22 May 2013

The Xbox One Reveal: What Were Microsoft Thinking?

It was 29 minutes before Microsoft showed off a single game at the Xbox One's reveal. 29 minutes. Even then, most of the games that followed had pre-rendered trailers. Of course Microsoft's biggest competition isn't Sony, they're small fry. The Xbox One was built to tackle Google and Apple.

When Nintendo announced the Wii U there was confusion, even among the industry insiders and games media at the reveal, as to whether it was actually a console or just a controller. The core game market have long since had this matter settled and, regrettably for Nintendo, it seems most of that market have said no thank you. With the Xbox One Microsoft haven't delivered a console, they've delivered a device that can also play games.

The reason people watch live streams of game system unveilings isn't because they want a new way to control television. People stayed up late or woke up early depending on what parts of the world they live in. When Sony announced the PS4 it was 01:00 in Europe and yet many gamers from that region watched nonetheless and were rewarded by games. Absolutely, Sony's event was flawed, yet it did what it needed to.

We know there will be plenty of services for PS4 but Sony knew that's not what the people watching were interested in.

Within moments of the Xbox One's reveal the disparity between the two companies was obvious. Sony created a game console that also has services. In the battle for the living room this may ultimately cost them but the other possibility is that Microsoft's focus on entertainment and services may alienate the core market. Only time will answer that.

Yet there is already a problem in Microsoft's TV-centric approach. TV is in trouble. As GamesIndustry notes "the business model on which television has based - especially in the United States - itself is creaking at the seams. With the decline in the value of advertising everything in that industry now boils down to the cable subscription model.

"A whole generation of consumers has bowed out of the legitimate model entirely. Despite the efforts of media firms to crack down on piracy of TV shows, the tide has not been stemmed in the slightest."

Yes, Xbox One will have Netflix and Hulu and all the others but so does every other device you know. Microsoft doesn't want a place in your living room, it wants to dominate your living room. Given the problems faced by the TV industry it will be fascinating to see if it can. The best indication of Microsoft's success, or failure, will likely be the response of Apple and Google. If they don't react at all, then Xbox One has failed as least in terms of Microsoft's ambitions.

Piracy with television is one thing but there's another issue with the Xbox One. It needs to go online at least once a day. Believe it or not, in 2013 there are people who do not have solid internet connections. There are even people who do not have internet. The system's online requirements will substantively reduce the Xbox One's appeal to those people and encourage others to develop workarounds.

While the propect of paying a fee, possibly a full $60 dollar fee, for a second hand title so that we have "permission to play" may also come to haunt Xbox One. Larry 'Major Nelson' Hryb did issue a message on pre-owned yet it didn't really clarify anything. The liklihood is that Microsoft has bad news on that front and they would have been better avoiding the subject altogether, at least until after E3.

We know the PS4 does not require an internet connection though Sony hasn't said what the situation with pre-owned games will be, only that they'll do "the right thing." What that is, is anyone's guess.

Further limiting sales may be the fact that it seems a game will be tied to one system, or certainly one account. Meaning lending your game to a friend is a thing of the past but even within the same household have one copy of game for two Xbox One systems isn't going to work. Yes, both consoles could use the one account but how many 14 year olds are going to want to use the same account as one of their parents?

Of course, Microsoft have many games still to be announced. We were told last night that 15 games are in the works within Microsoft, more than at any time in their history and eight of them will be new IPs. We also know that Sony has every single one of its first party studios working on PS4 games and the system's lead architect, Mark Cerny, has said the system will have the strongest launch lineup of any PlayStation console.

Many of these games will be announced at E3 in a few weeks time and it's understandable that Microsoft chose to keep content back for their media briefing. It was just the wrong content. Microsoft should have followed Sony's lead with their 'game console' and shown us what they had in that regard. The services weren't important, they could have waited.

Last night Microsoft had women on stage to talk about their games, Sony did not at the PlayStation 2013 event. Yet there is a dissonance here, Sony's games despite being revealed exclusively by men spoke to far wider audience than what Microsoft showed off last night.

