The XBox One… Eighty on Kinect? Not even close…

Slippery little sucker…

It’s now official. The XBox One will no longer “require” the Kinect to be plugged in to work.

Amidst the cheers that have come from ardent supporters of Microsoft, I think they should be made to consider the ramifications of a frankly disastrous couple of months; the XBox One is a joke, the reputation of the system lies in shreds on the floor. The changes, policy tweaks and U-Turns should not have been necessary in the first place, and even if the changes are welcome and important to keep it on a level playing field with the PlayStation 4, they are still policy U-Turns and are being greeted with a healthy dose of humour, and not in favour of Microsoft. It’s a storm that Microsoft couldn’t weather.

The thing is, the Kinect U-Turn was inevitable, regardless of what people say.

The problem with the Kinect 2.0 was it’s “Always On” functionality, and that it could hear trigger words and phrases as well as scan your body and deliver targeted advertising (which basically means tubby people would either get a ton of Mountain Dew and Dorito’s ads, or constant bombardment of diet products… neither of which are particularly helpful!). This sounds like the future – and indeed, technically we already see this out and about. There are now advertising banners in streets that will target you based on your height and width, after all, and these are already hugely controversial; with one such ad targeting children with a number to call if they are being abused. Whilst that sounds like a morally good thing to do, put that into context with an advertiser; if you can target young children in that manner, you can give them far more tailored advertising than they ever got on TV – advertising that is beyond the reasoned monitoring of parents. It’s a serious issue, and one that is still being fiercely debated.

One thing that cannot be debated though is data protection, and in particular, privacy laws. It’s the privacy laws which would have been likely to cause the most headaches for Microsoft; first of all, it has to promise not to divulge sensitive information to third-parties, such as potential weight and stuff – tailored advertising in that manner simply is impossible, as it would obviously show up if you were a little tubby and it was thrusting SlimSoup Plus ads on your front page every time you turned the machine on. Also, this sort of data is actually the most valuable part; it can be passed to third-parties and junk mail specialists to target people with specific advertising promotions, and Microsoft passing some of this data on would be hugely damaging to it as a company, a company already in the doghouse recently over serious security concerns in the last few years. Microsoft would need to promise such data isn’t available to others. I can’t imagine that they’d want to do that.

Next would be the regional discrepancies in terms of privacy laws; for all the jesting my fellow Brits do to France, I have to thoroughly applaud their extremely stringent privacy laws – laws which recently saw people arrested in conjunction with taking pictures of Princess Kate. Getting the Kinect 2.0 passed as okay in France would be a superhuman task; because it was being forced, therefore the invasion of privacy is far too severe. Microsoft clearly don’t want the XBox One to be stalled over such varied legislature; ranging from the UK’s need for total transparancy, to the comparatively digital dark-ages of Germany, a country that restricted the Wii U’s eShop adult content for months until its security measures could be verified sound. Germany’s classification board would have a seizure when faced with something as intrusive as the Kinect 2.0. It’s funny really, Germany, France and the UK all kind of against a technological advance that can act like a bug. There’s a joke in there somewhere.

This is nothing compared to the legally-free state of the United States in recent years; nor does it account for the overprotective Australian board, or the increased censorship in Japan. If anything, Microsoft’s biggest problem with the Kinect 2.0 was requiring it be a part of the machine; it was gambling a lot on the idea people wouldn’t notice or care much about allowing it to collect data about us, but if we’ve learned anything from Apple and EA’s Origin in the last couple of years is that at a time when more and more data is being pushed online, people are becoming smarter and wiser to it, and the law is fast catching up. As consumers noticed and squealed in horror, no doubt a bunch of countries have been stating categorically that Microsoft wouldn’t get a free ride. As the machine became less region-restricted, and more open to ideas, this was the main sticking point; one that Microsoft must be rather relieved it can sidestep.

But it IS a sidestep. Microsoft are likely banking on consumers just sticking it in the machine anyway, without considering the consequences. As a part of the bundle, the expectation is that since the customer has bought it, and it is in the box and are following instructions to install, that they can slide it in. Whilst it may technically sidestep some legal issues, it opens up a completely new can of worms; sneaking it in under the radar, rather than being open and honest about it. It makes the U-Turn change from a relatively nice idea to something altogether more sinister – that Microsoft are just hoping you’ll forget what they’re trying to do, won’t read the EULA and end up giving them what they want of your own free will. It’s there, and it’s not required but hey, you’ve bought it anyway so…

It surprises me this is more legal than being open and honest about it, but I guess that’s the law for you in most cases. And it’s an issue that Microsoft will simply be delaying, when it should be tackling it openly and in public view so we all know what to expect from them. I don’t like this concept of it not being “required”, but put in the box anyway because hey, why not eh? I mean, Microsoft aren’t expecting you to want to use something you bought right wink wink nudge nudge say no more? I am a big believer that some of Microsoft’s changes have been good and well explained; communication was the weakest element of the XBox One reveal and communication is what will ultimately save the day in its case, by being honest and upfront with every single element and why Microsoft thought it was a good idea, even if it’s as simple a reason as “It makes us money!”. That’s a legitimate reason for a company like Microsoft, and it is up to us to prove it ineffectual.

