I was a founder of the original Xbox project at Microsoft and gave it its name. Almost 14 years after the painful, pointless, and idiotic internal cage-match to get it started and funded, the hard selling of a compelling and lucrative living-room product to Bill (and then Steve as he began to take over), a product that consumers would want and love and demand, I am actually still thrilled to see how far it has come, how many installed units it has, how it is crushing its original console competitors, how the brand has grown and endured, and especially how great the games have become.
But the past 5 years, and the last year in particular, have been simply painful to watch. Coasting on past momentum. Failing to innovate and failing to capitalize on innovations like Kinect. Touting strategic and market success when you're just experiencing your competitor's stumbling failure (yes, Sony, Nintendo—you are, I'm afraid, stumbling failures). A complete lack of tactical versus strategic understanding of the long game of the living room. It culminated for me in recent coverage of interviews with Yusef Mehdi and Nancy Tellem and reports of the goals of a new LA Xbox studio to create interactive content.
My gripe, my head-smack, is not that the broader content/entertainment business isn't where you want to go with a living-room-connected device. It absolutely is. Indeed, this was the point of the Xbox, that was why it was the Trojan horse for the living room, where we could land and be welcomed by millions of console customers with more hardware and better software and network connectivity than the non-console devices (webtv, cable set-tob-boxes) we had been pursuing. No, more and better content was always the point and the plan. My gripe is that, as usual, Microsoft has jumped its own shark and is out stomping through the weeds planning and talking about far-flung future strategies in interactive television and original programming partnerships with big dying media companies when their core product, their home town is on fire, their soldiers, their developers, are tired and deserting, and their supply-lines are broken.
Xbox's primary critical problem is the lack of a functional and growing platform ecosystem for small developers to sell digitally- or network-distributed (non-disc) content through to the installed base of Xbox customers, period. Why can't I write a game for Xbox tomorrow using $100 worth of tools and my existing Windows laptop and test it on my home Xbox or at my friends' houses? Why can't I then distribute it digitally in a decent online store, give up a 30% cut and strike it rich if it's a great game, like I can for Android, for iPhone, or for iPad? Oh, wait, I can… sort of. Read some of the fine-print at the Xbox registered developer program page (that "membership" would cost you $10,000/year and a ton of paperwork, with Microsoft holding veto power over your game being published), navigate the mess through to learning about XBLA (also costly, paperwork and veto approval) and you may end up learning about a carved off little hard-to-find store with a few thousand stunted games referred to as XBLIG where Microsoft has ceded their veto power (and instead just does nothing to promote your games). This is where indie developers have found they can go in order to not make money on Xbox, despite an installed base of 76 million devices. Microsoft, you are idiotic to have ceded not just indie game developers but also a generation of loyal kids and teens to making games for other people's mobile devices.
Xbox's secondary critical problem is that the device OS and almost the entire user experience outside the first two levels of the dashboard are creaky, slow, and full-of-shit. From built-in update and storage features to what they have allowed through negligence to appear in games, here are just a few of my favourite confusing and exhausting screens and messages:
Daddy, what's a Hard Drive? Why do I keep having to choose Hard Drive when I'm playing Kinectimals? Why does Kinectimals take 10 minutes before I can start playing? Can I use the iPad while it's updating or whatever it's doing?
Hi, I'm Xbox. I'm too dumb to update safely. I'm too dumb to know if more updates or restarts may, may, may, may be needed.
Xbox: I'm also too dumb to know if it's a game or an app. Me: Why should I choose where you put it?
Me: 4MB. Gee, thanks for that info. Wait, what? What are the consequences of being signed out of Xbox Live if I update?
My all-time favorite: each game dreams up an indicator that it uses while writing your save-game data. Saving securely (e.g. atomically) without needing UI sure doesn't seem like a system-level service Microsoft should have provided for Xbox in 2003.
Every time I leave a game, even right after saving in the game, the system presents me with this little scare that I may lose progress. Every. Single. Time.
These messages and many others—impossible Xbox Live sign-in and password recovery, accounting/membership, to name just a few—are made all the worse by the huge amount of time that passes while waiting for content to load. You don't turn on your Xbox to play a game quickly—it takes multiple minutes to load, flow through its splash screens, and then get you playing. It doesn't surprise me that most people spend more time watching videos or listening to music on Xbox, because it takes too long to screw around with discs and wait for games to load.
These are the two fronts Microsoft is going to lose on in the living room battle with Android & iOS. It's not going to be based on whether they have (a more expensive) Netflix, whether they have original TV/video content or interactive kids television shows which integrate with Kinect. They will lose unless these two things are sorted out well and quickly.
Microsoft is living in a naive dream-world. I have heard people still there arguing that the transition of the brand from hardcore gamers to casual users and tv-uses was an intentional and crafted success. It was not. It was an accident of circumstance that Microsoft is neither leveraging nor in control of.
Xbox was for years the only network-connected HD-ready device already attached to tv's that had multi-use potential (games, DVD, Netflix) in the household to justify and amortize its high cost of purchase to the family's bread-winners. The hardcore/soft-tv transition and any lead they feel they have is simply not defensible by licensing other industries' generic video or music content because those industries will gladly sell and license the same content to all other players. A single custom studio of 150 employees also can not generate enough content to defensibly satisfy 76M+ customers. Only with quality primary software content from thousands of independent developers can you defend the brand and the product. Only by making the user experience simple, quick, and seamless can you defend the brand and the product. The transition they are seeing (87 hours per month of use, more TV/music use than game use) will continue to happen despite their active "strategic" efforts to encourage it and get more Xbox Live subscribers.
Which brings us to…
Apple is already a games competitor broadly, even if Apple-TV isn't yet a game platform or a console. Mobile generally and iPad specifically have grown the total hours of game play and grown the overall game market. Only in the last 18-24mo has that overall growth turned from a segment-expanding rising tide to a tsunami swamping the console game vendor profit boats hitched to the docks. It is accelerating. Apple, if it chooses to do so, will simply kill Playstation, Wii U and Xbox by introducing an open 30%-cut app/game ecosystem for Apple-TV. I already make a lot of money on iOS—I will be the first to write apps for Apple-TV when I can, and I know I'll make money. I would for Xbox if I could and I knew I would make money. Maybe a "console-capable" Apple-TV isn't $99, maybe it's $199, and add another $79 for a controller. The current numbers already say a lot, even with Apple-TV not already an open console: 5.3M sold units in 2012, 90% year-over-year growth—vs. Xbox 360—about 9M units in 2012, 60% YoY decline.
So, because these two critical issues—user experience and indie content—are not nearly in order and I see big investments in future interactive content happening, as well as idiotic moves to limit used games or put harder content protection into place than exists in mobile or tablets—I predict massive failure and losses here. And it makes me sad. Because it just doesn't have to fail, even though it has been punted around poorly for 5 years. Xbox just needs somebody with a brain and focus to get the product in order tactically before romping forward to continue the long-term strategic promise of an Xbox in every living room, connected to every screen.