There was no mention of indies and the Xbox One's unveiling while Sony had The Witness. There were no family games like Knack and Media Molecule's title. There were no RPGs like Diablo III. Microsoft did their utmost to maintain their reputation as the 'bro' console. By no means does this imply that women can't or don't like the few games Microsoft did show off, far from it, but Sony had a far broader range of genres.

Of course, we won't have a clear picture of what the two consoles will offer until E3, all we can do is look at what the systems already have.

Another issue is the US-centric nature of the reveal and Microsoft's thinking generally. Many of the entertainment options announced will likely never see the light of day in other territories and the NFL partnership is meaningless in most of the world. In addition, the living rooms Microsoft likes to show off are broad and spacious. In Europe and Japan that simply doesn't ring true for many people and with Kinect usage mandatory Microsoft needs to have significantly decreased the amount of space the sensor requires to function properly in those regions.

We know some things about Xbox One that we don't know about PS4. First and foremost, what the console looks like (a bulky VCR player). Microsoft also revealed that size of the platform's HDD will 500GB (which cannot be removed by users and seems small given that all games must be installed), Sony have only said that the PS4's storage will be substantial. The Xbox One will not be backwards compatible, neither will the PS4, but Sony do plan to bring their past titles to the console eventually through Gaikai. Microsoft do not appear to have any such plans.

Microsoft gave their core market plenty to worry about last night, as well as analysts and investors and their choatic and contradictory messages on the system's pre-owned and connected features (best summed up here by MCV) have done to abete the negative perceptions built up surrounding the console before it was announced. Both companies must have a strong E3, it's that simple, they both need it but as it stands Microsoft have more work to do to repair the damage - largely self-inflicted - that has been brought on their platform.

Xbox One promised to be "innovative" and "groundbraking". It wasn't, at least not from what we were shown last night. Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander went so far as to call it a "desparate prayer for time."

Will the console market survive? I don't know, nobody does. It will certainly be smaller and it's up to Sony and Microsoft to do their utmost to ensure it doesn't shrink too much. The years ahead will be fascinating and that's not necessarily a good thing.

21 May 2013

The Xbox Reveal Drinking Game

Courtesy of The Drunken Moogle
As you all know Microsoft are set to announce the next chapter of Xbox at a special event at their Redmond Headquarters at 18:00 BST (10:00 PDT).

If game journalism wasn't based on pageviews all those 'Everything we Know about the Next Xbox' articles would instead be 'We Don't Actually Know Anything About the Next Xbox, No One Outside Microsoft Does'. However, we can make some educated or at least fun guesses.

The Rules:

A Kinect game is revealed after Microsoft promise a quality exclusive: One shot.

A musical performance that's neither necessary or particularly enjoyable: One shot for every two minutes it lasts; two shots for every two minutes if said performance is by Usher.

Call of Duty: Ghosts, Battlefield 4 and FIFA 14 aren't actually next-gen exclusives but they talk about them like they are: One shot but if it's because of exclusive DLC take an additional shot, if it's because of timed exclusive DLC take two additional shots.

Rare has a new game: If it's a Kinect game take one shot. If it's an actual game down two shots. If it's Banjo Threeie just finish the bottle.

A Fable game is announced: If it's a 'proper' Fable take a shot. If it's a Kinect Fable take two. If it's a Fable MMO take four.

A non-exclusive game is made out to be an exclusive because of its Kinect features: Take two shots.

Xbox officially axes Microsoft Points: Take two shots.

Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, Twitter, Facebook, Spotify or any social media or content streaming service is revealed for the console: Take a shot for each.

The system's name is revealed: If Xbox 720 one shot, if Xbox Gold, Xbox Fusion or Xbox Infinite/Infinity take two shots. If they just call if Xbox take three.

Someone tries to use the new Kinect to show you the sole of their avatar's shoe: Take a shot.

Dubstep at any point: Take a shot.

A new IP that isn't a shooter: Three shots.

A new IP that's either a shooter or a racer: Take a shot.

Kids who were presumably abducted from their parents and forced to look like they're enjoying themselves while using Kinect: Two shots.

