The past week probably hasn't gone exactly as Microsoft had hoped. More than 8 million peoplewatched the reveal of the new Xbox One, but the general tone of the commentary from pundits and players in the days since has been overwhelmingly negative. Gamers on countless message boards and Twitter conversations are up in arms about the lack of demonstrated games, unsettled issues surrounding used games and DRM, and a host of other annoyances big and small. Mainstream columnists have focused on potential privacy concerns for the "always on" Kinect that has to be connected to the system. Investors have seemed largely unimpressed, sending Sony's stock surging while keeping Microsoft's level in the wake of the reveal.
Definitely not Microsoft's ideal start, but perhaps it's what the company should have been expecting given the odd, scattershot focus the Xbox One reveal took. Yes, Microsoft avoided Sony's mistake offailing to show the casing for the system, but it failed to emulate Sony's focus in presenting a bevy of technology demonstrations and playable live demos. Compare that to Microsoft's weak software showing: a few uninspiring seconds of generic, Forza car-porn; a confusing, unexplained TV/game hybrid from the creators of Alan Wake; and unfinished wireframe athletes from EA Sports. The only game to get significant time and attention at the Xbox One reveal was Activision's new Call of Duty: Ghosts. That reveal showed off the improved performance of the system, sure, but in an extremely predictable fashion. The display didn't seem in any way exclusive to the Xbox One (as opposed to Sony's exciting Killzone demonstration).
These short snippets of actual gaming were absolutely overwhelmed by talk of the Xbox One's non-gaming features. Microsoft led the hour-long presentation with almost 10 minutes on how the system could be used to easily watch live TV, as if being able to switch inputs without picking up a remote control was the killer app that would cause millions of people to rush out to spend hundreds of dollars on the console. (Oh, and a lot of those features only work in America anyway). Five more minutes were wasted on announcing a Halo television series that had nothing to do with the Xbox One. The series could have easily been announced as successfully through a YouTube video. Even more time was wasted on announcing a "historic" partnership with the NFL that pointedly avoided any concrete discussion of how that partnership would actually improve the couch potato experience in the slightest.
The post-reveal messaging has been just as unfocused, offering confusing, incomplete, or contradictory answers on a number of key questions. How will used games work on the system? Microsoft isn't saying. How often does the system need to connect to the Internet? "Every 24 hours" says Microsoft's Phil Harrison; "forget he said that" says Xbox PR. Should I worry about the Kinect being required and "always on"? No, we have great privacy protection that we aren't discussing in detail. Still not satisfied? Well, it turns out you can turn it off, but we won't have more details until later.
Will independent developers be able to self-publish on the system? No they won't, but, um, maybe they will. Why can't it record TV shows? Why don't we have more concrete information on hardware performance? Why aren't you talking more about the rumbling impulse triggers that are actually kind of cool?
Microsoft must have seen these questions coming. Further, they should have known that—in the absence of any interesting gaming announcements or interesting, next-generation hardware advances to discuss—the attention of the press and gamers would be fixated on the lack of concrete answers. Nebulous promises of "more information coming soon" only fan the flames and increase the pressure on Microsoft's new system.
It's enough to make you wonder what audience Microsoft was actually targeting with its Xbox One reveal strategy. Definitely not gamers, as the lack of game demos and concrete answers to important game-related questions should make clear. You could argue the company was targeting general media consumers, who might be drawn in by talk of integrated TV and Skype capabilities. But that audience seems unlikely to be closely following a console reveal event. Microsoft might have been trying to target investors and analysts with discussions of exclusive EA, Activision, and NFL deals, but if that was the case, the immediate jump in Sony's stock price makes that strategy seem like a failure.
No matter how much Microsoft is positioning the Xbox One as an all-in-one home entertainment center, it is still, at its heart, a game console. That's what makes it different from the smart TVs and Roku boxes and all the other lower-priced devices that can already hook up to your living room screen. And when you're introducing a game console, you really should lead with the games. When you don't, you get the kind of reaction Microsoft has gotten to the Xbox One—overwhelmingly characterized by anger and confusion rather than wonder and awe.
The silver lining for Microsoft in all of this is that there's a good chance this could all being forgotten in a few weeks. Microsoft's E3 showing will doubtlessly focus more on games, including a promised 15 exclusive titles. That event could do a lot to take attention away from the incidental issues that have dominated the conversation thus far. But you only get one chance at a first impression, as the saying goes, and Microsoft wasted it. The Xbox One reveal was the functional equivalent of a throat-clearing, highlighting incidental features rather than those that will be driving the purchasing decisions of the console's core audience.