Dabe Alan

Deal with it: Microsoft employee tweets aren’t hurting the next Xbox, silence is

Deal with it: Microsoft employee tweets aren’t hurting the next Xbox, silence is

Sony’s PlayStation 4 messaging has been blessedly simple, compelling, and on point. The system will be easy on developers due to its PC-like architecture, the company is breaking down barriers to allow smaller developers to release their games on the PS3, PS4, and Vita, and patches and game updates will be easy to apply and download in the background.

The PlayStation 4 seems to be a system that’s built for the future, and its design will make things easier on both gamers and developers. It’s no wonder the system has been gaining traction in the court of public opinion.

Microsoft, on the other hand, has been silent. The rumors are swirling that the system will require an always-on Internet connection, and Microsoft creative director Adam Orth’s recent tweets in support of an always-on console didn’t do the company any favors. His account is now protected, but damn near every blog and news outlet have already repeated his statements about people needing to “deal with” systems that are always online.

It’s time to get a message out

“I think its going to make developers' lives easier, yes,” Insomniac CEO Ted Price told me when I asked about the PS4. Deciding to ditch the confusing and proprietary nature of the PS3 in favor of a simpler system architecture couldn’t have been easy, and it cost Sony the ability to offer backwards compatibility, but it needed to be done. The next Xbox will likely follow Sony’s lead in this area, as the 360 was already very PC-like in many respects, but it won’t feel like Microsoft taking any kind of leadership role.

It will seem like they’re following Sony.

Microsoft’s hunger for your living room isn’t well hidden, and the rumors about tighter media integration and the always-on requirement follow in that trend. We know the company makes money from selling the 360’s dashboard to advertisers, and the number of ads we see on the system have pushed games to the background, to the cost of discoverability of Xbox Live Arcade games.

While Sony is throwing parties to celebrate indie devs and mocking Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade practices in its presentations, GDC was filled with developers saying they’d like to be on Microsoft platforms but the company’s rules make it impossible.

Sony invited Jonathan Blow to help debut the PlayStation 4, while Microsoft's practices caused Blow to leave the system that made him a household name. Microsoft is beginning to see the cost of its policies: the Xbox Live Arcade may have made Blow rich with sales of Braid, but he couldn’t run from them fast enough. Sony, Nintendo, and Steam are more than happy to pick up the alienated developers who no longer feel welcome on Microsoft’s platforms.

The days of the $60, packaged game may be coming to a close. Look at titles like Path of Exile: Sony says its happy to waive patch fees, and the PlayStation 4's architecture makes it simple for free-to-play games to be constantly updated. On the other hand, Microsoft only bent its rules for Minecraft because the game was already tremendously popular. These games will soon be the rule, not the exception, and Microsoft has yet to announced policies that will allow the company to deal with the reality. Without any strong official messaging, every rumor or bit of speculation will gain traction.

Which brings us to our next topic.

Deal with it

Then there’s the always-online problem. It could be that the console will be able to be used offline, but until Microsoft says anything one way or another the rumors are going to spread.

Microsoft’s Adam Orth may not understand the “drama” around an always-online requirement for a console, but the tweet telling people to “get with the times” and get online is hilariously ill-informed and arrogant. The United States is being held back by a lack of high quality infrastructure, and there are many places in the country where Internet connectivity is slow, expensive, or just plain not available. Not to mention the number of soldiers overseas who play video games and can’t easily dial into Microsoft’s servers.

It’s not a matter of “getting over it,” as much as this requirement would send a message that a large minority of gamers are simply not welcome on Microsoft’s platform. This could be fixed with Microsoft saying that they won’t require an Internet connection for the system to work, but this is a company that thinks breakdancing is the number one feature we’re looking for in tablet computers. Messaging has never been Microsoft’s strong suit, and there's also the possibility that the requirement is very real.

We buy consoles and we upgrade our PCs to play video games, and right now Sony, Valve, and even consoles like OUYA are doing everything they can to focus on games, and to support the developers who create those games. Microsoft's lack of transparency, silence, and need for control have never looked more anachronistic as they do now. Sony and Nintendo seem to be maturing and dealing with the changing ecosystem. Microsoft has yet to make any moves that make us believe they understand what's going on.

Microsoft’s policies on downloadable games have long been developer-hostile, especially with the latest dashboard redesigns, but the rumors about the upcoming system are now making the next Xbox seem consumer hostile.

Snide comments from Microsoft employees aren’t helping things. It’s very possible that Microsoft has a plan moving forward that will make its latest console look appealing for both developers and players, but the company’s continued silence and current policies are allowing its competitors to gain momentum, and that's bad news when every customer counts during this time of transition.

Is the press making a mountain out of a poorly worded mole hill? Possibly, but Sony is likely overjoyed at these latest developments, praying that Microsoft will continue to sit in stoic silence, allowing the rumors and speculation to erode excitement for Microsoft's system. So far, Microsoft has been happy to give its competitor exactly what it want.