Monday, June 3, 2013

[PRE-E3] Xbox One Impressions

Top-to-bottom: HAL-10000, a VCR, and the Xbox One controller.

In just one hour, Microsoft unveiled the Xbox One, the hot new shit that gamers will (or may not) want later this year. While they have opened the flood gates for their steps in the next generation, they've left behind some impressions - some good, mostly bad - with mainstream media and gamers, alike. Already, Microsoft has disabled comments on all Xbox One YouTube videos. That should paint a picture of how bad the situation is.

It's always great to hear about the wonders of what a new generation of gaming machines can offer, but we are entering dangerous waters with the concept of always-on (forcing you to maintain an internet connection, alienating the areas of the world that don't have immediate access to broadband internet), multi-media aspects (detract from the meat of the system, the games), and a multitude of others.

The eighth generation of gaming consoles are upon us, and E3 is not even a week away, where more questions will be answered (and unanswered). What do we know about the Xbox One? Well...

I love the controller so far. Moving the rumble motors into the triggers - "Impulse Triggers" - seems odd, but I'm sure it's not a game changer as Microsoft thinks it is. Is the big, glowy Xbox logo at top-center still the Guide button? Seems like it just indicates power. But. It is a refining of the 360 controller, and that is one of the most comfortable controllers I have ever held.

It looks devilishly comfortable to hold, and the weaving done around the edge of the thumbsticks show promise of tighter grip. The two center face buttons are no longer "Back" and "Start" (seems like they're not the only ones to do away with the "Start" button), but rather View and Menu. Menu does exactly what it sounds like it will do, but it goes a step further. It "could be used in scenarios such as bringing up in-game menus, showing video playback options and accessing commands on the console's user interface." The View button could "include viewing a map during a role-playing game, displaying a leaderboard in a first-person shooter and enhancing the navigation of the console's user interface."

While it's yet to be confirmed, it appears the Guide button is still in place at top-center, however, it seems out-of-range of my thumb (similar to the DualShock 3 and 4, where you have to lunge over the thumbstick to get to the PlayStation button). I won't be able to love the controller as one of my own - or disown it - until I get to hold one myself.

* * *

Currently turned off.
Expect a bright, red glow to come from the camera on the left when powered on.

The Kinect, while showing some great promise with the updated recognition, is getting some (warrented) security concerns. Originally, it's designed to always be powered on in a low-power mode, always listening to you; corporate VP Phil Harrison is quoted, saying "We’ve broken it down to five U.S. cents per day at the lowest setting" when it's in "a very, very low power state." This seems pretty scary, and with Germany's government condemning the Xbox One and Kinect, labeling it as a monitoring device, it would be best for Microsoft to do something about it, and do something, they have:

While saying "Xbox On" to turn on the system is nice - and an evolution of turning the system on using the controller - I don't like the idea of the mandatory Kinect always being on. Oh, you didn't hear? Yes, while the Kinect comes with every Xbox One, it is mandatory for the system to function.

"By having it as a consistent part of every Xbox One, game and entertainment creators can build experiences that assume the availability of voice, gesture and natural sensing, leading to unrivaled ease of use, premium experiences and interactivity for you." - Xbox One Q&A

That seems fine and dandy. When something comes with the system, it is assumed by the developers that this is a piece of equipment you will have, and can build around it. This very issue plagued the Xbox 360 when it first launced, when one SKU did not contain a packaged-in hard drive. Developers could not make their games that required the use of a hard drive (which later changed with some games). This changes when you include the equipment in the package. I can expect a lot of images around the time of the Xbox One's launch to show people putting cardboard boxes over the new Kinect, showing how freaked out they are of the thing, even though you can turn it off.

* * *

I like it how the system looks. It's not as eye-catching as the 360 (and even the 360 S), but it looks like an absolute beast. While it may look like an 80's VCR unit, it does look like what it is: a powerful machine. It's not as powerful as the PS4, but still, you're splitting hairs at this point. The physical design won't win any beauty pageants, but neither did the original Xbox. It's a self-loading tray - similar to the Wii U and PS3 - with Blu-ray support (years after the official defeat of the Microsoft-backed HD-DVD) and has a multitude of ports on it. USB 3.0, HDMI in and out, ethernet, IR, optical's there. Unfortunately, looking at the system brings up some questions.

