Did the backlash to Microsoft’s always online vision and subsequent U-turn cost them this generation? Sean attempts to answer the question.
Christopher Allen from Stoke on Trent: “Do you think Microsoft would be out of this console generation all together if they’d stuck with the “always online” Xbox?”
A tough question so let’s talk brass tacks. The Xbox One X only exists because the Xbox One and Xbox One S never got off the ground. Sure, some of you are already heading to the comments section to tell me “The Xbox One is actually selling well, just not as well as the PS4” and trust me, I know that. The ~27m consoles sold by Microsoft is nothing to sniff at but the XB1 has been playing second fiddle to the PS4 since day 1 and the Xbox One X is the hail mary pass to rectify that problem.
The thing is, the situation might have been very different if Microsoft had got its messaging right from the beginning. The PS4 has been marketed, right from the reveal, as “for the players” and “the best place to play”. That’s still a message that Sony are pushing today. The Xbox One, however, had to have an image change. The original vision for the Xbox One was an admirable one – an always online device that was the centre of the living room experience. TV, Blu-Ray, Media Streaming, Gaming – It was touted as the box that would do it all.
Of course, as history tells us, people weren’t ready for Microsoft’s vision and the drawbacks of the “always online” Xbox. The limit to game sharing/second-hand games and restrictive offline play (24 hours before you’d need to reconnect online) was too much of an inconvenience for most gamers to accept – and they voted with their wallets. The PS4 was handed an early win, not because it was vastly superior to the Xbox but because Microsoft were scrambling to fix an image and message problem they themselves had created.
But what if Microsoft had stayed the course with an “Always Online” Xbox One?
While Nintendo are off doing their own thing (as per usual), Microsoft and Sony are locked in a war for power and resolution. For the first 2 years of this console generation, the headlines were filled with stories of “1080p on PS4, 720/900p on Xbox One” resolution disparities between the two. That’s simply because, and let’s not lie about this, the PS4 was a slightly more powerful console than the Xbox One. The One just couldn’t keep up and this is because the design and architecture of the console was originally based on the “always online” vision.
The original Xbox One was likely designed to be work in conjunction with the mammoth Azure server farms and online solution (referred to as “the power of the cloud” by several execs back in 2014) that Microsoft had built which would have shouldered a portion of the required processing. To do that, it’d have to be online. When online, the console was likely designed to feed from the server farms, offloading the complex computing and freeing up local processing power. When Microsoft U-Turned on the online functionalities, they swapped the 1.6GHz processor in the original specs for a 1.75GHz AMD 8-core CPU and probably hoped that would make up the difference. It didn’t.
While the benefits of cloud computing has yet to be fully demonstrated in the gaming arena, we’ll likely see what benefits the Xbox One could have had with the “always online” vision when we see what the Crackdown 3 multiplayer looks like.
The fact remains that, even though a huge portion of the gaming community railed against the original “always online” Xbox One vision, many of the boundaries that it was pushing are now common practice. The percentage of gamers that use consoles to play DVD’s/Blu-Rays has dropped sharply in line with the increase in the number of people streaming their media. Many of the biggest games of the past few years have been unplayable offline (The Division, Destiny, Overwatch, For Honor) or have integrated online features that fluidly mix with single player content (Watch_Dogs 2). While many games have single player offline campaigns, only a tiny percentage of players actually finish them and prefer to play online instead (less than 14% of people completed the single player campaign of Battlefield 1 while more than 65% of players have earned more than 450 Warbonds in multiplayer).
So, to answer the question – No. I don’t think Microsoft would have bowed out of this generation had they retained the “always online” original vision with the Xbox One. They would have certainly had a lot of work to do to convince people that the online functionalities were worth the inconveniences they caused. But there’s a chance that the cloud computing might have offset the power disadvantage it had compared to the PS4. There’s also a chance that it could have made significant ground on the PS4 as “always online” started to become the norm.