February 20th, 2013. Like a seismic earthquake rocking the New York terrain, the Sony press conference in the Big Apple sent shockwaves throughout the video game industry. In revealing the details for their forthcoming PS4, the Japanese juggernaut effectively ushered in the next-generation of consoles on the worldwide stage – the event was said to be watched by millions online.
On the other side of the gaming spectrum, the residual aftershocks were felt at Microsoft, too, who have witnessed their once unparalleled grip on the gaming audience to be slipping of late. In fact, the Playstation 3 is now outselling the Xbox 360 on the global market for the first time in six years so, undoubtedly, Microsoft has a fair bit of ground to recover before the leap to next-gen.
Now, we’ve all read the industry murmurs concerning the next Xbox. Always online. Backwards compatibility and Kinect 2.0 are all entities that have been floating about the gaming sphere recently, with Microsoft remaining mum about pinning any of the aforementioned rumours down. And that’s the thing. Sony let the cat out of the bag back in February and surprised everyone with the introduction of the Playstation 4, but all has been quiet on the Microsoft front – well, unless your name is Adam Orth.
At the time of writing, the all-but-confirmed event on May 21st is the first clear ray of hope for Microsoft fans that the industry titan is finally ready to unveil the Xbox 720 in some capacity. A point worth noting, though, is that multiple sources have said that the event will be much smaller in scale in comparison to Sony’s grand announcement – which points towards a proper reveal at this year’s E3. Speaking of which, the Electronic Entertainment Expo is creeping up, fast. And given the delicate nature of the current console market – which many attribute to this generation’s longer-than-average lifecycle – this year’s E3 may just be the most important exhibition in years.
As gamers, we are standing on the verge of the next generation, casting our collective gaze towards all the glitzy tech and innovative hardware lighting up the horizon. It’s an exciting time, but one that Microsoft must seize in order to reinstate the company’s place in the gaming community. So let’s dust off that crystal ball and start prophesising because, let’s face it, speculating about upcoming consoles is all part of the fun. And in Microsoft’s case, here are some of the attributes that I think will allow the company to establish a firm presence at E3 and next-generation’s console market in general.
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1 ) Silence The Rumours.
Deal with it. Three words that single-handedly poured ice-cold water over any next-gen excitement that Microsoft had garnered. Adam Orth’s infamous tweet, acting as part of his social media outrage, initiated a strong backlash from the Xbox community. The arrogant quip from Microsoft’s creative director started off as a Twitter tirade and then, as the instantaneous nature of the internet would have it, snowballed into a public meltdown that didn’t reflect too well on the company’s reputation. In fact, in the subsequent aftermath of Orth’s contentious statements, the industry titan was silent on everything and anything related to Xbox 720. Rather, they merely brushed the issue aside with an apologetic statement and remained distant from their loyal fan base. This disconnect is in direct contrast to Sony who, on the back of the PS4 reveal and GDC, have witnessed a groundswell of support from both developers and consumers for their new machine.
It’s strange. Really strange, actually. Considering that Sony, bolstered by the unprecedented success of the PS2 – at over 150 million units sold, the console remains the best selling gaming machine of all time – the company fumbled the release of the Playstation 3 with a hefty price tag and lengthy production problems. In retrospect for Sony, the launch of their third iteration of console was far from rosy. Now, of course, this isn’t to say that Microsoft will repeat the mistakes of its chief competitor, but the studio is displaying a certain degree of arrogance in the run up to the Xbox 720.
As I’ve mentioned, their once unparalleled dominance in the gaming sphere has been undercut by Sony in this generation’s sales and, in particular, regarding the general buzz for the next-gen. To compensate, Microsoft need to put these rumours to bed. Granted, their event on May 21st will most likely provide an inkling of the company’s creative direction for Xbox 720, but that’s still four weeks away. And with rumours orbiting the unannounced device like hungry sharks circling a baby seal, it would benefit the company to provide their audience with at least some degree of information, particularly regarding the much touted always online component.
