Microsoft has had a serious messaging problem with the Xbox One. Like a season ofLOST, their confusing DRM policies have created a feedback loop of questions and answers that led to more questions. The negative response has been so bad that Microsoft decided to scrap their new DRM entirely, reverting to the same policies they've had on the Xbox 360. Lost in all this noise are the cool things the console can actually do.
The story so far has been a laundry list of ways in which owners will be forced to use their console -- always connected, always "Kinected", and with a lost value in their physical media. Microsoft has failed completely and utterly to explain the benefit to consumers and the media, letting all the bad news build and fester. Even now, with those awful DRM policies scrapped, we're talking more about what the console won't do than what it does do.
That said, here are some potentially great features of the Xbox One, the potential for consumer benefit, and the way MS has fumbled in presenting them.
R.I.P. XBOX LIVE FAMILIES AND DIGITAL SHARING LIBRARIES
Okay, let's get the bad news out of the way first. When I first started writing this article Microsoft hadn't dropped their bomb about the lack of DRM on Xbox One. Now that they have, instead of shooting one feature in the foot, they've shot it in the head. Originally, Xbox One owners would have had a way to share their digital games with up to 10 family members. Sadly, that's no longer the case.
The idea barely had time to gestate -- Major Nelson was one of the few I heard really pushing the feature at E3, and now that it's gone I have to wonder if they'll eventually bring it back.
What made the concept so intriguing was the idea of borrowing and lending digital games (it's something even Valve is rumored to be thinking about). So-called "family members" could "check out" your purchased games, and presumably it would have been exactly like lending out physical games, where you can't play them until you get them back.
How the system would have kept track of borrowed games, who is included in your family, etc., was still up in the air and potentially really complicated. One copy of a single-player game could have been passed around between 10 people, which sounds like a profit nightmare for a lot of developers. We may never know how MS planned to address these problems, though I seriously hope they plan to reintroduce this concept at a later date.
Xbox One was supposed to be an always-on, always-connected console for another reason: the Cloud. By building the connected concept into the platform, Microsoft was giving a promise to developers that cloud-computing will always be available to them. Now it'll be up to game developers to require online connections for their games, which is probably how it should have been from the start.
We've already heard about games taking advantage of these features, with Forza 5 using the cloud to build its AI drivers on real data and Titanfall using the infrastructure for dedicated servers and AI. It's a potentially cool way for devs to build their games. Imagine an Assassin's Creed where the full horsepower of the Xbox One is used to build the graphics within your area while offloading the rest of the city backdrop to the cloud, or an Elder Scrolls game with dynamic weather built from real-world physics models and calculated on the cloud.
But what happens in five years when you've got 100+ games offloading processes to the cloud? Microsoft improved their infrastructure, but have they really improved it enough to support that kind of pressure? To a large extent, cloud processing still sounds like a pipedream, but a cool pipedream nevertheless.
While I'm asking questions, what's to stop Sony from simply adding the exact same features to PS4? It is "the cloud" after all; the entire advantage of it is that you're getting performance benefits beyond the hardware. Is the Xbox One that highly integrated and the PS4 that incapable? I doubt it.