Posts Tagged Xbox
It was a beautiful summer day in Seattle today, sunny, comfortably warm, not humid, just perfect. But the cloud over Redmond was dark and gloomy. Coming hot off the rumor mill and confirmed now as fact, Microsoft will be eliminating up to 18,000 jobs. In some ways, this really shouldn’t come as a surprise. Generally speaking, whenever a new CEO comes onboard there’s usually a round of house cleaning. But in the case of Microsoft, it’s coming at yet another inopportune time. And quite honestly, that’s been a repeating trend for the past few years now. So much so, Microsoft finds themselves in this constant state of flux with no real sense of direction or growth.
Let me jog my mind and provide a high level recap of just the past few years:
- Surface: The major confusion between the difference between Surface RT and Surface Pro was such a mess they ended up discontinuing the Surface RT line within the year, taking a $900 million dollar bath.
- Xbone: After being completely upstaged by Sony and the PS4 at E3, Microsoft essentially walks back their entire vision and strategy. Shortly thereafter, Don Mattrick (the head leader of Xbox driving this show) picks up and leaves the company altogether. Sales struggle initially until Microsoft finally listens to the public demand and strips out the Kinect 2 from the console. Sales actually doubled because of this move. Oh all those plans for branded shows and what not, forget about it.
- Nokia Acquisition: While this acquisition went fairly smooth barring a few hiccups with the EU and India, the net loss for Microsoft was huge considering the poor sales of Nokia devices and those that were flat out discontinued in the process. In short, Microsoft is paying a lot more for this acquisition than what it was supposed to gain, especially in human capital with these layoff hitting mostly the folks in Finland.
- CEO / Organizational Transition: Ballmer stepping down was years overdue, that’s not for debate. and say what you will about the guy, at least he was consistent and committed in leadership. He didn’t cut and run when the chips were down and towed the line through thick and thin. But as a result, Microsoft hasn’t been as nimble as they needed to be. But that’s likely to change with new leadership in place.
All of this adds up to Microsoft finding themselves in this constant loop of uncertainty. There’s a strong lack of committed direction or vision, and more over no real sense of personality. To coin an old American colonial term, Microsoft is very much a doughface. They’re being pulled and drawn in every other direction but their own, unlike their peers. But this state of flux presents Microsoft with a superb opportunity to attempt some major moves and innovative ideas instead of playing catchup. While everyone else is concerned about wearable tech and virtual reality devices, Microsoft is in a prime position to go in a completely different direction.
While this provides Microsoft a tremendous potential boon from an organizational perspective, this real collateral damage comes in the form of the discarded workforce. Having been on the unfortunate side of layoffs more times than I care to, I can empathize with these people. The anxiety and worrying of who’s safe or not, does not provide for a very effective nor focused working environment. It’s not something I wish on anyone. For those that make it through the round of cuts, congratulations. Now it’s time for you to start making Microsoft a better place, a different place it’s been the past few decades. Put aside your ‘survivor’s guilt’ and shine. And for the unfortunate ones out there, this is not the end. There is life after Microsoft. This is an opportunity to move on to something different, something better, or even the push you need to pursue that life passion of yours. Regardless of wherever you land, just use the moment to start shining in your own way. Be kind to one another and just be awesome.
The media frenzy with Microsoft and the Xbox One continues. In a surprising turnabout, Microsoft has decided to reverse their Xbox One DRM policy. It turns out that vocal minority of whiny gamers wasn’t so minor after all. However, the cynic in me believes that pre-order numbers must’ve dropped at such an unbelievable rate that Microsoft felt compelled to respond in order to stay competitive against Sony’s PS4. But quite frankly, this was NOT the right move to make.
There’s no doubt Microsoft needed to respond to Sony after E3. But conceding on what was essentially the linchpin to their long term strategy was too reactionary. In some ways it reflects a lack of confidence they may have had in their original plan. If Microsoft was truly dedicated to moving gaming into a new digital age that benefited everyone, then they should have stuck to their guns despite the mountain of bad press. Instead, Microsoft backslides into the safer, short term bet of retaining their current customer base instead of betting the farm on the longer term rewards and learnings. All of this just smacks of weakness.
If anything, I was assuming if Microsoft scaled back on the mandatory functionality of the Kinect 2; if not stripping it out completely to cut back the price. This would have easily made it more competitive with the PS4. To date, I have yet to find any information on why the Kinect 2 is critical to gaming on the Xbox One. If any of you do, please share it with me. Removing the Kinect 2 would’ve been a more sensible strategy given the reservations many still have about it. But this was a head-scratcher from day one. If they were going to make the Kinect 2 mandatory, why not just build into the system in the first place? This most likely would have greatly increased the manufacturing costs. But that’s a cost Microsoft can eat. And it would have easily justified the $500 price point. However, Microsoft is set and locked with Kinect 2 still being mandatory despite removing DRM.
