Most people have a hobby of some sort: music, film, novels, interpretive dance, et al. I’m going to make the fairly safe assumption that for most people, most of the time, hobbies are an occasional distraction — something to do when you’re bored, perhaps on a slow (or rainy) weekend.
For others, hobbies can be an obsession. My obsession is video games, and it really always has been, at least since I was about five or six years old. Now, it’s also true that there are legions of gamers out there who are even more obsessed than I (simply search “game room tour” on YouTube to see what I mean). Although I don’t quite reach those stratospheric heights of fandom, it must be said that I can get pretty close.
Being committed to a hobby can be time-consuming and expensive, but when I was a kid, it was also incredibly frustrating. I snapped up most video game magazines that I could find in the ’90s, and my long-suffering parents were faced with a steady stream of requests for some new game or console (and to their credit, they were often rather generous — this is why I was the only kid in my school who owned both a SNES and a Mega Drive, the latter complete with Mega CD attachment to top it off). But at the same time, there was a ton of stuff that I missed simply because I wasn’t making my own money. Like most kids who are fortunate enough to be able to own video games, I was generally waiting for the next birthday or Christmas (with some exceptions here and there).
I mention all of this because as soon as I was working full-time, the greatest initial sign of my financial liberation wasn’t just that I moved out and became an independent adult — it’s that I could finally afford my own video games, and to a degree, I could indulge a lot more than I had as a kid.
What this means is that for a long time now, I’ve been the definition of early adopter when it comes to games; I’d buy new consoles as soon as they came out, and I’d often buy games I wanted as soon as they were available. Not only that, but I’ve become increasingly omnivorous when it comes to games — sure, I grew up with Nintendo and Sega, but if there’s a good game to be played, I don’t care who made it or what platform it’s on. As a result — and at least for the last couple of console generations — I’ve owned all three major platforms and I’ve oscillated between them depending on the timing of software releases that I’m interested in.
So far, so privileged
It all sounds very rosy, I know. But something changed in this current generation of consoles. I picked up a Wii U on launch (because I doubt I’ll ever miss the launch of a new Nintendo platform), and I nabbed a PS4 pretty shortly after it was released. For the past couple of years, the PS4 and Wii U have kept me pretty busy. In fact, even with my voracious appetite and healthy gaming budget, I’ve had trouble keeping up with the sheer landslide of incredible games continually landing on my doorstep via the PS4. You’re feeling sorry for me right now, I know.
So, what changed? Well, just last month, I finally picked up a shiny new Xbox One S (bear in mind that I’d owned an Xbox 360 right from launch and, in fact, it was probably my favourite console of the previous generation).
Why did I wait so long? Honestly, I couldn’t keep up. The combination of PS4 and Wii U was keeping me so busy in my gaming time, and the rest of the time I have other commitments (you know, all that pesky living and working stuff). It’s not that there weren’t any great games on Xbox One, but I never really felt like it was a “must own” console — there wasn’t enough there compelling me to go out and spend a few hundred dollars on the thing. That said, I figured I’d eventually buy one, but I’d wait it out; I’d wait for the price to come down, for the library to grow, and perhaps for a revised hardware to arrive (thanks, Xbox One S).
The Andrew Kim effect
I’ve explained what I was waiting for, and that I was always intending to buy an Xbox One at some stage. But the catalyst for me was definitely the Xbox One S. Like many mid-life hardware refreshes, the Xbox One S doesn’t introduce more raw power, but it is about 40% smaller than the original model, and includes support for HDR and 4K Blu-ray movies.
Aside from that, the industrial design itself is radically different than the original Xbox One. The design caught my eye, and it’s no surprise why: Andrew Kim was part of the hardware design team. Who is Andrew Kim? Well, he caught attention through his web site, Minimally Minimal, which really amounts to a love-letter for clever, minimalist industrial and graphic design. As part of the site, he undertook a three day design study, where he proposed updated branding for Microsoft. The project was simply called “The Next Microsoft”.
I was fascinated by this project, partly because it took a student to clearly and simply articulate a vision that Microsoft itself hadn’t managed in years. There was — and still is — something refreshing to Andrew’s thinking, and as a designer myself, I found myself drawn to his work.
And so, I was excited to find that Andrew had not only received significant notoriety for his project, but that he’d also been employed by Microsoft itself. The Xbox One S was his first project at the company.
[The Xbox One S reflects] a more friendly and universal product that doesn’t evoke traditional gaming cues.
