Is Microsoft making things up to gamers or catching up to Sony?

2 Posted by - August 6, 2013 - Opinion

Xbox One started as a mandatory always-online device, and required users to undergo a daily background “check-in” or else their games wouldn’t play anymore. And even though Microsoft personnel insisted changing that setup wouldn’t be like flipping a switch, Microsoft flipped that switch just a few weeks after E3.

Xbox One also wouldn’t support self-publishing. Independent developers would need a publishing partner in order to gain access to Xbox Live distribution. Until two weeks ago, when they reversed themselves again.

In both cases, Microsoft pushed massively unpopular design choices on the gaming community and suffered for it. Stock prices dipped. Pre-orders lagged.

In both cases, Sony took the opposite approach with their upcoming PlayStation 4, and took the lead in sales and positive buzz. Sony’s one-two-three knockout at E3 — announcing full support for used games, virtually cornering the indie market, and launching at a lower price-point — put a big nail in the Xbox One’s coffin. At least, until the “Xbox One-Eighty,” which saw Microsoft’s stock recover and sales bounce back soon after they put their console in line with customer expectations.

So has Microsoft started to listen to its consumers, or is it merely following the money?

In truth, it’s likely both…as it should be.

A core tenant of “community as a service” states that if you serve the community, it will reward and support you. Deliver the goods everyone wants, and everyone will spend money to get them. As originally presented, the Xbox One came with too many caveats, too many byzantine rules to learn in order to do simple things. It felt like Microsoft designed it more with publishers in mind than gamers.

The course corrections removed those impairments. Everything became more streamlined, easy to understand, and appealing from a consumer standpoint.

Without question, Microsoft came under severe financial pressure to do something. Sony and PlayStation 4 carried all the momentum coming out of E3, but Microsoft resisted falling in behind PS4’s example. Microsoft’s PR department went into overdrive, trying very hard to sell the company vision of an all-digital future while ignoring the analog present. When that push failed — partly due to press releases that talked around unpopular features instead of addressing them directly — Microsoft had to abandon that vision for one the majority of its customers could actually share.

That’s how Xbox 360 came to define the last seven years of gaming. Instead of trying to shape and redefine gamers’ opinions, it tapped into natural behaviors. Achievements rewarded gamers for doing what they naturally do. Xbox Live Gold subscriptions monetized online competitiveness. Xbox Live Arcade filled the gaps between blockbuster releases with engrossing indie titles.

It took PlayStation 3 several years to implement its Trophy system, and even longer to bring its for-pay PlayStation Plus service on line…and longer still to make it a truly enticing offer. By contrast, the “Xbox One-Eighty” corrections only took a few months.

That rapid response appealed to a community that wanted to embrace the new hardware. The impetus might’ve been stock prices and balance sheets, but Microsoft could’ve stubbornly stuck with the party line or come up with a few minor concessions. Instead, the company as a whole swallowed its pride, admitted Sony got it right, and did what its fans wanted.

And now it’s a real horse race again. The Xbox One exclusives — including Titanfall from the creators of Call of Duty and Sunset Overdrive from Sony defector Insomniac Games — are just as intriguing as the PS4’s list. All the gaps the Xbox 360 opened in the last generation have closed going into the new console cycle. All that’s really left is a $100 price difference in the PlayStation 4’s favor.

For now, at least.