The real culprit throughout this whole Xbox One debacle can be boiled down to one issue: Microsoft’s Ineffective Communication!
From day one, information from Microsoft has been a whirlwind of conflicting sources and vague half-truths. The message about Xbox One has failed to be consistent. Not only that, they’ve failed to really be entirely forthcoming about how the new DRM policy would help benefit consumers and studios. Admittedly, there are sources outlining some of these details, but not many that clearly painted a picture of the how it translated to users in a practical manner. It wasn’t until I found this obscure article referencing an Xbox One engineer that the whole DRM really made sense. But when the head of Xbox is making flippant comments about disadvantaged consumers combined with everything else, how do you expect consumers to react? And lets face it, they knew enforcing DRM was never going to be a popular decision. But they should have done a hell of a much better job helping consumers embrace the changes and conveying the benefits that could follow.
Losing DRM eliminates many of the planned services Microsoft had in mind such as digital access to games, family sharing, lower game price points and more. These were all great ideas building on what Steam is already doing. And honestly, it would have been worth the risk. But Steam also has an OFFLINE mode. Why couldn’t Microsoft offer a similar option for Xbox One? They could have avoided a mountain of resistance around the required internet connection and the 24 hour check.
Many outlets view the reversal as a major win for consumers. And in some ways, it is (despite my cynical inference). But there’s no denying, games are transitioning more to the digital space. And Microsoft tried to embrace that change. Whether or not it was the ‘right‘ approach is neither here or there. The true winner here is Gamestop and other used retail outlets, not consumers. But this still put smaller studios in more danger of layoffs and closures as game production continue to increase. But as I mentioned in previous posts, the ballooning cost of game development really needs to be re-evaluated. But more importantly, publishers and developers need to crack down on Gamestop and other used retailers for lost revenue. There’s no sound reasons publishers and studios should not be getting a cut from used games sales. That dynamic should have been resolved by now. There is a solution in that relationship, and it’s not by passing the cost down to the consumer.
The DRM reversal also raises a few new questions such as: what does this mean for indie developers? Will the XBLIA space operate under the same manner or is it it still closed off? What does this mean for digital downloads, especially new titles? What about cloud gaming? Sony is already ahead of the curve in this regard. For quite a while, the Ps3 has been offering day one digital downloads for new titles. Sony is poised to stab the knife further into Micosoft’s back if they can offer day one downloads at discounted prices, say $49. And if the rumors of cloud gaming for PS3 titles on the ps4 is true, Microsoft has a lot of catching up to do.
Sadly, even with DRM removed, the Xbox One just doesn’t come off as a more appealing option over the PS4. Bottom line: Microsoft still has a more expensive console with minor issues lingering around Kinect 2. It would have been really interesting to see what Microsoft had in the works and how it played out. One thing is for certain: this console war just got a whole lot more boring. Now we have two similar systems that weren’t event that revolutionary to begin with. Congratulations gamers, your voices (and complaints) were heard loud and clear. Now lets see if you’ll be happy with the fallout of what’s to come.
A few weeks back, I read an article with EA head honcho, Frank Gibeau. And one statement especially jumped out to me:
“In general we’re thinking about how we make this a more broadly appealing franchise, because ultimately you need to get to audience sizes of around five million to really continue to invest in an IP like Dead Space. Anything less than that and it becomes quite difficult financially given how expensive it is to make games and market them. We feel good about that growth but we have to be very paranoid about making sure we don’t change the experience so much that we lose the fanbase.”
This strikes me as odd and flat out preposterous. I’ve always been curious about video game budgets. They just keep growing and growing. I’ve tried poking around for a few detailed breakdowns with no avail. But something is not adding up. These budgets run more than many Hollywood movies. That alone is crazy. Once all the costs for licensing, royalty fees, art, QA, post release support and all that is factored in, you’re already looking at pretty chunk of change. And don’t forget marketing / PR, that alone is sometimes more than the cost of the game itself. Talk about outrageous, but we’ll save that topic for another time. In the end, the budget for a standard console/PC game shouldn’t run more than a few million. So where are they coming up with these inane figures like $25-$100 million? And what kind of metrics ans analysis are they doing that indicates the need for so many buyers to justify a franchise. In fact, I’d really like to see a case study detailing video game production costs & sales in contrast to other industries particularly movies and other technologies (laptop, mobiles, etc.). I realize that sometimes there is a price to be paid for quality; but worth 500 million users? I highly doubt that. Again, something is NOT adding up.
