Because breaking up is so very hard to do.
One of the hardest things to do in business is accept when a strategy isn’t working. For Microsoft, that time has come with regards Kinect. In June, a new Xbox One SKU will launch, with a reduced RRP of £349 and no camera in the box. It might have seemed that the storm had passed over, early talk from those donning tinfoil hats of an NSA spying device were comedically provocative but easy to dismiss by the rational, games-buying public. What couldn’t be dismissed however were sales figures, and for a company that has essentially ceded Japan - and traditionally is the less favoured format in much of Europe - to risk settling into a position in Sony’s slipstream in the US and the UK was not an option.
Kinect was a unique selling point, and in the increasingly homogenised field of console gaming, differentiating factors are to be cherished. Yet, when they come at the cost of pushing the price of the console they’re attached to above that of the competition, and said console is already seen as technically inferior, the USP had better be not only fantastic, but proven to be. Kinect 2.0 was undeniably an accomplished example of technology and capable of so much more than it had thus far been able to demonstrate, but without a clear indication of why consumers should want it, it was always likely to be the first limb hacked off by a games division scared of sales gangrene.
Perhaps the fate of the Wii U acted as Head of Xbox Phil Spencer’s Ghost of Christmas Future, a portent indicating what happens to consoles that are perceived to be overpriced in comparison to their competition, and tied to peripherals which have yet to prove their worth. In both cases it’s a crying shame that things have got to this point. If a killer app was on hand for either from day one, who knows how things might have panned out. Once more, convergence wins out. The Xbox One, thanks to its jettisoning of the Kinect and the accompanying price cut it facilitates, is on an even footing with the PS4 - a next gen machine with an optional peripheral.
But is that such a bad thing? The prevailing criticism of Microsoft in the days and months after the infamous TV and sports-centric reveal was that of a company out of touch, not attentive to their existing fanbase and either unable or unwilling to enact change. The early U-turns were equally derided and lauded, but to about face not only proves that there have been changes behind the scenes, but also that there is a commitment to the console business. It won’t be run down, sold off or seen as a hard lesson in how not to present an unwavering belief in bad ideas.
With the ditching of the paywall for media apps and the changes to the Games with Gold scheme to bring it more in line with Sony’s PlayStation Plus service, it seems like all the sticking points that might be raised by prospective new customers are being ironed out, and what many see as Don Mattrick’s fingerprints are being erased from the blueprint, Phil Spencer’s taking them out like witnesses to Keyser Soze.
It’s great to get a good launch, but early adopters are a strange breed (speaking as one of them) who’ll often prefer to throw their money at something flawed and new rather than a refinement on an established idea. Coming up to the second E3 showing for both next gen consoles, and more importantly the first holiday season where stocks will be plentiful and retailers vying to offer the best deals, now is the perfect time for Microsoft to adjust their course. They may have the turning circle of an oil tanker, but it takes courage (and a helping of crow) to alter a much publicised direction. Spencer may claim the Kinect “remains an important part of our vision”, but it doesn’t hide the truth of a previous incumbent’s plan being dismantled.
The criticism that these diplomatic executive’s words are now hollow may resonate with customers who bought their Ones based even slightly on the ideal of a USP with promise. However, it’s hard to take such annoyance seriously when you consider what became of Kinect 1.0 - millions decried the underused/clunky nature of the original device, and all but the most optimistic early adopters should have heeded the omens. The real casualty of Kinect 2.0’s trajectory from front seat passenger to under the bus is not the price paid by launch-period customers, but innovative games development.
Those developers who did sign up to the original vision, of an integral motion camera that came as part of the system, now face seeing their prospective market diminish greatly. Consider Harmonix, whose novel looking Disney-inspired motion controlled music game Fantasia: Music Evolved is starting to begin its PR push to drum up interest. The pool of people they could potentially sell the game to is effectively being knee-capped, they must now rely on Kinect being sold at a reasonable price separately, and the enthusiasm of existing One owners.
Kinect was, after all, merely a tool; reliant upon the right projects to be given the green light and backed. For whatever reason, the roster of titles in development never seemed to stretch far beyond the - admittedly well implemented - active lifestyle/rhythm themed offerings. The potential was there, the early examples were solid, but the future plans for varied content were not clear enough.
As regretful as it is to see good technology underused and ultimately relegated to accessory status, it was always likely to end thus after the option to unplug Kinect was included. If there’s a cycle of blame to follow, then the origins of Kinect 2.0’s failure lies as much with Microsoft’s inability to plan around its benefits during the console’s infancy as any consumer backlash to its forced inclusion. An inclusion that, after all, was described as integral; yet the option was soon added for it to be turned off, then unplugged, and finally not even sold with its parent system.
The positives, from a purely business point of view are abundant though, and when viewed in conjunction with the tearing down of the paywall for media apps, the amendment for the One’s Games with Gold program, and the potential to boost performance for a console no longer having to apportion resources for a peripheral, it looks like everything has been well organised in the run up to E3. Like Michael Corleone preparing for the baptism of his nephew, all the perceived obstacles to the One’s success have been taken out; and poor old Kinect, playing the Moe Green role, copped a bullet in its beady electronic eye for its troubles.
This E3 has the potential to finally be about the games for Microsoft. No doubt the fallout from resolution-gate will rumble on, and the potential power bump won’t result in total parity, but it at least may offer a little more juice to the developers. If Crackdown’s waiting in the wings, Quantum Break looks good and Sunset Overdrive lives up to its early promise, maybe consumers can focus on listing the reasons they would buy a Microsoft console, rather than those holding them back.
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