Digital rights managements and always online. From a business perspective, it’s a symbiotic relationship that locks out piracy in one efficient sweep, but from a consumer viewpoint, it’s a match made in hell. If triple-A titles like SimCity and Diablo 3 proved anything, it’s that developers aren’t in a technical position to support that kind of service, as of yet. Plus, considering that Xbox Live experiences issues at the Christmas period due to an influx of new players, you would have to assume that Microsoft would be hap hazardous about forcing users to connect to the internet in order to play. Faster processors and advancements in technology may do away with these quandaries but incorporating an always online component into Xbox 720 would create more problems than it would solve.
Right now, the ball is in Microsoft’s court and up until this point, they’ve taken their sweet time to relay any significant response. The online speculation has done little to help the buzz for the Xbox 720 and has understandably irked the company’s worldwide fan base. A trustworthy connection with the audience is a priceless commodity and one that Microsoft needs to work on ahead of May 21st and, in particular, E3 in June, which brings us to the next influencing factor.
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2) Make the console gamer-orientated.
This is perhaps one of the more important elements that Microsoft ought to consider ahead of their next console. The American giant laid the blueprint for online gaming back in 2002 when they implemented Xbox Live into the original Xbox console. During its infancy, the newfangled feature offered an unprecedented form of play – including online friends lists and voice chat – but it was when the company upgraded the service to coincide with the launch of the 360 three years later that they established the definitive online gaming experience. Since then, Xbox Live has grown into a commercial behemoth. Buoyed by its online subscription model – which is available in different variants, with the most popular being the annual $60 fee – the service is now available in 41 countries worldwide and has a user threshold of approximately 21 million subscribers.
However, with such an immense reservoir of economic potential at their fingertips, Microsoft have increasingly shifted the focus away from what a gaming device should be all about. You know…games. Inundated with advertisements and being directed towards superfluous applications are common complaints among the Xbox fan base and with the user interface becoming a cluttered ecosystem; to many it seems as though the Xbox 360 has lost its gaming essence. As our current online society is increasingly driven by ad revenue, it’s understandable that Microsoft have favoured a committee-like approach to their gaming network. However, with an extensive category of streaming services – including Netflix, NFL and Sky – the Xbox 360 has mutated into a media device rather than retaining its core focus on the gamer.
Of course, its great to have these options and it’s merely a sign of the times that different forms of media are converging under one physical platform. Still, with the average household using the machine 84 hours per week and, according to Microsoft’s head of marketing, half of which is spent streaming content through the Xbox 360’s multitude of services, it’s unsurprising to see the majority of your friends list spending their playtime on Netflix.
With these statistics in mind, Microsoft has to swing the spotlight back to the gamer for the Xbox 720. The vast majority of people don’t buy consoles on the day of release for all their supplementary services; they buy it for the games. Sony have struck a chord with their audience with Playstation Plus – a service that requires an annual fee of $50 – which provides gamers with cloud storage, online discounts and even free games. Without trying to kick the volatile fan boy beehive, this is a formula that Microsoft could try to emulate for their next console.
Providing early access to beta tests and discounted games are the attributes that gamers want from their online subscription, not to see tedious advertisements every time they boot-up their system. In reality, Microsoft will most likely maintain a similar Windows 8-esque user interface with the Xbox 720, but the trick to balancing services with the core gaming experience is something they need to perfect for the next generation. NUad’s (Natural User Interface Ads) have been commercially successful for the company and will almost certainly persist onto the next-gen, but considering how they already charge users for their online service, one can’t help put question Microsoft’s rationale for multiple advertisements.