That's a USB 3.0 jack, with
the eject button on the right.
NBC News
First off, the only video out port on the system is HDMI. Microsoft just alienated everyone that doesn't have an HD TV with HDMI. You'd be surprised how many people don't have a TV like this. Looking at the pictures, I do not see any "legacy" jacks for component/composite video sources.

Secondly, there's an "IR In" jack. Why, exactly, is there an IR jack on this system? Does this mean there isn't an integrated IR receiver on the front of this system? For a home console that plans on taking over your TV, it's pretty shameful there appears to be the need for external IR blasters (which allow your cable remote to talk to the system; the same reason why, for your fancy, Harmony remotes, your PS3 required an IR dongle).

What it does...well, this is where things get dicey. It includes a 500 GB, non-user-serviceable hard drive. They compensate the lack of a non-removable hard drive by supporting external storage devices via USB 3.0. While half a terabyte is great for on-board storage - and external storage support is wonderful (coming from Microsoft) - the issue is when it shits the bed, you need to send it to Microsoft, or buy a new one; you will not be able to replace it yourself.

The system runs three (3!) operating systems at once, which is pretty gnarly: the Xbox OS runs the games, then the kernel of Windows 8 powers the apps (Skype, Hulu, etc.), and a third, a hypervisor, allows the two to talk to one another. Think of the hypervisor as like Parallels or VMWare Fusion software, which allows Mac OS X to talk to the virtualized Windows OS. I've never thought of something like this being done for a gaming console; if we were asked what we wanted in a gaming machine, we'd have answered "more power" without thinking of the possibilites (that's right; I went Henry Ford on your ass). Seeing as we haven't gotten an answer from Sony on how the PS4 does it's magic, I can only presume the PS4 has a bevy of operating systems running, allowing the seamless multi-tasking we saw back in February.

Left-to-right: Power, HDMI Out, Optical Audio, HDMI In, 2x USB 3.0 (stacked), Kinect, IR Out, Ethernet.
Credit: James Martin (CNET)

* * *

Ever since Don Mattrick's mouth uttered "Xbox One", people have so distraught over the idea that "One" indicates a step back. Remember back to about eight years ago when "Xbox 360" was bestowed upon us; gamers gave Microsoft shit because itz 'Xbox 2', guyzz!! "One" indicates a rebranding of the Xbox name, and considering the deep integration with SmartGlass, Windows 8, Skype, TV services, it's appropriate. It's an "all inclusive, all-in-one home entertainment" machine.

The Xbox One isn't so much as a dedicated gaming console, but more of a home theater PC (HTPC). Yes, it plays games, but it also acts as a cable box bridge that allows you to watch your subscription TV through the Xbox (Comcast/Xfinity is the only service confirmed for the system, but I can expect fiber and satellite services to have an appearance), as well as the existing music and movie libraries available on the Xbox platform. It really does include a lot of media - hell, every branch of digital media - and that's why the name makes sense.

Probably the worst sounding of the nicknames for the X1.
That's right: X1. Deal with it.

I understand the importance of a name; it's your name. The Wii and Wii U suffered a lot when first announced, and they still do. Well, the name "Wii" suffers from pent-up idiots who still make dick jokes 7 years later, despite it's resounding success. The Wii U name suffers in a completely different way, as people don't realize it's a new system. However, a horrendous lack of advertising, and the wrong advertising, is what's making Nintendo suffer. Unfortunately, "Xbox One" has merit, and is different in the right ways - as opposed to adding a letter to a made-up name - that makes me feel that consumers will be able to realize a difference.

* * *

Microsoft showed one game: Call of Duty: Ghosts. They mentioned another game, Remedy's Quantum Break, and gave us a teaser for it. Ryse and Forza 5 was announced, as well. I understand the pre-E3 conference is to get awareness about the system, lay out the stuff we may not care for, and get into the fun stuff at E3. Yet still, you could've slipped in another game or two, but, they did say there will be 15 exclusive titles to the Xbox One within it's first year, and 8 of those are brand new franchises, Quantum Break and Ryse being two of them.

