The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

July 12, 2007

Console Check-Up: Microsoft

Filed under: Games — Tags: , , , — Brian Lutz @ 12:58 am

If you’re a gamer, it’s that wonderful, magical time of year where  you get to reenact the old “Kid in a Candy Store” routine of your childhood, only this time, hardly anyone is actually allowed to go to the candy store, none of the candy is going to be available for sale for another three months, and most of the kids just sit around having pointless arguements about whose candy is going to be better when it actually does come out.  Yes, it’s time for E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo (such as it is now that it’s been reduced significantly in size.)  Over the past couple of days, the big three in the console business (Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony) have presented their keynotes illustrating their upcoming plans.

 Last October, a few weeks before the PS3 and the Nintendo Wii made their debut, I made a number of predictions about what strategies the major console makers were following with their machines, and where I thought they would ultimately end up.  My predictions for Microsoft and Nintendo can be found here, and my predictions for Sony can be found here (note that the links go to a message board post, since I was not blogging anywhere at the time.)  With E3 providing a convenient opportunity to check up on things, and a look at what’s coming up from each of the Big Three, will take a look at how my prior predictions  have panned out so far, and how things look in the future.  First up is Microsoft.  Posts for Nintendo and Sony will be posted separately within the next day or two.

I have to apologize in advance if I happen to come across as being a bit cynical about this.  Lately, I’ve been a little bit sick of video games in general.  I’m not entirely sure of why this is, just that I haven’t really seen any games worth getting for a while now, and that my consoles have sat mostly untouched for several weeks at a time lately.  My tastes in video games do tend to run outside of the mainstream (the message board I link to for my predictions above is dedicated to 2-D shooters, a largely forgotten genre with a small group of devoted fans,) and I also tend to have little interest in online multiplayer in games (I suspect that I could get the same experience by hanging out in the hallway at the local Junior High between periods, which doesn’t sound all that entertaining to be honest.)  In short, I could probably be best described as a finicky niche gamer, which means that I’m probably not going to have any interest in a lot of the big-name titles for any given system.  That said, on with the show…

(Before I proceed with this, a brief disclosure:  I currently work in a contract role at Microsoft, albeit on a team that works on a product completely unrelated to Xbox or any of Microsoft’s other gaming products.  As such, I have no inside knowledge of anything going on with the Xbox team.  This is completely my own opinion.)

Back when I made my predictions (linked again, in case you missed them the first time,) the Xbox 360 had already been out on the market for nearly a year, so we already had a pretty good idea of where they were headed, and what they planned to do.  For the most part, the Xbox 360 has shaped up as expected, with a few blockbuster titles (Gears of War proved to be a big seller, and Halo 3 should follow suit) driving a major chunk of sales.  It also looks like Microsoft’s Japanese RPG strategy has failed to make much of a dent in the competition there (Blue Dragon managed to sell reasonably well initially, but sales fell off quickly, and Trusty Bell/Eternal Sonata doesn’t look to be burning up the charts either.)  At this point, I think it would require a miracle (something on the order of an exclusive Final Fantasy title) for the Xbox360 to be much more than an also-ran in the Japanese market.

Other items worth noting that were mentioned in my predictions included Live Anywhere and XNA.  I’ll talk a bit about Live Anywhere first.  What was originally touted as an extension of Microsoft’s online games platform to mobile devices and the PC seems to have largely fallen by the wayside, to the point that there was no mention of it (except in the Games for Windows Live context) during Microsoft’s E3 keynote.  The intial implementation of GFW Live in Halo 2 and Shadowrun has been a disappointment, and looks to have been rushed.  The Vista only requirement certainly hasn’t helped it out any either (but that’s a topic for another post later on.)  With PC gaming being in a long steady decline for some time, it’s nice to see someone trying to bring it back to the forefront, but I’m not sure if this is the right approach.  As far as XNA goes, I still haven’t had a whole lot of opportunity to mess with it (I had the beta on my system at one point, but I’ve been unable to install the RTM version of XNA Studio due to an unidentified problem resulting in an installation failure) but I can still see the potential here for anyone who is willing to go through the trouble of figuring it out.  The $99 per year cost to be able to run XNA programs on a 360 is a barrier to entry (psychological, if not financial) to a lot of would-be developers though.  I also feel that Microsoft hasn’t done enough to promote XNA to people besides its core group of developers (most of which are probably working on the full devkits anyway,) and as such they have allowed it to fall by the wayside to some extent. 

Another significant issue on the table for the 360 at the time my predictions were written was that of microtransactions, which proved to be a major hot button for a lot of gamers (see some of the other posts in that thread for examples.)  With a few exceptions (for example, add-on song packs in Guitar Hero 2) the issue seems to have largely fallen off the radar.  Sure, you’ve still got EA trying to nickel and dime their customers to death, but that’s old news by now.  As I said when I made my initial predictions, at that time I think people were still trying to push the limits of the medium, and determine what would and wouldn’t be tolerated by the customers.  It became clear very quickly that the customers weren’t going to have much tolerance for this, and most of the pay-to-play download content since then has come in the form of larger content packs in the $5-$10 price range.  I suspect that this issue is going to rear its ugly head again somewhere along the line, but for now it’s on the back burner.  On the other hand, the issue of the reliability of the Xbox 360 hardware has come to the forefront recently, with Microsoft ultimately extending warranty coverage to 3 years on the “red ring of death” scenario that has plagued 360 users.  In my case, I’ve been lucky that my launch day 360 continues to function just fine, but I do know people who have experienced hardware failures, and in some cases more than one.  Although nobody seems to want to provide actual statistics on hardware failures, it was getting to the point where the reports of hardware failures alone were enough to harm sales, so something was going to have to be done. 

That said, what does the future hold for the Xbox 360?  To be honest, I think it has become less clear now than it was last October.  Microsoft’s E3 press briefling was focused almost entirely on games due to be released before the end of this year.  While this is good from a perspective of showing actual product rather than vaporware, it also leaves gamers almost completely in the dark about what’s planned beyond the end of this year.  It’s already quite clear that Microsoft has a lot riding on the success of Halo 3 this holiday season, although games like Rock Band, Guitar Hero 3, Mass Effect and Bioshock should also prove to be big sellers as well (although to be honest, I’m not sure I’m going to bother with any of those.)  Unfortunately for them, I get the sneaking suspicion that the  “family” games they announced at the press briefing (SceneIt? and Viva Pinata Party Animals) are on the fast track to the bargain bin, and aren’t going to accomplish much of anything.  On the other hand, the upcoming lineup for Xbox Live Arcade continues to look solid, although some of the more anticipated releases seem to have fallen off the radar lately.  Microsoft has also made significant progress in bringing over IPs that were previously exclusive to Sony platforms, which should help in the long run. 

In conclusion, I think Microsoft has a reasonable, if not particularly spectacular (with a couple of exceptions) lineup of games coming up, and Halo 3 should ensure a merry Christmas for the people at Bungie.  How much of that will translate to ongoing success with the Xbox 360 remains to be seen.

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