Yesterday, Microsoft got out a fork and knife and decided to eat crow. They reversed the most unpopular aspects of the Xbox One point-by-point. The console will now support used games. Gone is the online check-in system. Region lock is dead too. While lifting restrictions on used games is a benefit to all consumers, repealing check-ins and region locks benefits a very specific demographic: these features would have disproportionately affected children’s hospitals and the military.
Microsoft positioned the Xbox One as a device that redefines our understanding of the game console, and to their credit, it looks to have done exactly that. While it looks like a console, the Xbox One mixes in features we associate with gaming PCs, internet-connected televisions, and an advanced motion control system to create something completely new. There are positives to this new frontier. For example, Polygon reports that cloud computing could allow 10,000-100,000 computer-controlled enemies in a single battle by offloading offscreen enemies to remote servers. In addition, the advanced Kinect could augment controller-based interfaces with gestures – like tapping your temple to switch to NVGs or leaning to dodge incoming shots.
However, it’s inevitable that Microsoft’s new technology, like every new technology, will leave some people behind. Rethinking and redefining the concept of the game console has raised exciting possibilities, but it also takes the Xbox One out of our traditional understanding of the game console itself. While PC gamers sometimes talk about console gamers as luddites embracing an inferior product, I would argue that consoles offer a very different playing experience than PC. Consoles are “lounge games,” if you will. You can play them while sitting in a variety of places and positions. There’s nothing to prevent me from playing Halo while lying down on the couch, for instance, which would be difficult to do even on a laptop. Consoles follow a fairly simple setup. No need to worry about system requirements or software compatability – you can deploy one wherever there’s a TV. They are, theoretically at least, less reliant on the internet. People expect non-laptop gaming PCs to stay rooted to a single spot, whereas consoles are versatile – you just hook up, turn on and play. While Xbox One may work perfectly under controlled circumstances, Microsoft’s attempt to “own the living room” may marginalize consumers who rely on consoles specifically because of their versatile and mobile nature.
“A Sin Against All Service Members”
Since the beginning of the War on Terror, games have become the entertainment of choice for U.S.troops serving overseas. Soldiers serving on dangerous deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan – some working twelve-hour shifts and taking fire every other day – often rely on a game of Madden to unwind after a patrol. Games can also break up the tedium of endless guard duty on a remote air base, or provide relief for sailors bottled up in a nuclear submarine. “It helped me a lot in coping with everything,” said Sgt. Chaene Kingray, an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran who spoke with NBC News about how troops use games to relax. “There were many times where stress was building, but after sitting down and playing a couple of games it just reminded me of home.”
People have started recognizing the military reliance on games as well. Originally consoles would come to warzones tucked in a rucksack or backpack, but in the last few years a range of organizations began sending care packages of games to men and women on deployment. Operation Supply Drop, one of the most prominent of these organizations, has distributed $300,000 in games, consoles and accessories since November 2010. Some go to far-flung units that have lost soldiers or Marines in IED attacks, while others go to the wounded at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
But that wouldn’t have been possible with Xbox One’s connectivity requirements. Reliable internet is hard to come by in a warzone. Most deployment locations have an MWR (morale welfare and recreation) center that provides free computer terminals and wireless, but there’s usually a line out the door and sessions only last 20-30 minutes. Even then, connection speed is extremely slow – one Afghanistan vet I spoke to said that opening Gmail could take a full minute. Larger bases may have internet cafés, but they charge $5-10 per hour and also have a wait. Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan can buy their own internet access via satellite broadband, but the plans are so expensive that they’re often shared amongst a group of soldiers, sometimes at $60-100 per person, per month. That’s a heavy burden for a 19 year-old private who makes less than $21,000 a year including combat pay.
But internet connectivity wasn’t even the biggest issue. Under Microsoft’s previous policies, Xbox One would only be available and supported in 21 countries at launch, most of which were in North America, Western Europe and the English-speaking world. “Supported” is the key word here, which meant that even if you bought an Xbox One in the United States it would cease to function if you took it to an unsupported country. Online check-ins would not have been valid from Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, South Korea, the middle of the ocean and most other places we send our men and women in uniform. Even if members of the military, who are well known for their ability to overcome and adapt, could’ve found a workaround for that, games would’ve only been playable in the countries in which they were purchased. In other words, under Microsoft’s previous policy, even if you could overcome all the other obstacles, the Xbox One wouldn’t play games sent via care package.
All this made the Xbox One an extremely poor console for the armed services. In its originally announced version, it was unplayable in foreign countries, relied on internet that’s intermittent at best and made it impossible to play games sent from home. (And that’s assuming security concerns about the Kinect don’t lead an on-base ban.) Last week, the Army Times even went so far as to call the console “a sin against all service members.”
