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Microsoft's Next Xbox Probably Won't Be Always On (But Will Be Similarly Anti-Consumer)

Submitted by kmeisthax on Sat, 04/27/2013 - 10:50 in Rants

There are two incredibly effective marketing techniques both involving the creation of throw-away value propositions to get someone to accept another, related value proposition. The first one is the foot-in-the-door technique, where the throw-away proposition is relatively non-committal, and the related proposition is more involved. The idea is that getting someone to accept the throw-away proposition mentally prepares them to accept the later related one; since the person already has dealt with you, there's less transaction anxiety. Examples of this in the videogame world include things like demos or free trials of MMOs.

The second technique we're going to talk about is the door-in-the-face technique. This one's a little more complex. Our throw-away proposition, unlike the first technique, is extremely commital in nature, to the point of sounding almost farcical. We don't actually intend anyone to accept this irrational value proposition at all. It's only purpose is to engage in price anchoring so that the second, related proposition doesn't sound so bad. If someone went up to you and asked you to donate blood or give some money to charity, you might not consider it right off the bat. However, if they opened their pitch by instead asking for an incredibly large amount of money, then after being rejected, scaled it down to the amount they actually wanted, they are more likely to get results.

There's a new Xbox coming out, and with it, a slurry of new rumors, just like with the PS4. With the PS4, the big rumor was used game blocking technology, something which a Sony exec later sort-of denied (but in a way that made it sound like they WERE going to expand online pass systems). With the new Xbox, however, the big rumor is that the console is always-on: after three minutes of internet disconnection, the system will shut down all running applications and demand that you reconnect it's network connection. This obviously sounds like an incredibly bad idea; the justification being either to block used games or protect against pirated games obviously not sitting well with the vast majority of gamers.

From the point of view of Microsoft, I really don't see the point of doing something so flagrantly awful. It's not like they're a monopoly; this console generation was almost evenly split between PS3 and 360 (if you discount the Wii, which destroyed them both despite having no HD output, last-gen graphics, incompetent at best network services, and a horribly broken download service). The next generation is looking to be an even more even split between Microsoft and Sony (again, discounting potential future Wii U and Ouya performance, which will most likely smoke both of them by virtue of being weaker/cheaper hardware). So Microsoft really does not need to give gamers a reason to buy a PS4 instead of the next Xbox.

All Sony has to do is change their marketing to "It Only Does Everything (Including Offline Play)" and they win next gen (as far as Microsoft is concerned). There's really no reason why Microsoft should do this. It's not like publishers are asking for it: otherwise, it would be part of the PS4 as well. Like I said before, the next Xbox and the PS4 are going to be incredibly matched and any publisher insisting on an always-on console is going to lose a lot of sales from not publishing on PS4. There's no reason to be exclusive anymore, so any restriction that any one of Sony or Microsoft refuses to go along with is already dead in the water.

It is interesting, however, that all of these always-on rumors are coming out on the Microsoft side all of a sudden. I'm not one to believe in unfounded conspiracy theories, but it's still okay to use one's imagination. Let's imagine for a second that Microsoft had some similarly awful restriction that wasn't an always-on console. Let's say, for the purpose of discussion, that the next Xbox required an Xbox Live Gold subscription to play any games. If I was a marketing department CEO I'd probably be leaking the always-on rumor as much as possible.

Imagine, in May, when Microsoft decides to launch the next Xbox, and they go up and say: "You spoke up, and we listened: The next Xbox will not require an always-on Internet connection to play games." As gamers, we'd be pretty freakin' satisfied that we had "defeated" this horrible idea through the collective voice of our Reddit upvotes and retweets. We'd be in a pretty vulnerable state for Microsoft to slip in some other bit like "And, for developers, you no longer have to worry about dealing with non-Gold profiles. All profiles on the next Xbox must have a Gold subscription".

And that, my friends, is how you use the door-in-the-face technique. You make a crappy offer like "always-on console" and then follow up with "subscription based console, but there's still an offline mode". Or "no-used-games console, but there's still an offline mode". Now that the "always-on" anchor has been established, things which would have themselves previously been horrible ideas now sound relatively reasonable. The public's disgust has been disarmed.

Incidentally, I wasn't kidding when I said the Wii trounced the 360 and the PS3. In every hardware generation, the weakest hardware typically wins over stronger, but less able competitors. The console game is one of volume, so any incremental gains you get on your competitors with more powerful hardware is offset by the fact that the hardware is more expensive, making it harder to manufacture and ship more units.

This is sort of put into question with the Wii U though: it's not as "last-gen graphics" as the Wii was relative to the PS3 or the 360, because it has a much more powerful GPU than the PS3 or 360 that people think it is. But that's not the main driver of the $300-$350 cost. The main driver of the cost is that stupid touchscreen controller - it alone chews up about $100-150 of the total system price. The PS4 and next Xbox will most likely not retail for anything under $400, though, so it's not like the Wii U is completely dead in the water. But they aren't able to exploit the lower cost of the system nearly as much as they could with the Wii.

Ouya is another interesting wrinkle in all of this: at $100 it's going to be vastly cheaper than everything else on the market, even the Wii (by a little). But it's games are going to be heavily dominated by the indie croud that Sony and Nintendo are bending over their backs to try and court. Major publishers are going to hand this off to their mobile divisions, because it's mobile-class hardware, and they're going to come back with really crappy cow-clicker spinoffs that involve little or no actual gameplay (relative to the frequent number of IAPs that tend to be shoved in these games). The question of the Ouya is if it will be able to attract any useful content at all - it's not married to touch like iOS is, you have real buttons and everything, so it is certainly possible to make good games on that class of hardware. I'm worried that good Ouya games will wind up getting buried in a sea of cow-clickers and infinite run games.

game development
game consoles