Category Archives: Microsoft

Halo 5: Guardians HoloLens – Hands-on at E3 2015

Halo 5: Guardians HoloLens

Let’s get this right out of the way: HoloLens, Microsoft’s response to the virtual reality resurgence of late, is incredibly cool. It’s not necessarily impressive, but it is undoubtedly neato. You throw it on like any other VR headset but it instead opts for an augmented reality experience, altering what you can already see rather than replacing it wholesale.

If you saw the Microsoft press conference earlier in the week, then you’ve seen what they’re selling you. The Minecraft demo is the goal for the product, and it kind of delivers on that; you certainly are seeing things that aren’t there. The odd part is the field of view.

Namely, it’s not that great. The stage demo and the special camera rig to display it shows it as an all-encompassing experience. It’s not that. Imagine you are peering through another smaller seamless window in the headset about the size of a deck of cards hovering a foot or so in front of you. That’s what you see. It’s disappointing but not necessarily jarring.

Preceding a demo of Halo 5: Guardians, there was a super high to-do about a multiplayer briefing. The area was mocked up to be a UNSC facility with UNSC scientists milling about. It all felt very much like a marketing coma-inducing simulacrum. The lab coats measured our interpupillary distances and then we were sent on our goggled way.

You look to the left down a corridor and what you see is almost unbelievable. It would have been breathtaking if survival in the video game industry required some amount of emotional culling. It was a Halo waypoint. Not a poster of one plastered on the wall or some styrofoam approximation hung from the ceiling. It was a waypoint, counting down the meters until you reached it.

Once you got there, you were directed to another room. In it was a window. Well, not a real one, but one projected by HoloLens. Peering through, you can see all manner of Pelicans and marines and whatnot. This is no longer some PR-purchased estimation of Halo. This suddenly became the UNSC Infinity.

Halo 5: Guardians HoloLens

Turning around, there’s a briefing table with a hologram of the Infinity floating there. You can actually use a virtual pointer to spin it around, which was pretty fun just by itself. But then it’s replaced by Spartan commander Sarah Palmer detailing how the new Warzone mode works.

All the while, you can walk around the table, circling the future like a hungry shark. It tracks just as well and you’d like it to with no stuttering or jumping. With no hanging circuitry or wires, the headset is light, too, almost leaving you to forget it’s even there on your noggin.

The magic, however, begins to falter due to the aforementioned viewing real estate. You pretty much have to be backed up all the way to see everything in a way that doesn’t feel like peering through a mail slot. Forcing you to physically accommodate the limitations of the system breaks the sensation of being aboard a UNSC ship and suddenly you’re back in a room with several strangers wearing things on their heads.

Halo 5: Guardians HoloLens

It’s an odd feeling, for sure. I’ve worked with this technology before from the engineering and programming side, so knowing its actual limits based on current research and development has tempered by excitement, but experiencing it all in the context of a world I know fairly well makes it smile-inducing all over again.

And knowing it’s still not all quite there similarly curbs giddiness. The field of view is the biggest problem, but it also leads into an issue with proximity. The closer you get, the more the illusion of immersion breaks not only because you stop seeing everything at once but also because you start to see jagged edges and some slightly ragged tracking. It’s at a low degree and a rarity, but it’s enough.

There’s not quite an applicable use for this just yet. There wasn’t much to get from this that you couldn’t get from the Warzone trailer and it’s definitely not plausible for this to exist in every player’s house (not that Microsoft would even consider that option, but still). It was slick, though, and absolutely does the job of getting the idea of what’s possible with HoloLens stuck in your mind.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , ,

Let’s Talk About That PlayStation Experience

PlayStation Experience

Over the weekend, the industry saw two maiden voyages: Geoff Keighley’s independent The Game Awards and Sony’s for-fans PlayStation Experience. We can get around to the former later, but right now let’s talk about the latter. Coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the PlayStation and announced back in October, this event was a two-day celebration in Las Vegas for the brand and the PlayStation 4’s current and upcoming lineup.

