15 June 2013

Microsoft Should Change Their Xbox One Policies - But They Won't

UPDATE: As it turns out, I was wrong. Microsoft have indeed changed many of their Xbox One policies. We'll see in the long run whether it was the right decision.

ORIGINAL POST: This was an unusual E3, in more ways than one. It was the first E3 since 2006 in which both Sony and Microsoft had hardware on the way.

It was also Microsoft's best E3 in years. Yes, by itself Microsoft's E3 presentation was stellar. The company had no celebrities on stage, no dance numbers, no children trotted out to play with Kinectimals and despite some technical glitches the media briefing passed off with any major embarrassments. Phil Spencer did stumble when announcing the price, but that's understandable, there must be an incredible amount of pressure when you walk onto that stage.

Microsoft also avoided talking about entertainment or services to any great degree - as I've argued before, they spent far too much time at the announcement event dealing with that side of the console.

They promised games, and they delivered. Microsoft has a stronger lineup overall than Sony though of course that's an empirical observation; matters of taste and preference will come into play here, even so they had a great press conference but...

It's a hell of year Sony can announce that they're going to start charging for multiplayer (it will remain free on PS3 and PS Vita) and have a weaker overall lineup than Microsoft but still come away with an emphatic E3 victory.

Microsoft failed to address the valid concerns surrounding the Xbox One's internet connection requirement and used game policies and in the days that followed it grew worse. First there was Don Mattrick's comments that those with a poor connection, or no connection at all, could "buy a 360".

It then emerged that Microsoft had invited CD Projekt Red to their E3 media briefing without telling the notoriously anti-DRM Polish studio that they couldn't play their game - The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt - in Poland on Xbox One as Xbox Live will not be supported in the country upon the launch of the platform. Xbox Support has since ruled out the possibility of importing.

In fact, Microsoft's console won't work at launch anywhere in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe or South America (with the exception of Brazil). This means that advanced economies like South Africa, Portugal (strangely left out amid the Western European countries that will support the system), South Korea and Poland are all Xbox One no-go zones.

Yes, Microsoft will expand the system to many of these countries in time but it may be too late by then to make an impact. Sony has only confirmed that the PS4 will launch in Europe and North America this year, they haven't even spoken about Japan - their home market, the reasoning here is understandable however.

Microsoft dominates in North America, if Sony is to challenge that dominance they have to get the PS4 out around the same time as the Xbox One. In Europe, it's a different story; the PS3 is regularly the best selling console in the region. So it's equally important for Sony to launch the PS4 out in Europe early to maintain their market share. Sony's Worldwide Studios President Shuhei Yoshida has commented that Europe is "hugely important market".

Japan is safe for Sony. Granted, they're not launching there this year - an indication of how secure they feel - but the fact is there's little foreseeable possibility of Microsoft toppling Sony in their home market. Indeed, if you look at the comments of Microsoft's Adam Bowman the company plans to increase their market share in Asia with games like FIFA, Assassin's Creed and Final Fantasy - there's a flaw there, none of those are exclusive and Final Fantasy XIII on PS3 outsold the Xbox 360 version at a ratio of something like 4:1.

You have to wonder what Microsoft's thought process was when they created a console they knew wouldn't work in most of the world and it seems highly unlikely that the titles mentioned above will shift the balance towards the console in Asia.

Peter Molyneux has expressed his pessimism for both Microsoft and Sony at E3 but specifically called Microsoft's press conference "very unprofessionally done" and said that at moment he has no reason to be satisfied with the online requirement of the system, saying Microsoft has failed to explain its value. As a former Microsoft employee, Moleyneux's comments should most likely be taken with a grain of salt.

But he isn't the only one to call out the company in the last week. Paul Thurrott, the noted Microsoft tech blogger, said Microsoft had a "disastrous" E3 and needs to "fix" the Xbox One before it launches.

How? Thurrott believes they should essentially undo every major decision that went into making the Xbox One. Launch a $399 Xbox One without the Kinect sensor, remove the used game restrictions, scrap the internet requirement.

The difficulty is, such elements of the console are most likely built into the system in such a way that Microsoft would probably have to redo the whole thing; that would cost time and a lot of money. Console R&D is an extremely expensive process, you're likely looking at several hundred million dollars and while Windows 8 is struggling and Windows Phone is floundering the fact is Microsoft has to the cash to do, but making that commitment could delay the Xbox One's launch and that's not something they'll be prepared to do.

Phil Spencer, president of Microsoft Game Studios, has said the company's Xbox One policies are "definitive" and while he left open the possibility of adapting in future the reality is it's unlikely Microsoft will choose do to so before the system launches.

One of the most visible differences between Sony's press conference and Microsoft's was the scale of the indie offerings on display.

Sony's PS4 announcement event included Jonathan Blow's The Witness, running on PS4 hardware at E3, while their press conference featured an entire segment dedicated to the genre with the promise that indie games will be included in the PS4's instant game collection offerings.

