Counter Attack is a weekly feature here on Goomba Stomp in which John Cal McCormick casts a bemused eye over the gaming news, the niggling issues plaguing the industry, important moments from gaming’s past, or whatever it is that’s annoying him this week. Today we’re looking back on the Xbox One reveal event, five years later.
Can you believe it? It’s been five years since the Xbox One was revealed to the world and it still boggles the mind just how spectacularly Microsoft fucked the whole thing up. I don’t think they could have done a better job of fucking it up even if they were actively trying to sabotage their own product. It was a masterclass in unforced error, public relations nightmares, and massively, catastrophically misreading the desires of their own fanbase.
Today, Xbox is helmed by Phil Spencer and he’s doing a rather good job. He’s made a series of consumer friendly moves like implementing backwards compatability into the Xbox One, and they’ve come up with a splendid idea in Game Pass. But, as I recall Bobby “The Brain” Heenan saying once, “You can’t make chicken soup out of chicken shit,” and as good a job as Phil is doing he can only do so much with the hand he’s been dealt. When he inherited the job of leading Xbox going forward the One was in a fairly dire situation, being resoundingly beaten in sales, market share, and mind share by the PlayStation 4. The mistakes Microsoft made early in the generation were so disastrous to the brand that it still hasn’t recovered five years later.
In honour of the five year anniversary of the reveal event for the Xbox One, I for one think it’s important that we revisit this pivotal moment in the console war, not just to laugh, but also to learn. Unless you already know the story, in which case it’s mostly just to laugh.
The Death of the Video Game Console
The video game industry was a very different beast in late 2012 and early 2013 compared to today. We were in the twilight years of the longest console generation ever – partly a necessity due to the economic collapse of 2007 – and industry pundits were prognosticating the death of the traditional video game console in the coming generation. Conventional wisdom at the time said that the rise of mobile gaming would continue unabated, and the future of the games industry would lay with free to play dross rather than AAA blockbusters. The struggling sales for several high profile hardware releases only served to back that hypothesis up.
Nintendo’s follow up to the wildly successful Wii – the Wii U – had crashed and burned at launch thanks to a combination of confusing marketing, a weird name, a lack of killer apps, and being massively shit. Nintendo’s 3DS was also a bit of a flop, with a 3D gimmick that was about as popular as syphilis and a lacklustre line-up of games failing to convince people to throw $300 at a handheld. Sony’s PlayStation Vita was a misfire, so badly designed in a few key areas and so lacking in compelling software to sell it that it’s greatest achievement was in helping to sell Nintendo’s handheld. Ultimately, the 3DS would turn into a sales powerhouse, but back then it was just another indication that the gaming industry as we knew it was about to undergo a radical – and not altogether welcome – change.
Sony’s reveal event for the PlayStation 4 took place in February of 2013 and it was a largely successful affair. While the company was mocked for hosting a reveal event without actually showing off what the console looked like, Sony’s new and improved public relations strategy of a) appealing to hardcore gamers, and b) not being arrogant dick-holes, was working a treat. The PS4 was a console designed with input from several key developers which led to features like the share button (yey) and the touchpad (nay) being implemented into the controller, as well as much of the technical stuff beneath the hood of the console being optimised for ease and speed. This led to an extremely user and developer friendly console, bereft of costly proprietary processors or gimmicky hardware.
It was, in short, a video game console designed to play video games and little else. Sure, it would have Netflix and all the usual paraphernalia, but after the rise and fall of motion controls, Kinect being forced down our throats at every opportunity, and some developers switching focus to unfulfilling, microtransaction-laden mobile games , many traditional gamers were eager for a return to the good old days. PS4 was, for better or worse, a system that catered to the hardcore gaming crowd, focusing primarily on playing games and doing it better than any other console.
The Adam Orth Incident
In April of 2013, Kotaku ran an article citing credible but unnamed sources revealing that the upcoming but so far unannounced Xbox console would require an online connection at all times or it wouldn’t function. This perhaps doesn’t seem like a huge deal in 2018, at a time when we have games like Overwatch and Destiny 2 being unplayable offline, but back in 2013 we’d just the seen the disastrous launch of an always online Sim City that required an Internet connection to work even when playing alone, and it had left a sour taste in many people’s mouths. Sim City’s list of issues at launch was so devastating in severity and so farcical in quantity that gamers became instantly suspicious of any game that required an Internet connection to function, let alone an entire video game console. Why did it need the online connection? What was it for? The gaming community needed answers and they better be good, and Microsoft needed to control the narrative before it spiralled out of control.