This is what your Xbox One games
will look like on the shelf.
What else can we expect, between launch and the one year anniversary? Other than the announced, there are 6 slots to fill. Microsoft has Halo, Gears of War, and Fable as their properties, so I expect Halo 5 (next fall), Gears of War 4 (spring/summer), and Fable 4 (summer/fall) on the system. Down to 4; where else can we go? Microsoft still has Rare, so they could bring in a new Banjo-Kazooie and Perfect Dark, but both of those left bad tastes with Rare fans, so if they're working on new games, they better have something worth while.

Branching out to third parties, Microsoft may be cooking up something with Square this go around, to potentially battle Sony's exclusivity with the new Final Fantasy for the PS4 (rumors are, it's a reskinned Versus XIII as Final Fantasy XV as a launch title), however, we did get something very close to that on the 360. Remember how poorly Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey did, despite the fantastic pedigree behind it? They may avoid that altogether.

Predicting games for Microsoft is difficult, as they have enough cash to throw around, they can make anyone develop a game for enough zeroes on the paycheck; pure brute force gets "exclusive" content on the system. This is backed up by Microsoft investing $1 billion dollars into financing studios and exclusive games. They also have fantastically weak first-party support, which make Sony and Nintendo more viable for supporting their own systems. What Microsoft needs are new franchises, and I hope that these eight new one's will be just as popular - and fun to play - as the ones Sony was able to establish for the PS2 (Sly CooperRatchet & Clank) and PS3 (UnchartedInfamous).

* * *

The Game Marketplace is also seeing some organizational restructuring. Firstly, there are no more channels: Indie, Games on Demand, Arcade games...they're all under the "Games" moniker. Now, this doesn't mean discoverability is out of the picture: there is still going to be search and catalogue functions. I can only hope there will still be a section for "Indie" games, but considering Microsoft's stance on self-publishing, it's doubtful this will make an appearance. Not allowing the indies to self-publish is a huge problem, which forces the little guy to team up with the The Man.

Seems nice on paper, but could further push indie games further into the black hole that is the Marketplace.

For those of the uninitiated, self-publishing is when the creator of a work - book, album, game, film - chooses to publish the work themselves, without needing an established third-party publisher to do so. They end up handling the design of the work, the format (physical vs digital), distribution methods (if digital, iTunes, Google Play, Amazon; if physical, their own online store, established retailer, etc.), price, and marketing. This sounds like a lot of work, but ends up being incredibly rewarding once accomplished. By saying "no" to self-published works, developers are forced to go through an established publisher to handle all of this.

This not only causes headaches with the indie developer, where the rights to their IP may be stuck in limbo, but it also doesn't mean they get all the money they deserve when publishing their games. Sure, indies may go the route of going through a publisher - which can supply financial support, right down to distribution - but every other console manufacturer and distributor (PlayStation 4/Vita, Nintendo Wii U/3DS, Steam) allow indies to self-publish. Despite the ability to not self-publish, Don Mattrick assures us they're "going to have an independent creator program... There's no way we're going to build a box that doesn't support that."

However, this doesn't apply to "indies", but established developers, as well. Remember Turtle Rock Studios, the fine men and women behind Left 4 Dead? They were bought by Valve, but almost instantly snuck away, intact, as an independent developer. They would find trouble publishing games on the system. A team as established as Turtle Rock could not publish as themselves without going through Microsoft, Activision, EA, or another established publisher. This is a huge issue, a lot bigger than what it appears so on paper; everyone from your basement development team to an established team is affected by this. If the publishers do not want to publish, your game isn't showing up on the X1, and this could very well be Microsoft's way of "thinning the heard" of games they feel are "less-than-stellar".

* * *

Credit: Ruben S.
Now, the way Xbox One handles your games is a little tricky. The games have a mandatory install - much like the PS3 in it's early years - but can be played during the installation, essentially from the install start. Once installed, you do not need to insert the game into the drive; the Xbox One, rather than caching to the hard drive (similar to the PS3 and 360), rips the .ISO of the game from the disc to the hard drive, allowing you to play from the drive. Going a step further, once installed, these games are tied to your account, and you have free reign over the digital option in the Marketplace.

