Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Don't Be That Guy: Microsoft Building Bridges

Oh no, they're doing that other thing.

Microsoft has probably been one of the most talked about nerd topics over the past 48 hours. With its announcement yesterday for a next generation gaming console called "Xbox One", the much beloved company has injected the intersphere with healthy debate and carefully-worded critiques.

Now before I get into it, let me stress a few things. First of all, this is all a confusing mess of rumor, opinion, and spin. But Microsoft has been building up to this conference for months, and the fact that they gave such a poor showing (few really exciting game announcements and then horrible spin on policy issues they should have anticipated) makes you wonder what they were doing with the extra delay. Secondly, things might not be as bad as they seem right now, and--much more likely, considering how bad a bath Microsoft is taking over this--it is possible some or all of these problems might be addressed before the system's release.

So Microsoft's big reveal of Xbox One. Terrible name. Let's just get that out of the way. Xbox is the console brand, so when referring to the three generations of console, we're supposed to call them what? Xbox original, Xbox360, and Xbox One? That sounds dumb and not at all like a progression. The conference focused on non-gaming assets for the console, including an exclusive NFL partnership, interactive TV, and a Spielberg-produced Halo live action series exclusive to box users. That's pretty darn cool. But they showed virtually nothing exciting on the game side and only offered a vague promise for fifteen exclusive year one titles, eight of which will be new franchises.

Greeeeeat. Anyone thinking we're going to get at least three or four Gun Valkyrie? Decent games with wasted potential that will never be realized due to lukewarm sales, at best. Plus, with previous generations, each system had 15-20 games at launch, so having only 15 exclusives lined up for the first year is kind of weak if you figure than half of them are probably shooting for system launch releases. Especially when you figure in that the first year of a console's life is the best time to get exclusive titles on it. The longer a system is out, the more its age becomes a liability, and the more likely it is that developers would rather cross-platform.

Anyways, there's a degree to which we're all left waiting the next two and a half weeks before the gaming side of things is cleared up, but there are four steamy loads that have dropped this week, and they're creating most of the buzz around Microsoft and the Xbox One.

1. Always On

Microsoft is a bunch of lying liars who lie. First they confirm that there's no "always online" requirement to play games on the Xbox One, but then they turn around and say a connection is required ("daily" is the latest iteration) as part of handshake protocols to confirm your library. But requiring that you're online for any interval is the same as always on, because: A) the installation management system as described can't work without online verification; B) the primary reason to play offline is to avoid using the internet altogether, either because you don't have it or don't want to use it--Microsoft is thumbing its nose at all such players in this move; C) Microsoft is setting the interval for these mandatory online handshakes, which means that their system will dictate how often you need to be online and when. That effectively gives them control over when your internet is allowed to go down or otherwise be unavailable, as your connection going down close to the required check-in time means no Halo 5 for you.

Furthermore, Always On is really about the Kinect needing to be on and connected to your Xbox One at all times--always watching and listening. Forget the Orwellian implications for a moment. I don't want to have to get into a shouting match with my two year-old over what we watch because Xbox One has hijacked my television. That's not a service, that's a major handicap to anyone not living alone.

My son has trouble enunciating the word "Percy"

2. No Backwards Compatibility

The lack of backwards compatibility shouldn't be a surprise, but the fact that not even Xbox 360's top selling games will be supported sets a dangerous precedent when you consider Xbox One's other policies. It indicates they have no desire to allow gamers to use their products past the console's expiration date. In the case of previous generations of consoles, that's not a big deal--you could just keep your old console and game on it whenever. The stringent online handshake requirements of Xbox One as outlined so far, however, change all of that. Eventually, when Xbox Two comes out in six years, they'll start phasing out the server-side support for Xbox One games, and you'll never be able to use the old hardware again once they make that decision because a network connection is required. It's not like they're going to suddenly phase in a legitimate offline mode out of pure charity when they're about to release a new product, right?

