We won’t know precisely what the next Xbox will be, technologically speaking, until May at the earliest.
But, from a mix of rumors, previous decisions, and revelations, we’re starting to get a clearer picture of what the next Xbox will look like… and it’s starting to not look like a gaming console at all, and more like Microsoft’s attempt to build a technological Swiss Army knife for the living room.
Let’s break out what we’re seeing: Companies are conservative entities, and you can generally figure out their future actions from their previous ones.
What Microsoft Is Doing Currently
Two things about Microsoft’s current treatment of its console stand out: One, that you can now buy one on a subscription from Best Buys across the country, and two, buddying up to cable operators and networks as much as possible. Microsoft has a lot invested in the 360 being a streaming video box.
What We Know
First, the next Xbox will have some very, very weird and advanced technology to it. The Kinect will have to be plugged in for the console to work. It also will have what amounts to crude holodeck technology, which isn’t likely to be mandatory but they’re going to push that aspect hard.
Secondly, Microsoft has been quiet about the next-gen games it’s developing, but it’s developing lots of them. Microsoft Studios has been pulling in quite a lot of gaming talent and then that talent basically stops talking.
Finally, we know that it’s designed in architecture to be more like a PC.
However you slice it, the next Xbox is going to be very, very different from the PS4, and in some fundamental ways.
What We’re Pretty Sure We Know
The biggest unconfirmed rumor, but one that we keep hearing repeatedly and is certainly on the mind of Microsoft employees, is that the next Xbox will require an always-on Internet connection.
There are claims it’s to prevent used game sales, which it could be used for, but that’s fiscal suicide since Sony has definitely stated it won’t block used game sales. Our guess is that the always-on connection is for another reason entirely.
What It All Means
Before I go any further, I should state that this is speculation based on analysis. Nobody’s “confirmed” this with us, and if this is true, you’re probably not going to hear a word of it until next month anyway.
With that said, here’s what we’re probably going to hear in May: That cable operators will be offering a new Xbox that you can buy on a subscription plan that gives you Xbox Live Gold membership, as well as an extensive bundle of streaming options.
Why would Microsoft do this? First of all, it opens the door to a wider audience for the Xbox; if you’ve got cable companies selling your console, and selling it as more than just a gaming machine, you get more business. Secondly, it makes the “always-on” internet connection a moot point: You’d only be selling the console to people with an Internet connection in the first place. Thirdly, it gives those with a 360 who use it primarily for streaming a reason to upgrade.
Remember that the overall objective of the 360 is not to be the best gaming console: It was to be the family living-room amusement box. Microsoft isn’t really in the content sales game: It’s just not good at it. Instead it wants to be the middleman between the consumers and those selling content, and piggybacking on cable subscriptions is a good way to do that. Similarly, Nintendo has shown, again and again, you can’t go wrong aiming at the non-hardcore audience.
Cable providers get another method to lock customers in, more cable internet subscriptions, and more people upgrading their cable internet subscriptions, not to mention a DVR that will never, ever, ever feature any sort of ad-skipping function.
Will there be a standalone console? Probably, but it’s likely going to be expensive and a pain in the ass to use without your cable provider.
Keep in mind that the key lesson game companies took away from Diablo III and SimCity was that you could impose outrageously restrictive DRM and customers would totally buy it anyway: SimCity’s launch was a disaster by any yardstick, and it still sold a million copies in two weeks, half of them from Origin. As far as Microsoft is concerned, gamers scream and whine and then buy it anyway.
Again, this is speculation… but if some or all of this doesn’t turn out to be true, we’ll be surprised.