6/25/2013

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.


Wrap-up
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.





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1 comment:

  1. In my opinion Microsoft had some things with XBone done right (ability to share games with ten family members being one of them), but they really, really need to work on their PR. If instead od pouring oil into fire they stopped for a second to explain their point od view and how everything actually works, things might have been a lot different.

    I don't fully agree with comparing their vision to Steam. There are couple of factors to considder.

    First - prices. Especially their sales are amazing. Outside of Steam I can usually buy a PC version on launch for about 60% od what I would pay for console box. It doesn't hurt me then that I can't trade it away, since I haven't paid $60 and still got a hell of an entertainment. Small digression - most boxed PC games nowadays require Steam/Origin/UPlay/Whatever to install and play - that's the same thing Microsoft tried to introduce. Price is the difference.

    Second - online play. Steam has an offline mode and so do Origin and UPlay. Even Ubisoft - the one company that forced always-on in their single player games has backed out of the DRM. I don't mind single activation on install, which is standard now. If I have to confirm every day, that I purchased my copy legally, I'm being treated like a thief. Not nice, since I paid $60 for my copy. Microsoft didn't leave options. That's what's bothering me.

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