Fez creator Phil Fish said it was "almost moving".

Microsoft's Xbox One announcement, in contrast, didn't mention indies at all and their E3 media briefing's segment dedicated to indies was much more constrained. Indeed, Notch bemoaned the fact that Microsoft choose to showcase Minecraft saying "They could do SO much more".

Why such a difference in the display of indie titles? Well, these are the two Microsoft policies that could most easily be rectified before the launch of the Xbox One and really, there's no reason why they shouldn't be.

Firstly; Microsoft charges game patch fees which can run to tens of thousands of dollars, Sony does not.

Secondly; Microsoft requires a publisher, Sony does not.

In fact, speaking to Polygon Ragtag Studios' Chris Cobb commented "It's been easier to get our game (Ray's the Dead) onto a Sony platform than it has been to get on Steam. That's how drastically things have changed these days."

The standalone version of DayZ, originally a mod for Arma 2, is set to be released on PS4 but may bypass Xbox One because of Microsoft's publishing and game patching policies. Similarly; Oddworld: New 'N' Tasty won't be coming to Xbox 360 or Xbox One because Microsoft requires a publisher, this is particularly damning as Oddworld Inhabitants helped launch the original Xbox with the exclusive title Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee.

Sony's open policies have paid dividends - since February, when the PS4 was announced, the number of developers working on the console has risen from 126 to 505. Most of those are presumably indies. While they won't change their Xbox One design decisions it wouldn't take too much to change their publishing policies.

All of the decisions Microsoft has made are flawed, but there is a logic to them. A logic they have yet to explain properly. They're a massive company and have the money to pull this around but if there's a reason to be concerned for Xbox, it's the company's sales' projections.

Yusuf Mehdi, senior vice president of Microsoft's Interactive Entertainment Business, is on record as saying the Xbox One and the PS4 could sell one billion units. They expect at least 400 million consoles sold. No matter where you stand on the next-gen debate those numbers are ludicrous and the perhaps represent the biggest sign that Microsoft are living in a different world to the rest of us. If you want a reason to be concerned about Microsoft that's it, even more so than their used game and internet policies.

I've spent most of this article lambasting Microsoft and I hope they do change course (they won't) but I've pre-ordered an Xbox One nonetheless - and I've pre-ordered a PS4 - the fact is, as much as we might begrudge Microsoft and the Xbox One it's going to entertain us and that just might be enough. Sony have done a remarkable job and have changed in some ways more than anyone thought they ever would even a few short years ago (just look at the how the decision to have 8GB RAM in the PS4 came about) but it's far too early to declare Microsoft dead, or even in trouble.

Sony won a flawless victory at E3 but they haven't won the war.

11 June 2013

The Best Trailers of E3 2013

The Order: 1886

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2

The Elder Scrolls: Online

Bayonetta 2

Batman: Arkham Origins


Metal Gear Solid 5

Halo 5

InFAMOUS: Second Son

Final Fantasy XV

Pokemon: Black and White 2

Mirror's Edge 2

Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag

Dragon Age 3: Inquisition 

Thief 4

Saints Row 4

And finally...

10 June 2013

Things to Look for at E3 2013: Part Three


In February, Sony announced the PlayStation 4 and last month Microsoft followed suit with the unveiling of the Xbox One. 

If you feel that none of the games so far revealed are enough to warrant splurging out on one, or both, next-gen consoles you might change your mind after the media briefings today.

Let's start with PS4. Every single one of Sony's first party studios is developing for PS4 and the console's lead system architect, Mark Cerny, has said the platform will have the strongest launch lineup of any PlayStation device. We haven't seen anything for PS4 from Naughty Dog or Sony Santa Monica to name two of the most prolific studios under Sony's banner. 

It's also expected that Guerrilla Games will announce The Order: 1886 for the console, what that is, is anyone's guess but it should make for an interesting change from the Killzone series. Second party Quantic Dream - who presented a tech demo at the PS4's announcement event - have also confirmed that they're developing a game for the console but given that Beyond is set to be released in October it's unlikely we'll see it at E3 this year.

Microsoft meanwhile has 15 first party games in development for Xbox One - the highest ever in production internally at the company. Eight of these will be new IP. It's possible we'll get to see more of Remedy's Quantum Break and Forza 5 today but they may decide to show other titles instead. 

According to rumours Microsoft are set to reveal Halo 5, while that may not come true - especially given that Halo 4 was only released last year - it seems likely that the Xbox One will launch with at least one Halo title, possibly Halo 2: Anniversary. There's been a Halo game every year since 2009 and there's no reason to believe that that will change now. 

Fable 4 is also most likely in the works for Xbox One, which might explain why Fable: Anniversary is an Xbox 360 game. There have also been rumours of a Fable MMO. Rare are also set to unveil an "historic" title at E3 which may be Banjo Kazooie or Perfect Dark. We'll find out later today.

