Tag Archives: Xbox

The future of Xbox is to copy Steam Machines

More to the point, the future is licensing.

As Microsoft has shown time and time again, they know how to observe a good idea and copy it. This tenant is core to the way Microsoft operates since its inception when Bill Gates used what he learned from working on Macintosh OS and replicated the idea for IBM machines running DOS. While the company has grown, so did its number of operating systems for different devices. PCs had their unique OS. However, so did Mobiles, Embedded components, Servers, MP3 players, game consoles, and more. But now – as CEO Satya Nadella sees the unification of OS code – the Windows 10 model returns Microsoft to a position of being able to offer that open-market choice for hardware manufacturers.

As the Xbox will be running Windows 10, surely this business will undergo a transformation. Xbox President Phil Spencer continues to emphasize the blurring of Xbox & PC gaming. It is widely accepted that the Xbox One’s hardware specs are well behind Sony’s PlayStation, and it is also understood that Microsoft was making them for nominal profit (although that figure comes from when the Kinect was included). As game developers become more adept at squeezing the most out of available tools for these nearly two-years-on-the-market consoles, the gap in hardware capacity is becoming more and more evident. Microsoft will be looking to avoid this embarrassment again in the future. Ultimately, the best way for them to indemnify themselves from blame is to share the responsibility.

Innovative gaming company Valve will be releasing its first Steam Machine in November of this year. Steam Machines are essentially computers running Valve’s specialized Linux distribution, SteamOS. These machines will require manufacturers to submit hardware configurations to Valve for testing and certification in order to receive the Steam Machine licensing. Valve’s idea is stupendous. It’s brilliant. It’s marvelous. It gives the consumer choice as to just how much he or she is willing to spend. Does the customer want a $500 box or a $2000 box? Complaints are minimized because it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. It provides Valve with licensing revenue. But alas, the business model itself isn’t patentable. And Microsoft will copy it for Xbox.

The embarrassment that was and is the Xbox One will never be repeated. Xbox gaming hardware won’t be second best again. A wealth of third-party hardware manufacturers will take the helm as new Windows SKUs will read something like Windows TV, Windows Xbox, or Windows Gaming. There will likely exist between 3-5 grades for these systems which will determine what settings, and even what games can run at what grade system. Questions do exist though. Will Xbox gamers be able to build their own hardware configurations for these SKUs? If not, are these machines intended to be user-upgradeable? Is it possible to swap graphics cards? Can RAM be increased? Or will one be forced to buy a new “Xbox” in order to improve the hardware? What other Windows features will be available within the OS? When will this change occur?

These questions are clearly being worked out. But whatever happens, the change will be good for Microsoft. They save themselves the trouble of R&D, manufacturing logistics, retail agreements, shipping arrangements, international-body political tribunals, supply chain creation, hardware support, along with other facets of selling and building both hardware and software. Thousands of jobs will surely be cut. There is also the matter of new revenue streams from collecting licensing, new subscription fees from users, accessories, and a constant stream of up-to-date hardware choices for the Xbox ecosystem. With attribution to Jon Stewart’s daily show moniker, Well played Mr. Nadella.

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Destructive Environments: Up in the Cloud

During Microsoft’s Build 2014 conference, one of many interesting projects demoed was a prototype game using both local and server resources. Displayed onscreen was, the intricate dismantling of a multi-story building. When one glass pane was destroyed by the operator’s industrial laser weapon, it would shatter into hundreds of pieces. These chunks of concrete would then descend through gravity before shattering into hundreds of additional shards. The demo, later revealed to be a very early build of the next Crackdown title on Xbox One, was demonstrated primarily to showcase one way whereby the Xbox One might supersede its competition on the graphics front. The disparity in performance between the DDR3 memory of Microsoft’s console pitted against the GDDR5 memory in Sony’s PlayStation 4 has been covered in the games media ad nauseam. But having just wrapped up Build 2015, Microsoft has yet to release a title for its Xbox platform with the demoed tech.

Prototypes can sometimes be misleading. So skepticism regarding Microsoft’s claims is understandable. But in this case, the skepticism can be readily dismissed as the enmeshing of local and server resources for gaming purposes has already been accomplished. Titanfall, EA’s multiplayer-only game, delegated real-time enemy AI to an Azure server. NPC spawning, movements, and clean-up was computed “in the cloud” & then pushed to players in real-time. Most importantly, Titanfall executed well. The game performs as expected.

While AI & destructible environments are two different components in a game engine, they each share underlying code. Spatial positioning, placement, and movement are traits both components share. The offloading of these computational intensive tasks to a more powerful server, which then distributes the values for anyone connected to that particular game session, is again a distributable concept.

This technology was examined over a year ago and has yet to show up again in any publicly available games – alphas, betas, or otherwise. So where is it? Perhaps it is in HoloLand, a narrow place where $2 billion Minecraft and $4 billion Nokia acquisitions reside.

Source: Polygon

6/18/15 UPDATE: E3 2015 has just concluded and this graphics enhancing technology is still MIA.

8/04/15 UPDATE 2: Crackdown 3 was finally revealed at Gamescom 2015 with this tech in tow.

