A lot of mud was slung Microsoft’s way last week, much of it deserved. Used game restrictions, mandatory internet check-ins; these new impositions don’t sit well. But they also distract from the single worst thing about the Xbox One, which was also the single worst thing about Xbox 360: The tyranny of Xbox Live Gold subscriptions.
There’s zero question left how Microsoft views the Xbox One: It’s your home media hub, a set-top box that also happens to have Gears of War. The company’s own promotional site doesn’t mention games until very last, as an afterthought, like a creepy uncle you’d reluctantly introduce to your fiance. Master Chief has taken a back seat to Skype.
And as a set-top box, it’s actually pretty great! The dashboard interface is clean; Kinect 2 is the most futuristic way to channel surf. You can even, finally, watch your Blu-ray collection.
In fact, if you want a single, connected, do-everything box in your living room instead of stacks of plastic and Gordian cords, the Xbox One is impossible to beat. It’s even worth the markup over an Apple TV or other device given the sheer breadth of what it can do. Or it would be, if it weren’t for the albatross of redundancy that is your annual $89 Xbox Live Gold subscription.
What is it, exactly, that you’re getting with Xbox Live Gold? The right to access services that you already pay for. Presuming that you’ve bought yourself a Netflix, Hulu, MLB.tv and Amazon Instant Watch subscription (via VPN of course, longer period of time. It’s also not going away any time soon; when we asked Xbox execs about separating video services out from Xbox Live Gold, we were met with deep dismissiveness.
What makes that intractability so frustrating is that Microsoft’s vision for a connected living room is actually a beautiful one. I applaud it. I want to live in it. But until it stops charging me for things I already pay for, until it fills in the moat it presumes to build around other people’s castles, it’s always going to be like most glimpses of the future: tantalising, but tainted by overreaching. In this case, towards your wallet.
Additional reporting by Casey Chan