We also wanted to simplify the hardware to align with the new Windows 10 design language that was being developed in unison. This simplification started with implementing a unibody construction that reduces the external shell count to just three parts. We also dramatically reduced the size of the device and removed the bulky external power supply. The final design is architectural, logical and easily accessible thanks to its surprisingly low price point.
Industrial design in itself is not something that would typically attract me to a new console but as I mentioned, numerous factors coalesced: price point, library, and hardware refresh. That the Xbox One S is so lovingly and strikingly designed — and by a designer whose work and insights I follow — was really just the final catalyst for me to jump in.
The console experience
In my day-to-day professional life, I am a software designer (although not in the video game industry). I’ve been a product manager, a senior business analyst, and I’ve worked closely with UX professionals; as a result, I’m very keenly interested in the end user experience at multiple levels.
This is partly why I placed some emphasis on the industrial design of the Xbox One S. If you think about any time you have bought a new console, it’s always exciting. And your experience with that product really doesn’t begin when you play the first game — it arguably begins even before you buy the product in question. That said, I pay a lot of attention to those initial moments when I bring a product home and begin unboxing it. What is the packaging like? How does the product look and feel? How easy is to to plug in and physically set up? And then, how easy is it to dive into a game?
I don’t want to unpack those questions in great detail here, but I do have some general thoughts.
I’ve touched on the industrial design of the Xbox One S above, albeit briefly. Suffice it to say, I think the physical product is gorgeous — and you know, it should be! Games are no longer predominantly played by children or teenagers, and the entire experience has become more connected and sophisticated than ever before. In my view, it’s fair to argue that game consoles should look and feel like they naturally belong in a living room; I personally want the physical boxes to reflect the nature of the high-end experiences that they deliver through their software.
Switching on the Xbox One S takes you through a fairly simple guided process where you either sign into your existing Microsoft account or create a new one. I already had an account from my Xbox 360 days, so I used that, and everything synchronised beautifully on the new hardware.
It’s worth pausing for a brief moment though to mention something interesting about said synchronisation. You may or may not be aware that Microsoft has been slowly expanding the library of existing Xbox 360 titles that are backwards compatible on Xbox One. It is part of their commitment to the idea that if you buy an Xbox game, you’ll essentially always be able to play it on future hadrware — you won’t have to re-buy it over and over again (I’m looking at you, Nintendo). It’s certainly a noble aim, and although not every Xbox 360 game is compatible yet, hundreds already are and more are being added on a regular basis. What’s really cool about it, though, is that the Xbox One has recognised — through my Microsoft account — which games I own on Xbox 360. As those games have been made compatible with Xbox One, I get a notification on the console that asks if I’d like to install the game. In other words, I don’t have to go looking; the Xbox One essentially checks my old library regularly and offers to bring newly-compatible games over as they arise. It’s an awesome idea, and it’s executed very effectively. Again, I think Nintendo in particular could learn a great deal from the way Microsoft has handled this process.
The overall UI for the Xbox One is fairly straightforward and is very clearly built upon the Windows 10 design language. For the most part, I think it works, but it’s not as simple or elegant as the PS4 (or even Wii U) interface. It took me a little time to actually understand how to start a game, how to jump from the game back to the Xbox interface, and how to install/uninstall and purchase games. Also, from what I can tell, the Xbox Store interface on the Xbox One is significantly worse than on the Xbox 360 — there appear to be fewer ways to filter a large library of games to find something you like (for example, I haven’t been able to find a way to simply search for genre, let alone to filter within that — i.e. “popular first-person shooters”).
I have also noticed — and I do think this is a significant problem — that the Xbox One UI is laggy. Moving between menus can result in perceptible stuttering, and where I have noticed this the most is when I’m playing a game and trying to move back into the Xbox interface. On both the Xbox 360 and Xbox One, this action is achieved by pressing the Xbox Home button in the middle of the controller. On Xbox 360, it works reliably every time, and it’s quite easy to feel the difference between a single press (moving back to the interface) versus a long-press/hold (turning off the controller or console). On the Xbox One, the noticeable lag made this slightly confusing; I’d press the Home button and sometimes nothing would happen. Or there would be a delay moving back to the interface. Then I’d try holding the button down, only to be given the option to turn off the controller or console — I’ve sort of found this weird middle-ground where I have to slowly and firmly press the button (but not hold it!) to go back to the Xbox interface. I have to admit, it’s pretty yucky, and it does marr the experience because these two actions (press and hold) are things I do regularly when using the console. I hope Microsoft addresses this issue in future software updates.