Unfortunately, Xbox Creative Director Adam Orth didn’t get that memo, and he proceeded to wade into the debate about an always online gaming future with all of the subtlety of a Carry On movie, landing himself in some hot water in the process. Ol’ Orthy decided that he’d heard enough of people badmouthing an always online Xbox console, and he began mocking the complaints of gamers in a series of smug tweets that were rightly pounced on for being anti-small town, anti-consumer, and anti-not being a wanker. He Tweeted about how concerns about an always online console failing to function in the event of a downed Internet connection was in principle no different to not being able to use a vacuum cleaner during a power out, which is, frankly, a shit analogy, but we’ll let it slide.
What really rubbed gamers up the wrong way was when he belittled the worries of gamers that their Internet connections may not be stable enough, or in some cases, that they didn’t even have an Internet connection for their gaming console at all – soldiers stationed on barracks, for example – telling them to “get with the times.” Eventually, he started posting “deal with it” memes.
Within days, Adam Orth was the subject of a backlash from gamers angered by his dismissive attitude towards their valid concerns. He became the poster boy for the pent up frustrations many Xbox fans were feeling with Microsoft over the rumours they were hearing about the upcoming console. His Tweets had been featured on gaming news sites. He was pilloried on Twitter, and received threats to his safety through various mediums. He became an Internet meme, and he had a Hitler reacts video dedicated to him.
While Adam Orth’s behaviour was undoubtedly a bit shitty, the level of vitriol directed at him by the dregs of the Internet as a result was, as always, disproportionate to the crime. Ultimately, Adam Orth lost his job at Microsoft, and he moved house out of fear for his family’s safety. He was eventually involved in the creation of space floating simulator Adr1ft, which was written as a metaphor to explain his feelings over the April 2013 incident. For Xbox, meanwhile, Mr. Orth’s Tweets and the ensuing shitstorm came with another unfortunate side-effect – they’d practically confirmed that the unpopular rumours about the next Xbox console were true.
TV. Sports. Sports. Call of Duty. TV. Call of Duty. TV. TV. TV. TV. Sports. TV. Etc.
When it came time for Microsoft to officially unveil the next Xbox console, gamers were eager to see how the boys and girls from Redmond would handle the negative press that their upcoming gaming box had found itself surrounded by. With the right spin, perhaps, Microsoft could control the story and win gamers over to their vision of an always online future. Would Kinect be mandatory? If so, Microsoft needed to sell it to us. Used games a no-no? Tell us what we’re getting to make that worthwhile. There were countless articles and innumerous forum posts featuring predictions, theories, worries, and hopes, from both gaming industry pundits and armchair enthusiasts alike. What few seemed to predict, however, was that Microsoft would simply ignore most of the lingering question marks hovering like the Sword of Damocles over their new console, and deliver one of the worst hardware reveals of all time.
What a shitshow this was. You might think this is me being hyperbolic, which of course, one is prone to do from time to time, but this really was the worst console reveal ever. Remember that time Sony revealed the PS3 and when people balked at the $600 price tag, they said people should want to get a second job to pay for it? The Xbox One reveal was worse. Remember the PS4 Pro reveal where Sony spent less than an hour talking about HDR and 4K and it was so boring it felt like it lasted for about three weeks? This was worse. Not too long ago, remember when Nintendo held the Switch reveal event and they started with that stupid fucking cow milking simulator and ice cube counting rumble bollocks? This made that look like the Metroid Prime 4 announcement.
At the Xbox One reveal event, Microsoft’s strategy was to show off the non-gaming capabilities of the system, planning on then showing off their games at E3 in a few weeks time. This might have made sense had they announced that prior to the event, and as a strategy perhaps it would have fared a little better before the various controversies surrounding the less popular rumours regarding the system, but whatever their original plan was, they desperately needed to adapt it to play to the crowd and the climate and they simply didn’t do that. And so what we got was a reveal event that concentrated little on games beyond a Call of Duty showcase that spent an embarrassing amount of time fawning over how impressive the graphical fidelity on a dog’s face was, and they barely even attempted to address any of the four or five elephants in the room. Instead, they spent most of the reveal event talking about how the console would use Kinect to integrate with your television.
Live TV! Remember that thing you used to watch before Netflix and Amazon Prime came along? Well, Microsoft bet the lot on television integration, misguidedly believing that it would appeal to the casual crowd. They’ve always had designs on taking over the living room in the same way that they’ve got a monopoly on PC operating systems, and so this was, to them, a natural extension of that. The games would bring in the hardcore gamers, being able to talk to your television and ask it to put The Price Is Right on for you would bring in the casuals. Theoretically. But the problem was that this reveal event pissed off practically the entire hardcore gaming community who desperately wanted answers to their list of concerns, and reaction to the television features of the Xbox One was fairly mixed. I mean, it’s not that hard to just press a button on a remote, is it? Couple that with the fact that the TV stuff wouldn’t work outside of the US at launch (or possibly at all) and the whole thing fell a little flat.
