More than most gadgets, the Xbox One is a snapshot of our times. No other piece of technology released this year quite encapsulates the promise and potential peril of the age we’re living in. Microsoft’s new console, ostensibly a device for playing video games – but which aims to be much, much more – offers conveniences that are literally only a spoken word or hand gesture away. Yet it also hovers a metaphorical axe over ownership and privacy rights we have long held, and perhaps even take for granted. It’s a product to be rightly excited for, but it’s also one to be profoundly nervous of.
This paradox is of Microsoft’s own making, presaged by the console’s disastrous introduction earlier this year when the company alienated its core customers with a plan to effectively curtail the resale of used games, a scheme it was eventually forced to recant after the resulting backlash. The Xbox One, when it arrives this Friday, was supposed to be the company’s forward-looking, digital-first device, but it turns out that people weren’t ready to go along with that vision. So, at least for now, it’s a product that straddles the old and the new eras of gaming, with one figurative foot in each.
Microsoft also chose to initially spotlight the console’s television and video capabilities first, rather than the products – you know, the games? – that made the Xbox a household franchise in the first place. Gamers can be forgiven for believing they aren’t the desired end audience; that all along, they were perhaps just the Trojan horses through which the company would execute its real plan of conquering the living room.
Months later, the Xbox One is almost here and the fears about games taking a back seat can be put to rest, at least for the time being. Of the two next-generation consoles launching this fall, Microsoft’s product easily has the better initial lineup of titles – more on that below. The console is in fact a fine games machine – one that will continue to improve as developers get comfortable with its nooks and crannies, the same way they did with its predecessor.
The spectre of those other things, however – a paradigm shift to a world where publishers and content creators hold all the cards, as well as a potential privacy miasma – is still there. Indeed, those issues ooze from the console’s mechanical pores, making it hard to shake the feeling that the company is just waiting for the right time to flip the switch and end everything we’ve become comfortable with over the past few decades.
The Xbox One thus delivers an uncertain future – this device could make gaming better, but it could also make things worse. That’s why it’s exciting and worrisome.
Outside the box
The design seems to be a subtle message that the Xbox has grown up. The console itself is a black slab, shaped more like an actual box than either of its progenitors. It’s purpose is to be the central focal point of the living room – your “one” device. Gone are any cartoonish trappings that might identify it as something intended to play something as sophomoric as a game. Instead, it’s as non-descript and “adult” in design as any Blu-ray player or PVR. For something built for fun, it certainly isn’t playful looking.
When fired up, the console’s innate clashes between old and new paradigms become even more obvious. You might think for a second that you’ve turned on a PC, as the interface very much resembles a Windows 8 machine. The grid of coloured app tiles is the same as that found on Microsoft’s tablets, computers and phones. While none of those devices have become hits in their respective markets, it is at least a familiar and slick look that also feels like a natural progression from the Xbox 360, which in its later updates came to resemble Windows 8.
Multitasking is a prominent feature on the Xbox One, with Windows 8’s “snap” capability looming large. It’s a way of dividing up the screen real estate, adding a vertical bar along the right-hand side that simultaneously runs an app – say a game or Netflix – while the bulk of the screen is used for a main task, such as having a Skype video call. Finally, the dream of watching TV and playing video games on the same screen has been accomplished.