And is it really necessary? The need to appeal to a broader audience is just a systemic of business in general. But many franchises, and games in general, are starting to suffer with dwindling sales month over month. Typically these days, a standard AAA game starts out as a first person shooter (FPS) built on an Unreal Engine with a tacked on gimmicky multiplayer mode. And now it seems, they’ll be more co-op. I, personally, love co-op mode; but it seems that co-op today translate more into action shooter. That aside, including all these features quickly add up to a pretty penny. But do these companies even considered if it’s germane to the business or the final product itself ? Why does a game such as Dead Space and Assassin’s Creed need MP modes? TellTale is already making a phenomenal Walking Dead game, is it really necessary for Activision to make one as well (which, surprise surprise, will be a FPS)? To me, it seems like a massive waste time and resources when they would be better off capitalizing on different markets. Do they really think they’re gonna capture that many more gamers with such a such a commonplace format? I’m not saying they should ignore these kind of opportunities. You never know what could happen. Case in point, I thought adding MP to Mass Effect 3 would be a colossal failure. But it turned out to be a massive success. So I’m all for trying new ideas, just maybe in a different manner. In fact, I’d love to see the numbers around these figures. It may be worth holding off some new features as optional DLC only to be included in future installments based on a scale of their popularity.
But even if that were the case, it still doesn’t account for the absorbent budgets. Countless indie developers have found marginal to great success producing games on a shoestring budget. Why don’t major publishers release smaller titles in a similar manner more often? Everyone wants to produce the next biggest hit, but wouldn’t it be more prudent to release a string of lower budget titles to help back bigger releases? Movie studios release generic romcoms (romantic comedies) and other low budget clunkers all the time. That’s possible because studios know there’s a market out there willing watch them. Even though movies and games are two different monsters, studios should know there’s a similar (huge) contingent of gamers that’d like low budget title. Low budget titles doesn’t mean low quality. If you need proof of that, look no further than the countless indie developers and other standard titles that have found great success with not even a 1% of the budget. Just like mindless popcorn flicks, sometimes all a gamer wants is just a regular game, not an over-produced blockbuster. But game studios are very risk adverse. The common excuse is that the physical production and release costs is not worth it, especially if it flops. That and they’re pushing gaming more to the digital front. Regardless of the chosen avenue, companies are missing out on a sizable potential market. They already have a dedicated segment of gamers on lock (and potentially more). Gamers like me aren’t going anywhere. This is no excuse for developers to become complacent and produce cookie cutter crap. But it could allow studios and developers more opportunities to take new risks.
All said and done, something needs to happen with the heavy imbalance between budgets and the decreasing sales. I sure as hell don’t have all the answers but based on declining sales, the business aren’t just as clueless in some ways. Right now, there are more than a few lucrative opportunities and markets the game industry capitalize on they’re just ignoring or frankly how no clue how to. But I just hate seeing the traditional console market suffer from their inability to stick to basics and not take advantage of an already, dedicated fan base. Like the saying goes: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And right now, there’s too much fixing going on.
What do you think people?
I love Mass Effect! It’s more like a mild obsession. Why? Simply put: Mass Effect is just the real deal, period. It has everything an iconic video game needs: an outstanding story, rich characters depth and development, snappy fun gameplay mechanics, and it’s a visual high mark. What really grabs me is that it’s not your typical high sci-fi tale. Actually, the scientific aspects help ground the game to a reality that couldn’t be too far off. And that’s what makes it that much more appealing. Yes, ME does borrow many elements from other notable franchises, but who hasn’t? Besides, the presentation is outstanding and the story easily stands on its own.
I packed away eight solid playthroughs in the first Mass Effect. It was wasily one of my most favorite gaming experiences ever. The story was epic, the level design was amazing, the combat was well-paced; everything just flowed smoothly. Even the flaws paled in regard to the overall experience. Sure, the bases of the side missions were the exact same design, but each missions had different objectives that altered the gameplay. And the proceeding DLC proved that, Bioware were really capable of giving up some great maps (see the Bring Down the Sky DLC). With Mass Effect 2 right around the corner, I was on edge.
