Tag Archives: Xbox

Microsoft E3 2015 Recap

Microsoft E3 2015

There was actually something genuinely surprising about the Microsoft press event yesterday, but it’s probably not what you think: there wasn’t even a sliver of a presence for Call of Duty. That showing has been happening like clockwork for the past forever and it wasn’t there this year.

I don’t know if that’s good or bad or even how I feel about it, but it’s certainly remarkable. But there was plenty of other news for the Redmond company and their little gaming machine that could (and then did and became a beast of an ecosystem for entertainment).

You can also watch the entire presentation if you’d rather do that.

Halo 5: Guardians

There was a substantial co-op demonstration that happened. And that just about sums that up. At this point I’m pretty sure you know if you’re going to buy a new Halo game or not, let alone get excited for hearing 343 Industries studio head Bonnie Ross talk about the brand new engine that runs single and multiplayer at 60 fps.

Warzone, however, sounds pretty fun. It’s a new 24-player mode where you’ll face off against both AI and player-controlled enemies via drop-in, drop-out co-op. The maps are massive at four times bigger than you’re used to. Josh Holmes of 343 appropriately called it “ambitious.”

Backwards Compatibility

This is an ostensibly big move. This will open up an entire generation’s worth of games up to Xbox One owners for free (so far it’s just a smattering of titles) and will definitely set the system apart from the PlayStation 4 feature set, something they’re keenly aware of.

“We won’t charge you to play the games you already own,” said head of platform engineering Mike Ybarra, an obvious jab at the fact that PlayStation 4’s backwards compatibility works only so much that you can stream old games via PlayStation Now. Ybarra says it won’t take any extra development from studios and players just need the original disc to download a new digital version. It’ll be available to everyone this holiday season.

Fallout 4

Here’s so more Fallout 4 footage, including stuff we didn’t get to see yesterday during Bethesda’s event. I mean, it all follows the same path of content, but it’s bonus gameplay at some parts.

Game director Todd Howard also announced that PC mods will work for the Xbox One version of the game, but not right at launch; that will get added somewhere in 2016. And they’ll hopefully bring that same compatibility to the PlayStation 4 version.

Forza Motorsport 6

We already know there’s a new Forza game. Even if you didn’t know that, it seems like you could have assumed that anyways. Turn 10 Studios’ Dan Greenawalt says there will be over 450 cars and 24-player multiplayer. That’s kind of all the excitement I can muster for this.

Tacoma

Even if Tacoma just ended up being Gone Home in space, I’d still be cool with that. But developers Fullbright has earned more respect than that. It’s very obviously going to be about a singular experience and story-driven, but rehashing the same ground is (hopefully) beyond them.

Co-founder Steve Gaynor announced that their upcoming game will come to Xbox One and PC first before hitting Linux and Mac.

The Long Dark

Billed as “the first survival game on Xbox One,” The Long Dark is very obviously a survival game. You’re out all alone in a frozen wilderness and have to face the cold and wolves and whatnot.

The bigger tidbit coinciding with this is that Microsoft now offers Xbox One Game Preview, their own Early Access. The Long Dark isn’t out now, but you can play it on Game Preview right now. (Game Preview is not be confused with the Xbox One Preview program, although it exists within that and, yeah, you get it.)

Ion

Dean Hall, creator of DayZ, announced his new project Ion. It will also be available on Game Preview first and will attempt to realize Hall’s vision of “a game that wasn’t a game.” The press release describes the game as “an emergent narrative massively-multiplayer online game in which players build, live and inevitably die in huge floating galactic constructions.”

It aims to feature fully simulated environments involving power grids and heating and a bunch of other things to maintain space living. It seems pretty neat, though it may cross that line into too ambitious real quick.

Sea of Thieves

Rare is making a new game! What more do you need to know? Hopefully not much more because they didn’t give us much more.

Rare Replay

Coming August 4 to the Xbox One, the Rare Replay collection will feature just about every game you’d want to play from Rare’s history. This includes some serious bangers like Battletoads, Perfect Dark, Banjo Kazooie, Viva Piñata, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, and Blast Corps. If this doesn’t excite you then you must be dead inside.