But this? No. This isn’t open and transparent. This reeks of brushing it under the carpet, with heavily-implied hints of it making things “easier” and “safer”, rather than deal with a bunch of extremely difficult and important questions that really do need to be sorted and answered between now and its release sometime towards the end of the year. If Microsoft think they have people like me fooled, they are sadly very mistaken. This isn’t about being overly suspicious; this is about being suspicious of their motives because the premise of the console was so deeply anti-consumer from the beginning. How is this situation “better” for us?

Until Microsoft confirms a version of the console without Kinect 2.0, they will struggle with many gamers. For all their bravado about functionality, there is nothing complicated with using a controller – seriously, if a 90-year-old man can understand how to run an Everquest guild, most people can understand the basics of a controller. There, I said it. There is nothing alien about a games controller. A games controller is designed to make sense, and has remained relatively constant in design and evolution such that the vast majority of people can work it out without the need for a manual of any kind. There is nothing secure about an always-on camera/recording device that can scan you. And the Kinect itself on the 360 demonstrated that for all the talk of “Core Games for Core Gamers!”, it was nothing but an empty, hollow promise and brought precisely nothing to 99% of the games it was pushed into (aside maybe the Dance-themed games). The Kinect of old isn’t welcomed by the gaming crowd; how Microsoft ever thought it would bite for a second round of the cherry before it has even had a chance to prove itself is something of an amazing notion in itself.

But more importantly, why does a UI need the Kinect 2.0 to be “easier”? It’s like Microsoft believe we’ve forgotten what an analogue stick does; or a D-Pad. Systems that are not complicated at all to understand; explaining to someone a series of gestures and short-cut codes is a far harder task than, “Use stick to cursor over that box and press the green button!”. I said a while back the biggest danger the Kinect had was that it was beginning to complicate, rather than simplify; I genuinely believe that is the biggest issue the Kinect 2.0 will face. Microsoft must think we’re stupid; but this hands-free type of gaming is far more niche and selective than anything Nintendo has come up with in years. Touch pads are at least tactile things you can understand with some ease.

Once you remove all of that, the reasoning you are left with is wholly driven by business. And that’s the elephant in the room for the XBox One. An elephant which is doing all its business in the corner and stinking the place up; Microsoft have made little effort to justify any of this reasoning, especially compared to the more secure offerings of Sony (who had to learn from the whole PSN Hack situation a couple years back!), and Nintendo (who in Europe are based in Germany, and they are very strict on this stuff!). That at the end of the day, this isn’t about user convenience; this is about making money. The cost of the Kinect could be very easily recouped with the money from selective advertising and targeted promotions. It could offset an awful lot of losses.

But ultimately, Microsoft has to make such a proposition enticing and appealing to the consumer market; in particular, the video games market, which is a thing that it continues to fail at in spectacular fashion. Gamers have for years complained bitterly about the XBox 360’s ad-laden dashboard, and often been turned off in-game advertisements too. People expect less advertisements the more they pay, and the truth is that currently, the system Microsoft has in mind is the polar opposite of that. Not only do we pay more for having the Kinect 2.0, but we still need to pay for the Gold Service, and those ads will not go away. It’s a system designed to simply make Microsoft more money.

And this underlines all the legal issues it could face; that at the end of the day, we can see it for the cynical business proposition that it feels designed to be. It’s not there to aid us; it’s there to watch us, spy on us and deliver us “advertisements” that we want – a bit of a contradiction in terms in the twenty-first century, would you not agree? We’re paying more money to effectively get more advertisements. Which is hilarious when you consider that some years ago, this was the exact opposite of what Microsoft were promising.

Microsoft is hoping this will simply take the edge off for now, so they can “hype” the Kinect 2.0 in such a way that you feel you should try it. Because it’s not “forced” anymore, it’s your choice. A choice that you have, it’s in the box and you’ve had to pay for it against your wishes and best intentions so go on…

I can’t wait for this to blow up in their face though – not because I want the console to fail however. I don’t, and that’s not the point of this, a two-horse race is a lot less thrilling than a three-horse race. Rather, that I want these decisions to be shown for the volatile concoction that they are. This cannot be so casually and cynically swept under the rug; nor should it be. At least when they were forcing it on us, we knew where we stood, and what to expect from it. You couldn’t miss it. Now, Microsoft can argue “ignorance is no excuse”. You plugged it in and agreed to their terms and conditions, hidden within the bowels of an EULA that is worded to catch you off guard; buried so deep in text that you’re likely to miss it. They have your permission. You plugged it in, after all… they only gave you the Kinect 2.0, there was no “expectation” for you to use it, was there?

It’s a far more slippery beast to nail down. And that, THAT is what concerns me right now. That all it takes is such a simple sleight of hand to relax people. I’m not relaxed however. This makes me more nervous than ever before… because it is telling me Microsoft have something to hide. It looks shadowy and naughty, and is the worst change for the XBox One so far. It does not need to be viewed with suspicion; or rather, more suspicion. It needs to be open, honest and clear about what it does and what its intent is.

Microsoft need to be honest with us. We’re not thick. We see what you’re doing.

And if you want us to be presented with a real “choice” Microsoft people, then you’d be offering a package without the Kinect 2.0 at all. But that said, everyone would buy that and you’d be millions of dollars out of pocket over the R&D of the Kinect 2.0, wouldn’t you Microsoft? Most gamers are already hugely critical of the Kinect as a gaming device. And more critical of the 2.0 and it’s enhanced features. And gamers are the main source of its first-year sales, and will make up a lot of the initial purchaser market.

The scary part for Microsoft is given a real choice… we, as gamers, are going to ignore it.

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