Making matters worse, gamers obviously didn’t seem to care much at all about the TV features and desperately wanted to know about Kinect, about always online, about trading games, and when pressed for answers on these issues, Microsoft reps mostly either fumbled their answers, contradicted each other, or gave half-truths, and in the rare cases that they actually gave proper answers, the answers sucked.
The Aftermath of the Reveal
Not long after the dreadful reveal event for the Xbox One, Microsoft sheepishly confirmed most of the rumours about their maligned console in a press release the week before E3. They hoped to win gamers around at E3 itself when they would show off their line-up of games for the system, and then maybe all of the bad press would just go away. Few people remember this, but Microsoft actually had a pretty good conference at E3 2013, but it was completely overshadowed and almost instantly forgotten about in light of what went down in the PlayStation conference. In one of the savviest public relations moves Sony has ever made, they remained quiet in the months leading up to E3 regarding always online and used games, leading many to believe that Sony would be doing the same thing as Microsoft.
Conventional wisdom said that Microsoft wouldn’t be bold enough to attempt anything so anti-consumer without knowing that Sony were doing the same thing, and so when Sony revealed on stage at E3 that their console wouldn’t require a costly camera that nobody wanted, wouldn’t stop working without an Internet connection, and would allow users to trade or sell the games they’d bought at will, the crowd erupted into chants of “Sony! Sony! Sony!” Jack Tretton started giggling to himself numerous times as the crowd cheered and thanked him and Sony for what they were doing. There was a palpable sense of relief that you could feel even watching it on a stream, as people around the world realised that if they didn’t want console gaming to head into a place that they weren’t comfortable with, all they had to do was vote with their wallets.
It was one of the few E3s that had an almost objective winner. Nobody could possibly have watched those conferences and thought that Microsoft came out of it looking better. Their entire Xbox One strategy was pulled apart on stage by Sony executives to rapturous applause. Later at E3 proper, Microsoft reps were on damage control when asked about the unpopular moves the company had made regarding Xbox One, but you could tell they were deflated. Major Nelson’s entire defence for the Xbox One’s draconian DRM was a half-hearted, “Yeah, but did you see how good Titanfall looked?” while Don Mattrick famously told Geoff Keighley that if Xbox fans wanted an Xbox console but they didn’t have an Internet connection they should just buy a 360. You could practically hear the grim reaper of video game consoles chiselling R.I.P. onto the Xbox One’s tombstone as Mattrick spoke.
A couple of weeks later, Microsoft issued a press release indicating that they’d rethought their Xbox One strategy, and now the console wouldn’t require an Internet connection to function. They also pledged to allow the Xbox One to play used games, meaning gamers could trade or sell their copies as they wished. They were hoping to get back a little good press before launch in November, but the damage was already done. When Xbox One launched alongside the PlayStation 4, Sony’s console quickly found itself outselling Microsoft’s handsomely around the globe, including in the US, previously the only territory to practically guarantee strong sales for the brand. Today, the PlayStation 4 is on course to be one of only four video game consoles to break the 100 million units sold barrier, having currently amassed an impressive 75 million sales since November 2013. Microsoft stopped releasing Xbox One sales figures years ago, but current estimates put it at around 30 million units sold.
The Xbox One of 2018 is practically unrecognisable to what was originally revealed. The online requirement was dropped. TV integration is all but forgotten about. Despite promises to the contrary, Kinect was no longer a mandatory part of the Xbox One bundle not long after launch, and now the camera peripheral with a once bright future is dead. The console was given price cut after price cut in an effort to compete with PS4, efforts that ultimately failed. Xbox One is so far behind PS4 in sales that if it carries on selling at the pace it is now, and the PlayStation 4 was discontinued today, it still wouldn’t catch up in units sold until 2023. The console war is lost, and it was the first battle that proved costliest for Microsoft.
The Xbox One reveal event was a hugely important moment that helped to decide how the current console generation would shape up. Microsoft made so many errors in judgement, so many public relations blunders, and so many misguided design choices when it came to their third video game console that they practically handed Sony a license to run rampant with PS4. It was an open goal, and sure, Sony still had to score, but Microsoft really couldn’t have made it much easier for them. Today, the video game industry is thriving, with the PS4 and the Nintendo Switch both proving hugely successful across the globe, and Microsoft pondering their next move, hopefully learning from history, so that with their next console they don’t repeat it.
Feel free to leave a comment about this week’s Counter Attack in the comments section below.