Any of these games are announced: Halo 5, Halo 2 Anniversary, a new Gears of War, Project Gotham Racing 5, Forza 5, Kinectimals 2, Ryse, Respawn's first game take a shot for each.

A Microsoft employee says any of the following: "Cutting edge technology", "Enhanced entertainment experience" (take one shot, two if they add "in your living room"), "improved/next generation of Achievements", "A unique experience only on Xbox/Kinect", More connected than ever before", "This holiday season/Holiday 2013" take a shot.

The following tech specs are revealed: Blu-ray drive, 1TB HDD, 8GB of RAM, Kinect 2.0, Illumiroom support, Smartglass integration, two GPUs, no backwards compatibility, no used games, always online take two shots per feature.

That's it!

Congratulations if you've made it this far without serious liver failure! If you're looking for some special Xbox themed drinks for the occasion try The Drunken Moogle's Halo beverages

04 May 2013

Where are the Next-Gen 'Wow' Games?

In 2001 Halo: Combat Evolved was released to coincide with the launch of the first Xbox. Though it has been said many times the value of that game to Microsoft's first console cannot be understated, indeed, it's entirely feasible to argue that without Halo there never would have been an Xbox 360.

The Xbox 360 meanwhile came with Gears of War. Another genre defining title which guaranteed the success of the console at an early stage. Microsoft have yet to announce their successor to the 360 but when they do later this month, will there be another 'wow' game?

So far we know Call of Duty: Ghosts is headed for the platform and there are reports that Respawn's untitled shooter will be a connected sci-fi experience which may be exclusive to the next Xbox console. Bar the exclusivity, that sounds a lot like Bungie's Destiny. Both games will no doubt be solid, quite likely even exceptional shooters, but will either of them kickfire the new consoles like Halo and Gears? Only time can answer that.

While Xbox has in the past being able to place a not-insignificant degree of its success on those early titles it's proven to be opposite with Sony's consoles, at least to a degree. Some of the finest games of the PlayStation 2 era came in the dying days of that console, titles such as Shadow of the Colossus. Indeed, God of War 2 was released after the PlayStation 3. I've always wondered, had that game been delayed and moved to PS3 whether the system might have performed better in the early days.

This generation is looking to be no different. It's often said that the company which 'loses' the console war ultimately has the best console and the PS3 certainly has some spectacular games. This year The Last of Us and Beyond: Two Souls will be hitting the system and both look to be superb additions to the console's roster. There are also novel titles which push the conventional boundaries of gaming like Rain and Puppeteer.

But looking ahead to the future, what is there that truly stands out? The game's most people are excited about this coming are largely either current gen or cross-gen. Grand Theft Auto V, current gen (for the moment at least). Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flags, cross-gen. Watch_Dogs, cross-gen. Destiny, cross-gen. Call of Duty: Ghosts, cross-gen.

We know the PS4 has InFAMOUS Seconds Son, Killzone: Shadow Fall, Drive Club and Knack as exclusive titles. Between E3, gamescom and the Tokyo Game Show more should be revealed. Every first party Sony studio is developing for PS4 as well as a number of second gen studios such as Quantic Dream.

This means that the games from Sony Santa Monica and the jewel in Sony's first party crown, Naughty Dog, have yet to reveal what they're working on. We also know Guerrilla is working on a new IP, possibly The Order 1886. While the games showcased at the PlayStation 2013 event in february were impressive in their own way and will likely be excellent games they all appear, from what we've seen, to be advancements of their genres rather than revolutions of them.

In other words, next-gen is so far missing its Halo. Of course, we have the Xbox Reveal and what's bound to be one of the most exciting E3s in years (even without a Nintendo press conference) as well as a host of other industry events throughout the year. Hopefully, one of those occasions will see a game that will blow everyone away. A game that may very well sell a console almost by itself.

Mark Cerny has said the PS4 will have the strongest launch line up of any PlayStation console and while Microsoft have fewer first parties than Sony they no doubt have some surprises up their sleeves, perhaps even Respawn's game.

As more titles are revealed for next generation consoles hopefully at least one of them will look to redefine the way we play next-gen and beyond.