It is the closest to a winter E3 we’ll get, or really any industry event. It’s a little PAX in its timing (i.e. not during the summer) and in its structure (e.g. fully open to fans and organized around panels), but make no mistake that it’s skewing closer to an E3 or Gamescom than the fan convention. Most of the games available for play on the floor were largely just announced and not available for retail.

This strikes me as a prototypical move. Testing the waters, if you will. For the past several years, the utility of E3 has started to fade. It’s fun traveling and attending parties and certainly hanging out with basically everyone else in the industry all at once is pretty cool (and overwhelming), the actual benefits of the show are becoming dubious.

None of it aside from shaking the hands of PR people you’d only ever exchanged emails with and squeezing in unscheduled interviews with industry luminaries could not also be accomplished through Skype calls and Dropboxes of demo builds. Otherwise, it almost certainly is a bust for everyone. That’s a full week of being tired, getting sick, and getting great coverage getting swallowed up by a deluge of other great coverage. It’s numbing for developers, journalists, brand reps, and readers.

Similarly for the past few years, though, Nintendo has taken a slightly different tack. They don’t participate in the traditional keynote madness anymore, instead opting for a couple Nintendo Directs during the week topped off by a press roundtable. And instead of making the games exclusive to the industry folk angrily meandering the halls of the Los Angeles Convention Center, they let fans take part all around the country. Not only that, but those Nintendo Directs? They can happen whenever Nintendo wants, and they happen all during the year, albeit when convenient for Japan.

And guess what: Nintendo won developer of the year at The Game Awards. And do you know how many of the games that won their categories were Nintendo games? One: Mario Kart 8. (Granted it won in two different categories.) Then, when you consider the ratio of nominees as well, Nintendo falls far behind. Their win is…strange.

Mario Kart 8

But that’s if you don’t consider what they do. No, not release games. It’s about what they do differently, and it seems that Sony caught on, hence the PlayStation Experience. They’re testing the waters with this inaugural event. It’s just convenient that it managed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the original PlayStation. Aside from a few obligatory mentions and the LittleBigPlanet 3 video, the anniversary might as well have not even been a factor.

Instead, we had a keynote packed with announcements—a few of them were genuine surprises, too—and premiere trailers. It felt an awful lot like the efforts and energy you’d usually feel at Day 0 of E3. And the floor definitely carried the teeming joy you’d find in the weeklong LA showcase. Certainly the timing of the event was a huge factor as well. With the holidays right in people’s faces and Amazon shipping deadlines looming, what better than to remind people that PlayStation has great games out right now.

Microsoft’s response was, more or less, Phil Spencer’s Twitter. He absolutely handled it with tact, but it’s very much an impossible world where Redmond execs didn’t see the response to the event (which coincided with the similarly major fan-based The Game Awards) and didn’t feel a pang of panic. Especially when prompted with a question about the X0 shows, it’s hard not to wonder why Microsoft wasn’t already riding this wave.

Xbox X0 Event

The answer, of course, is the fans. They carried Nintendo to the Developer of the Year award and they—straight from the floor in Las Vegas—made Sony the talk of weekend and certainly will make Sony the talk of the pre-holiday sale rush. You take the mix of fans finally taking in hand the journalist privilege of playing unreleased games and interacting with press coverage and YouTubers posting reaction videos and you get a storm of organic hype.

Microsoft has gotten off to a slower start this generation than Sony and now it’s falling behind in its media handling as well. Much like the overt use for E3 has shifted (though the secret E3 still goes strong), Sony and Nintendo have recognized not only the growing influence of fans in fresh coverage but also that they way they consume and interact with news is evolving. While Spencer is not wrong about having an important E3 and Gamescom, he fails to recognize that it’s not just about trade shows.

Nintendo has its Nintendo Directs. They sponsor SXSW Gaming. They showcased their games Best Buy locations all over the country. And Sony came storming out of the gates with the PlayStation Experience, riding the wave of their strong start of the PlayStation 4 to an equally strong holiday buzz. And where’s Microsoft? I don’t know. You’ll have to ask the fans.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Highlights from Microsoft at E3 2014

Highlights of Microsoft at E3 2014

Boy, what a way to start out Day Zero of E3 2014. Microsoft really brought the heat with this one. It just dropped game after game, most of which included actual gameplay. If it just involved pre-rendered cinematics, then we’d have a real problem here (see: EA conference and this zinger by Justin McElroy).

