The Xbox One is $100 more expensive than the PlayStation 4, and Sony's less expensive system is showing off its power with a series of third-party games that perform better on the PlayStation 4 than the Xbox One.
What you're given for this extra money, outside of lower graphical performance, is a confusing user interface that can be controlled via the Kinect. This isn't the best situation for Microsoft's next-generation system.
The Xbox One has been on the market in North America for three months. Microsoft has failed to prove the worth of the Kinect hardware, and there are no concrete release dates for experiences that will justify its costs.
The mandatory Kinect pack-in with the $500 Xbox One was an interesting experiment that has, to date, failed. It's possible that software updates and some amazing and yet unannounced software will redeem the Kinect, but that doesn't change the idea that the company is forcing hardware on players who may not want it. If the Kinect hasn't yet been redeemed, the least Microsoft can do is give us a choice.
The Kinect for the Xbox One is a sophisticated, expensive piece of equipment that adds very little to the act of playing games. I'm able to get voice commands to work around 80 percent of the time, but my wife and children have much worse luck.
It doesn't help that your commands have to be oddly specific, to the point where learning the syntax needed to get the system to do anything requires either a bit of memorization or reading the prompts on the screen, at which point you would save both time and effort by simply using a controller.
It's neat when it works, but the time saved can be measured in seconds, and it's just as likely that you're stuck repeating the same phrase over and over trying to get it to pick up your command. This is before you start dealing with false positives and entire regions where voice commands are unavailable at all. Voice commands need to work 100 percent of the time and offer flexibility in how they're delivered, and the Xbox One provides neither.
The use of the Kinect for navigation and voice commands is limited and often frustrating, but the lack of games that use the hardware in any compelling way is just as much of a shame. There are a few gimmicks in games here and there, but Microsoft also packages in a headset with every Xbox One. The use of a sophisticated 3D camera with infrared capabilities and an array of microphones for voice commands is an expensive, and needless, form of overkill.
The system is still new, but every Xbox One owner now has a peripheral that has little reason to exist, aids their gaming in very few real ways and costs them a significant amount of money. Fantasia: Music Evolved from Harmonix is the sole game that looks like it will do anything interesting with motion controls, and this mirrors the frustrating lack of software from the first-generation Kinect as well. Harmonix was the only company that was able to use the Kinect to actually improve certain games, and its ideas were widely copied by competitors, not to mention games published by Microsoft itself.
The Kinect will also be used with Kinect Sports Rivals, which looks perfectly passable. It's also yet another collection of minigames for a motion control device. This is 2014, and Microsoft is still chasing the Wii Sports money?
The Kinect will be useful when Twitch streaming is added to the Xbox One, a feature the PlayStation 4 launched with to great acclaim, but there doesn't seem to be a solid time frame for that taking place.
Anecdotal evidence from the Polygon water cooler suggests that the Kinect may be one of the most hated pieces of equipment in current use, especially among spouses.
Almost no one would want to buy the Kinect separately if they were given the choice.
"I watched the Super Bowl with friends this year. At the beginning of the game, during a big play, we jumped to our feet. Kinect mistook this for a hand gesture, loading the gesture overlay over the football game. In a rush to get the overlay to disappear, I accidentally paused the television," Polygon's Chris Plante told me. He had to stop eating in front of the television, because the Kinect would bring up the gesture overlay every time he raised the fork.
"Every day I hear the following: 'Xbox, watch TV. Xbox, WATCH TV. Oh, screw you, Xbox," Justin McElroy wrote.
The sight of a family member getting frustrated with the Kinect before giving up and finding a controller is common. On the other hand, you have no choice but to pay for this frustration. I've long since disconnected my own Kinect hardware to avoid these issues, and now it sits in the closet, gathering dust. This is an act that Microsoft originally told me would be impossible, since the Xbox One was designed with the Kinect in mind.
They said the same thing about their all-digital future as well. Microsoft has a history of trying to shake up its products but then backing down to something a little more comfortable and useful. Trying to force the Kinect on the audience is a good example of where this flexibility should be shown next.
It's a good deal for Microsoft, not for anyone else
The common defense of the Kinect is that developers wouldn't support it unless it was forced on consumers. This assumes that a fragmented user base would cause a low level of support from the industry.
That attitude is presumptuous and consumer-hostile. Why not have Microsoft and developers create something that compels people to pick up the hardware first, and then see how well it does? Pushing a product on the public with the hope that it will be useful once we have it is a cruel inversion of how product adoption should be handled.
The forced pack-in proves something we already knew at the beginning of this generation: Almost no one would want to buy the Kinect separately if they were given the choice.
We have one because we don't have a choice, and that's a brutish way to build a product
Allow players who like the unit to purchase one separately if they'd like, but let's stop pretending that developers are going to jump back on board the motion control train, or that the expensive piece of hardware is required to accept voice commands that may or may not work.
The Xbox One had its chance to prove that the Kinect was worth the money, and real-world experiences matched with Sony's current superior sales performance at $400 with a focus on better-looking games shows that the experiment was a failure. Let's get that $400 Xbox One out there, a prospect that becomes much easier without the Kinect pack-in, so people can play some Titanfall and enjoy what the system does well without having to subsidize a motion control platform they don't want.
This is the ultimate test: If the pack-in were to be sold by itself, would 90 percent of players pick it up? The answer is yes for a controller or power cables. The HDMI cable is needed to connect the system to your television. Would most people buy a $100 Kinect along with the system? Absolutely not. They have one because they don't have a choice, and that's a brutish way to build a product.
The Xbox One has an impressive array of games already, and that collection will only grow. Microsoft also has the idea of an integrated entertainment platform that leverages much of the content and services you're already used to paying for, and the user interface and social features of the Xbox One show promise, although they're clumsy at the moment. The Xbox One is a young, promising system, except for this one little detail.
The Kinect adds cost and frustration, and at this point there's nothing on the horizon that will make it more attractive. Microsoft is charging every player for a feature they may not want, even if drastically improved. It's time to make the Kinect a peripheral, not a pack-in.