Mass Effect 2 wasn’t quiet as….epic. I realize the aim of ME2 was not to be a carbon copy of the first. However, I still had more than a few misgivings that didn’t sit well with me completely. I know this will sound like a rant from some cranky, close-minded gamer complaining over minor details. But I do believe the series will be better if a few of these points are tweaked:
- Too Much Filler: I have no problem with the focus of the series taking a turn. What I do have a problem with is slogging through a game with a top-heavy roster of characters. 12 characters, seriously?! This would’ve been relatively awesome had the majority of them served any real purpose. Sure, Thane, Kasumi, Moridin, Zaeed, etc. were pretty cool on the surface; but there was no real character depth or development for them. They just felt like minor pieces in a much more important story. I wasn’t able to develop the same emotional attachment as I did with the original Normandy crew. Even some of their respective side-missions felt lifeless and unconvincing. This could’ve been a stronger game had they locked the team down to a more manageable size with a mix of old and new members (preferably Legion, Jack, Miranda with Tali, Garrus). This would’ve allowed more time for deeper character development and interactions. For example, they could’ve expanded on the story with Tali’s missions and further more when Legion entered the picture. Or they could’ve built in a more involved story between Jack and Miranda. This would’ve opened up richer storylines (and more succinct experience) instead of the generic one-off, personal missions that resolved themselves at the end.
- Shoddy Level Design: This is one of the biggest disappointments of the sequel. One of the biggest complaints from the original were the monotonous levels of the side planets. The main planet such as Ilos, Feros, etc. were spacious, open and seamless. Unfortunately, the levels here are relatively small and stilted. The maps feel like very narrow restrictive corridors for the most part. Another drawback is the horrible loading screens. I would have much preferred repeated dialogue between of mix of character than the bland, tip-riddled loading screen between sections. This also took away from the seamless feeling the original worlds in ME. Take Noveria for example, entering the complex, using the Mako to traverse the sub-zero winter landscape, and ultimately moving to Peak 15 for a crucial battle all happened (seemingly) in-game, no loading screen break-ups. There’s no map within ME2 with that sort of polish. Even vising the Citadel was a heartbreaker, a former lush open environment to essentially a room with a few hallways. Poor form Bioware, poor form indeed. In the future, at least give us the option for the bits of dialogue. The loading screen and confined maps were just a huge step back. And bring back the sprawling large maps.
- Misdirection: This is more a subjective tick, but it has merit. In short, I felt that some of the themes and perspective derived in the original take a different turn in the sequel. Is it only me, but in the first ME Cerberus elicited the aura of being a highly clandestine, Illuminati-esque organization no one really knew anything about or if they even truly existed. But in ME 2, it’s a complete 180. Not only is Cerberus well-known with a public emblem, they seem to have an active recruitment drive. They went from being the NSA to being the FBI. The same would be said for the Shadowbroker as well. For being such a shrouded entity in the first, the Shadowbroker’s presence was very apparent in Liara’s DLC. I was expecting a bit more engagement here, especially since he was connected to one of the decision points in the original. And while we’re on the issue of decision points, I really hope they serve a bigger role in Mass Effect 3. But I could be speaking prematurely as mentioned earlier.
The junior RPG nerd in me would like a return to the inventory management from ME1. But I understand the streamlined approach, it makes the game more accessible to more potential gamers. And quite honestly, the no-frills approach works. As a personal request though, I do hope there’s an option that allows for more inventory control.
All those issues aside, ME2 is a phenomenal gaming experience. Even though the presentation isn’t as grandiose, it’s a blast to play. And in the end, that’s really all we can ask for as gamers. In my opinion, Mass Effect is more about the overall experience. It has the rich stories and characters, lush open worlds, and significant battles. it was a the full package, flaws and all. Whereas Mass Effect 2, it’s more about the gameplay being padded through with some mildly entertaining bit characters. Ideally, if they could transfer the gameplay elements of ME2 into the original ME; then Mass Effect 3 will be a smash hit. Regardless of what happens, I’ll definitely be there day one, and so should you.
I was never a big fan of Halo.
Saying that probably invalidates any chance I ever had working for Bungie or Microsoft Game Studies (MGS), but so be it. Well…let me back up and clarify that statement. For many years, first-person shooters (FPS) weren’t my particular cup of tea. I just found the format too ‘restrictive’ and highly repetitious in its offerings. But that changed over the years as better games came along such as Quake, Call of Duty, Bioshock, and one of my top 5, all-time favorites, Half-Life 2. But I’m also not the biggest fan of multiplayer (MP) game modes either. Don’t get me wrong, I can do a good game of co-op play all day long. Borderlands dominated my TV most of Thanksgiving and Christmas last year. But standard deathmatch / CTF rounds lose my interest after 15-20 minutes. And let’s be honest: No one buys Halo for its riveting campaign; it’s all about the multiplayer. So what does any of this has to do with Halo: Reach? I’m getting to that; bear with me.
