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2015 is the year Xbox One turned things around

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Signs of life two years into the Xbox One experiment

I still don’t play my Xbox One very often.

While that may not sound like praise, it’s a big improvement from "I never play my Xbox One," which is where we were this time last year. But this year, a handful of things — new features like backward compatibility and PC streaming, a UI that doesn't make me angry, exclusive titles I care about — have rekindled my curiosity in Microsoft's would-be all-in-one wonder. And though it remains the fourth most-popular console in my house, I can see that changing in 2016.

The Status Quo

Two years ago, I got a new video game console that quickly replaced all others under my TV — a common enough occurrence in November of 2013, to be sure. But … well, "got" isn’t quite accurate. I "built" this console, an i7-powered gaming PC purpose built to run Steam while sitting, relatively inconspicuously, under my television. Outside of a handful of console exclusives, this PC has dominated my video game playing. I found myself actually avoiding the Xbox One in favor of the PC or PlayStation 4, if given the choice.

This is an inversion of sorts from the last generation where the Xbox 360 was my preferred console and the PlayStation 3 was something I avoided, outside of some of its exclusive titles. And my last gaming PC died in ... 2003? I still had hair. It was a long time ago.

The 360 dominated my relationship with games for nearly a decade, a remarkably successful run. Over the last two years, I was convinced that while neither the Xbox One or the PS4 would reach that level of dominance in my household (thanks, gaming PC!), that Sony’s latest was well-positioned to maintain that kind of dominance across the industry.

After a catastrophic pre-launch, and a merely fine launch, things got rather quiet on Xbox One. And so I spent the period following the console's launch until, well ... now, more or less, forgetting the thing existed. But something happened, that's only now coming into focus.

Backward Compatibility

There wasn't any single reason I decided to build a living room PC. Consider it equal parts Steam's emergence as the indie platform to watch; a rich, open market of powerful components; and a huge library of games dating back to the earliest days of gaming. In 2013, as Microsoft and Sony both foolishly declared the previous generation of games unplayable on their newest consoles, I decided that kind of obsolescence was no longer a practice that I would tolerate, insomuch as I could avoid it. If video games are going to ever mature as a medium, we need to stop paving over our past with every new generation.

I'm sure there are dozens, if not hundreds, of things that today's Microsoft would take back from the Xbox One launch, if it could ... but there's one comment that cemented my desire to build a gaming PC and deprioritize console gaming. "If you're backwards compatible, you're really backwards," Microsoft's then president of Xbox, the strategically inept Don Mattrick, told the Wall Street Journal in May 2013.

Oof.

I mean, just read that. This is a Microsoft executive arguing that maintaining compatibility with your software platform is backwards thinking. This is more than half a decade after the iPhone and Android ecosystems upended the entire software distribution world, all while maintaining backward compatibility with the release of new devices annually. This guy is arguing — without a shred of shame or irony — that throwing all your old games out is the way forward.

No. Nope! Sorry, not interested.

So imagine my surprise when Microsoft, under the notably not strategically inept Phil Spencer, announced Xbox 360 backward compatibility at this year's E3. And then when Microsoft shipped it just last month, instantly enabling support for over 100 of your previously purchased games. And that includes making the already solid Games with Gold program a far greater value than its PS4-based Playstation Plus competition, since every new Xbox 360 game on that list will also work on Xbox One.

This entire move, dear readers, is brilliant.

Am I disappointed with the amount of third-party support so far? Yes, perhaps a little. Am I concerned that some publishers will see no incentive to make their very popular (and, on the used market, very cheap!) Xbox 360 titles compatible with the newest hardware? Yup, for sure. But as the platform holder, Microsoft is making its own games compatible and setting an expectation that we, as consumers, can take to the publishers of some of the top Xbox 360 games we've purchased.

This is vital. Not only because this is an Important Feature that retains the value you've invested in Microsoft's gaming ecosystem, but because it retains the value of older video games, period. It's also a surgical strike at Sony's platform.

Where PlayStation 3 clumsily included, and then didn't include, PlayStation 2 support (remember that?), the PlayStation 4 came with no such support at all. Of course, Sony added PlayStation Now which, while it technically works, completely fails the cost-benefit analysis. What, you don't want to pay $5 for a compressed, laggy 4-hour rental of a PS3 game that you already own?

So yes, backward compatibility on Xbox One is a feature that, were it announced before launch, may have encouraged me to stick with the Xbox ecosystem. And while I'm far too happy with my gaming PC to come back fully, I'm beyond encouraged that this is a thing Microsoft is focusing on going into the console's third year.

