Thursday
Jun202013

E3 Aftermath

I’ve been waiting for Microsoft to change their tune ever since the Xbox One conference back in May. I was shocked when they came out at E3 Day 1 with the same hard-line policy in regards to their digital management and region locking. It figures that it wasn’t until I started to write my first E3 summary did they decide their stance and do a complete 180. It seems Microsoft had reached panic status due to poor public reception and reports after E3 of the PS4 leading the Xbox One in console pre-orders by a ratio of 4:1.

For those of you who missed it, the changes are as follows according to Giantbomb’s Patrick Klepek who broke the original story:

- No more always online requirement

- The console no longer has to check in every 24 hours

- All game discs will work on Xbox One as they do on Xbox 360

- An Internet connection is only required when initially setting up the console

- All downloaded games will function the same when online or offline

- No additional restrictions on trading games or loaning discs

- Region locks have been dropped

The biggest points are the 24 hour online check-ins that eliminated people with poor or no internet ability to even use an Xbox One. The second is the region locking restrictions have also been dropped.

These two changes have the biggest effect on Microsoft’s potential global market presence as the original launch market only included 21 countries. Notable exceptions include Portugal, Poland, most of the Mediterranean states, and almost all of the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

In essence Microsoft had originally planned on forfeiting markets in those countries to focus almost entirely on North America and Western Europe, which only make up about 50-60% of the global console market. This also highlighted peculiar situations such as Witcher 3 developer CD Projekt Red who is based in Poland, and would not have been able to play their game on the Xbox One at launch, even if they went so far as to import that system from another country.

The removal of the 24 hour online check-in was another hindrance to developing market share because there are still many places even where a strong internet connection may not be readily available, especially in developing countries and even in locations in the United States.

While their revised policies make previous claims that their original DRM scheme was unalterable very contradictory, this has really leveled the playing field for this holiday season’s console wars. This shifts the focus of E3 back to the actual games.

All three companies had a large focus on exclusive games, with Nintendo actually coming out ahead due to a very strong first party lineup. Nintendo desperately needs to take advantage any possible weakness from Sony or Microsoft after weak sales of the Wii U during its first year on the market. Below is a list of all the games announced at E3 and its corresponding system.

Rumors have cited a November 21st launch date for the PS4 and with no official date for either system there is still quite awhile until the new console launches. I’m still waiting for some kind of Sony counterpunch, especially after the recent PS3 update that caused system crashes for a small amount of owners. While Sony still seems to have a slightly more convincing combination of product and message, it’s still an open field as we get closer to a new generation in gaming.

Friday
May312013

TCG Quickstrike

TCG Quickstrike

 

Everybody is always looking for the next big thing. There have been several big genre cycles as certain game types fall in and out of favor. Most recently we have seen the pervasiveness of first person shooters like Halo and Call of Duty. Currently MOBA’s lead the way with League of Legends and DOTA2 creating a new space in esports with streamed tournaments exceeding 200,000 concurrent viewers regularly. There have also been smaller trends such as the tower defense gold rush seen on Android and iOS or the revival of the ARPG with the release of Diablo 3, Torchlight 2 and Path of Exile. This brings us to a new trend as three major developers try to reinvigorate the modern trading card game. The three new online TCG’s are Blizzard’s Hearthstone, Mojang’s Scrolls and Hex from Cryptozoic, they all entering beta this summer with possible releases in time for this holiday season.

 

For years the TCG scene has been dominated by Magic the Gathering. There have been a few competitors such as Yu-Gi-Oh, the Pokemon TCG or Decipher’s Star Wars and Young Jedi games, but none have had the lasting impact of Magic. Yu-gi-oh and Pokemon lacked depth and were largely written off as child targeted tie-ins to the larger brand and Decipher’s games faded away due to their small base and market self-cannibalization.

 

The current environment has become stagnant as smaller competitors such as Shadow Era and Ubisoft’s Duel of Challengers continue to ape MtG’s online game. Meanwhile there have been a lot of complaints about Magic’s online client and their prohibitive pricing schemes have caused a lot of potential players to look elsewhere. I’m going to do my best to give you a quick preview of these new games as they try to bring a spark back into the TCG genre. To be as fair as possible I’ve chosen videos from the developers to explaining the basics of the game followed by my thoughts and critiques. I would also like to note that Scrolls is the only game I have been able to play first hand as Hex and Hearthstone are still in alpha or closed beta testing and I haven’t been lucky enough to get access to them.

