Last week at E3, in a private room inside Microsoft's massive, green booth, Marc Whitten spent most of our interview talking about the future. "As we think of the next five to ten years of innovation," he said, "we're going to be able to drive really great new experiences. I'm personally most proud of the Xbox 360, and how different the 360 is from what it was in 2005. And that's all about making really big platform bets and bets about the future of entertainment." Whitten would talk about the launch experience at times, but he was much more interested in finding ways to guide Xbox users to the brave new connected world of gaming and entertainment.
Which made today's abrupt about-face all the more surprising. Microsoft announced that the Xbox One will no longer check to see if you're online every 24 hours, and it won't impose any restrictions on disc-based games. The changes address two of the biggest criticisms with Microsoft's plans — points Sony rammed home during its own E3 press conference — and Whitten said it's all about listening to users. "What we've heard is that people love our games, love the entertainment experience," he said in an interview after today's announcement. "Frankly they love the vision of what Xbox is. But they've also told us very clearly that they want choice. They want the choice to use their games on physical discs just like they always have, and they want to be able to use their Xbox when they can't connect to the internet. And we listened."
"We continue to have the same vision for Xbox One."
The changes aren't completely terrible — today's move breathes life back into the used game market and, perhaps even more importantly, makes the One usable without a stable internet connection. But in reality, Microsoft may have listened a little too hard. Its policy changes are drastic, and they bring a couple of problematic consequences. If you buy a game on a disc, you'll always have to have the disc to play the game, and the Xbox's family sharing plan that would have allowed up to 10 people to share a game library is now pretty much defunct. Fast switching between games is also dead on arrival, unless you've downloaded massive digital titles to the console's hard drive. You'll still be able to access games you downloaded from any Xbox, of course, which Microsoft seems to hope means you'll download a lot more games. The sharing service could be similarly tied only to digital downloads, and why it's gone completely isn't exactly clear.
Whitten talked constantly about giving users "choices," but in doing so Microsoft has brought its futuristic vision crashing back to the present. The company so intent on moving its users into a world full of online single-player games and driveatars now offers gamers a way to use their One almost exactly like they used an Xbox 360. Whitten hopes the advantages are enough to drive people online, though. "We're still very excited about those features, and we think most people are still going to play in this digital, connected experience. They're going to play games like Titanfall and Forza that take unique advantage of the cloud to really change the experience."
Most gamers will still buy into Microsoft's vision, he said, and that vision hasn't changed a bit. "We believe most people will choose to be connected, and play online, because just what they can do is so powerful with the architecture of Xbox One."
"We believe most people will choose to be connected."
One rigid, controversial requirement Microsoft's not changing its mind about? The always-on Kinect. "Kinect is a core part of our architecture," Whitten said, "and how we believe the experience can be transformed. When people get a chance to see how Kinect can transform gaming even with a gamepad in my hand… they love it. And we want to make sure there's a consistent experience that goes along with it, so that anywhere I am I can say 'Xbox TV' or 'Xbox Home' or 'Xbox go to Halo.' And that we believe is critical to the evolution of the gaming experience in the living room."
Only a week ago, Microsoft seemed to believe that an always-on, always-listening, always-connected expereience was also critical to the evolution of the gaming experience. But now, by offering buyers the option to game nearly the same way they did in 2005, it's turned a bold, next-gen console into something that feels all too familiar.