I suspect that the Home button issue is a software-related problem rather than being an issue with the controller itself (as I’m writing this, Microsoft have confirmed that they are making some changes to the problematic button to improve speed and functionality). Speaking of the controller, in typical Microsoft fashion (at least since the Xbox 360), it’s a beautifully designed object. Game controllers are funny things; it’s tempting to wonder how anyone could get such a simple design wrong, but if you think about it, the designers have to create something that you can comfortably hold and use sometimes for hours at a time. Not only that, but it has to be both simple enough to be intuitive, but also functional enough to allow for a wide scope of different gameplay possibilities.
In my opinion, the Xbox One controller is the best console controller Microsoft have ever made — it even bests the wonderful Xbox 360 controller design. I’d describe the overall feeling as stout. The grips are short and chubby, and feel wonderful in the palm of your hand. Although the controller isn’t heavy, it also doesn’t feel flimsy and light — there’s something substantial about it that conveys a sense of quality and durability, which is a quality any good game controller should have. Speaking of the grips, too, there’s a subtle difference in the plastic on the back of the controller: it’s slightly textured and feels gently abrasive, almost like rubber (even though it is definitely plastic). Again, it just speaks to this idea of comfort and reliability.
The shoulder buttons and analogue triggers feel great, with the latter offering just the right amount of resistance and travel. The face buttons are well-positioned (and up close, the three-dimensional coloured lettering inside the little translucent bubbles is really lovely, it’s a sign of great attention to detail). At first, I found the face buttons to be a little sharply “clicky” compared to the PS4 controller buttons, which are definitely softer. But after playing with it for a while, I didn’t have an issue; it’s not better or worse, just different. Your mileage may vary.
Microsoft has also gone pretty nuts in terms of colour variations on this thing. There are now a wide range of beautiful designs (and I haven’t even mentioned the Xbox One Elite Controller, which I am not sure I need, honestly). The Special Edition designs are really gorgeous in person — I suspect Dawn Shadow will be my next pick-up.
Before I finish this segment, I’d be remiss not to mention one more important element of the console.
The Xbox One — like the PS4 — has a significant focus on social sharing. So far, I haven’t had any experience with streaming on Xbox One, but I have shared brief snippets of video through my activity feed. I must admit, that process is well-designed; the Xbox One automatically records short video clips at key moments in a game (usually associated with an Achievement notification). You can browse these clips and upload them either to Xbox Live or even to OneDrive. Upload, add a comment, and share on your activity feed. It’s simple and clean. And it’s one area where I think Xbox One has a slight edge over PS4, at least in terms of ease of use.
A brief point about late adopters
I have kind of given you a quasi-review — or at least, early impressions — of a console that has been around for a good couple of years now. But what’s interesting to me about this experience is how common it is. Most people who play video games are actually not early adopters. As a result, the experience I have of buying a game console on or near day one (at its most expensive and with its smallest content library) is actually not common.
Of course, video game journalists who review games and hardware for a living must provide these impressions as soon as a product launches — but sometimes I think it’s easy to forget that a great many people won’t be even be considering a purchase for at least another year or two.
To better illustrate this point, I’ve nabbed the above graph from VGChartz. For a variety of reasons, it can be difficult for anyone to get truly accurate sales figures when it comes to video game hardware and software (here is VGChartz’ statement about their methodology). At any rate, for my purposes, ballpark figures are more than enough.
Looking at the above graph, you can clearly see that, on average, PS4’s monthly sales were highest in 2015 — even though the console launched at the end of 2013. I’m willing to bet that if you look at any game console, you’ll notice a similar trend: the majority of hardware sales don’t happen in the first year of a console’s life.
This trend isn’t isolated to game consoles, either. There is clear research demonstrating that early adopters are never in the majority — most purchases are spread between the so-called “early majority” and “late majority”.
Those of us who write about video games should always keep this reality in mind, I think. We have a tendency to voraciously move from one platform and product to the next, and in doing so, we often forget that most gamers are actually consuming content at a different rate and time.
Only on Xbox One
It should go without saying that a person purchases a game console to play games. Although I buy plenty of multi-platform releases, I’m really always interested in the exclusives on any given platform; they often end up being my favourite games.
Since purchasing the Xbox One, I’ve picked up a few key exclusives. The first— and so far, for me, the most interesting — is Insomniac Games’ Sunset Overdrive. From what I’ve read elsewhere, it also seems to be a game that has sold criminally few copies (although perhaps this is understandable for a brand new franchise — but still, it’s a shame that the franchise didn’t really take off in the way it could have).
