What Microsoft's ideas tell us about the state of game industry

Hello folks! The recent flood of hate towards Xbox One got me thinking (again). For a week or two the whole world has been fed latest ideas of Redmond's giant to be negatively shocked by pretty much every single one of them. Then, the whole buzz around it was mostly kicking Microsoft when it's down rather than adding something new to the topic. It escalated to the point where Microsoft was forced to back off. I'm gonna keep my critique to the minimum and try to focus on another aspect - why those ideas came to life in the first place. Just to clarify, I have never owned any Xbox and I am not planning to, so whatever I'm writing here is just an opinion of a bystander.

Companies as big as Microsoft don't base their decisions on the direction of the wind or eye color of the CEO's dog. They do market research. Lots of it. And when it comes to releasing products such as Xbox, they use every trick in their arsenal to make an informed decision. They clearly identify the problems and the needs of their current and potential consumers. While the choices they make based on this data can be outrageously wrong (and everything suggests that's exactly the case right here), the identified problems are often still there. Obviously, we don't have all the data Microsoft has, but let's try to get to reverse the process and deduce what were the reasons for them to try to beat EA in being the most unpopular company.
TV, TV, TV, Television, TV...
Fanboys and fangirls can argue to the end of the world, whether PS3 or Xbox 360 is a better console, but there's one element that Microsoft's console objectively lacked compared to it's competitor: a BluRay disc drive. Being able to watch HD movies without buying additional equipment is pretty sweet, and everyone knows that. MS guys didn't want to make the same mistake again. They didn't want to be behind the competition when it comes to the multimedia again, so they went all out. Controlling games, movies, television and what not with one piece of hardware, being able to throw away you remote and manage all that just with a gamepad that you love feeling in your hands. That's actually a really great idea. Just maybe as a bonus option rather than a key point of a whole game console presentation.

Another thing that could have driven Microsoft to this idea is the gamers behavior. I personally don't understand this, but a lot of my friends play their games while watching a movie or some TV series. I like to focus my eyes on one thing at a time, but apparently there are throngs of people who don't. Do they really want to do it on a single screen? Well, since 46" have become a standard size, gamers probably don't have much place for another screen anyway, so again - it kinda makes sense to give the players an option to watch TV or movies while playing on the same screen. 

Finally, let's look at the direction the games are going. Photorealistic graphics, strong story focus, gameplay elements looking closer and closer to a movie - if we draw a trend line here, soon we will be just watching movies with a gamepad in our hands, being prompted to press X once in a while. Since life expectancy of consoles grows, a company that thinks ahead might want to be ready to give us that - watching movies with a gamepad in our hands.

Sharing games
Or rather a lack of it. This is directly a result of the way the industry works right now. Players expect the games to be more and more visually stunning. To keep a production budget on the sane side, games are just made shorter. You could spend months playing Super Mario 64. You beat The Last of Us in a weekend. Players are less likely to pay full price for a weekend game, not caring that the title did cost a lot of money and that developers are now very often having a hard time to break even, not to mention finance another game. Combined with piracy, it grows to be a really major revenue problem for developers, resulting in closing many good, innovative projects in favor of easy to sell shooters or continuing franchises that should have died a decade ago. Is double-charging for the same game copy an answer? Not really, but the problem is still there.

You might hate the idea of not being able to share a game with your friend, but frankly - it's happening at the moment anyway. PC players love Steam - there's no game sharing there. On PSN, you can buy digital versions of the games for full price and you don't get to share them in any way either. Right now, over 50% of the games are sold digitally. Which means that over 50% of games on the market cannot be shared anyway, and the number still grows.

Yes - announcing that on your new console free game sharing will be impossible is like shooting yourself in the head but frankly - it's not that big of a deal since in the next few years box editions will most likely become just a small fraction of sold games.

Big Brother
The idea to have the console connected 24/7 results in a straight line from the approach they had to sharing games. It is clearly designed to primarily monitor what's been installed on the console and react accordingly. Microsoft tries to hide it, by focusing on how fun it will be if the console will greet you when you enter the room, but frankly - if I want the console to do that, I don't mind pressing the power button first. Being unable to play games while offline might be shocking to console players, but it's old news for PC gamers. If PC gamers can live with DRM, there's a big chance console players can adjust as well. Of course, this way of thinking is far from user-friendly. Let alone the fact that I personally find forcing someone to stay online morally unethical.

The chosen 21
In general opinion, Microsoft's current generation network services are rated higher than competition's. Sure, you have to pay for it, but it is more reliable and better supported - you know what you pay for. If they want to deliver a console that stays online 24/7 and keep the lead in network service, they need to make sure it works flawlessly. With great expectations comes great responsibility. They are perfectly aware that hacking communities are already flexing their muscles to have a bite on Xbox One network. Limiting the number of countries is most probably a tradeoff for the security. Obviously, the 21 countries were chosen by the revenue they can produce and that's just how business works.