 

Hearthstone

This seems to be the juggernaut of these new games because despite being developed by a relatively small team at Blizzard. They are banking that tying this game in with their Warcraft franchise will create an instant fan base and audience for Hearthstone. Another benefit of this tie is they can create an immediate familiarity with many gamers while also lending a unique flavor game play with their hero based deck system. While WoW subscriptions has recently fallen to just over 8 million, if even 5% decide to try out Hearthstone the game will probably be considered a huge success without even figuring players coming from other sources. The trademark Blizzard ‘Technicolor’ cartoon art style is also carried over, although I feel this is worst looking game out of the three. Blizzard really seems to be emphasizing the casual nature of this game, and while I’m sure they will take the standard Blizzard attention to detail when it comes to balance, combined with the visual style this may turn away more mature gamers somewhat like the DOTA2 versus League of Legends split.

 

Hex

The irony of this game originates from Cryptozoic being the developers for the physical World of Warcraft TCG and World of Warcraft co-creator Kevin Jordan serving as lead designer for the RPG elements of Hex. That being said Cryptozoic has by far the most experience within the TCG genre and as seen from their Kickstarter video this game already features a high level of polish. They are also calling hex a TCG-MMO promising a horde of PVE content such as questing and guild creation as well as customizable champions, gear, and even a talent system. For better or worse the game play mechanics are almost identical to Magic. At the time of writing this game has crushed its original Kickstarter goal of $300,000 with backings of $1.4 million with 7 days left to go. The overall aesthetics of this game are gorgeous; there is a tack-sharp graphical fidelity that is really evident when compared side by side to Hearthstone and Scrolls. This game promises to offer the most depth of the three, but my one concern is their economic structure. One of the biggest turn-offs of Magic the Gathering is the price of acquiring new cards. Looking at the rewards for certain levels of backing on Kickstarter, I am immediately reminded of the hundreds, maybe even thousands of dollars spent on boxes of booster packs. If this doesn’t deter you, pledging at least twenty dollars before their Kickstarter funding period ends will grant you access to the beta when it is released later this summer.

 

Scrolls

This is one of the three new first party games being developed by Mojang, creators of Minecraft, as they try to expand their lineup of games. The art style falls somewhere near Hearthstone without a lot of the distracting shiny effects that seem to deter from the game play. The most distinctive feature lies in Scrolls’ ability to leverage digital technology to enhance their game. Immersion has always been sort of a buzzword around games, but by transforming cards into actual models when they are played they can actually breathe life into the cards and subsequently the game play feels more active and approachable to a casual viewer. This leaves you wondering why the other games are still recreating a shallow facsimile of cards upon a tabletop instead of embracing the freedom of a digital environment. They also are embracing a more friendly business model where every card and booster will be available through gold that is earned at the end of every game, meaning that aside from the initial purpose it will be possible to acquire every card by simply playing the game. They will also have a shard system allowing people to pay money for cards if they choose to. The only issue Mojang seems to have somewhat weak marketing as information seems to flow more sluggishly from them in regards to development. This is why the best video demonstration for Scrolls comes from Minecon 2012 over six months ago, while Hearthstone has their regular Fireside Duels and Hex demoing their game on Twitch as well.

Tuesday
May212013

Xbox One

Microsoft just finished their conference announcing the Xbox One, successor to the Xbox 360 releasing this fall against competition from Sony’s PS4. I’m just going to give my thoughts on their presentation.

Here is a link to a side by side hardware comparison for Sony and Microsoft’s next gen platforms.

 

First, I want to say overall I was immensely disappointed with this presentation. Compared to Sony’s PS4 announcement earlier this year, it felt like a lot of fluff. It took them 30 minutes to even acknowledge new games on the platform, and when they did, the continued to trot out the old same sports and fps games. With all the EA, NFL, NBA and fantasy sports attention, I’m worried about the positioning and targeting of this device. The presentation was filled with sensational numbers like 5 billion transistors and Xbox servers having more computing power than 1999 (wtf?). But before I get too negative, let’s take a look at the strengths of this presentation.

