ambitious digital plans have not landed as well as we’d hoped; all of which happened before we launched. We’ve made all of these changes that I expect will be long forgotten once we’re off and running in the marketplace in November.”

But Xbox One isn’t ready yet. If price, power and games are where players will make their buying decisions, it’s policies that will dictate exactly where developers make those games. “We have basically the same architecture this generation [on both consoles] and that means that you can compare them,” says Yudintsev, whose free-to-play PC war game War Thunder will be a PS4 exclusive at launch.

“But Microsoft… they have yet to decide how they’re doing online free-to-play and self-published games. They’re pretty far from that, even with their latest initiative. Sony allow us to make crossplatform games for PS4 and they allow us to make simultaneous updates. That means there will be a lot of players from day one on PC [playing] with PS4 players. [Microsoft] need to stop talking and start doing something, because right now you need to certify your servers with Microsoft and it’s not yet clear if you can make updates without Microsoft’s [approval] – and that ruins the idea of online gaming, basically. They’ve said there’ll be some kind of opportunity [for that], but haven’t yet said exactly how it’ll be working. I hope some day Microsoft will get there.”

Those sentiments were echoed by many at Gamescom. Microsoft’s policies worked in the current generation where Sony was equally restrictive, but in the next generation Sony’s anything-goes approach has opened the door fora world of independent developers and free-to-play games. Microsoft’s free Title Updates and new indie policies may lure away many of the temporary PS4 exclusives not directly funded by Sony, but without a few final changes to those strict certification requirements – none of which could be discussed by developers at Gamescom – Xbox One will receive fewer games in the long term.

But at last, the next generation is a prizefight again. PS4 has the power and the more attractive price; Xbox One has a more appealing slate of early games and a cloud infrastructure that will have a tremendous bearing on its multiplayer offering. Microsoft has proven it can take advice and Xbox One is better for it, while losing only a little of what made it unique in the first place.

“The platform continues to have the same features that make it great,” says Harrison. “It has the power of the cloud, the Xbox Live service, the largest online gaming service on the planet, and the proven operating system.

“We’ve made some architectural decisions in the way our platform is designed that make it really powerful, particularly around HDMI [in], where we can take a videostream from another device and blend that into Xbox One in a seamless, instant way. All that is going to create a really special platform, and ultimately it’s about the games. And we have the best games.”