PC streaming

This is a feature I don't use very regularly, since my Windows gaming PC is about 12 inches away from my Xbox One and hooked up to the very same television, but I nevertheless appreciate its appearance.

When Windows 10 launched, Microsoft included an Xbox app designed to complement the game-playing experience Windows users already enjoy — whether through Steam or GoG or Battle.net or Origin (just kidding, nobody enjoys Origin) — instead of replace it, as it once did with the much-derided Games for Windows Live. Included in that app is the ability to stream your Xbox One games to any Windows 10 PC on the same network.

Low-powered Windows laptop in the home office? No problem, fire up Rise of the Tomb Raider while someone else uses the living room TV. Sick gaming rig in the bedroom? Play Halo 5 on it while friends and family watch The Big Sports Game on your TV.

This is the kind of smart platform play that has somehow evaded Microsoft, as an organization, since it first decided to put a box under your television back in 2001.

UI envy

Microsoft has had a long and complicated history with its video game console user interfaces. Remember Concertina, the very first "blades" UI on the Xbox 360? So do I ... it was so fast, and easy to get around. Then it was replaced with the NXE, the New Xbox Experience, in 2008. While this UI introduced some important changes (apps!) it also muddled the previous UI's simplicity and elegance. Since then, in this humble reporter's estimation, Microsoft has struggled with the competing goals of making the Xbox user interface do all things for all people and just play my goddamned video game already.

The Xbox One's original dashboard was not a step backward in that respect but it was s l o w. I always expected that glacial pace to be chipped away in the weeks and months following the console's launch ... but it didn't. It remained slow for nearly two years until the New Xbox One Experience (get it?) was introduced just last month.

That new dashboard brought with it some much-needed speed improvements (though it could still improve in that respect) and, more importantly for this user, a logic and consistency that replaces the chaos of its first iteration. Fewer button presses coupled with more speed means I spend less time to do more with the console. Features like snapping, which were an actual chore pre-update remain ... complicated, but I can begin to appreciate the utility.

Games!

The great thing about playing primarily on a PC, is that "console" exclusives are often just that. Exclusive to one console or another, but available also on PC. So I played Xbox-exclusive Ori and the Blind Forest on PC! And I just recently started PS4-exclsuive Helldivers on, you guessed it, PC!

I spent a lot of time with my PlayStation 4 earlier this year thanks to Bloodborne (my personal game of the year) but that time wasn't balanced out until just now. While nothing in the Xbox One lineup matches Bloodborne ("But what can," you ask. Fair point) there was Halo 5 and Rise of the Tomb Raider and Screamride.

Of course, next year is different. 2016 has Quantum Break and ReCore and Scalebound and Crackdown and Gears of War 4 and Cuphead and Inside and Sea of Thieves and ...

*breathes*

... Below and Tacoma and Fable Legends and Halo Wars 2. Sure, a lot of those games are also coming to PC — Cuphead, Sea of Thieves, Below, Tacoma, Halo Wars 2 — but even barring those, that's a strong 2016 lineup of exclusives. It may have taken some time, and surely more time than many at Microsoft would have liked, but 2016 finally has a lineup that will be hard to ignore.

So it's a good thing about that new, lower price.

Value

When the Xbox One debuted in 2013, it has some really big ideas on how Kinect could change the way we experienced games. And yeah ... forget all of that stuff. While it may have been promising, it also added roughly $100 to the cost of the console and, to match Sony's $400 price for the PS4, the Kinect was unbundled and, lo and behold, nobody is missing it.

This year, an additional $50 was cut, lowering the console's starting price to $350 with regular promotions and bundles to further incentivize buyers. Unsurprisingly, Sony has since matched that price, and also matches the regular discounts and bundle options. With the PlayStation still outselling the Xbox One, price parity is the least Microsoft can do to make sure the Xbox One moves off of shelves.

Add in a growing library of excellent (and affordable!) games from the Xbox 360 era, the ability to stream your games to any Windows 10 PC in the house, and smaller enhancements that I didn't even cover here (like the new Xbox One controller that wisely matches the PS4 controller's built-in headset jack) and the Xbox One looks like less of a failure and more of a viable — maybe even preferable? — alternative to Sony's juggernaut.

All that said, I still don’t play my Xbox One very often. But if Microsoft somehow manages to keep this momentum into next year, it will be almost impossible to continue ignoring it.