Xbox All Access Is Blurring the Lines of Console Ownership

Yesterday, Microsoft announced Xbox All Access, an impressive financing plan for its Xbox One S and X consoles. The 24-month deal allows customers to get either one of the consoles with no down payment or interest (over those 24 months) and a commitment to two years of Xbox Game Pass and Xbox Live Gold. Other than the surprising lack of down payments or interest, sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

The S, through All Access, is $21.99 a month (including the online services, as far as I can tell), while the X is $34.99 a month. That’s actually kind of reasonable, and another example of Microsoft’s attempt to grow its install base and deliver consumer friendly options…at least on the surface. Now, I’m not saying the company is operating in some kind of sinister drug dealer model or something. They’re not getting people hooked to take advantage of them later on down the road, in so many words. But they are struggling to keep up with the incredible success of Sony’s PlayStation 4. And maybe more significantly than that, they’re trying to shift the paradigm of video game console ownership.

PlayStation 4 Pro

Both Sony and Microsoft have moved in this direction. New, updated versions of consoles within a defined generation are not new things, but the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X offer distinct and, compared to earlier generations’ updated consoles, dramatic experience changes. Of course, it has been made clear in all marketing of these devices that nothing is exclusive to these new systems; there aren’t games that can only be played on the more powerful versions. These “half-steps,” as they’re often called, are a result of a slowing gradient in consumer-ready processing power. The law of diminishing returns is taking effect, and the PS5 and Xbox Two or whatever will not look and play so much drastically better than their predecessors, and not just because of the updates in between. It’s just impossible to duplicate the effect of going from the 16-bit to the 3D era, or from the standard definition consoles to the PS3 and Xbox 360, with their HD graphics and online capabilities. Well, so says my feeble human brain.

But for now, these half-steps are a result of an understanding that sheer “revolutionary” power will not wow as much anymore, but demonstrable, pretty specific upgrades will appeal to the users who care about such things. And although the law of diminishing returns is taking hold, consumer technology does still move incredibly fast, so the console makers want to capitalize on the potential that is available without waiting five to eight years. Of course, this “training” of consumers to upgrade on a shorter time span has been in effect for decades at this point, in some manner, consoles included. But the phenomenon has really taken hold in the smartphone and mobile device space, where Apple’s iPhone created a model that has been exported to other fields and industries.

iPhone X

Console manufacturers can’t really offer a new model every year, but they can in the middle of a generation that serves to bridge the gap and capture upgrade-happy consumers. There are those that get a new phone ever year, and those that do every two or three years. The higher cost of the Pro and X preclude a number of people who might have otherwise wanted to upgrade, but it’s really a matter of time; I, for one, don’t feel like I’ve had my current consoles long enough to get new ones, especially if they don’t bar any new games behind them. I do, however, get a sense of FOMO, a feeling that I have to use maturity and fiscal responsibility to override. It’s an old man sensibility, but this trend of console ownership being something transitory, especially considering the questionable ownership problems with digital game libraries, is unsettling.

Video game consoles, in spite of the “common knowledge” just before this generation, are not going anywhere. They are thriving and the manufacturers of them want to take advantage of both increasing accessibility and a growing niche, dedicated market. I just hope they don’t leave marked pushes for a “definitive” product that lasts for more than a couple years behind. That doesn’t seem to be the case for now, but then, neither did the iPhone revisions in its earliest years. Consoles, half-steps or not, do operate on longer development cycles regardless, so maybe it’ll take a decade or something for us to get to that point. Xbox All Access, especially in its model of committing to an online service, is skewing eerily close to the phone financing models, but admittedly more reasonably. It’s just a component of the larger transition away from the role of a video game console as a box that sits in your living room for half a decade or more.

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