Gears of War Ultimate Edition

This remastered version of the original Gears of War will come to Xbox One on August 25. It’ll have updated graphics (which Kotaku has a nice comparison of), integrated Gears of War 3 gameplay features, and the additional content previously exclusive to the PC version from 2007.

Gears of War 4

I dunno. Are you guys excited for a new Gears of War? I’m interested, I guess, but not necessarily looking forward to it. It’ll be the first one not developed by Epic Games. Maybe there will be a fresh take on some of the old staples of the series we’ve grown accustomed to? Gears of War 4 will hit during holidays 2016.

HoloLens

This is a pretty impressive demo for Minecraft with HoloLens, Microsoft’s 3D head-mounted display technology. In it, one player is on a Surface tablet playing the game while the other assumes a more godlike role through HoloLens, able to peer into the entire world and manipulate it from on high.

But it’s also very much unbelievable and in a not great way. Do you remember what we were promised with Kinect? Yeah. And having worked with this sort of tech before, I’m all the more wary. Still cool, though.

Rise of the Tomb Raider

There was also a trailer that came out, but that’s pretty much inconsequential compared to the gameplay demo they threw down. It’s coming across as even more Nathan Drake than before, but it still looks great. Drake’s defining characteristic is that he’s lucky as shit and knows it. Lara didn’t have that.

In 2013’s Tomb Raider, Lara started with getting impaled and it somehow went downhill from there. But this demo shows Lara dodging bullet after bullet and that’s kind of Drake’s thing. I’m not complaining, mind you, but it seems worth mentioning.

And that’s it! Actually, there was a lot more like the above promo for the new Xbox One interface, the Xbox Elite controller (which will cost a whopping $150), and a bunch of other games, but these were kind of the big hitters. It’s fantastic that Microsoft focused so hard on games this year. It felt refreshing.

It’s also worth mentioning that there was a distinct lack of Kinect talk, and with the lack of Kinect in the new Xbox One bundles, it calls to question if Kinect is being swept under the rug. I don’t necessarily buy it, but Ben Kuchera raises some good points over at Polygon.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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A Few Thoughts on the Xbox One

A Few Thoughts on the Xbox One

The Xbox One was not made for you. Let’s just rip that Band-Aid off right now. You are reading an analysis of the announcement of a new console on a video game website that’s not called GameSpot or Joystiq, which means that the followup product to Microsoft’s Xbox 360 is not made for you. You, undoubtedly, are more than a passing hobbyist in the field and probably use your 360 and PS3 and Wii to play video games. That’s not surprising, I’m sure, but you have to understand that there are tons of people out there that own these devices and use them solely to watch Netflix or Blu-rays. This is who the Xbox One is aimed at.

Granted, it still is a more-than-capable gaming console what with 15 unannounced (but confirmed) exclusive titles that we’ll probably be seeing much more of at E3. And with a new controller that seems to address the biggest complaint—the lack of a properly functional D-pad—and integrates some new technology to push the peripheral forward, it is still very much a video game-playing thing. But yesterday was proof enough that Microsoft wants more than just gamers. So let’s get into it.

The Name

Xbox One

I actually kind of like the name, even if we’ve yet to settle on an acceptable abbreviation; the current leaders are the X1, which could be confused with the Sharp X1, and the Xbone, which has obvious, tumescent problems. It definitely reflects the emerging philosophy from Redmond that this new Xbox will be the entirety of your home entertainment setup. It will handle movies, TV, games, music, and whatever else you want. The “one” means what they’re striving for: to be your one utility for fun. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I jive with all of that, but I do like the name.

The question, of course, is the future, which can be broken down more simply into two further inquiries. First off, why not go the Apple route and just call it the Xbox? People cracking jokes about database problems obviously don’t know how databases work, but it makes sense for this to be a distillation and unification of everything the 360 wanted to be but couldn’t. Second, having such a definitive name with some serious finale subtext implies (and corroborates some things floating around out there) that this could be the last piece of Xbox hardware to come out for a long time. It could ostensibly just be firmware updates that keep it fresh, a notion that raises the point of if Microsoft has already bought into the idea that this will be the last console generation.