Where to start with this one? Well, comparisons have been made to Jet Set Radio, which is also a favourite of mine. The comparisons are reasonable — the game’s art style and irreverent humour bear some similarities, as well as its focus on grinding as a form of traversal through the world — overall though, Sunset Overdrive has quite a different focus. It is exists in a post-apocalyptic setting where an energy drink has essentially turned the entire population in Sunset City into zombies. Thematically and stylistically, Sunset Overdrive reminds me much more of Tank Girl than Jet Set Radio. It is a vibrant, colourful, post-apocalyptic mad house full of over-the-top punk references — both in terms of its soundtrack as well as the attitudes of the characters and their dialogue. At first, Sunset Overdrive’s very deliberate self-referentialism kind of irked me (and I can see why a player to spends an hour or two in the game might ultimately put it down) — but over time I began to appreciate the quirky humour and frequent fourth-wall-breaking dialogue; it grew on me. And despite the obvious pop culture influences, I felt — and still feel — that Sunset Overdrive is doing something genuinely different than anything else I’ve played before. It is an experiment not just in theme and style, but also in terms of physical game mechanics; it’s a weird, open-world third-person shooter that relies heavily on grinding, jumping, and shooting all at the same time. In fact, if you remain still for even a moment — or if you spend much time wandering around on foot — you’ll find yourself overrun by zombies within seconds. Moving fast and constantly looking for the next jump or grind opportunity is critical to success.
Another brilliant Xbox One exclusive is the gorgeous Forza Horizon 3. The latest version is set in my home country of Australia, and it really captures the atmosphere of various Australian locales — whether it’s a small town in Queensland, or the beautiful Great Ocean Road that weaves across a rugged ocean coastline, or the stunning tropical forests across the north of the country. What fascinates me about this game is probably the fact that I love it despite not being a huge fan of racing games generally. Forza Horizon 3 almost feels like less of an outright racing game and more of an adventure game that you play from behind the wheel of a car. The size and scope of the experience, as well as the sheer variety of activities, come together to form a playground that you can lose hours exploring.
I’m not too far into Forza Horizon 3 at the moment — maybe I’ve spent about five or six hours in the game so far — but I’m thoroughly enjoying it and I can’t wait to unlock more activities and locations.
A third big exclusive that I absolutely adore is Ori and the Blind Forest, which is a stunning “metroidvania” style platformer by Moon Studios. It is easily the most visually rich platformer I’ve ever played, and it is also one of the most innovative and clever games I’ve seen in years; the massive world is lavishly animated and the game’s plot plays out as you explore and uncover new abilities.
Here is the game’s trailer; if you’re interested, I highly recommend checking out a walkthrough/let’s play video. If you have an Xbox One — or you’re thinking of buying one — I can’t recommend this game highly enough. For me, it’s currently the single most impressive Xbox One title and it’s almost worth the price of entry for me.
The future of Xbox One
A slightly sore point at the time of writing this is that there aren’t many confirmed exclusives coming up for Xbox One in 2017. The lineup certainly isn’t dry by any means, but it doesn’t compare to what’s on offer for the PS4, and this is likely to mean a lot to you if you’re only intending to buy one of these consoles (or if you’d rather invest in PS4 games rather than going out and buying an Xbox One).
Now that I bit the bullet and grabbed and Xbox One though, there’s plenty to look forward to.
Cuphead has been a long time coming, and it looks wonderful; I genuinely hope that it plays as well as it looks. Here’s a great gameplay demo from Eurogamer, if you’re interested.
Then there’s Crackdown 3, which appears to be utilising highly ambitious technology to create a vast, destructible world (in fact, the tech seems so ambitious that I’m starting to wonder if the game will actually materialise as advertised).
I’m also really looking forward to Sea of Thieves by Rare; the idea of exploring a large multiplayer world full of pirates sounds awesome to me, and I hope the game delivers on its promise.
Finally, there’s State of Decay 2. I thought the original game on Xbox 360 was fantastic, if a little unpolished. The sequel looks like everything I could hope for, and in general, I love the idea of a zombie game that combines action with genuine survival and resource management elements.
It will be fascinating to watch the Xbox One this year, especially with Microsoft’s Project Scorpio right around the corner (perhaps Scorpio will be revealed at E3 in June). I am wondering how many games that are currently committed for Xbox One will ultimately move to the Scorpio (at this stage, Crackdown 3 seems like the obvious candidate).
Whatever happens, I’m pretty happy with my purchase. Coming late to Xbox One hasn’t been a bad thing; there’s a great established library that I can dig into right away, and I suspect that I’m going to be spending the next few months exploring games that have already been released.
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