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Opinion: Mattrick's switch must be first of many changes to Xbox One

Microsoft must make more bold decisions, writes Rob Crossley

You couldn't make it up. Don Mattrick, the Microsoft executive at the very heart of the Xbox One project, is no longer at his chair. He's left for Zynga, arguably one of the most challenged major games companies in the world, and certainly one of the most disliked within the industry.

Don Mattrick was the figurehead of the Xbox One project

The unbelievable development comes weeks after Microsoft's extraordinary volte-face on the underpinning DRM technologies that were supposed to define the Xbox One.

For weeks, Mattrick insisted that the console's digital-native approach was essential, and that the Xbox One always-online requirement could not be undermined by some sudden sweeping policy reversal. He insisted, and insisted, and then he stopped.

Now Mattrick is a former console boss in charge of a company that has nothing to do with consoles. Now, after several billion dollars of investment poured into his dream Microsoft project, he won't be staying to see what happens on release day. Now, five months before global launch, Steve Ballmer is in charge. You couldn't make it up.

The rate and scale of change has been nothing short of astonishing; there is a sense that Microsoft has been given a stabbing wake-up call right at the final moments of the Xbox One project.

It could hardly have happened at a worse time: It's too late in the Xbox One's development cycle to make sweeping, fundamental changes (at least not without burning though an unjustifiably vast amount of money), and yet it's not too late to clearly see where changes need to be made. It's like a football manager making all his substitutions before noticing the goalkeeper has picked up a knock.

"It's like a football manager making all his substitutions before noticing the goalkeeper has picked up a knock."

The Xbox team currently has few other options other than to publicly play down its problems, and indeed its executives have provided contradictory and utterly indecipherable messages about how its system works, with an undertone of overconfidence that the games market will tolerate this. Quite clearly the opposite has happened, with online polls and pre-order figures telling their own stories.

But despite the shock of Mattrick's exit, it's my opinion that Microsoft in fact needs to go harder and faster with its changes to the Xbox One. The system, as it is, clearly has some appeal within the market. But to realise the console's full potential, Microsoft must wind back further.

I am aware it is mad and financially irresponsible for such eleventh-hour transformations, but considering the events of the past few weeks I suppose there's no better time for it.

Crunch time

The first change, and perhaps most obvious, is to remove the mandatory Kinect sensor - and the expenses associated with it - from Xbox One bundles. The theory before was that Kinect needs to be mandatory for games studios and publishers to fully embrace it, and yet even under these conditions there is no sign of such promised innovation (or desire) from the development community. In an age when multi-platform is a commercial necessity, games cannot be sculpted around the unique elements of each games console - developers in fact must do the opposite and work with the similarities.

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It's why the Wii U version of Black Ops 2 and Assassin's Creed 3 have no GamePad features beyond the easy and obvious add-ons, and it's why Kinect will not be used for much beyond trifling gameplay accompaniments.

The device is, on its own, is clearly a sophisticated piece of technology. But it's also driving up the system's price when in fact the Xbox One needs a lower RRP to reflect genuine value to the consumer.

Sony may have been in a hazardous position selling the PS3 for a remarkably high $599, but the counter-argument was that the system played Blu-rays and was the more sophisticated system. The Xbox One is a less powerful console sold at a far higher price. That is not a winnable position.

The second change is to embrace indie developers as increasingly vital for the future of games. Inestimably expensive annual blockbusters, which too often carry all risk and no innovation, will not drive the business forward. As awesome as Titanfall looks, and it really does, I'm confident it won't ever be as profitable or defining as the next Minecraft-sized breakthrough.

Currently there are three places where the next indie revolution could arrive: PC, iPhone and PS4. Microsoft must lift its indie self-publishing blockade, and do some soul-searching, in order to add Xbox One to that list.

The thid and final change is to scale back its priority on Live TV services. This is even more unlikely, considering how closely this is tied to the Xbox One operating system. But it is bizarre at best to embrace the TV screen as the future of entertainment when waves of new inventions continually undermine its position.

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Frankly, if the plan is to use Live TV integration as a means to expand the Xbox audience, Microsoft is betting the house on a dead horse. As I've expressed in depth previously here, the casual non-gamer audience will not want to self-install a second TV set-top box even if it was offered to them for free (genuinely), let alone £430.

The counter-argument may be that there's no value in removing a service that you simply wouldn't use, but the hardware resources required for the Live TV services, and the multitasking of Internet Explorer et al, is one of the reasons that the focused PS4 has such an advantage in terms of memory, speed and space.

"The Xbox One is a less powerful console sold at a far higher price. That is not a winnable position"

Some might say that it is in fact these features which make the system unique, and that removing them will only add to the ugly homogeneity of the console business. I don't deny it - Xbox One must also be unique, but it can't get there by flaws alone.

One cannot forget that Microsoft's Xbox team is exceptionally astute when it comes to making bold and expensive decisions. Whether that's sudden price cuts or picking up the tab for the RROD sham, the Xbox division show they fundamentally have what it takes to be brave and bold.

Mattrick's departure is a manic move in mad times, but cannot be the final shake-up before Xbox One is put to the mercy of the public.