Of course, it was rather strange that it included no hardware announcements. Or rather, it wasn’t that strange but equally unfortunate that there were no mentions of future plans for the Kinect, especially considering Microsoft recently removed it from the lower priced bundles. And then they highlighted Harmonix, a studio whose last two and two upcoming games require the Kinect. Seems incongruous is what I’m saying.

Also, can we get a shoutout or an lol at the fact that this presser was leaked almost in its entirety months ago? And while the light-up bracelets were pretty cool, it’s super distracting when you’re sitting there in the dark trying to watch a similarly dark trailer and you’re being blinded on either side of you.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

Whether I think Call of Duty is a worthwhile franchise or not, this is a hell of a way to kick off a press briefing. Nine whizzbang minutes of shooting and being in the future and stuff. There’s nothing we really haven’t seen before (guy you’re playing as dies or get seriously injured, press button to kick down door, etc.), especially since we’ve seen more engaging mobility from a first-person shooter by way of Titanfall, but it was fun nonetheless.

Those smart grenades seem pretty, well, smart, though. Comes out November 4 for PlayStation 3, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and PC with all DLC on Xbox first.

Tom Clancy’s The Division

While guttural in its ability to engage and excite, this gameplay demo for Tom Clancy’s The Division really only highlighted one thing: teamwork in real online multiplayer is a supreme shit show. Not once, even when I’ve played with friends of mine that are similarly committed to our ephemeral, digital cause, have we been as communicative and effective as this AI-driven team.

I’m not saying it can’t or hasn’t been done (professional gamers do it all the time), but it’s a bit of a disconnect once you realize these computer fellows are better at talking than your friends. Still looks pretty cool, though. Expect it sometime in 2015 if there are no more delays.

Rise of the Tomb Raider

No, you were not the only person to think that Rise of the Tomb Raider‘s title is awfully close to Rise of the Triad. But you were also not the only person to think this looks like a supremely interesting setup, not least of all because it humanizes a video game character (and a traditionally vapid one at that) in a challenging and compelling way.

And you can thank writer Rhianna Pratchett for that. She is indeed back for this one, though I’m sure we’ll still be treated to an unfortunately mismatched body count once more because it, after all, a video game. Releases holidays 2015.

Inside

Umm yes. Like, YES. Playdead Studios, for those of you who don’t know or have perhaps forgotten, is the team behind 2010’s Limbo, one of my all-time favorite games. And now they’re back with Inside, a strange little game that shows a child running through a desaturated, terrifyingly homogenized and robotic world, has some aesthetic similarities to Limbo but also seems to want to set off on its own path. Look for it in the first half of 2015.

Sunset Overdrive

Pretty nice mislead with the opening bit. Although I guess the hulky-looking enemies and the art style could easily lead to the conclusion that it’s not what it seems. But this gameplay demo video makes Sunset Overdrive at least look pretty neat. Expect it on October 28 of this year.

Halo: The Master Chief Collection

You know what? That haunting Halo opening chorus still gives me chills. Has there ever been a more iconic, single second of video game music than that? Well, probably, but that doesn’t change the fact that that low, rumbling, growing aahhhh is fairly iconic at this point. And even though you’ve already played what Halo: The Master Chief Collection has to offer (Halos 1 through 4), it packages it in a way that puts all other game compilations to shame. Releases November 11 for the Xbox One.

Assassin’s Creed Unity

I love this Lorde over in this cinematic trailer, though it strikes me as odd that a game about the French Revolution would feature a song with lyrics like “everybody wants to rule the world.” But I guess it was intended to convey the troubles of seeking power, so it works.

Anyways, we’ve gotten off-track here. Assassin’s Creed Unity, despite looking exactly like more Assassin’s Creed, has be interested precisely because of the co-op. Comes out October 28.