This is fantastic news, and something that Steam has done since it's inception. Sadly, there is a ton of people bitching about this, that the game is tied to your account. They adorn Steam with trinkets and treasures and royalties, so if you're on a new machine, you can just log into Steam and re-download the game. Then, when a home console manufacturer does it, it's the worst fucking thing imaginable.

Unfortunately, there is some merit behind this bitchery. Home consoles, since 2005, have had a $10 upsurge in their prices, and blamed on "premium content." This is absolute shit, because you can find the same games, with the same content, on the PC. These same PC games on Steam have delectably fantastic sales, many of which give us a handful of games for great prices. When was the last time you saw a Steam-esque sale in retail stores that wasn't a fire sale? Never.

When it comes time to sell off your game, that's where we hit a black hole with Microsoft's PR team. I won't bother to detail the rumors and he-said/she-said bullshit since the conference, so let me get straight to the "official word," from Kotaku:

New games use a license key, and, once authenticated with LIVE, that key is null-and-void (much like PC gaming, and a step back for console gaming, honestly). If you want to let a friend borrow it, they can use the same disc, but require to pay the full-price (or, quite possibly, the going rate of that game at that time on LIVE). Major Nelson tells us your friends won't have to pay that price, as long as your account is signed into their Xbox One; you can just download/play the game at will.

Unfortunately, we hit a wall with the "letting a friend play." When you get back home and log into your account, once the internet check comes into play, your friend's temporary access to the game is revoked, and will need to cough up full-price of the game to play. Although your friend can play while you're logged in, I can see this being abused greatly. If you trust your friend enough with your account, you can give him your Windows LIVE ID creds, and they can log in to your account, allowing them to continue playing the game you let them borrow. This is the only way around the "pay for the game you're borrowing" mandate, and one that can easily throw a wrench into Microsoft's shiny new engine.

Your friends will see something very similar...

When you want to sell the game, the easiest way to go about it is to revoke your license of the game through the Xbox One, which will allow someone else to authenticate that game with their account. Since you are the former owner, it's likely you will be given a new key to hand off with the game once sold. That, or the games are serialized, and once put into the new Xbox One, LIVE will see the license was revoked, and reassign it to your system. I don't like the idea of having to pay full-price for a second-hand game, especially for those that are "borrowing" the game. I would like to see a smaller price associated with the second-hand games' activations, or lower game prices altogether (more on this soon).

Now, there's talks of Microsoft dipping their hands into used-game resellers, and taking a cut of the (ridiculously lucrative) business of used games. Resellers - Best Buy, GameStop, Amazon - would need to sign up with Microsoft to allow Xbox One games to be resold, and the publisher/developer getting a cut of second-hand game sales. I have absolutely no problem with this; I want the creators of these fantastic experiences to get their dues, rather than retailers making stupid-high profits off of the creators, without them seeing any more profits from these games. This "additional cut" into used games could very well (and should) lead to lower prices of the games at retail, lower forecasts of development costs, but could lead into some nasty waters if price-fixing on the used games rears it's ugly head.

Goodbye, Online Pass!
Hello, used-game fees!

This is most likely why EA has done away with the Online Pass bullshit. Regardless of your stance, it's enjoyable that a company as diabolical as them have decided to do away with the pass; not just on Xbox, but PlayStation, as well. Now, don't get too riled up, because this could lead credence to a large(r) fee in place for second-hand games. The Online Pass was put into place to earn extra cash from pre-owned games; if the Online Pass was activated - something that comes with brand new copies - you had to pay roughly $10 to be able to play online. By doing away with this pass, this tells me the fee for to play second-hand games completely is anywhere between $10 and full-fucking-price.

My saving grace, since 2010.
I'm a big GameFly user, and have been for more than 3 years. These hoops that Microsoft has laid out for us to jump through could very well cause major headaches for GameFly. With publishers getting a cut of used games, I would like to see a drop in prices at retail. Larger publishers/developers could drop their games back down to $50, while smaller companies who bank on larger price tags, could - and should - lower their games' prices, and get even more money back during used game sales. I've always felt bad buying used games on sale through GameFly, as I knew my money wasn't going towards those that made the experience I just enjoyed. Forward thinking will make us believe the subscription costs of GameFly could also see a hike, if Microsoft dabbles into their wallet.