Those are strong words, but fair ones. After all, the same game company that trades off the military’s reputation in so many of its blockbuster franchises just announced a console that’s incompatible with military life. This bitter irony was especially apparent at the Xbox One’s launch event, where Microsoft unveiled Call of Duty: Ghosts – a game that couldn’t be played by the very people it celebrates.
Impacts on Hospitalized Children and Child’s Play
Soldiers weren’t the only ones who would’ve lost out with the Xbox One. The console’s online requirements would’ve made it difficult to accommodate in medical facilities. That could’ve had major ramifications for children’s hospitals that benefit from Child’s Play, the game industry’s chosen charity.
Victoria Vaden, the education coordinator at Dell Children’s Medical Center, spoke with me by email about how therapeutic games can be for young people undergoing medical treatment: “Video games can be especially important for school age and teenage patients in the hospital for distraction from pain, discomfort and boredom as well as positive diversion. If a patient can focus on playing a videogame that is familiar and fun, stress levels decrease, pain can become less bothersome and memories of the hospital include positive, fun experiences.”
Dell Children’s Medical Center keeps a playroom with multiple consoles, but according to Vaden those aren’t currently connected to the internet, and getting them online could cost thousands of dollars. “If we had to drop a new port in order to connect the system, then it would be prohibitive unless we had donor/grant money to cover the cost,” she said. “In terms of incorporating the process of connecting the machines to the internet each day, this is something we could probably manage fairly easily into our playroom opening and closing procedures.” But, she adds, they don’t want their consoles connected to the internet at all. “That adds another level of liability in terms of patients potentially accessing inappropriate content on the internet or logging in to accounts and not logging out before another user starts playing.”
But the playroom isn’t the only way kids access games at Dell Children’s. Like most children’s hospitals, Dell has a corps of traveling carts that bring consoles to kids too sick to leave their beds. “Game carts are especially important to patients who cannot leave their rooms,” says Vaden. “These carts can provide a sense of normalization (or a bit of a normal environment) during a time when most things are atypical.” The onerous process of connecting the Xbox One to the internet, however, meant it probably couldn’t have been part of the lending system. “This would be extremely difficult to the point that we would most likely decide not have the Xbox One on a game cart.”
Overall, the impression is that an internet-connected console is a complication hospitals don’t need. When you’re managing a lending library of consoles and games, ease of use is a major factor and extra steps are the enemy. It’s better to have something that can just plug in and play.
Cloud-Based Games Will Still Be A Problem
Yesterday Microsoft took a laudable step toward repairing consumer trust, but it doesn’t mean soldiers and children’s hospitals will be able to play every game on the Xbox One. While online check-ins are gone, relying on cloud-based computing could still make some games unplayable – even in single player – unless you have a steady connection. Sailors aboard an aircraft carrier or teens in the hospital may not be able to play Titanfall, for instance, since it offloads to remote servers. One hopes that Microsoft plans to label these cloud-based games clearly in order to avoid confusion, as they do with games that require Kinect.
The question also becomes whether cloud-based games will completely dominate the console, or whether there will be enough offline titles to justify the purchase. When game developers get a new tool they’re generally tempted to use it, and if cloud gaming is the future – as Microsoft seems to believe – we’ve only delayed the problem. Some developers will no doubt prove hesitant to embrace the cloud because it complicates multi-platform development, but we may still see a gradual phasing-out of offline games. It’s important to remember that Microsoft envisioned Xbox One as a gateway drug for the digital marketplace, something that would accept disks but was capable of switching to downloadable titles down the road. It’s a smart strategy that gives the console a longer shelf life and makes it more flexible in the long term, but it also makes it possible for Microsoft to sneak its torpedoed policies in through the back door.
Gaming Beyond the Living Room
When it revealed the Xbox One, Microsoft kept repeating how they wanted to “own the living room.” But with this narrow focus, they neglected to look beyond the living room, to the places where people take consoles specifically because they’re a means of escape.
They forgot the Marine at Camp Leatherneck, putting in a round of Call of Duty: Ghosts before he hits the rack.
They forgot the submariners, racing cars under a thousand feet of water.
They forgot a hospitalized little girl, whose only bright moment in a day of blood draws and chemotherapy might be a few minutes with Fantasia: Music Evolved.
I applaud Microsoft for reversing their decision about region lock and online check-ins, since it allows these groups to continue playing. There’s no question it was a difficult choice and caused some loss of face, but I respect that Microsoft is willing to change, even if it took extreme pressure. New technology will always leave some people behind, but if those people are sick kids and deployed members of the military, you should probably rethink your system requirements.