Scalebound

Hey guys. Scalebound looks nuts. Just thought I’d throw that out there, but what else do you expect from Platinum Games? Exclusive to Xbox One, but no release date yet.

Ori and the Blind Forest

Here’s what we know about Ori and the Blind Forest: it’s from Moon Studios, it probably is a 2D action platformer, and it’s likely going to make your eyes happy and your heart cry. Good luck to us all.

Crackdown

I am ready. (To collect a million agility orbs.)

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Mattrick Maneuver

The Mattrick Maneuver

There was a buzz. It’s a familiar hum from the Twitter machine of the video game industry where rumors swirl around until one latches onto the side and we collectively watch as it slowly and painfully crawls its way out. And yesterday, we saw more of the same. Don Mattrick would be leaving his position at Microsoft as President of Interactive Entertainment Business (read: Xbox stuff) for Zynga.

Moments like these—perhaps more than any other that the industry encounters—exemplify exactly what it is that makes journalists and writers what they are, which is to say little more than an amalgamation of ego, doubt, and an incessant desire to drink. First the questions were concerning the veracity of the rumor. Most found out from Geoff Keighley, but even he gets things wrong every now and again (it actually and most likely leaked over at AllThingsD). But then, invariably, the dots begin to connect, and questions arise. Calls are made. Mark Pincus, co-founder of Zynga, made a statement.

Pincus made it official: Mattrick would be taking over for him as CEO of Zynga. Pincus had long been pressured by investors to do something—anything—to get the social and mobile game developer back on track. Once a titan that’d gone public (its IPO opened at $11 a share, valuing it at 2004 Google money at $1 billion), the studio recently shut down its Los Angeles, Dallas, Austin, and New York branches, laying off 520 employees, or around 18 percent of its staff. It is currently trading at just over a dollar above its all-time low after a 10 percent bump following the announcement.

Mark Pincus and his hands

Mattrick, seemingly, was also enduring struggles. Six weeks ago, he took the stage to unveil the Xbox One to a tepid reception. It’s not because they showed off a totally incompetent product but because just one month ago, Sony announced the PlayStation 4 and it was ostensibly the better console, an unsubstantiated notion that sent Sony’s stock skyward. Then, three weeks later at E3, Sony stuck it to the Redmond-based company hard by driving home all the contentious points people were hung on: always-online, no used games, etc. Not to mention the substantially lower price.

A week later, however, all of those problems went away. Microsoft’s entire policy had switched. No required Internet connection, no authentication for discs, no regional restrictions. Used games would work exactly how they work now: swap a disc. Mattrick wrote a great deal on it, saying they were grateful for the public’s “assistance in helping us to reshape the future of Xbox One.” That was another banner day in breaking news as people buzzed about and eventually verified Giant Bomb’s Patrick Klepek’s hot scoop.

But only then did we realize what we were losing: account sharing between family members; near-trivial, cloud-based save and game transport; increased graphical and processing prowess due to cloud computing; and so much more. They were exciting and near radical ideas for a console, but people seemed to be upset with the price tag attached to it, which is to say they weren’t happy about being tethered to a cable or router 24/7. We’ve seen how poorly things can go when a network connection is required via Diablo III and SimCity‘s Hindenburg impressions.

Don Mattrick at the Xbox One unveiling

Could that have been, though, an ill-placed gut reaction? That seems like a rhetorical, pandering question, but it is sincere. Was Sony’s so-called “victory” at E3 with its hard jabs and pointed elbows more warmly received because it was more familiar? It could be a sign of stagnation—of fear. No one except those up in Washington know how these nebulous concepts of connectivity and cloud shenanigans explicitly work. We fear, after all, what we do not know. Though Mattrick put it a bit bluntly, it is a philosophy worth considering: move it or lose it.

Or it could be justified anger at losing consumer rights. Stripped of its particulars, though, and it operates as a fitting parallel for Mattrick’s transition. Much like we have questions on how and why Sony and Microsoft structured their console infrastructures the way they did, we all have questions regarding this Zynga-Microsoft shake-up. For instance, what influence did Mattrick leaving have on the flip-flop on policies for the Xbox One have? He was, undoubtedly, planning on leaving for quite some time (and well ahead of a holistic company restructuring process), but the switch in stance certainly looks a lot clearer through a “fuck it, I’m out of here” lens. Unsubstantiated or not, it’s a simple answer to a complex question, and those usually have a little bit of truth mushed up in it.