After spending a decade on Xbox, I swapped for a PlayStation. Here’s why

One afternoon, my Colombian friend from high school put me on a journey that would last some ten plus years. We booked it to his house afterschool. With his mother fixing up the house, we were left with ample time before dinner. He had just gotten an Xbox and was anxious to show off some incredible games. There were a few options on the table but he was hyping FIFA, so we started with that. Needless to say, the Colombian schooled me in ways which reinforce the nation’s ruthless stereotype. With soccer competition devoid of any meaningful rivalry, he most generously offered up a cooperative experience found within a futuristic shooter, Halo. Within five minutes, I was hooked. A few months later, shortly before Halo 2’s release, I traded in my PS2 & purchased an Xbox.

Halo 2 was fantastic. The multiplayer support extended 3 years after the game’s release with downloadable content made readily available for the masses, free of charge. In fact, to continue playing the multiplayer, it was required that you download said content. This model made the community whole in the way one feels when looking at a cake prior to it being sliced and doled out. Halo 3 dropped the requirement to download content. The company reasoned they would no longer offer new content free of charge. This optional content model has continued fragmenting the community in all ensuing releases.

I’ve slowly watched the series many have grown to love disrobed, prodded, bled, quartered, and now hung. For years, I’d hoped that the incumbent studio in charge of the franchise would get it together. These hopes were in vain however. The studio’s greedy executives, namely Bonnie Ross and Frank O’Connor, have done every unfriendly thing a large corporation would do to maximize profits. Furthermore, rather than just raising prices, they have pursued detrimental courses of action which detract from the positive experience once associated with the series. For this camel, the last straw has been their fundamentally flawed, publicly misrepresented, and fraudulently advertised release, the Master Chief Collection.

By this point, you’re likely wondering, “Besides Halo, what else does the current Xbox have over the current PlayStation? The Xbox controller is universally praised as best-in-class, and rightly so. Xbox Live has a more robust server offering. There are also some additional applications such as ESPN, Comedy Central, and HBO GO. But… the PlayStation contains better hardware and offers more and higher quality free games every month. Additionally, applications such as Netflix launch twice as quickly. The system software also feels fluid and operates more smoothly than the Xbox OS. Did I mention more free games?

In summation, the Halo series’ inability to change leadership coupled with Xbox Live’s anemic Games for Gold program forced my hand. Do I miss my Xbox? Sometimes. Will Halo 5 be great? Maybe. But I refuse to wait on a company whose track record shows a singular trend of increasingly greedy policies. If Microsoft were to remove the cancerous elements at 343, namely Bonnie Ross and Frank O’Connor, I’d strongly consider returning to Xbox One. This scenario is doubtful, given that Bonnie Ross was recently promoted to a VP position in August 2014. As the Colombian idiom goes, colgó los guayos, or ‘hang the shoes’. The footwear is no longer needed.

A shorter lifespan for this generation of game consoles

This generation of console war has already been decided. When Sony and Microsoft both displayed their gaming consoles at E3 2013, it was easy to observe both jarringly different approaches. Microsoft was clearly aiming to evolve the living room into an automated hub. This new living-room relied on a freshly installed data center infrastructure to create a continuous flow of information between the people and their technology. It was and still is, a revolutionary vision of what is possible in the always connected world. Sony’s focus was on evolving what worked with game consoles in years passed. Perhaps, such an approach can be insightful to Japanese thinking. Japan’s tradition-based society is well documented in both literature and film. Both machines use very similar components from AMD in order to make cross platform development easier for third party developers. Despite nearly identical architectures, Sony’s PS4 includes one differentiator for relative purposes of game performance, the inclusion of DDR5 memory.

When game consoles process information, that information goes through a series of systems designed to deliver the information most effectively. Some steps in this system pass the information off to another step more quickly. One step in this system is DDR memory. The PS4 uses DDR5 memory which transfers at a maximum rate of 176 GB/s. Xbox One uses DDR3 at a maximum transfer rate of 68.3 GB/s. The Xbox also includes another very small buffer step (0.5 percent of total memory) which has theoretical transfer rates of up to 191 GB/s. This design choice is also insightful. It can be inferred that Microsoft’s mindset emphasizes the efficient transference of information between systems. Performance wise, DDR5 has a stilted leg up on DDR3.

Both companies have unique goals to accomplish with this generation of hardware. Japan’s Sony intends to upgrade the same experience we’ve known since last generation. America’s Microsoft ambitions lied with introducing a wholly new experience. Microsoft has already retracted from many decisions with this console based on consumer backlash. They have struggled with the consumer segment for several years and wanted to publicly grant consumers’ wishes. The problem here was the underlying philosophy with the Xbox One was never geared towards providing the consumer with best experience.

Xbox One was purposefully planned to help Microsoft flesh out new infrastructure and train programmers, who happen to be working on games. The idea of incorporating cloud systems into areas of gaming such as AI, lighting, or geospatial deployments can find roots in “doing more with less”, pooling resources, and good logistical flow of information. The consumer was a secondary consideration here, and money which could have spent on DDR5 memory was used instead to build a few additional servers in Microsoft’s new data centers. The noticeable differences in memory performance are minimal at the moment. But as game developers better harness the power of these new systems, the disparity in quality between games will become more easily discernible. The effects of this will likely be a shorter hardware generation for Microsoft.