I first played Halo the day the original Xbox launched. While I enjoyed the game, it really didn’t win me over as a blockbuster title due to the bland campaign. In short, it wasn’t touching Half-Life 2. Yes, I realize they’re different games with their own merits, but that’s besides the point. Regardless, I still forged ahead with Halo 2 & Halo 3. Again, both were really great games, but still didn’t win me over. In fact, I was so turned off by the trilogy’s campaign that I skipped out on ODST completely. But then, Halo: Reach came along.
I picked Reach (limited console edition) for two reasons. One, I really wanted one of the new, slim 360’s. And two, I sincerely wanted to show support for Bungie’s hard work all these years and experience their final mark on Halo. Despite my indifference to the series, all the Halo games are top notch, quality products worth any gamer’s time, fan or no fan. Having completed the campaign and running the the multiplayer mode, I feel comfortable to weigh in my final verdict. Simply put….
Everything about it is just a vast improvement from my previous gameplay experiences. Bungie even managed to nail the campaign appropriately. It starts off a bit slow but once it kicks into gear, it really evokes a true sense of overwhelming despair and impeding doom. As a swan song, it’s very poignant, yet very fitting for Bungie. Similar to Noble Team fighting a war that’s already lost, the Halo franchise has grown tremendously and is showing no signs of decline. It’s essentially bigger than Bungie’s bandwidth. Like many successful creations, there comes a point where you have to let go and move on so it can continue evolving. But let’s get back to how awesome Reach is. To Bungie’s credit, they’re never afraid to incorporate new elements into their games. One of the most memorable moments from Halo 3 was taking on the Covenant Scarab. The seamless transition from ground combat, to hopping in a plane to disable the Scarab, and then scaling back to ground combat was simply incredible. But this time, Bungie went all out by dedicating a full level for space combat. And they actually did it well, the sense of speed, the combat audio, etc. It all just works perfectly. I wouldn’t be surprised if their next project is a vehicular combat game or has a heavy vehicular component. But let’s jump into the real meat and potatoes of Reach: the multiplayer.
Based on my previous sentiments above about MP gaming, my expectations were minimal. Having finished the solo campaign, it was time to jump into MP. Now I started playing at about 7:00PM Sunday night, my play session ended a little after 6:00AM the next day. That’s right, I ended up playing over 11 HOURS of Reach multiplayer. And honestly, the only reason I stopped was due to an important incoming call that day, I needed to catch at least a few hours of z’s. That’s how much fun I had and I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon. The type of game modes and customization aspects can be pretty daunting; but it’s worth poking around for some of the more interesting, user-created game types. Thanks to the great matchmaking system, the level of balance is perfect. Regardless of the game type or weapon loadout, you never feel you’re put at an unfair advantage. That in itself is one of the greatest aspects of this game. In spite of all its depth, practically anyone can join in, have fun, and perform accordingly. Side note: this quick tutorial is great starting point for MP noobs like me.
I would be hard pressed to find anything truly negative about this game. Most of my nitpicking is with the contents of the limited edition console, not the game. The console is a slick, flawless, shiny marvel. Everything else? Ehhhhhh. For starters, it only comes with component cables, not an HDMI cable. Common sense would infer that gamers who can afford a $400 system most likely have an HDTV as well, so why not include both types? HDMI cables aren’t expensive at all. Hell, I’ve even sourced HDMI cables in bulk within a few days at previous employer. Moving on, the wireless controller is pretty slick but comes with regular batteries. Way to be green Microsoft. Again, most gamers buying this system probably play Halo for extended periods of time. As such, I would’ve expect them to include some play-and charge kits or at the very least some rechargeable batteries (some of which are cheaper and last just as long). And it would’ve been appropriate had they branded the headset with the ‘Halo Reach’ logo as well. Again, I know it’s extremely petty, nitpicking on my part. But for a $400 console bundle and as a developer send-off for their flagship title, I’m expecting something with a bit more posh. And these are simply little blemishes that could’ve been avoided. Had I been part of their product team or supply chain group, this would’ve been produced more properly. 🙂
Pettiness aside, I take my hat off to Bungie for a job well done. But I really want say, “Thank you Bungie” for helping me gain a new appreciation for how great (& fun) this franchise really is. A lot of passion, sweat, and tears went into producing this game; and it clearly shows through. Excelsior job indeed guys! These are exciting time for both Bungie and gamers alike. It’s safe to say Reach will keep us preoccupied for quite some time. And for Bungie, they get to start with a fresh clean slate to create a new and even better intellectual property. But whatever it is, I’ll definitely be there front and center. Until then, I’m fine with playing numerous firefight & MP rounds while struggling through the legendary campaign.