 

Pros

 

-         Xbox integration. What they are calling the Xbox OS based on a Windows core gave a glimpse at their most enticing feature, a true living room media box. The speed at which users can switch between internet, TV, movies, music and games is a real forward thinking symbiosis of content that can be tailored to best suit the individual users. With the “instant switching” and Kinect driven motion and voice controls, this really feels like the Jetsons future that people dreamed about 20 and 30 years ago. There are still a lot of questions that need to be answered about usability, like how will people input and control Internet Explorer and customize settings with just gestures and the new controller.

 

-         Xbox One controller. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Xbox controller, but the improvements to this new controller over the current 360 pad have me intrigued. The D-pad seems notably improved, and the texturing on the thumb sticks leaves me to think there will be more granular and precise control. I’m also hoping that they continue third party support as the 360 pad has become the de facto gaming pad for PC (something Sony could take a cue from).

 

-         Xbox Live. While there it still remains to be seen if Microsoft will continue to hold the use of your own internet at ransom through annual purchases of Xbox live, this looks to easily be the strongest social hub of next gen consoles. They are going way past simple twitter and char integration in order to make their system feel current and connected both to your friends and larger world events.

 

-         Clout. Admittedly this is kind of nebulous, but Microsoft is making a strong push on a variety of platforms as seen by their announcement of a Halo TV series (which really doesn’t have anything to do with the console) and working with leaders such as Steven Spielberg. While this also means more Bing and IE in your face, all the different tie-ins will have more pull than Sony who seems to be more focused on pure product development.

 

-         Connectivity. USB3, built in Wifi and HDMI in from cable box seems like a general improvement of modern appliances that will help the Xbox One function as a media hub.

 

Cons

-         Graphics. This was the biggest reminder of the diminishing returns on graphic fidelity with each new generation. Both the Xbox and the PS4 will already be a generation behind their PC counterparts, and the wow factor that occurred with the jump from 8 to 16 bit and later polygonal graphics just simply isn’t there. I’m not saying the games look bad, just that the improvements are much more subtle, even reaching into the uncanny valley as seen a few times during this event.

 

-         The box. I know it’s just a case, but the physical appearance of the Xbox One is incredibly underwhelming. I think it looks like a big shiny cable box. It lacks the pure simplicity of compared to other high end devices and doesn’t have any distinctive characteristics other than the two-tone styling, which seems kind of out of place.

 

-         The name. Have they not learned anything from the branding failure of the Wii U? Quick, what do you call the Xbox that came out before the 360? Most people would say “Xbox one.” This is just more needless confusion. While I’m sure Microsoft will run a much better marketing campaign to try to prevent this, it is another uphill battle for consumer clarity. Theorized pre-event names like the Xbox Infinity feel much more unique and identifiable, while still capturing the goal of a pervasive media hub.

 

-         Used Games. Game discs will need to be installed to the hard drive and linked to a specific Xbox Live account before playing. This essentially kills the traditional used game market, but I think this is only a minor nuisance. PC gaming has been operating successfully under this scheme for a long time. Users will have the option of pay an additional fee to install the game to a different system/account, but the exact amount is yet to be determined. Console users are going to have to get used to no more used games whether they like it or not.

 

Other

 

-         Backwards compatibility. With a specialized CPU direct from Redmond, it’s not really a surprise there won’t be any backwards compatibility for the Xbox One. Outside of the original fat 60 GB PS3 and spotty compatibility on the Xbox 360, backwards compatibility didn’t really exist last gen either, so it wouldn’t be fair to criticize the One for not including it.

 

 

Finally, one amusing tidbit is that it seemss Microsoft will be paying royalties to both Sony and Nintendo for features on the One. The inclusion of Blu-Ray and a cross-shaped D-pad are patents owned by Sony and Nintendo respectively.  Now we can only wait and see if the inclusion of these features is worth directly funding their competition.

 

Edit: Here is a reaction from Adam Sessler of Revision3 Games

 Also Sony Stock is up 9% today since the end of the Xbox One event.

Monday
Feb252013

Burnt Pixel

Everytime Google releases a new product, there’s usually a little fanfare to go along with it. Many of Google’s past products have been forward thinking devices with the ability to change the way people think about technology. Their original Chromebook was meant to bring cloud computing to the masses with a portable and affordable way to satisfy everyday computing needs. While the Chromebook and Chrome OS may have not caught fire as intended, it was a prescient technological statement in a world where many personal computers have become relegated to email and Facebook machines.