Second, will Pincus be able to relinquish enough control, loosen his grip on the reins enough, to let Mattrick do what they need him to do? Pincus currently earns a $1 annual salary and gets no bonuses or equity awards, so this entire endeavor is one of pride and creative control. Though no longer the CEO, he will still be a chairman and Chief Product Officer and still controls 60% of the voting power with 12% of the company.

FarmVille 2

Zynga has traditionally be all about micro-payments via Facebook games like CityVille and FarmVille and many other –Villes and things but recently has tried to steer towards mobile development (having your entire money-making scheme tied into someone else’s infrastructure that could—and has—change at any time is never a good idea, something investors are starting to realize), but Zynga is a big ship full of holes. It takes time to point its bow in any new direction. In a seemingly desperate move for faster paddling and new blood, they dropped $200 million last year on OMGPOP and recently let go of most of its staff and closed its offices. They had to update their quarterly projections from $28.5 million to $39 million in losses. They’ve lost 40 million (13 percent) daily active users in the past year.

In the post Pincus put up yesterday, he said that Mattrick would have “the final vote in making decisions on execution” while Pincus would lead “vision and strategy and defining the product experiences.” This, given rumors of how Pincus has a habit of poorly micro-managing and frustrating his fellow executives, doesn’t sound all that promising. BuzzFeed spoke to a few company sources about it, sources that said Pincus could “seriously water down [Mattrick’s] power” and that “I don’t see how Mark can not be involved, he’s got his hands in everything.” That and tumultuous corporate politics could be trouble.

Lastly, where does this leave Microsoft? In the interim, they’ve named Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer as Mattrick’s temporary fill-in. At least when he left EA in 2007, it seemed like Mattrick gave a two-weeks notice. This move has apparently left Microsoft in a bit of a lurch at a crucial time. In mere months, they will be launching a new console of a new generation in perhaps one of the most heated battles of recent memory. (I expect a Nintendon’t-esque campaign coming from both sides.) How will Ballmer, originally a software man, lead an entire division about hardware and software and PR and putting out Internet fires? He is a veteran executive and leader, sure, but as current CEO, his plate is full enough as it is with Windows 8.

Steve Ballmer on stage

You can possibly cobble together something more in the meantime with the likes of CVP of Marketing Yusuf Mehdi and GM of Microsoft Studios Phil Spencer, both of whom we’ve seen speak about and showcase the Xbox One, but without a single leader to point where to go next, this seems problematic for the Interactive Entertainment division. Do you really want this man telling you how to make a video game console?

There are, of course, other perfunctory and ancillary questions that remain unanswered. Is Zynga at all salvageable? Can anyone possibly turn Microsoft’s cold futurist stance into a winning one? Mattrick could have been muscled out for his “buy a 360” solution, seeing as how former creative director Adam Orth was similarly let go for brutish “deal with it” comments. Most are saying the rumored restructuring wouldn’t have affected Mattrick, but he most likely knows more than we ever will about Microsoft.

If you’re at all interested, there’s a pretty cool profile on Mattrick over at Fast Company. It is illuminating to say the least and brings up some interesting notes (Mattrick will reunite with his old boss from EA Bing Gordon), but it provides none of the answers we want to any of our questions. No time for that, though. I can already hear the Twitter machine spinning up again.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Xbox One: A Menagerie Of Unknowns

Xbox One: A Menagerie of Unknowns

Phil Harrison doesn’t know the answer. He has answers, sure, but he doesn’t know which one is right. From the media—and public—perspective, it feels an awful lot like we’re getting a multiple choice question in response to our queries, but each answer is accompanied by mean mugs and shoulder shrugs. (Shimmy shimmy cocoa what.)

