Will Xbox leave game lovers behind?

With Sony planning their next console’s reveal this week and Nintendo’s hand already played, the console gaming public awaits word from Microsoft on how exactly they plan to transition beyond their high-performing Xbox 360. Two Microsoft executives spoke recently about this very subject, at the Dive into Media conference in Dana Point, California, and the words they said ring an ominous tone for those excited to use their next Xbox to, you know, play games.

“Yes, we started with video games,” begins Yusuf Mehdi, corporate vice-president of Microsoft’s Interactive Entertainment Business. “But…”

– – –

“…we have been on a journey to make Xbox the center of every household’s entertainment.”

The distance between that “Yes” and the following “But” is a long way down, a canyon filled with jagged rocks and a crumbling precipice as drawn by Chuck Jones. Anxious and determined, we await our ACME game-playing kit from the future. The question is: Will Microsoft jet away with a  ‘meep, meep!’ and leave game-players in a cloud of cartoon dust?

Once the only demographic to serve, fans of Halo and Forza may not be the bread-and-butter consumers Microsoft seeks to attract anymore. During the remainder of Mehdi’s talk, he and Nancy Tellem, president of entertainment and digital media, discussed the wide swatch of content available to owners of Xbox 360. Usage across the board is rising; the next Xbox would surely want to tap into that larger audience. Mehdi continues:

“People are using Xbox in the morning to work out with the Kinect Nike+ Fitness program, kids are watching cartoons, families are enjoying movies, and of course people are playing blockbuster games like ‘Halo 4.”

All good things. But it’s hard not to read that ‘of course’ as an introduction to an after-thought. Games will still be there, sure, sure. But that’s just one slice of a growing pie.

The question remains how large of a slice, in terms of dashboard visibility, resources, and marketing push, will remain for the initial reason many people got on board with Microsoft back in 2001. At the original Xbox’s launch, Microsoft was not a major player in the home console space. This past month marks the twenty-fifth consecutive month Xbox 360 will have been the highest-selling console in America.

Will Microsoft jet away with a  ‘meep, meep!’ and leave game-players in a cloud of cartoon dust?

That’s some impressive momentum, given their inertia was at zero a dozen years ago. (Scientists in the crowd, be easy on me… I got a 2 on my AP Physics test.) And it’s a momentum the next Xbox will hope to maintain.

The type of content mentioned at the Dive into Media conference may be indicative of how Microsoft hopes to push forward. The merging of Kinect with traditional programming has made possible such interactive media as Kinect Sesame Street TV, “where a kid can jump into their beloved Sesame Street and throw coconuts at Grover.” Similar software exists for National Geographic, providing a space for kids to learn and engage with their TVs in brand-new ways.

It’s not hard to have visions of 3DO, a past attempt at merging interactivity with television’s wide-spread appeal. The high price of the system upon its release in 1993 and the dubious quality of such software as Dennis Miller: That’s News to Me and ESPN: Let’s Go Skiing lead to the console’s quiet demise. Microsoft is in a position of power and market dominance, vastly different from Panasonic and the 3DO Company two decades prior. And we’re more adept at doing multiple things on single devices now, with our phones as our cameras and our computers as our books.

But the magic formula of a combined gaming and televised entertainment is one yet to be cracked. So it’s concerning to hear Microsoft executives, during a talk about the future of Xbox, homing in on the launch of NUads, a kind of interactive advertisement.  “With this model,” a press release states, “passive TV advertising is transformed into engaging and actionable experiences.” All because of the power of Xbox. Sounds… fun?

It’s too soon to sound the alarms. But between this and continued rumors of the next system blocking used games and the need for an always-online connection, you might want to keep your hands free. That big red Panic Button is looking mighty pushable.