The Xbox One Uncertainty Principle

At the start of a cocktail party that was to end an exciting, bewildering and altogether odd day at Microsoft's Redmond campus, I approached Microsoft v.i.p. Aaron Greenberg. Hell of a debut day for the Xbox One, I told him. Some impressive stuff, some confusing stuff. Some fierce reaction online.

Greenberg nodded and told me about some stats. They were tracking reaction on social media. They had four times the buzz as Sony's PlayStation 4 event, from what he could tell. Reaction was split, but good: 40% positive, 40% neutral, 20% negative.

I'd mostly heard about the negative, I told him, mostly from the Kotaku team back home.

I suggested that it would be useful if Microsoft could clear some things up. And I granted that, if you weren't at the Redmond campus, you missed getting your hands on some of the best things about Xbox One. The new rumble in the controllers, for example. That feels next-level.

Was the anger really 20%? In my extended online world, it seemed broader than that. The mood away from Redmond was, at least among the gamers I saw online, the kind of stuttering, stammering frustration that comes with the dawning recognition that, in the Xbox One's version of gaming's future, you might not even be allowed to borrow a game from a friend without paying a fee. To console gamers of the last two decades, that seems mad.

There were several dozen reporters on Microsoft's campus. We weren't as angry. More bewildered, I think. Maybe bemused by Microsoft's stumbling confusion. We went to the system's big briefing, which was held in a tent pitched on a soccer field. We were shuffled off to interviews, to demonstrations of the new Kinect and controller as well as to tours of Xbox testing labs. Interviews were solo. Tours were in groups.

Home base was the campus' Spitfire Lounge, where we'd come and go and, soon enough, begin comparing notes. What we found is that we were getting different answers. He told you what about used games? Oh, I heard this. Your guy said that about always-online? The situation was fluid.

Heisenberg's uncertainty principle tells us that the more we try to observe a particle's position, the less precise we can be about its momentum. Heisenberg, have we got a game console for you. The more we try to know things about the Xbox One, the less it seems that we know.

Actual Xbox One Facts

The Xbox One is black. Specifically, I was told that it is liquid black, which, one of the system's designers pointed out to me, is the blackest black. I'm confident of this, because I saw it.

The Xbox One is a game and entertainment console. It has a controller. It has a new Kinect bundled with the machine.

We do know more than that, of course. We know specs. We know plans. And some of the actual Xbox One facts seem to actually be positive things that could actually make gaming better.

For example: the new Kinect can detect and track your pulse. Just by looking at your face.

It can do this using a combination of its RGB sensor and its IR sensor (the latter can see in the dark). It can do this, the engineer who leads the Kinect group proudly told me, by identifying changes in color intensity in people's faces that are imperceptible to the human eye. These changes, he told me, are unaffected by melanin, so this should work with people of any skin color. And it should therefore be able to work with any game at any time, meaning that idea that Nintendo and Valve have tossed around about tracking people's bio-feedback to affect gaming may finally become a reality. The watchful new Kinect sensor could do that during any game. This is cool.

See?

There are things about Xbox One, things that Microsoft showed during their big #XboxReveal day that are genuinely impressive—that are different without being off-putting, that show that something that might seem negative (I have to have a Kinect plugged in while I'm playing a game?) involves a positive trade-off (well, your games could react to your heart-rate).

Microsoft's problem right now is that it's hard to tell what the facts of their new console are. It's hard to tell what is real and what's a plan. It's harder still to tell what's a plan they'll stick to and what's a plan they'll change. They don't even seem to know themselves.

Actual Xbox One Confusion

The biggest points of confusion have involved whether the console really does require a persistent online connection and whether it blocks used games. Force me to tell you what the truth of all that is and I'd retreat to telling you what I think Microsoft's priorities are.

I believe:

  • they want to increase the odds of their customers being online to as close to the point of requiring an online connection as they can, without infuriating their customers and
  • they want to know who is using their games, how and when.

These are the priorities that have been evident for over a year, since we first reported, thanks to our excellent next-gen sources, that Microsoft was exploring some sort of used-game protection. Earlier this year, we reported that the machine had to have a new Kinect plugged in in order to run (proven correct) and, in the same report, indicated that games would have to be installed and only run off the harddrive (correct as well).