Stephen Totilo over at Kotaku wrote up a great piece called “The Xbox One Uncertainty Principle” wherein he brings up the flurry of conflicting reports and interviews and PR responses that they and others have been getting over the past week, starting with the next-gen Microsoft event in Redmond and culminating in the confusing As we all got to our Qs. There’s a great quote in the middle of it from Totilo:

Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle tells us that the more we try to observe a particle’s position, the less precise we can be about its momentum. Heisenberg, have we got a game console for you.

The uncertainty principle is a little more broad than that (it applies to any set of complementary variables), but we get the gist: the more we try to find out about the Xbox One, we discover just how little we actually know about it.

In the opening bit, Totilo relates to us an anecdote about Aaron Greenberg, chief of staff for Microsoft’s interactive division, saying that response to their new console was mostly positive. In fact, he says it was about 40% positive, 40% neutral, and 20% negative (though maybe some fact-checking is in order?). Unfortunately, we find those numbers to be less than accurate.

If we take a look at the Brandwatch blog, the musings of a company that specializes in monitoring social media reactions, we find that the online reaction isn’t as positive as Greenberg thinks it is. Brandwatch puts positive at 52% and negative at 48% (neutral isn’t tracked in this). AT Forbes, Fizziology puts the numbers in a different light as well: 32% positive, 10% negative, and a whopping 56% neutral.

Of course, these numbers only account for people able to interact with social media at the time, so those working, traveling, sleeping, or any other number of things preventing them from updating their Facebook or tweeting are not accounted for. And these analyses are never quite as accurate as you would like (intent is harder to derive from content without context), but media, by and large, also take themselves out of the immediate conversation and often opt for video recaps and written summaries to express their views. Same go for industry analysts. But there is archived evidence for my Twitter feed (and many others) being primarily negative the following day when thoughts were put into long-form articles.

Perhaps the most problematic of the cluster of misinformation disseminating among Microsoft (if Greenberg is an indication) is that always-online and used games are still up in the air. We’re likely to get answers in the coming weeks at E3, but it’s still distressing that something so fundamental to the console’s operation and the industry’s functionality is undecided. First Phil Harrison, corporate vice president of Microsoft, says that you can sell back used games at retail stores. Then he says you’ll sell them back online. Which is it? Or is it both?

And then when asked about what happens if Microsoft stops running servers for the Xbox One. Will the always-online requirement simply render all the consoles they’ve sold useless? Harrison, as Totilo puts it, “smiled and said something about not thinking that would happen.” Which should frighten you. It’s a thought we’ve been putting off for years as digital distribution channels like Steam and Origin and PSN and XBLA become more prominent. When—not if—those servers shut off, we will have nothing to show for all the money and time we put into that ecosystem.

While probably not totally unique among those that make those sorts of decisions, Harrison’s reaction should tell you a lot about priorities. There is no exit strategy for gamers like there is for the business itself. Microsoft can sell assets and patents and rights to stay afloat. Keeping around servers that do nothing but tell consoles it’s okay to play a game long after the device is relevant is basically a hole to throw money into. Microsoft—and its competitors—is a business, after all.

If it sounds ridiculous that Microsoft could ever not exist, consider Palm. Look at where Sega used to be and where it is now. Look at Nintendo’s current trajectory. There is a graveyard of dead companies that used to rule the roost, businesses that people would treat like the Titanic, like they were unsinkable. So when Microsoft goes under, which could be in five years or 20 years or 400 years, all of this…stuff, these video games of not insignificant cultural importance, will be lost. Games are archived on retails discs and carts. How do we archive encrypted servers that feed directly into proprietary technology?

Two and a half weeks and we might get some answers. We hope we’ll have answers, but Microsoft had better be ready with them. Fizziology put 24% of all negative reactions pertaining to always-online. Personally, I say that’s 90% of my concern right now. Another 2% is wondering when will Microsoft get their act together and give some straight answers. What’s left is for J Allard. Godspeed, Allard. Godspeed.

UPDATE: retail sources have told MCV that they can charge whatever they want for pre-owned Xbox One games, but Microsoft and publishers will get a cut. Sure, I guess, but why couldn’t Microsoft have told us this straight up?

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,