Microsoft trying to out-jeffries Mike Jeffries

3. Mandatory Installs + 500GB Hard Drive

 Looking at the next gen of console games, a 500GB Hard Drive is a big fat joke, especially since the new system's physical architecture is non-modular. Even if you don't use your box to store video and music (and with the new concept of the all-in-one entertainment center, they really want you to download other media to your Xbox One), I'd be very surprised if next gen games used less than 20GB per installation. And that's before you start snagging the superfluous DLC that's becoming more and more common, or the huge save files attached to most console games. My Xbox 360 has several games installed on it, and they take up an average of 7GB--and that still relies on the disc for essential assets. Essentially, the combination of drive sizes and markups plus mandatory game installation means that you're going to have a cap on the library of available games you can use on your Xbox One. All this on a system that doesn't permit users to swap out the paltry 500GB drive means that, assuming an average game clocks in at 20-25GB installed, you'll be able to fit maybe twenty games onto your Xbox One before you have to start uninstalling things.

Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's CEO.

4. Secondhand Fee

Larry "Major Nelson" Hyrb said on his blog this morning that you get access to your installed games while signed into your own profile. So if you have Halo 5 installed on your machine but aren't logged in, you can't access it. (How is that for offline-friendly?) Also, the only 'potential scenario' for this fee that has come out of an Xbox rep is that a new game's secondhand fee would be retail. Retail! So if I get Call of Duty Recursive Ops: Collector's Edition and really don't like it, the best I could get on eBay would be $5 to $15 at best for the game, since anyone who got it from me would have to pay full price to use it. Otherwise, it's just a coaster. In a world where publishers are forcing pre-order and collector's edition bloat, this secondhand fee is going to damn gamers who do and who don't get games early. Either you pre-order and get screwed over by the Duke Nukem Forever and Aliens: Colonial Marines of the industry, or you wait and get screwed over having to pay a premium for pre-order DLC to complete the game experience.

Steve Ballmer is confused by the idiot masses and their misleading memes

The crux of the Xbox One as a gaming platform is the mandatory elements, and they've bungled it completely. The plan as outlined so far is vastly inferior to established, successful digital distribution models ike Desura and Steam, and instead of doing the logical thing and using discs as an offline handshake protocol, they're trying to set themselves up as a cable service alternative where every game is pay-per-install.

Now retailers like Gamestop will work things out with Microsoft, probably arranging for a mass markdown on their secondhand fees as part of the refurbishment process. But that deal, which Microsoft will bilk for whatever they can get, will result in a poorer deal for individual gamers who get stuck having to foot the bill on that deferred fee. That games aren't going to be permitted personally-initiated and arbitrated sales is ridiculous. Sure, they're going to have an as-yet-to-be-revealed service for exchanging games online, but I guarantee you that that service will come at some sort of premium, if only as a perk of having a paid membership. This is just another policy that is trying to Falcon Punch individuals and small businesses in the balls--any local retailer chains or rental places are going to get reamed by this policy, and I bet Microsoft won't care enough to work something out with them.

I really wanted to stick with Xbox on the new generation. I got the 360 early on for games like Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, Mass Effect, Dead Rising, and the Halo franchise. I want to keep riding the horse that brung me here. But right now I don't foresee myself buying anything but a PC for the time being. And for those of you kids who want to say something idiotic like "this is the future" or something like that. No. No.


Offline play does not mean you are a grognard or a pirate. It just means that if you're going to have a system in your house that aims to be the hub of your entertainment center, it had better actually work the way you want.

Microsoft has a lot of damage control to do before E3. If they're even neck-and-neck with Sony in terms of showing there, they'll have lost the next console war before it began.

In related news, Sony's stock got a 9% boost the day of Microsoft's terrible announcement, and Microsoft has dropped more than 1% in the same time-frame. Classic.

Microsoft: don't be that guy.

Also, if you think I'm harsh (and don't mind a lot of fuming f-bombs), check out Angry Joe's thoughts on the subject.

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