 

Since the original Chromebook there have been a few iterations on its design, but Google’s new Pixel is a curious departure from those that came before. The design is stylish and minimalist while still maintaining specific design cues to separate it from Apple’s well known motif. The Pixel offers high quality features such as an SSD, in 32GB and 64GB configurations, and a 12.85” 2560x1700 touchscreen with a built-in HD webcam. The real head scratcher comes with the price tag,  $1,299.00 for the 32GB model. This is more expensive than a comparable Macbook Air or many Intel based ultrabooks, both platforms without the limitations of Chrome OS and a lack of local computing ability. The biggest oversight is the lack of a cellular modem, meaning that when you are out of range of wifi, your computing power is greatly diminished. The 64GB model priced at $1,449.00 does come with a built-in LTE receiver, but when your entire platform depends on web connectivity making users pay more for LTE just feels wrong.


 

One bonus feature that comes with the Pixel is one terabyte of storage on Google Drive, free for three years. This is a great idea to ease the burden of switching to the cloud, but is once again hampered by the lack of LTE on the base model, not to mention archaic bandwidth limitations that still plague the majority of internet users. While many Google products come out fully formed, it seems this device is more a half-baked tech demo that may have need just a little more time in the oven.

Monday
Feb252013

Next Step for Nintendo

You may be asking why so soon after Sony’s big PS4 announcement am I writing about Nintendo? The reason is as the shine fades away from the newness of the Wii U and we finally have concrete information about the Nintendo’s new competition, we can start to see the future of the console landscape take form.

 

While the Wii U was not able to match the same sales figures as the Wii launch, they did perform better compared to the PS3 and Xbox 360 launch. Nintendo also claims higher revenue over the launch period despite lower volume versus the Wii due to the higher price tag of the Wii U at $299.99 and $349.99 versus the original Wii’s $249.99. Recently, Nintendo has had to cut its forecast as sales plummeted after the holiday season. A Gamasutra source reported that the Wii U sold fewer than 100,000 units in January, and was outsold by both the PS3 and Xbox 360.

 

It is worrying just two months after launch, Nintendo’s new console is already losing against last gen opposition. This is even before we get to the potential problem of weak third party support and the perception of weak hardware that may reduce the number of console selling titles from making it to market in the future. At the end of the Wii’s cycle, more and more third party developers shied away from Nintendo’s console citing reasons of low sales, and difficulty porting games to the Wii from the PS3 or Xbox. Last week’s PS4 announcement showed off an 8 core x86 CPU and Radeon based GPU on the same die from AMD. Meanwhile the Wii U’s more unusual Power PC based three core setup has a lower clockspeed than either the PS3 and  Xbox 360 has led to some developers to say the Wii U is under powered. At the very least it highlights the difficulty third party devs will face when trying to port games to the Wii U. This problem will be exacerbated after the release of the new consoles from Sony and Microsoft. With the last generation of consoles having close to a 10 year life cycle, I believe Nintendo will be forced into a mid-generation hardware refresh in order to keep up.

 

Nintendo also has to contend with a branding problem where many consumers are still confused by the difference between the Wii and Wii U. Furthermore, there are frustrating inconsistencies that prevent some games from using old Wii controllers and peripherals for no apparent reason. This is also compounded by a platform strategy seemingly devised in an era before the internet in which every Nintendo system is treated as a different ecosystem, unlike Sony’s PlayStation Network that closely integrates account and purchases across the PS3 and Vita. There has also been news of a Sony App for Android and iOS that will allow purchases to be made from a smartphone, similar to Steam Mobile as well as the ability to play non-camera based PS4 games on the Vita remotely.

 

This isn’t to say it is all doom and gloom over at Nintendo. The 3DS continues to dominate the handheld market, with Sony admitting sales are well below expectations in addition to an announced price drop in Japan. Nintendo also has a war chest of around 13 billion in cash reserves, so they aren’t in immediate danger of being forced to go software only a la post Dreamcast Sega. Nintendo has also shown resiliency after initial 3DS sales did not perform up to expectation, and has since corrected those problems growing stronger and stronger since.

 

The next big date for all three companies will be E3 where Microsoft is predicted to unveil their next gen system code named Durango. It will be up to Nintendo to deliver something in order to counter these new consoles when these new consoles are relived during the next holiday season sales battle.

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