The signs were increasingly in focus. Microsoft was going to keep tighter control on who played what, where they played it and when.

It need not be read as all nefarious. Games running off a hard drive are bound to have faster load times. They're also bound to be bound to the person who bought the game and their family.

Go to a friend's house, we're now told, and they can play the same game if you're logged in. If they want to log in? They're paying a fee—possibly the cost of the full game. But maybe there's a sensible compromise here? Maybe the friend could play the game for free for a day? Or pay a rental fee to have access to it for longer? Maybe Microsoft will tell us at E3.

Back when we were reporting about the Xbox One, back when it was codenamed Durango, we were mostly dealing with sources we had to keep anonymous. Well, except for the hacker Superdae, who handed us Durango developer documentation and then asked to be given credit for it. In retrospect, we got a lot right. We'd been certain about things like the prototype zebra-striped controller, for example.

There was just that one giant thing we struggled to nail down. That was the always-online requirement. We ran a story that had two top sources saying it was real. One was sure the system could only tolerate a player being offline for three minutes and said an online connection was needed to start a game. Others said they'd not heard one way or the other.

This confusion among our sources about this was maddening, and we took some shots for it. It either was or it wasn't always-online. We weren't talking about photons here. There either was a particle or a wave.

It was either always-online or not.

Well... not quite.

It turns out that the detail we were murkiest about was the one Microsoft themselves are the murkiest about.

The official Microsoft party line on the day the company revealed the Xbox One: "It does not have to be always connected, but Xbox One does require a connection to the Internet."

I read that sentence on my phone while walking down a hallway toward an interview with Phil Harrison, one of the top executives on the Microsoft team. I asked him what the distinction meant. We published his response. Here it is again:

Harrison: "There are many devices in your life that require the Internet to function... Xbox One is no different in that it requires, at some point in the beginning and at various times through its on state, to connect to our cloud and to our Internet. That is to deliver Xbox Live functionality, that is to deliver download content to you, that is to deliver some of the innovations around TV and entertainment that we showed today. But it doesn’t require it to be online all the time.

For single-player games that don’t require connectivity to Xbox Live, you should be able to play those without interruption should your Internet connection go down. Blu-ray movies and other downloaded entertainment should be accessible when your Internet connection may be interrupted. But the device is fundamentally designed to be expanded and extended by the Internet as many devices are today."

Kotaku: If I’m playing a single player game, do I have to be online at least once per hour or something like that? Or can I go weeks and weeks?

Harrison: I believe it’s 24 hours.

Kotaku: I’d have to connect online once every day.

Harrison: Correct.

I wasn't back to the Spitfire Lounge before a Microsoft PR person told me there was an issue with the interview I'd just done. Something about the connection requirement being different on a case-by-case basis. They'd e-mail me a clarification.

Here's what they e-mailed me:

“It does not have to be always connected, but Xbox One does require a connection to the Internet. We’re designing Xbox One to be your all-in-one entertainment system that is connected to the cloud and always ready. We are also designing it so you can play games and watch Blu-ray movies and live TV if you lose your connection.”

Round and round we went.

We published the 24-hour thing, because he'd said it, because it was clear he wasn't sure but that it presented what seemed like an acceptable time duration for an offline mode as far as at least one top Xbox exec was concerned.

Frankly, to me, 24 hours didn't sound so terrible, not for people who would already be owning a powerful home console. I mentioned this to a friend. He said I was in the "bargaining" phase. Maybe. Hey, at least 24 hours sounded better than three minutes.

The 24-hour thing didn't bug me as much as the concept of forever. I don't like the idea of a entire console's worth of games that could become inert. That's what needing an online connection at some point for each game means to me. And that's the part that really bugged me.

The Xbox One Uncertainty Principle

When I ran into Harrison later in the day, I told him that it seemed problematic that there'd be a day when Microsoft might shut down its servers and our Xbox One games would never work again, because they'd have no servers to tell them it was ok for them to run. He seemed to think that was unlikely. A problem for the year 2040, I suggested. He smiled and said something about not thinking that would happen.