Will gamers outside the chosen 21 love them for it? No. But what is the real damage for Microsoft? Countries that won't get Xbox One right away are ones with lower purchasing power. This means most consumers wouldn't buy the new console at the premiere anyway, sticking for one more year to the current gen, waiting for next gen to get cheaper and then, just as with Xbox 360, they would tinker with their consoles to be able to run pirate games on it. The small percent that would buy it right away would buy a PS4, yeah. In the end it is just about numbers - apparently someone in Microsoft did the math and concluded that the loss of market outside the chosen 21 is less dangerous than an unstable service.

A new day greets us. Microsoft backed off, but the situation on the gaming market didn't change. The problems still exist and they will have to be dealt with sooner or later. Most probably, the solutions will be just as radical as the ones proposed by MS, just communicated better. Again, there will be pointing fingers, but in the end, it's not only the greed of the companies that is to blame. Our choices and behaviors as gamers are even more relevant. We all expect lots of great games with stunning graphics, meaningful stories and hours of deep gameplay. Believe it or not, Microsoft's ideas - however outrageous they sounded - were aimed primarily at making sure there will be money to support these kind of projects.


How QTE makes developers lazy

Recently I'm reading a book called "The ultimate guide to video game writing and design". As soon as the introduction, the authors admit that "the book is not a contemplative work that is meticulously structured and certain of its conclusions", which is pretty much a complete opposite of "ultimate guide", but fortunately, it gets a bit better later. Even though the book is quite far from perfect, it shows quite well how the designers approach the design.

In early chapters authors emphasise the importance of gameplay as a narrative element, but a few chapters later, when they get to the point and list the storytelling tools that every game writer or designer has in his arsenal, they somehow focus on dialogues, voiceovers and cutscenes, forgetting the gameplay completely, but... that's how it is.

image stolen from Destructoid :)
It is actually pretty rare to see the story shown through actual gameplay. To do so, you have to consider a shitload of scenarios, where players just do something we don't want them to to. It's just so much easier to make the puppets on the screen move the way the designers or writers want them to. So the most common approach is: let the player shoot some random things between the checkpoints and then just feed him some more story. Even the biggest and best titles we all cherish did it. If you look at Final Fantasy VII, popularly voted the best one in the series, it also told 90% of the story with long cutscenes and dialogues. It is still one of the best games of all times.

This approach worked fine for quite a long time. But people started to get bored with so many dialogues and cutscenes: "Hey, let us play already!". The western gamedevs solved the problem right away with an option to skip cutscenes, the eastern ones often kept sticking to "watch the damn cutscene, we are telling you the story" a lot longer. And then came the savior of the decade - Quick Time Event.

stolen from http://cenaf.newgrounds.com/
This smart little thingy was a literal and metaphorical gamechanger. Developers no longer had to hold back with the length of elements that didn't engage the player. It became enough to script in mindless button mashing when the scene got too long. Apparently, the players are happy to watch a chunk of pre-scripted series of actions if we only let them to press a button once in a while. If they succeed, the game goes on. If they don't, they need to try again.

Some would argue that QTE has let us express a lot more in games. We can make the character do pretty much anything and the player stays engaged. We are not limited to the number of buttons the gamepad has with our actions. The character can jump, climb, swim, shoot, turn wheels, dodge, smash barrels... Anything we want, with this marvel of situational controls.

I happen to completely disagree. Immersion is when we forget we have a gamepad in our hands. When we just become one with the character. When we know our moves so well that we don't have to think what we are doing anymore. We are not thinking "Press X to jump" - we are just jumping. Being constantly prompted on the screen is just plain annoying - it's like the game knows that it failed to teach you the controls, so it's constantly providing you with a live manual.

Let's analyze the 2 most common gamepads - they all have 8 action buttons that are commonly used. They have Select/Back and Start, usually reserved for accessing menus, but that can be used for pretty much anything. They have 2 sticks that can be pressed. They have directional buttons that get used more and more for stuff other than walking around. It makes a total of 16 various actions that can be done with pressing a single button. Not to mention that by combining 2 buttons (pretty common) we can make our character perform another 120 actions. That's a lot. Frankly speaking, the 8-16 base buttons is more than enough for 99% of the games out there.

Look at Journey - you jump, fly, slide, run, activate pictures, open gates, communicate with other players, power up other players, replenish your energy... All that with just left stick and 2 (!) buttons! And there's no prompt there after the quickest tutorial ever, you have no QTE to make these 2 buttons do everything you need, you don't need lenghty cutscenes or dialogues to tell the story.

Sure, in some cases QTE might be fun and "on spot", but let's face it - most of the time it is just a lazy way to pretend there is some kind of gameplay in moments when there is none. The mechanic itself is quite primitive and has nothing to do with immersion. There are two main uses for it. One is helping the player sit through a cutscene or dialogue - useful, when the cutscene or dialogue aren't engaging by themselves or when the developers need to resolve to loads of cutscenes to tell the story they can't convey through gameplay. Second is to make the player character perform actions that are outside the basic controlling options - useful when the designers haven't thought the controls through.

Whenever you see a QTE in a game, think for a moment, what the developers would have to do to still engage the player without this trick. What if Square, instead of adding QTE in XIII-2 decided to ensure the story makes sense? What if Capcom never heard of QTE - maybe Resident Evil would still be a survival horror instead of a cutscene-heavy action shooter?