The Xbox One Future That Never Was

Let’s chat about the possibility of a disc drive-less Xbox One for a moment. A fully digital, completely download-based next generation console completely in line with Microsoft’s original vision of the future. It’s not that hard a thought; Microsoft’s latest entry into the console industry is rife with examples of a company that wanted to usher in a fully digital gaming ecosystem. A single look at the Xbox One’s operating system today is enough to see that Microsoft’s last-minute policy reversal was a half-baked emergency maneuver to undo the PR damage to Redmond’s image in the weeks following E3 last June.

Examine the “pinning” system for a good moment and you’ll immediately see the deficiencies. You can pin games, movies, anything really, regardless of its accessibility to the end user. Pin a game that you’ve installed using your retail copy? Better hope that game’s in your disc drive or you’ll be getting off the couch to swap it out. It’s a simple, and arguably outmoded way of dealing with content, and it doesn’t feel next-gen. It feels old, and that feeling is exacerbated by the clear oversight in the Xbox One’s OS in its current state.

The truth of the matter is, consumers are impatient. We expect our content to be delivered instantly in this modern age of multi-tasking smartphones, quad-core processors, and ever-increasing flash storage capacity. So why does my “hyper-advanced” Xbox One deny me the ability to do this now?

The primary and most oft-cited rebuttal against a fully digital console is the notion of choice. Imagine I have a vast array of Blu-ray movies on disc, which, by nature, works against Microsoft’s vision of one digital box to rule them all. Say I like the ability to resell my games to GameStop (which I’ve argued for in the past, by the way) in order to keep up with the latest titles without dropping the full $60 every time. A fully digital console does remove those options from the end user, but only in the traditional sense.

The concept of a disc-less Xbox One excites me, but likely not in the way that Microsoft would have had it, given the company’s failure with the HD-DVD drive accessory it offered for the 360. Apple has been releasing products for the last year or so now that have completely done away with disc drives, and yet, people keep buying them. Lots of people, in fact. In Cupertino’s quest to innovate and excite consumers, it’s (in)famously removed one of the most traditional elements of the PC, and the hardware giant’s products have arguably turned out for the better as a result of it. Slimmer, faster, and more pleasing to the eye. Most importantly, however, the company allows those who still require a disc drive to purchase one in the form of Apple’s own, USB-powered Superdrive. In other words, choice without sacrificing innovation.

So why, then, when Microsoft announced the Xbox One’s original vision, did it fail so miserably? What went wrong?

The problem with Microsoft’s original vision isn’t that it wouldn’t work, it’s that the company never bothered to explain how it could potentially make our experience better. PR team failures aside, it’s not so hard to imagine an Xbox world of pure digital distribution, given that it already exists on PC with Steam. You know, Steam, the thing that almost singlehandedly puts Valve in the good graces of every gamer on the planet? That could have been Microsoft in late 2014 if it had only played its cards a hell of a lot further from its chest during E3.

In fact, Microsoft could have done it better. The Xbox One lives in a walled garden, where it’s much, much harder to pirate games than on say, a PC. Always online DRM? Who needs that when you can just authenticate once after download? Good luck convincing any of your friends to let you crack open their $500 machine to swap hard drives, and you’re not able to load games on USB drives because of system limitations. DRM only “needs” to exist on an open platform, where piracy can actually be an easier method of acquiring games.

Hell, you can keep the damn disc drive in the machine without compromising all of the benefits of a digital platform. Is the disc in the tray? Don’t even think about requiring an internet connection to let me play. Have I installed the game from a disc but have something else in the console? Sync with the cloud for a moment to verify that the title has been registered to my Gamertag on my “home console” with a unique key (all behind the scenes, mind you) and then let me play.

It’s almost comical how the gaming community at large was starting to wrap its head around the benefits of Microsoft’s original vision when the announcement came that they were going to change it. A new platform with a chance to improve on the foundation that Steam has so delicately established over the years; a unique opportunity to redefine how we consume content from our gaming box under the TV.

And yet, at the prospect of change, we bristled. We refused to imagine a world where Microsoft could think radically about the future of digital content on a gaming console. Whether we couldn’t hope for a brighter entertainment future, or simply believe in Microsoft’s capability to deliver it, it’s resulted in an inferior gaming console that could have been so much more.

Maybe next time.

Any thoughts?