There was other confusion, mostly about used games. Again I felt like I was in the thick of it. Again, there was a question of what Harrison had said, what he meant and, most importantly, what Microsoft was really up to. Tom Bramwell from Eurogamer interviewed Harrison right before I did. He walked out, I went in. And then there must have been an issue, because Bramwell was invited to interview Harrison again. They talked through some of the restrictions.

They'd gotten hung up on a few things, including this idea that Harrison had also mentioned to me of having to register your game with a code online when you install it, locking the game to your and your family's accounts (this was, perhaps, what our source had meant by needing an online connection to start a game).

Then they got to talking about used games and whether you could trade one in. Harrison to Bramwell:

"We will have a system where you can take that digital content and trade a previously played game at a retail store," Harrison said. "We're not announcing the details of that today, but we will have announced in due course."

But in his interview with me, Harrison had said something a little different:

"We will have a solution—we’re not talking about it today—for you to be able to trade your previously-played games online"

See the difference?

It's one thing to be talking about trading games back to retail stores, which is the model gamers are used to now. The idea of trading a game in online would be groundbreaking for consoles. I wasn't clear exactly who we'd be trading our games online with... trading them in to Microsoft for credit or other games? Or even trading licenses with friends?

A GameStop source told me that his company, which is America's favorite game-retailer/pawn-shop, already seemed to be working something out with Microsoft or at least trying to, so they could continue to get gamers to buy and trade in used games.

But, speaking of waiting for E3, it felt that here too there was more to be decided and much more to be explained. After all, what is GameStop able to do thanks to used games? Lower the prices of the games they're selling. What would a Microsoft that trafficked in used games be able to do themselves? Perhaps lower the price on games?

Look, I've seen some complaints that the press hasn't been hard enough on Microsoft. I don't know. At Kotaku, we've been trying like demons to break news about the online requirements for a year and got close enough in April for our coverage to prompt former Microsoft creative director Adam Orth to make enough ill-advised Tweets to turn the heat up on this issue.

Given the furious reaction to Orth's Tweets, I expected Microsoft to be prepared at the Xbox One event to have a palatable answer. I guess they did, what with Xbox boss Don Mattrick saying right after the briefing, "Gamers, we got your back.” But then there was what they wrote in that Q&A, the one that said they weren't always-online but did require the Internet.

Perhaps the 24-hour estimate Harrison told me was a response to the fury that followed Orth's seeming endorsement of an online requirement. (Seems messed up the guy's no longer at Microsoft given how badly others in his company have pissed off gamers, huh?).

At Kotaku we'd even heard rumors that there had been debate within Microsoft about how long the system could work offline. Harrison declined to address that and told me the plan he was talking about with me was the only one he'd been privy to. So had the post-Orth furor made an impact? Hard to say. It at least gave people a strong indication of what was coming.

Actual Xbox One Answers Needed

It occurs to me that everything that is confusing about the Xbox One right now can be changed. That online requirement is real but the duration of its offline mode? That's got to be a setting on some slider. They can move it. The rules about whether a game needs to be told by a Microsoft server that it is allowed to run on a given Xbox One server? They could change those rules with patch after patch.

Maybe Microsoft just needs some clear and specific advice. So, give it to them:

  • Survey Question One: If the Xbox One must use the Internet but can run online, then I will accept an offline gaming mode that lasts as little as ________ hours/days/weeks/months.
  • Survey Question Two: If used Xbox One games must be bought at full price, then I expect Xbox One games to cost no more than ____ dollars.

And here's a question for Microsoft to answer:

  • The benefits to gamers of having an online connection when they play a single-player game is _______ (Note: if the answer is cloud-computing, provide a specific example that's better than whatever the SimCity people said.)

Answer those questions well and I don't think we wind up with a 40/40/20 split or whatever it was. I think we will wind up with a console that actually feels knowable, that feels solid and that we understand a little bit better.

There are still a great many unknowns after Microsoft's big unveiling; more unknowns than we've come to expect from the video game industry, which so often seems to have a ready-made answer for every question we ask. A few straightforward answers, a couple more actual facts, and we'll have a much better idea of what the Xbox One is really all about. For now, the harder we look, the more confusing the Xbox One gets.

To contact the author of this post, write to stephentotilo@kotaku.com or find him on Twitter @stephentotilo