Putting that to one side, however, Xbox Live has established itself as a secure online universe where gamers enjoy all forms of entertainment, and that security has become a big selling point in the wake of Sony’s infamous PSN hack in 2011. But in order to entice gamers into their new way of play, Xbox 720 must boast a strong category of games. After all, the previous console generation – namely the PS2, Xbox and GameCube – sold 200 million units collectively, while the PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii have sold 252 million units hitherto. Don’t let the hyperbole fool you, there will always be a demand for new console hardware, but it’s up to Microsoft to provide the gaming software that will justify people parting with their hard earned cash. Which segue ways into the next element…
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For hardcore gamers, this caveat may just be the defining reason for hopping aboard the Xbox 720 bandwagon. In the coming weeks, Microsoft will be in a unique position that allows them to unveil their next-gen catalogue and to stake a claim for the gaming community’s enthusiasm – particularly those who remain undecided about PS4 or Xbox 720. Following the Sony press conference, the company has slated 17 titles for the forthcoming PS4. And while games such as Destiny, Watchdogs and Assassins Creed 4: Black Flag will be released on multiple platforms, it was still a bold statement and one that Microsoft needs to match, at the very least.
It would be foolish to argue against Sony’s clout in terms of first party studios and exclusives, just look at this year’s The Last of Us and Beyond Two Souls for proof. So at E3, Microsoft needs to bust out the triple-A titles. Bringing a Kinect shaped knife to the LA gun fight will result in a poor response at a time when the company is experiencing some industry turbulence. Studios such as 343 Industries and Turn 10 – best known for Halo and Forza, respectively – are two of the company’s heavy hitters and each of their presence at E3 will surely boot-up the next generation in style.
One of the key successes of the Xbox 360 was establishing its reputation as the go-to console for first person shooters. Tailor-made exclusives such as Halo and Gears of War – two mega-franchises in their own right – and getting the jump on additional Call of Duty content has truly crafted out a gaming audience that know what they want from Microsoft’s console. However, some of the exclusive intellectual properties that gave Xbox 360 its sense of uniqueness – namely Alan Wake and Deadlight – were lost amidst the burgeoning franchises. It all comes around to bringing back that core gaming experience for Microsoft fans. Churning out a new iteration of Forza, Gears of War and Halo won’t be as effective as introducing new titles – a fate that Nintendo are all too familiar with – so Microsoft need to pull out all the stops to vary their gaming catalogue.
The American software giant is capable of allowing triple-A titles to coexist with indie releases – 2011’s intelligent platformer Fez showed us that – the company just has to invest in ingenuity as much as it does with its flag bearing franchises in order to appease next-gen audiences. Consider the fact that there isn’t a single Xbox exclusive to look out for at E3. To name a few, Sony have Beyond Two Souls while Nintendo are poised to reveal details on Super Smash Bros. 4, but Microsoft haven’t confirmed anything, as of yet. Of course, postponing the exclusive games to coincide with a next-gen console unveil is a sound business decision and it would be naive to draw conclusions based on their silence, but the escalating hype from the Xbox community makes it clear that Microsoft have a huge gap to fill come June.
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4) Take Time To Manufacture The New Console.
If the launch of the Xbox 360 taught Microsoft anything, it’s that sometimes being first isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In order to beat Sony to the punch, the company rushed the console to market with serious fundamental flaws. As a matter of fact, out of the preliminary wave of Xbox 360’s, a staggering 52% were subject to the infamous Red Ring of Death – a technical fault that rendered the hard drive completely useless – within the first few months of release. Not only did this set the company back millions of dollars in warranty claims, it proved that cutting corners during the final stages of development was an unmitigated mistake. Financial pressure and audience demand will always exist, and after a 7-year console cycle, they’re almost overwhelming at this stage, but being first-out-of-the-gate for the next generation with a half-cooked console is something Microsoft need to avoid. Let’s face it, that would be like tossing a hand grenade without pulling the pin. Gamers want a reliable, sturdy machine that will last them for the foreseeable future.
Considering that the Xbox 720 will most likely be priced within the $400-450 ballpark, consumers deserve a product that has been means tested to the nth degree and is built with durable components.