Today we'll also get our first look at the PlayStation 4's design, notably absent in February. Hopefully, we'll also learn the size of the PS4's HDD. Both Microsoft and Sony should announce the price and specific release dates for their consoles today. On that front, analysts predict both consoles will cost less than $400 - substantially cheaper than the $600 entry fee for model PS3s. 

The Xbox One and PS4 are likely to launch between late October and the end of November, both companies have said they plan to release their systems this year. 

You can find part one of my pre-E3 posts here and part two here

Things to Look for at E3 2013: Part Two

Current-gen and cross-gen

Just because the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One are on the way later this year doesn't mean PS3 and Xbox 360 are faced with a drought; far from it, in fact.

Just this week Naughty Dog's seminal title The Last of Us launches and there's plenty more on the way besides. Both Dark Souls 2 and Final Fantasy: Lightning Returns XIII posters have been spotted around Los Angeles over the last week and both are being developed for current consoles. It's likely we'll have more info on both over the coming days.

Microsoft's Phil Spencer has said they'll have an announcement for Xbox 360 "that no one has guessed". Last week, Fable Anniversary was announced, an HD reworking of Fable: The Lost Chapters. It's not quite clear why Microsoft decided to mark the game's ninth anniversary rather than its tenth next year but even so, it's something to look forward to if you're not planning on upgrading right away to a new system.

Later this year Quantic Dream's Beyond: Two Souls will also be hitting PS3 and Sony Japan Studios' Rain and Puppeteer are headed to the platform as well. That's not to mention a little racing title you might have heard of - Gran Turismo 6.

We know Destiny gameplay will be revealed at Sony's press conference for the very first time and Microsoft's media briefing will likely included Respawn's TitanFall, which is coming to Xbox 360 as well as Xbox One.

Diablo III is hitting PS3 and Xbox 360 this August but if that's not to your taste Ubisoft's biggest titles, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag and Watch_Dogs are also hitting both current and next-gen.

Sports fans can look forward to FIFA 14, PES 14 (which is only coming to current systems) in addition to the usual cast of genre titles.

Battlefield 4, Call of Duty: Ghosts and Batman: Arkham Origins are being developed for current platforms as well.

There's a lot still in the pipeline for existing consoles and these are just a few of them. Even if the E3 media briefings focus on the next-gen versions of these games PS3 and Xbox 360 will still have plenty of games to look forward to over the coming year.

You can find part one of my E3 posts here.

09 June 2013

Things to Look Out for at E3 2013: Part One

Price cuts, price cuts, price cuts.

It's still a few months until the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One are launched and with sales of current systems stalling Sony and Microsoft need something to help bring in the cash in the meantime. The majority of PlayStation 2 sales occurred after the standard price dropped below $250 and while there might not be a repeat of that trend this time round dropping the price of the PS3 would likely spur at least some sales.

Both Wedbush Securities' Michael Pachter and Sterne Agee's Arvind Bhatia have speculated that the price of the PS4 at launch will be less than $400; if Sony announce such a price on Monday (even if it's only $399.99) there'll be added incentive to drop the price of the PS3, and quickly.

Past Sony price cuts have typically been met with a response from Microsoft although the Xbox press conference comes first so this time it could very well be the other way round. Regardless, expect reductions in the price of current generation consoles no later than gamescom in August.

The PlayStation Vita has, as we all know, consistently struggled and while the news that PS4 remote play on the portable is compulsory for all but a few select PS Eye based titles is welcome it probably won't be enough to encourage sales. A price cut might.

We know Killzone: Mercenary, Freedom Wars, Tearaway and more are coming to the system. While these will all most likely be fantastic games in their own right it would be an awful shame if they failed at retail because of the Vita's limited install base. By dropping the price, Sony might at least do enough that while those games won't perform as well as they should they'll nonetheless have a chance.

Of course, there's also Nintendo's platforms to consider. The 3DS certainly disappointed in sales terms upon initial release and the quick introduction of a lower price helped turn around the floundering platform, proving that while cost reductions aren't a surefire way to success they certainly can help boost a platform.

Since then the 3DS has gone on to be a roaring success however, the Wii U has failed to meet expectations consistently selling poorly and as bad as the consoles performance in North America has been Nintendo has had an even worse time in Europe which has fallen below Japan to become the company's most challenging territory.

While Nintendo of America is setting up demo stands in Best Buys across the country this week Nintendo of Europe has no such plans - in part because there are no pan-European game retailers - there's also extremely limited marketing of the console in the region. If Nintendo hope to revive their console's fortunes they'll almost certainly need more than a stellar first party lineup; they need a price cut and they need to start marketing and marketing on a massive scale.

Price cuts are usually implemented quickly and retailer often introduce them before they're officially implemented; if the big three announce such measures at their press conferences, or at the E3 Nintendo Direct, you should expect them to come in before the end of the week.

Not all of these consoles will see their price reduced, perhaps none of them will, but it makes sense for each of the big three to do so. We'll find out if they do over the coming days.