The Specs

Xbox One

The gist of it is this: an AMD Jaguar-based 8-core CPU, a DirectX 11-compatible AMD GPU, 8 GB of DDR3 RAM, 500 GB of internal storage, USB 3.0, HDMI in, HDMI out, and a Blu-ray drive. Wired got an exclusive look at the Xbox One and revealed that it uses a system on a chip (SoC) design that is actually quite similar to what the PS4 will be using. And the 5 billion transistor count is likely to be the total between the CPU and GPU since, as Game Front so astutely points out, “AMD’s FX-8350 eight-core desktop CPU has roughly 1.2 billion transistors, and the AMD Radeon 7970 desktop GPU has about 4.3 billion transistors.”

What’s more interesting is the RAM. You’ll notice that the 8GB matches the PS4’s 8GB, but it is DDR3 instead of DDR5. DDR5 runs at a lower voltage and higher speeds (a simplification: it’s how the GPU and CPU utilize the 32-bit memory controllers per channel) but DDR3 is way cheaper. This will likely lead to both a price and performance discrepancy between the Xbox One and the PS4 with the former being more affordable and the latter being more capable.

The Xbox One runs purely on HDMI display output, an obvious advantage over the PS4. This is because games developed for Sony’s device will have to account for the fact that some players may not be having an HD experience and UI must be adjusted accordingly. With an all-digital setup on the Xbox One, developers can count on the fact that their players will be able to consume a baseline of quality so text doesn’t have to be blown up and the like.

Also, you know what the Blu-ray drive makes me think of? HD DVDs. You know what thinking about HD DVDs makes me do? Laugh. Heartily. Forever.

The Peripherals

Xbox One

There’s the new controller, which looks pretty good. Mostly. There’s some part of me that really likes the jellybean-like face buttons of the 360’s controller as these feel a bit too…industrial. But from what I hear, the sticks are great and the D-pad actually works like a D-pad now, not to mention it feels much more like a solid product, which is great because the original Xbox and the 360’s controllers always felt a bit too plastic-y to me. The triggers also look way different. They’re much less like triggers and more akin to the pedal-like shoulder buttons of the DualShock 3. They do, however, have rumble, which sounds interesting. If it can be applied to how you press the triggers, it could have fantastic implications on input design.

What we don’t know, though, is what those two extra buttons do. They are most likely just what they’ve always been—Back and Start—but the iconography suggests that they have deeper, system-wide utility that goes beyond showing scores in Call of Duty and pausing a game. Also, notice that they moved the guide button to the top. This is probably in response to the thousands of people each day that accidentally pop up the dashboard when they just want to skip a cutscene.

Kinect 2.0

And then there’s the Kinect 2. It is, without a doubt, an upgrade over the first Kinect device. It features a 1080p camera (an incredible bump up from the current generation’s 640×480 RGB camera) and, probably, a nicer IR camera. I say probably because it is doing things that the first Kinect just wasn’t capable of doing like discerning a heartbeat and generating a night vision mode to facilitate low-light environments. It’s much more able to track fingers, facial expressions, and throngs (six) of people. From the demos shown at the announcement that include seeing actuated musculature, weight distribution, and a wider, taller view with better depth of field to accommodate closer ranges and bigger players, this seems to be the Kinect they wanted to make the first time around.

It is, however, massive. It looks like a slightly longer mishmash of a Jimmy John’s sandwich and a Subway sub. It’s big. And it’s required. And that just kind of goes along with the general oversized look of the Xbox One itself which, as shown in this video from Kotaku, is somewhat of a beast, too. And you’ll notice that it has a two-prong power connection which means a likely sizable power brick having to be tucked away in your otherwise elegant-looking entertainment system setup.

The Services

Remember when I said that the Xbox One wasn’t being made for you? This is why. If you want to get super cynical about it, here’s a handy recap video:

It’s a bit mean, but it’s also funny because it’s true. The focus is on television and sports—or at least this particular presentation was—which are both very mainstream ideals. That is not to say, however, that this stuff isn’t handy or neat. Being able to go instantly between watching TV and doing anything else on the console is pretty fantastic, though I’m not sure how much use I’ll get out of that.