The business model of "casual" mobile games - being sold, on average, between free and $5 - is changing people's perspectives on the value of a game. Apple changed how we perceive the value of a song, or the value of an album. Before the iTunes store launched, songs weren't $0.99, and albums weren't $10. They were more expensive, and pricing wasn't consistent. While pricing is fairly consistent with games, it's far too high for an impulse buy, something that is rampant in iOS App Store and Google Play. Cheaper games would lead to more people buying them, but you cannot argue that the reduced price in games is nullified when more people buy it.

Let's say a new game launches for $50, instead of $60, and in week one, a million people buy it. Not counting for retailer/distributor/publishing costs, the game pulls in $50 million dollars (derp). If the game sold at the higher $60 price tag, let's say 85% of that one million bought it (850,000); the higher the cost, the less likely more people will buy it. That's $51 million dollars. In theory, you make just as much with a smaller price tag, but it also would entice more to buy the game, resulting in more copies sold. The higher the price of the game, the harder it is for the customer to perceive value in that price. You make just as much money, and even more people are buying it, experiencing what you have to offer.

* * *

Now, the largest pill to swallow from the reveal is the lack of backwards compatibility. Both retail disc games, and Arcade/Marketplace purchases, will not transfer to the X1. Why? Well, gaming systems are evolving towards the x86 enviornment (and away from PowerPC, something the Wii U uses, and just about every console since the GameCube), which makes dedicated game consoles more like PCs. If you recall about halfway through the 2000s when Apple was going to use Intel-based chips in their new Macs; they used to be on PowerPC. This caused some headache with Mac users, but ended up making the Macs much better at their job, and more viable for those on the fence of switching from Windows. This makes compatibility with older systems nigh impossible, without porting/remaking the game (or streaming it, ala the PS4 and Gaikai).

Wave bye-bye to all of your old games!

I enjoy the aspect of backwards compatibility, and have used it over time. I can understand physical games not working, but when you tell me my entire catalogue of digital games will not work is devastating. When it comes time to soothe your fanbase, you shouldn't be so blunt about the ability to play previous generations of games. If Don Mattrick, the head of, what is essentially, the entire Xbox division at Microsoft, tells you "If you're backwards compatible, you're really backwards," then there is a serious disconnect between corporate and the masses.

I understand why my games won't transfer, but that doesn't help soften the blow. Your average gamer, your casual gamer, mom and dad, grandparents...they're all going to draw the same conclusion I'm laying out right now: when I upgrade my iOS device, all of my information carries over to the newest device, including my games. Why don't my digital Xbox games transfer to the new system? The moment "system architecture" leaves your lips, they immediately shut down and don't want anything further heard.

Backwards compatibility is vital to the platform. It allows your investment to thrive in a new system - something that couldn't be done before the PS2, simply because of proprietary cartridge formats - and adds significant value to the new platform. If you buy into a new system that doesn't support your old games, that means you need to hang on to the old system - ineligible to sell off - and continue to support two ecosystems. Since Microsoft knows the 360 in and out, they know exactly what needs to be done to support emulation of those games on the X1.

* * *

Microsoft has introduced one major feature that is most likely going to be bundled into Xbox LIVE Gold: the TV overlay. This would be absolutely destructive to the Xbox One, considering, from a sales perspective, it's tough to sell a subscription to utilize your subscriptions (insert obligatory Yo Dawg meme reference here). I fought hard to sell Xbox LIVE memberships alongside Xbox 360 systems if they weren't on sale. People hate having to pay for Xbox LIVE Gold just so they can use Hulu or Netflix or any other media-streaming service. It's also incredibly poor taste to make you pay for an Xbox Music subscription on top of Xbox LIVE Gold. It's shocking how long they've gotten away with this, especially with the price hike not too long ago.

Sony, on the other hand, has PlayStation Plus, which, other than the things they include which are ridiculous (cloud saves? Auto-downloading system updates? These are paid features?), they offer up an instant access to older games, and serious discounts on others. This is the Amazon Prime of video games, and Microsoft needs to get in on this yesterday. Adding something like this would make Gold memberships much more easy to sell. Removing the need to have Gold to watch Hulu or Netflix would be fantastic, and don't you fucking dare make us pay to use the cable bridge.

