Microsoft Corp. unveiled its latest living room Trojan horse at its Redmond, Washington, campus on Tuesday, otherwise known as the new Xbox console.
The new Xbox is not exactly what everyone expected: It is not called the Infinity, 720, Durango or any of the other rumoured names. Microsoft is instead going with the somewhat chronologically confusing "Xbox One."
We know it will have more horsepower than the current Xbox 360 – better graphics! – though the posted specs appear slightly underpowered compared to rival Sony's Playstation 4. We know it will be out some time "later this year," probably in time for the holidays. Microsoft is also promising 15 first-party games for the system over the next year, eight of which will be brand new properties. A host of third-party developers will also be releasing games; Ubisoft, for one, has confirmed at least six titles during the first 12 months, some of which will be specifically for the new console.
Also, the Xbox One is built around a new, improved and included Kinect sensor that will be able to detect more articulation from players. Its voice controls will also allow for quick switching between watching TV, listening to music and playing games, if it actually works like it did in the demo. Oh, and there will be Skype video calling too.
But there's also a whole lot we don't know:
Rumours have been festering for months now about how the new console will require games to always be connected to the Internet in order to work, yet Microsoft still didn't address the issue during its Tuesday press event. Executives separately told news outlets that it would support games played offline, but they haven't fully quashed the potentially controversial feature.
The company may indeed be trying to sneak that function by without anyone noticing. While talking about the console's ability to store recordings of games on its cloud servers, executives also mentioned during the event that developers will be able to take direct advantage of that same computing power when creating their games. This new cloud boasts some 300,000 servers, a major increase from the current generation's 15,000 units.
Observers may remember this scenario was at the heart of Electronic Arts' recent SimCity fiasco. The company insisted the game needed an always-on Internet connection in order to offload additional processing power from the player's computer to its own servers, a claim many gamers and even some developers found suspect.
It sure sounds like Microsoft has opened the door for game developers to make the same claims. Always-on games therefore look to become a reality on the Xbox One, or at least developers will have the option to make them so. Exec Marc Whitten told Wired that "I hope they do."
That, combined with a confirmed lack of backwards compatibility for older Xbox 360 games, means the Xbox One is starting to look very unfriendly to gamers.
It was highly doubtful that the console's pricing or exact availability would be revealed during Tuesday's event – companies often like to build buzz before dropping the bad news. What this is all going to cost, however, is the pressing issue for many potential buyers.
The revamped Kinect will continue to be a separate unit, rather than built into the console itself. That probably makes sense, since users generally need flexibility in where to position the sensor, and no one really wants to balance a full console on top of their TV.
But the sensor, since it is now part of the core experience, will come bundled with the console. So what about people who aren't interested in all the other stuff? What about people who just want to play games? Are they going to be forced to pay more for Kinect, or will there be a basic, cheaper version without it too?
Speaking of those first- and third-party releases, what are they going to be, exactly? Microsoft talked up Forza Racing 5 and showed a quick glimpse of something called Quantum Break from Remedy, but otherwise the other games mentioned – from EA Sports' roster of regular releases to Activision's Call of Duty: Ghosts – will certainly be made available for existing consoles. What will make those games special on Xbox One, other than better graphics?
More will be unveiled in two weeks time at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, but both Sony and Microsoft are under pressure to convince gamers to shell out for their next-generation consoles. Third-party developers will likely take time to create compelling new games that offer more than just better graphics, which means gamers are going to need to see a lot more than some voice-command demos.
For now, there's a clear delineation between the two console companies joining this round of $65-billion video game wars. Sony is being very vocal about how its PlayStation 4 is designed "by gamers for gamers," while Microsoft is so far stressing the non-game entertainment functions of the Xbox.
Tuesday's presentation kicked off with a demonstration of the seamless switching between live TV (ported from your cable or satellite box in 1080p) and games, paired with a new "snap mode" that lets online apps share the screen space for multi-tasking.
The company also bragged about new original television programming, partnering with Steven Spielberg for a Halo television series that will incorporate these second-screen Xbox features directly into the series.
And the NFL has also thrown in its lots with Redmond, partnering to offer exclusive football content during broadcasts.
The biggest question, then, is how much of a market there is for a game console that isn't focused on games or gamers.
With files from Shane Dingman