But it is indicative of a larger movement in console usage. One of the reasons we like using our smartphones and iPads for everything is that they’re always ready. You don’t turn these things on and off with each use, so now the thinking for the Wii U, PS4, and Xbox One is why should consoles be any different? The Xbox One, in particular, will keep everything in a low-power state so that you can just walk into the room and say “Xbox on” and get going. To me, voice controls seem a lot like QR codes (an interesting and potentially effective use case but ultimately too much of a hitch in the usage process to feel organic), so I don’t think I’ll be using that (at least for now), but keeping things in a low-power state seems like a smart move.

Beyond that, everything seems to be related to swappable states of the console. At any point, you can just stop playing and the state of your game will be saved. Or your movie or whatever. Anything you want to pause can be paused and stored for later consumption. This plays into the “magic moments” feature of capture clips of games that can be shared on Xbox Live and YouTube, which may ring PS4 bells in terms of capabilities. In fact, just as you can play as you install games on the PS4, you can do the same on the Xbox One, though the similarities behind their actual functionality remains to be seen.

Xbox One

This is what people talk about when they mean always-on. What they mean when they say always-online, however, is drastically different. Kotaku asked during a press Q&A as to whether or not you could go for weeks without connecting to the Internet. Microsoft vice president Phil Harrison responded with, “I believe it’s 24 hours.” You have to be connected to the Internet with your Xbox One at least once every 24 hours. That much we know, but we don’t know what happens when you hit that threshold. Does the console shut down? Are you locked out? Or can you simply not access installed games and media but can still use discs? There are a lot of questions to be answered.

The interesting thing, though, is that it feels a lot like there are so many questions because Microsoft hasn’t made any concrete decisions yet. Things like the 24-hour limit are settings that can be changed at any time, so it could be turned off completely at some point. It seems that after the SimCity fiasco a while ago that Microsoft wasn’t sure what to do. They wanted to keep things based on the cloud and cloud operations (in fact, some operations and calculations for games can be offloaded for server-side processing), but I guess the question eventually became how to frame it to be palatable to the jaded mainstream.

I live in a major metropolitan area where my Internet connection is stable and reliable. Many people, in fact, live in such areas, but thinking of people who often find themselves in areas with shoddy power or Internet is distressing. What they to do when they have lingering blackouts and can no longer access their games and media? It’s a tough question to answer, but some of the always-online possibilities presented for the Xbox One seem rather intriguing. You can Skype call with people whenever you want and possibly integrate video and voice chat into dashboard and game functionality. Perhaps multiplayer simply because augmented singleplayer with constant, synchronous input from all over the world. The potential is incredible, but the roads that lead there are alienating. It’s a tough spot, for sure.

Any amount of online requirements, though, is still always-online, so make of that what you will.

The Used

Forza Motorsport 5

So being vague about always-online is understandable, if a bit unfortunate. It can all change at the drop of a hat and probably will be based on reactions to yesterday’s presentation. A little more clarity would have been nice, but I can live with this amount of ambiguity until E3. What’s unacceptable, however, is how they addressed used and shared games.

“We are designing Xbox One to enable customers to trade in and resell games. We’ll have more details to share later.” That’s the official word based on the Q&A. However, things quickly get murky. According to Wired, it will cost a fee to link games to a second account. But then, according to the @XboxSupport Twitter account, “Again, there is no fee to install the game. Your friend will not pay a fee.” So which one is true?

I guess both could be true. Maybe there’s a trial period. Or maybe @XboxSupport was confused. All games are to be installed on the hard drive, and games can be installed without the disc present. So games, obviously, are tied to specific gamer accounts, but how is the content of the disc tied to the game that is connected to the account? You can, based on the no disc requirement, sign into your account on another Xbox One and download and play your own games, so is this the no-fee sharing they’re talking about? And then there’s the whole issue of offline play. How does that affect game-account verification and used/shared games? Albert Penello, senior director of product planning at Microsoft, told Engadget that they do account for “household” sharing so that family members on the same console can play games not necessarily attached to their account.

Call of Duty: Ghosts

But how? In fact, how everything? How does it work? While the always-online functionality explanation can be understandably deferred, not addressing how used and shared games work is borderline unacceptable. It’s less than three weeks until E3, but these are pressing questions that demand immediate attention. Always-online is a gradient knob that can be turned. This is a board of switches and no one knows what any of them do.