Of course, the next Xbox, like its PS4 brethren, will most likely resemble a PC rig in terms of its internal architecture and therefore boast considerable computing power. With this in mind, pricing becomes a fundamental issue for Microsoft. The industry titan will most likely conceal the price tag for the Xbox 720 until this year’s E3, much like Sony, but given the increasingly dynamic state of the industry – as mobile and iOS games swell in popularity and the entry point to gaming is lowered –, launching at $500-600 simply isn’t an option. With rumours hinting towards AMD graphics hardware and an x86 processor, the Xbox 720 will have enough oomph to mirror the PS4’s capability – which is something that developers will also appreciate.
Experts have suggested that the Playstation 4 will release in October, which is a full month ahead of Xbox 720’s proposed release window in November. Microsoft got the jump on Sony in the last generation – albeit at the expensive of quality testing – and raced ahead in terms of global sales. However, the next generation will serve up a fascinating contest between the two industry juggernauts and this year’s E3 will only pour petrol over the already capricious fire. One thing seems to be for sure, though, that following the recent backlash from the gaming and tech press, Microsoft seems to be taking considerable time to calculate their next move – in fact, that’s probably why the company delayed the reveal of the Xbox 720 until May 21st.
Ultimately, though, time waits for no one and considering that E3 is less than 50 days away, this is an incredibly important time for the American software giant. But what else can they do to ensure theirs is a firm venture into the next generation?
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5) If you’re going to integrate Kinect, then do it right.
Oh, the poisoned chalice of Kinect. For the uninitiated, the device is an add-on for the current Xbox 360 that acts as a motion sensor – essentially, its Microsoft’s interpretation of the popular Wii remote and one that they’ve built a solid, profitable market around. Looking ahead to the next generation, though, and it seems that the input device isn’t going anywhere. Kinect 2.0 has been rumoured to be mandatory for the Xbox 720 and while I think this would be a somewhat poor decision from Microsoft, that’s not to say that a market clearly exists for these motion-controlled games.
Of course, it’s a symptom of the Wii’s unprecedented success, but forcing developers to shoehorn the divisive feature into every next-gen game seems strained and one that won’t sit too well with the majority of Xbox gamers. There’s no denying that Kinect has done well for the console – in fact, the peripheral broke the record for the “fastest selling consumer device” in 2010’s Guinness Book of Records – and, from a business perspective, extending your audience threshold to casual gamers will always be beneficial. Games such as Dance Central and Kinect Sports have been financial successes for the company, and you can’t blame them for wanting to exploit that particular market. In saying that, if the genre of motion control is a successful output for Microsoft, then let it exist as a separate entity. A branch of their great gaming Oak tree that doesn’t become entangled with the system’s other genres. Because, let’s face it, the bulk of Microsoft’s core audience see the device as a tacked on peripheral that does nothing more than collect dust in their living room.
You know, sometimes navigating the dashboard and GUI with your thumb is a little easier than waving your hands around in front of the TV, besides, not everyone has the luxury of a 6x6ft space to fully utilise the system. Granted, this is a technology in its infancy so if Microsoft were to iron out these issues with Kinect 2.0 then maybe, just maybe, the technology can exist as a solid add-on for players in search of a new method of play. Because there’s absolutely no reason why Microsoft can’t appease the hardcore and casual audience with Kinect. The trick, however, is balancing the two together in harmony and Microsoft will be hoping that casual and dedicated gaming can coalesce in the form of Kinect 2.0.
With Illumiroom, SmartGlass, and even Skype – which the company bought for $8.5 billion dollars in 2011 – the Xbox 720 won’t exactly be short on features. Unfortunately at this point in time, there’s no confirmation of exactly what is under the hood of Microsoft’s next machine and, by the look of things, we’ll have to wait patiently until May 21st at the earliest for further information. Regardless, you can safely assume that Microsoft have their figurative ear to the ground. Developers and consumers have been vocal about the next Xbox and it’ll be fascinating to see what the next few weeks will bring. Questions will be answered and, hopefully, fans will be satisfied because, honestly, there’s no feeling quite like having something to look forward to, but the big, overarching conundrum is whether or not Microsoft can have us counting down the days until Xbox 720.
What do you think of these factors? Do you agree or disagree and do you have one you’d like to share? Drop all your gaming related thoughts in the comments!Previous