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Unanswered questions from the Xbox One launch

Xbox One Unveiling

You know the drill, especially if you tuned in for Sony’s PlayStation 4 reveal back in February 2013. A new console gets announced, details spill out – some accurate, others not so much – then once the shine of the announcement wears off, the inevitable barrage of questions begin. For every answer Microsoft gave us with its unveiling of the Xbox One on May 21, there seemed to be a new question raised. A few of these may dog the system until closer to its release later this year, but we’ll likely have more answers in the coming weeks leading up to E3, where the Xbox One will own a share of the spotlight.

For now though, we’re left to wonder as we sort through Microsoft’s revelations and analyze the holes left in what they’ve released.

Along with the questions Microsoft has yet to answer, there are conflicting reports that amount to even more unanswered questions. Let’s try to cut through some of the misinformation and pin down what the big unknowns are going into E3.

The hardware

Of all the questions floating around, those relating to the Xbox One hardware are the most straightforward – and to many the most important. First up: pricing. The cost of the Xbox One remains a big question, of course. And while we know there will be multiple bundles at various price points, we don’t yet know what the differences between those bundles will be. All we know for now is that every sku will be packaged with the Xbox One itself, a controller, and a Kinect. Microsoft is considering the 500GB hard drive to be the standard model, but that doesn’t mean it will be the only size available. 

Could there be a model with more storage? Or some other “deluxe” bundle in the works that offers more value for more money? what about a version like the current Xbox 360 “arcade” model with a smaller hard drive? Such offerings tend to be status quo, but with a new console generation launching later this year (sorry, Nintend0), there’s certainly room for the status quo to be disrupted.

We also have no sense yet of when the Xbox One will be released other than “later this year.” Traditionally, new consoles from the big three hit stores in November, just in time for the post-Thanksgiving shopping rush and the lucrative holiday season. That time of year is already loaded with confirmed releases from some of the biggest franchises in gaming: Batman: Arkham Origins is out on October 25, Battlefield 4  and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag both launch on October 29, Call of Duty: Ghosts releases on November 5, the new property Watch Dogs is releasing on November 19, and E3 is certain to confirm plenty more for that release window. These are games you launch new consoles with.

Could the Xbox One – and the PlayStation 4, for that matter – be hitting stores even before Halloween? The PlayStation 2 launched in the U.S. on October 26, 2000, so there’s precedent. 

15 first-party titles are expected to release, and eight of those are completely new franchises.

Then there’s the always sticky used games situation. Microsoft’s Larry “Major Nelson” Hryb cleared up questions about how the console will handle previously owned games… sort of. As Hryb wrote, “While there have been many potential scenarios discussed, today we have only confirmed that we designed Xbox One to enable our customers to trade in and resell games at retail.”

He then added, “Another piece of clarification around playing games at a friend’s house – should you choose to play your game at your friend’s house, there is no fee to play that game while you are signed in to your profile.”

We received a similar comment from Microsoft’s Craig Davison, senior director for Xbox Global Marketing. “All I can say is we’re supporting it today. More details coming soon,” he told us. We are currently waiting for clarification, but that will likely not happen until E3.

So it’s half an answer. Used games will work and you won’t need to pay anything if you want to play your own game on your own profile at your friend’s house. What if that same friend wants to borrow the game? Hryb’s confirmation that there’s no fee attached to playing on your profile remotely implies that there is a fee if you try to play it on another profile. Electronic Arts recently dumped its much reviled Online Pass program, seemingly because “many players didn’t respond to the format” and so EA “listened to the feedback.” Could it instead be because the next-gen platforms build the ability to block unlicensed used games right into the box? 

The online service

Initial reports suggest that Microsoft isn’t messing with the program too much on the Xbox Live front. Gold pricing will remain the same, based on what Digital Trends was told, though it’s less clear what the annual fee actually pays for. The pressure is on though, with Gold in its current form no longer being as competitive as it once was.

Sony stepped up in the current generation with a subscription service that easily trumps Microsoft’s offering. For-pay services like Netflix don’t require a paid subscription like they do on the Xbox 360, and PS Plus subscribers enjoy regular discounts and free games. Microsoft has stronger social integration with features like party chat – something that Sony technically hasn’t confirmed for the PS4 – but the fact is that your yearly $60 fee doesn’t pay for as much as it once did.

Xbox Movies

One would think – even hope – that Microsoft recognizes this and embraces change for Xbox Live Gold. Untethering for-pay services from the Gold requirement would be a tremendously good start. Something that mirror’s Sony’s Instant Game Collection would be a smart move as well, but even Xbox Live Marketplace discounts would be a boost. In short, Microsoft needs to offer a better value for your Gold subscription.

There is a very good chance that both Sony and Microsoft are waiting for the other to make the first move when it comes to online pricing. Sony has yet to confirm that it will offer a similar, free online experience with the PS4. In fact it has been frustratingly vague about it. Eventually though, one of these companies will have to blink. 

It is also unclear what the company’s plans are for the frequently criticized proprietary Microsoft Points currency that all Xbox Live Marketplace shoppers must convert their regular dollars into. The fact that no one from the company would comment at all on MS Points is encouraging. The MS funny money will hopefully be phased out, though we’ll have to wait until E3 at the very least for confirmation on this point.

Then there’s the Marketplace itself. We got a sense from the Xbox One presentation of the Windows 8-inspired dashboard and menu interface that is similar to the current Xbox 360 interface, just upgraded to work with the new technology. Visually, the new Xbox Live Marketplace will likely share that Modern UI aesthetic. The bigger question relates to content. Will we see more day-and-date launches in the “Games On Demand” section? Will the “Xbox Live Indie Games” content be easier to find and sort through? The expectation is that we’ll be seeing the console’s UI at E3, so we should know more in a few weeks.

The games

Microsoft’s multimedia-centric focus on the Xbox One is obvious. Games accounted for a minor part of the event, while features like cable TV integration and key media partnerships took center stage. Apparently, Microsoft has enough faith in its gaming library to deliver the worldwide debut of Call of Duty: Ghosts while speaking in only the most general terms about first-party exclusives, and leave it at that.

The most useful nugget of gaming info to slip out was that over the first year of the Xbox One’s life, 15 first-party titles are expected to release, and eight of those are completely new franchises. It’s impossible to speculate on what those new properties are (with a few exceptions like CryTek’s Kinect-based title Ryse), but the revelation also means that seven established franchises will be revisited between fall 2013 and fall 2014. What might those be?

We already know one of them: Forza Motorsports 5. Something new in both the Halo and Gears of War universes seems like a given, as does a new Dance Central. Lionhead Studios’ Fable franchise is a likely contender. Crackdown is certainly possible too, as is Viva Pinata. Perhaps a new Banjo game? Or Killer Instinct? There’s no way of knowing at this point, but these are all franchises you might want to start thinking about again.