Microsoft post Kinect

Where’s the Microsoft that hailed the Xbox One as the digital, “all in one” future of our living rooms? Now that the gaming console is available without Kinect, it’s a future that feels increasingly out of reach.

Granted, decoupling Kinect is a shrewd decision to spike sales and reach price parity with the PS4. And with fickle voice commands and a virtually non-existent Kinect gaming lineup, Microsoft hasn’t justified Kinect’s required bundling. Yet I’m worried this is a short term business call that could hobble the Xbox One in the long run.

With Kinect originally bundled with every Xbox One sold, Microsoft had a multimedia and convergence angle over the PS4. The accessory adds voice control, motion gaming, an IR blaster to control your cable box, Skype, interactive fitness classes and much more. While much of its ambition wasn’t realized on day one, the long term potential is enormous; it’s Microsoft’s trojan horse of a gaming console to win over a larger general public. If traditional core console gaming falls out of favor long term, Microsoft would be far better equipped to pivot with a Kinect attached to every Xbox.

Now without Kinect, the PS4 pulls ahead of the Xbox One in several tangible ways. First, raw performance, as evidenced by better frame rates and higher resolutions across several multi-platform titles. It’s a tiny, even negligible factor for every day consumers, but a potential selling factor among core gamers. Also the PS4 trumps Xbox on indie releases as well; Microsoft has been playing catch up with their ID@Xbox division, but their releases are less notable and diverse than Sony’s.

Finally, there’s the user interface, an underrated factor among a mainstream audience. While the PS4 “horizontal ribbon” style UI is a bit simplistic and lacks customization, it works effectively for launching games and tracking online activity. The XBox One’s comparatively complex UI was designed around voice for primary navigation; using just a controller is often awkward. Microsoft is claiming any controller navigation shortcomings will be addressed in future system updates but for now this puts a Kinect-less Xbox at a disadvantage.

In short, power, indies, UI and sales momentum all favor the PS4. What’s left are games. Microsoft will likely focus heavily, if not entirely, on gaming for their E3 keynote this year. They’re betting on their financial strength to shore up more first and third party exclusives than Sony.

Granted, exclusives have spiked consoles sales historically, most notably in the form of Wii Sports several years ago. This being 2014, I wonder if we’re in a changed gaming landscape. Like other forms of media, modern gaming user bases are now heavily fragmented across multiples tastes and platforms. I suspect big budget exclusives – the Halos and Mario Karts of the world – are losing their impact. Titanfall is a prime example; its twist on the multiplayer shooter genre was critically lauded upon release, but the game’s online community is far smaller and less active than the Battlefield and Call of Duty releases from previous years. The incentive for AAA publishers to go multi-platform has never been stronger: as budgets escalate, spreading a release among as many platforms as possible makes strong financial sense. Both the PS4 and Xbox One have similar, PC-like architecture which makes porting easier than previous console generations.

Even if exclusives are still the system sellers they once were, what if Sony comes out of this E3 swinging with a strong showing of their own? What moves does Microsoft have left?

It didn’t have to be this way. Perceptions of momentum aside, the Xbox One has time to catch up without gutting the Kinect this early; Xbox One sales, while significantly less than the PS4, are still strong with at least five million units shipped as of a month ago. The XBox One is even beating the original Xbox 360 sales by 76 percent when comparing each console’s first six months at retail. There are a lot of smaller, yet substantial actions to chase the PS4 on price; they could have packed in a few free games, a year of Xbox Live Gold, or just slashed the console’s price by $50.

Overall, the Xbox One could have been a device with a unique, even visionary ambition if Microsoft had stuck to their initial ambitions. However, sans Kinect, it’s a console without a strong voice and differentiator from its competition.