Microsoft will start selling the Xbox One console without the Kinect motion sensor on June 9. This is a sudden about-face for the company, which has heavily touted voice and motion controls as an integral part of its new system. Microsoft has pitched the Xbox One as not just a gaming system, but the all-encompassing, futuristic centerpiece of your home entertainment center, and the voice and motion controls of the Kinect are a pivotal part of that image.
This split was going to happen eventually, though. Maybe the most zealous believers in voice and motion controls thought the Kinect would finally take permanent root in the nation’s living rooms with the Xbox One, but most assumed it was just a matter of time before Microsoft cut the cord and sold an Xbox One without its microphone camera. The only surprise is that it happened so quickly. The system will barely be six months old by the time the new model ships. This seems like the kind of price-cutting maneuver Microsoft would save in its back pocket for when the system needs a midlife boost, but it’s happening within the first year.
Even though it’s a smart decision, it still comes off as a little desperate. It’s good that consumers can now choose whether or not they want to buy a Kinect with their newfangled Xbox, but it’s a clear admission that Microsoft’s original vision of a luxury set-top box that minimizes a physical controller was impractical in today’s marketplace. The Playstation 4 launched two weeks before the Xbox One for a hundred dollars less, and although it hasn’t been a rout it has sold significantly better than the Xbox One so far. Cutting out the Kinect and dropping the price to match the Playstation 4’s should boost sales for both the hardware and the games, benefitting not just Microsoft but partners like Electronic Arts and its Xbox-exclusive Titanfall.
The key to this move is that it refocuses the Xbox brand squarely on games. Microsoft has consistently stressed in all its promotional materials that the Xbox One is an “all-in-one games and entertainment system.” The streaming video services and downloadable media store will still be crucial to the system’s popularity, but distancing the Kinect also distances the ad campaign that insists the Xbox One is somehow fundamentally different from other game systems. The notion that Xbox One is somehow more than a game console just because it has voice-controlled menus might sound like a joke, but those voice-controlled menus and a more capable Kinect are the only things that make the Xbox One feel like more than a beefed-up 360.
We should feel bad for the true fans of motion controls. This might permanently hinder the Kinect and close the door entirely on motion controls. Don’t expect Microsoft to abandon the Kinect entirely (there are still games on the release schedule, including Harmonix’s long-gestating Fantasia game) but this will undercut development for the peripheral. It’ll be harder and more expensive for Microsoft to convince third parties to make games for the Kinect, or even to include Kinect functionality, no matter how minor, now that every Xbox One owner won’t have the camera. The list of game console peripherals that died from a lack of support is an almost perfect match for a list of all game console peripherals, and although it’s too early to call the Kinect a failure it’s not inappropriate to predict the worst at this point.
Microsoft knew bundling the system with the Kinect was a risk. That inclusion put the Xbox One at a price point that many have clearly found untenable. It’s possible to see how the company could have convinced itself that it wasn’t as big of a risk as it wound up being, though. A game fan willing to drop several hundred dollars for a brand new system is probably the kind of firm traditionalist who doesn’t care for motion controls, but the intensive Kinect integration of the Xbox One could’ve been the kind of weird, science fiction-y tech that early adopters like to flaunt. Still, with the higher price-point the Xbox One has sold over two million less units than the Playstation 4, and if the only way to lower the price enough to compete is to drop the peripheral that many consumers openly hate, it’s what Microsoft has to do.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games section and legitimately enjoys talking to his Xbox One.