This, of course, leads into the question of whether you own your games or if you license games. CD keys were an interesting progenitor because they simply were verified via a hashing algorithm put into the game’s bootup process. But then these keys began to require an Internet connection for server-side verification. Now, that has given way to needing to use Steam or Origin or whatever to even access your library, but the consolation in many cases was that once you started playing, you didn’t need the connection.

Diablo III and, of course, SimCity went for a different tack; an Internet connection was required the entire time you played, and now instead of individual games, this connection requirement applies across the board for an entire console. So instead of being able to pop in a disc and play, the entirety of this device’s capabilities are tied to an array of servers that, should they go down, will prevent you from using the Xbox One as anything besides a doorstop. This, of course, has an adverse effect on backwards compatibility: there is none. At least you can still put in a cartridge into your SNES or N64 and go back to play that. But once the servers go down for the Xbox One’s games, you won’t be able to play those ever again.

Licensed. Not owned.

The Presentation

Xbox One

Compared to Sony’s presentation, the Xbox One unveiling was disturbingly anemic. Jason Shreier summed it up pretty well with this tweet:

While a bit reductive and not accounting for the fact that Microsoft’s ability to show on a stage wasn’t atrocious, it is a fairly accurate representation of the knee-jerk reaction everyone had to the proceedings. We didn’t see much except for a bunch of pre-rendered footage of sports things that fed into a confusing EA partnership, something involving Remedy Games’ Quantic Break (which no one knows anything about aside from that is Professor Slater from season one of Community), and Call of Duty: Ghosts. For all the seemingly evergreen popularity of the franchise, it also appears as though most people are simply tired of hearing about first-person military shooters even if they aren’t all totally and completely tired of playing them just yet. The dog stuff was fun, but it only made a rather bland presentation at least slightly upbeat.

The Conclusion

Xbox One

So basically we got hardware, a dog, and a lot of questions that go unanswered. It would be disappointing if it wasn’t for the fact that E3 is so soon, where the 15 Xbox One-exclusive games will probably be revealed and more information will be provided regarding used games and always-online requirements. The most interesting thing to note, though, is that the Microsoft press conference is first during E3 and Sony is dead last. Will Microsoft continue this narrative and build up the supporting struts around their push of services or will Sony get the last laugh and walk away from Los Angeles the (ephemeral) champion?

Believe me when I say that I, along with everybody else in the industry, have no fucking idea. But this will be an interesting year.

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Xbox Live Reward Program Starting Now

Awhile back, many Xbox Live members were sent e-mails inviting them to sign up for the opportunity to test a new rewards system.

I was one of those people, and today, I relieved confirmation that I had been accepted into the program. I will also receive 100 MS Points just for being lucky, I guess.

There was a lot of speculation as to what, exactly, the program would consist of. Understandably, the most common theories supposed that users would be rewarded for things such as completing surveys. Judging from the image below, which I captured from the Reward Central website, these theories were more or less spot on.

Xbox Live RewardsOther ways to earn points include signing up or renewing your Xbox Live Gold account, which is handy, since mine is about to expire and I’m going to buy another full year. Therefore, I will get a whole 200 points! That’s a whole $2.50! And all I had to do was spend $50! Woohoo! A similar deal exists for subscribing to Netflix.

But what’s interesting is the idea that you can earn 100 MSP for “making your first purchase on Xbox Live” (I wonder if that means your first purchase ever, or your first purchase since joining the program), and 100 MSP for completing surveys.

Considering there are a ton of great Xbox Live Arcade games for 400-800 MSP, this program could actually allow for a sweet free game or two, provided that enough surveys are provided and, potentially, if they’re not all extremely long.

The welcome e-mail also says, “Every month, we’ll send you an email with an update on how you’re doing and the cool gear you can get with your rewards, so make sure you read it!” That leads me to believe that Microsoft would like to offer more than just digital rewards in the future.

In a lot of ways this seems to be similar to Club Nintendo, which gives out points and freebies to Nintendo users simply for registering hardware, games and competing surveys. I’ll be extremely interested in seeing how the two services compare overall.

This test of Reward Central is set to last for six months. We’ll see how it goes.

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