I love the fact that the number of servers jumped from 15,000 to 300,000 (a 2,000% increase; when LIVE first launched, there was only 500 servers, making it a 60,000% increase for Xbox One), which is probably where all our money has been going all of these years. These extra servers have also been promised to utilize cloud computing, which have been promised to lead to better lighting and enhanced physics. Let's just hope this isn't fluff, and some bullshit excuse to mandate their equivalent of DRM with a consistent 'ping' to the LIVE servers.

* * *

Seen: Phil Harrison basking in Peter Molyneux's glow.
Not seen: The pile of hair that Peter just shaved off of Phil's head.
Credit: Jon Jordan
Phil Harrison fucked up recently, by saying the One needs to connect to the internet at least "once every 24 hours". The Xbox PR team instantly backtracked on that statement, just like the Adam Orth debacle. However, Wired cornered Phil in an interview, and tried to get more out of him. This is what he had to say:

Phil Harrison: Let me try and clarify what is happening. 
So, there is a lot of anxiety about “what if my Internet connection goes down” and you don’t have connectivity for a period of time. There are a host of features which will be usable without an Internet connection — watching movies, playing certain single player games… all of which will operate offline. We expect most of the more advanced experiences, like online multiplayer games, or games which have a lot of connected features… those games won’t operate if you don’t have an Internet connection. We designed the system to take advantage of a connection to the cloud, and all that that means. But no, it’s not required that you are connected all the time, every second of every day. 
There is some technology about how often, or how frequently the device has to ‘ping’, but that has not been… we have not talked publicly about that yet, but it will be very user-friendly. 
Wired: So are you saying that there is no function of the machine which checks in with Microsoft to see whether the player is still authorized to use the games that they've bought — there is no user validation check, or any sort of DRM function?
Harrison: We haven’t announced the details of that today, but like I said, it will be very user-friendly. 

This statement tells me the Xbox One will operate in the same regard as any other system has in days' past: offline content doesn't need an internet connection, but once you want to do something that does, you'll need that connection. Unfortunately, Phil's sauntering answer is abruptly thrown into a pit of magma when he ends the whole goddamned thing by saying "we have not talked publicly" and "we haven't announced the details of that" about the DRM side of things, but promises it'll be "very user-friendly."

I'll call bullshit until Microsoft comes clean, which I hope is at E3.

* * *

Call me a sucker, but I enjoy the TV overlay. Considering my Comcast DVR and on-screen guide looks like a baby shit all over it, this is welcomed. There's some issues, though, and Microsoft has not answered any of these questions, presumably because they don't have answers quite yet. It's only confirmed to work with Comcast/Xfinity, and they've only talked about an on-screen guide.

Will there be DVR support? How about other providers? Is this going to packaged with the Gold subscription? Will there be a "traditional" remote to use with the TV, or am I going to be forced to talk to it? Will there be a need for external IR blasters (considering the aforementioned "IR Out" jack), or will there be a built in sensor? While One Guide seems it'll do well visually, there's a lot of questions that Microsoft still won't answer. Seeing as how far the Xbox 360 evolved over it's (soon to be) 8 year life span, the HDMI pass-through features could certainly evolve, but first impressions are always nice.

* * *

Even with all this, Microsoft is leaving a very sour taste amongst the majority of games. Look around the internet. Check out /r/gaming on reddit. Dive into a comment thread on Joystiq or the Verge. Hell, look at a status update from your gamer friend to see their disdain. It's everywhere, and this is definitely not how Microsoft needs to start off their next-gen, especially with the core crowd. The aftermath of Microsoft's conference shows that gamers are cynical assholes. Give us great, next-gen technology that we'd never think it would ever do in the industry, and we bitch about the things that may not really be an issue. It's important to express your anger and frustration before a product lanch; it's a way for the manufacturer to step their game up and launch on good terms. If they don't do anything to try and calm the nerves of those complaining, they'll continue to speak out against the product, by using their wallets.

I leave you with two GIFs that have appeared on the internet that sum up what's been happening since that fateful day. Less than a week to go for E3; Microsoft really needs to turn things around, and E3 is the best place to do it.

Se7en a little too dark for you? Try on Animaniacs, instead: