Friday, June 7, 2013

(Xbox) One is the Loneliest Number


In the years since I have been erratically throwing words to the wall in this blog, I have been unapologetic and forthright about my identity as primarily a 360 gamer. I love the 360. I adore the achievement lists and Gamerscore, even though they are as transactionally worthless as acquiring karma on reddit. I like the passive social aspects and the dashboard. I even embraced the more media-centric addition of Netflix and movie rentals.

The first sign that my beloved little console was starting to turn its eye away from me, its grinning, controller-holding audience, and shifting towards its ‘earning potential’ was when a little box arrived on the dashboard containing the words “Advertisement.” It was easy to dismiss, however. The only time I was reminded of its presence is when I accidentally scrolled over it on my way to another page and the sounds of grating music and voiceover buzz words interrupted my path. Every time this happened a little thought bubble would gurgle up, my inner anti-advertising voice reminding me that I was paying $60/year for this service, so essentially, Microsoft is making money from both me and an advertising company, which is, to me, a red flag.

A little backstory here. For seven years, beginning in 2000, I worked for Blockbuster Video. I started in their heyday, when VHS rentals were still the main way people watched movies and DVDs were just starting to creep up and overcome their more clunky and meltable predecessors. From 2000-2004, BBV was a very fun company to work for, as they mostly loved their employees and we all got to sit around chatting about movies with each other and customers. But in 2004, the model changed. Suddenly Netflix was encroaching upon beloved BBV territory and seeing themselves about to be steamrolled, Big Blue decided to eliminate late fees. I am sure this idea sounded great in a room in Texas, where ten white guys sitting around a table wringing their hands made the decision to implement it, but after a year or so of explaining to customers that “no late fees” meant that after a couple of weeks your credit or debit card would be charged for the retail price (which at BBV meant anywhere from $20-$35), the business didn’t come streaming back. But BBV was definitely trying to sweet-talk its customers back from the arms of Netflix, offering concession deals and coupons and whatever it took to get them in the door. They even started up their own online service, counting on the idea that their well-established brand would bring the herds back to the corral. This also didn’t work. 

It was about this time, however, that being an employee of Blockbuster Video became much less fun. In a company that once treasured their employees, then their customers, now it seemed the only thing that mattered was to find some way, any way to bring the money back. Sales targets were absolutely mandatory, and failure to meet them meant termination. Coercive suggestive selling was encouraged, and new marketing tactics switched out so often nobody, not even the customers, knew what to expect each week. Coaching sessions were aggressive and threatening. Managers who had given Big Blue their blood, sweat & tears over twenty years were moved out to make way for newer, more inexperienced “sales” managers. It was terrible for the employees, and terrible for the customers. The rules became so anti-consumer and ultimately, so convoluted, that the experience of heading down to the local video store to pick up a movie and popcorn soured for everyone involved. I left long before the Red Box nail hit the Blockbuster coffin, but watching the downward spiral of a giant corporation from the inside is a clear lesson to me why you should first and foremost be innovative and embrace change, but you should also care more about the needs of your employees and your customers over the demands of big money.

Didn’t anyone tell BBV that you will get more flies with honey?

So here I sit, reading Microsoft’s new Xbox One terms and feeling very melancholy. I love my Xbox, but I just can’t live with some of its new requirements. I like to play games within weeks of launch and utilize the rental service, GameFly, to help me support that goal. My social networking includes a lot of gaming folks that get first dibs on most releases, and I enjoy playing them in order to keep up with the dialogue. I know this is a personal preference, but it’s one that makes me happy and is a part of my online social life I find enjoyable. I also use GameFly to help me spread my net wider than the normal consumer, gathering little unknown releases and giving them a fair shake where if forced to purchase them for $60 at retail I wouldn’t even consider them. I am not exactly destitute, but I definitely don’t make enough money to buy all of my games at release for the current asking price. So if the new Xbox One does not support rentals based on its new licensing rules, they have effectively eliminated me from their demographic. Just with that one decision regarding rentals and, poof, I am no longer a player. My Gamerscore is upwards of 60,000G, so I think I am a fairly hardcore supporter of the console, but regardless, Microsoft is telling me Game Over, Player One. You no longer matter to us, because of some arbitrary pirating/used game problem that is apparently an epidemic to publishers (cough, EA, cough).

I don’t pirate games. I don’t usually lend them to friends. I only buy the occasional used game through GameFly using their Keep It program. I don’t have a Kinect because I don’t care much for motion/voice controlled machines and I live in an apartment in the middle of a city where the space between my couch and television is roughly five feet. Thankfully, my Comcast connection is fairly strong, or else I would be nudged out once again by the Xbox One’s online requirements, but my friend in Idaho doesn’t have this as she lives in a rural area with spotty dial-up connection. So, she and her family of six are also apparently out.

I’m not even going to talk about the rumor I heard regarding achievements for television shows, because that little anti-advertising voice starts stuttering in incoherent phrases and I’m not even ready to deal with something that offensive to my sensibilities until it’s officially announced.

Microsoft, what are you doing here? Take some advice from someone who watched a company stop listening to the needs of their customers: The epilogue is not a fairy tale, where consumers come to love your wicked ways. We are your audience and we are screaming here. It may be that you think you are conforming to some new order based on how things like iTunes works, but you make a video game console, and your primary fans are video game players. We were all very satisfied. Get out of your Eastside bubble and remember that not everyone lives in a castle in Redmond, stroking their lines of Google Fiber and buying piles of games with the touch of a debit card finger. You are making some of us very sad, and we are the ones who have loved you for years. I know that asking a corporation to think of anything other than its monetary needs is ludicrous, but here I am, typing. And trying. 

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