Rather than the 8 years between the 360 and Xbox One, a lessened timeframe before the arrival of Microsoft’s next living room hub should be expected. In five years, broadband speeds will have doubled or tripled & UHD televisions will be mainstream. A demand for a console which can take advantage of these leaps in technology will echo consumer forums from the US to Japan. Microsoft will have exhausted less resources than Sony by this time and would have a more viable justification to build anew. Also accountable to decisions this go-round will be better trained developers and the infrastructure to support cloud-based computing for a decade or two out. Sony will retain good brand image amongst consumers but will have done little else in the way of future proofing the company’s other interests or better training programmers for other industries.

Halo DLC: How can 343 Industries save face, increase sales, & generate higher profits?

BRAND IMAGE

When corporate leadership of established community followings stop treating their loyal faithful as fans, and as just consumers, said corporations lose fans. For example; Star Wars & Star Trek. Star Trek holds multiple annual conventions with much fanfare. Not that individual vendors don’t profit, they do. But these conventions exist as means for directors, producers, actors to reach their fanbase. This community outreach is the reason why Trek fans were designated with their own name. As for Star Wars, George Lucas got rich off selling lunch-boxes and action figures. It is also the same reason why he’s received scathing criticism over the years. If only he’d have paid homage…

My most beloved video game series, Halo, is going the way of the latter after eliciting so much love from an ever-growing fan base. Said admiration peaked during the helm of Halo 2, and has been on the downward ever since. The community has been fragmented time and time again from piss-poor management decisions which originated in a corporate culture pooled by then-CEO Steve Balmer.

The fragmenting factor is the impact of optional “map packs”. See in Halo 2, every few months the team at Bungie, creators of Halo, would release downloadable map pack with additional multiplayer maps. Initially $2 or so, the maps would be made available free, a few months after release. When the change in price occurred, the maps would then be obligatory if one wanted to continue playing online. People loved it.

Halo 3 reversed this trend by making majority of the map packs optional. While not a make it or break it event, it was a slight annoyance and viewed as a cash grab by many. Playlists still contained a healthy selection of about 8-10 maps per playlist. Halo: Reach, the next refresh in the series, followed a similar pattern. Map packs were paid and optional, while the number of playable maps per playlist was reduced to 5-7. The most recent release, Halo 4, completely trashed fans with a detestable 4 maps per playlist. Paid downloadable content was released, however, the optional maps were available to play for only a brief few months.  And while the $30 season pass was to cover all future map packs, an additional paid map pack was made available outside it’s purview.

It’s appallingly gut-wrenching as fan to see something fun turn into a nasty corporate gouging. Such nasty pilfering conjures up feelings of anger, resentment, and disgust. Perhaps masochists like such interactions with the company which provides them entertainment. I am no masochist.

Others share this sentiment as well. On a prominent Microsoft news site, one of the blogs’ writers once included a blip in his signature that read:

“Halo – 24/7”

After the asinine map pack was released on top of Halo 4’s season pass, that portion of his signature was removed.

ECONOMICS

But if they’re raking the cash, who cares?

Well the answer here is that this situation is one where they can have their cake and eat it too.

For every map pack release, Halo 4 was averaging about 3,500 players playing at any one given time. Allowing for fluctuating time zones, at most let’s say 15,000 copies for each of the four DLC packs (limited edition bundles included) was sold. At $10 apiece, that’s what, 600K USD? That number doesn’t even incorporate royalties owed to MS for selling through the Xbox Live marketplace. For time’s sake, let’s just use that number…

Is 600k worth the diminished brand image?

Halo games have been selling at least 4 million units.

Just think, what if the next Halo game were to tick on an additional $10 for every copy sold ($70 vs $60) for unilateral access to all future and obligatory map packs? No, not codes. If you have the disc, you can download the DLC. Let’s see, 4 million multiplied by 10 is forty million, as in dollars. As in, instead of pocketing a measly 600k and fragmenting the player base, there would exist no fragmentation and a $40 million cash infusion for the studio (no percentages to MS either as the DLC is free).

Inflation happens. People still buy food. Food prices increase. However, stores don’t sell corn by the kernel. Maybe a very small subset of the store’s shoppers can afford the corn in such fashion. But the vast majority can’t. Much of the store’s inventory rots even though the store is making some additional dollars by implementing that pricing structure. The store could sell all its corn and profit more under the conventional pricing structure. Again, the prices have gone up, but the structure remains.

Halo is not some ninny poo-poo franchise. Those four million units would still sell at 70 apiece, justifiably, with future DLC included.

Alas, as sound as my logic is on this, I would wager $10 it never happens. Would you?

My rant, analysis, and proposed solution for both the fragmentation and financial concerns with relation to the well-established video game franchise that is Halo can be considered purely informed. Any suggestions that this would not work should be taken with suspicion of malicious intent on part of the naysayer.