The Oculus Rift Kickstarter campaign showed that there was a want for virtual reality to start making a comeback. However the other side of that equation, the ones who’d be delivering experiences through the VR platform, weren’t really prepared to capitalize on that. There are numerous reasons for this but mostly it comes down to consumer VR still being a nascent industry with the proper tooling still not there to make the experience seamless. Unfortunately it’s something of a chicken and egg problem: standards and tooling won’t fully emerge until there’s a critical mass of users and those users won’t appear until those standards are in place. This is why the high price of the Oculus Rift consumer model costs far more than its sticker price.
Many looked towards the Oculus Rift as the definitive VR headset, something which Oculus has obviously taken into account when designing it. Whilst I, as an early adopter of many pieces of technology, may appreciate the no-holds-barred approach for devices like this I know this limits broader appeal. Whilst this is sometimes a good strategy in order to get your production line stood up (ala Tesla when they produced the Roadster and then the Model S) the Oculus already had that in the previous two iterations of the dev kit. I think what many were expecting then was the Model T of VR headsets and what they got instead was a Rolls Royce Phantom.
However Oculus is no longer the only name in the game anymore with both the HTC VIVE PRE and the PlayStationVR headsets scheduled to come out in the first half of this year. Both of these are targetting at much more reasonable price point, although they admit that their headsets are not as premium as the Oculus Rift is. Whilst Oculus’ preorders may have surpassed their expectations I still feel that they alienated a good chunk of their market going for the price point that they did. For those who balked at the Oculus’ price the other two headsets could prove to be a viable alternative and that could spell trouble for Oculus.
Whilst Oculus won’t be going anywhere soon as a company (thanks entirely to the Facebook acquisition) they will likely struggle to cement their position as the market leader in the VR headset space. Indeed the higher price point, which according to Oculus is the bare minimum they can charge for it, won’t come down significantly until economies of scale kick in. Lower sales volumes means that takes much longer to come into effect and, potentially, HTC and Sony could be well on their way to mass produced headsets that are a fraction the cost of the Oculus.
In the end it comes down to which of the headsets provide a “good enough” experience for the most attractive price. There will always be a market for a premium version of a product however it’s rare that those models are the ones most frequently purchased. Oculus’ current price point puts it out of the reach of many, a gap which HTC and Sony will rush into fill in no short order. The next year will then become a heated battle for who takes the VR crown, showing which product strategy was the right one. For now my money is on the cheaper end of the spectrum and I’m waiting to be proved wrong.
The Souls series never really appealed to me as it seems its target audience was a certain subsection of gamers who craved games that gave their player nothing and took from them everything. I didn’t really fit into that mould and despite the raving reviews from my friends I couldn’t bring myself to invest the time to see if there really was something to them. For some reason though Bloodborne held a mild level of intrigue for me, probably because I didn’t know it was made by the same developer. After many weeks of being told I needed to play this game I eventually relented and began my journey into the world of a genre that I’d held at arms length for many years. Now here I am, some 35 hours of game time later, and I’m wondering why I held out for so long.
It is the night of the hunt, a time when beasts and monsters roam the streets of Yharnam and terrorized the populace to no end. You are a hunter, well at least you’re told you are, sworn ally of the healing church whose duty it is to rid the streets of these foul creatures and bring about the morning. However the plague that has befallen Yharnam is not all that it first seems and it citizens ruthlessly attack you on site, saying that you’re cursed. Oh dear hunter, the challenges that lie ahead are sure to break you but do not fear; death is just another part of life here, one you will become intimately familiar with.
I’m not sure if it’s the drab colour pallette or gothic aesthetic but Bloodborne doesn’t really look like a current generation game on first pass. The combination of muted colours and strategic use of specularity certainly feel like a lot of previous generation games that came before it although there are the moments where Bloodborne does provide a visual experience I have come to expect. I think partly this is for performance reasons as Bloodborne is the first PS4 game I’ve played that’s visibly chugged during several very intense action scenes. Overall it doesn’t look bad, maybe just a little on the dated side, something which could almost be wholly attributed to its visual style which is reminiscent of previous generation games.
Bloodborne is being called an action RPG, which would put it in the same category as games like Dragon Age, but it feels like these kinds of games need their own sub-genre to more accurately define the game experience. The base elements of an action RPG are there: real time combat, levelling system and item progression, but the way the game actually plays is so far removed from other titles in the genre means the experience is vastly different. The combat relies on precise timings, reactions and understanding your enemy at a much deeper level than traditional RPGs would ask you to. Player skill plays just as much of a role as items and levels do as you can have all the gear and in the world yet still find yourself pinned to a wall by a couple choice enemies. It’s a genre that, to be frank, is actively hostile towards the player which is what makes it so rewarding when you finally get to say fuck you and beat it.
At first the combat seems relatively straightforward: enemies telegraph their moves widely and it’s up to you to figure out if you can interrupt them with your own or if you need to get out of the way before they hit you. The challenge then comes from knowing what moves an enemy can do, what the timings of those are and, should there be more than one of them, which one you should deal with first before trying to move onto another. This means that every new area you come into is a minefield of new movesets, abilities and strengths/weaknesses which have to be learnt, understood and exploited in order for you to be able to progress. It’s not so much of a learning curve as it is a learning brick wall, one the game is specifically designed around to make your life hell for the first couple hours.
Indeed the very first section of the game, the one where you need to complete a loop to unlock your first shortcut and start making meaningful progress in the game, took me a grand total of 3 hours to complete. That section. played properly, can be done in approximately 10 minutes and so I spent much of my time dying in numerous stupid and, what seemed at the time, unpredictable ways. Of course the more I died the more I began to understand the mechanics I was playing with, what I could get away with and how I should approach everything to make sure I had the best chances of surviving. Eventually, after butting my head against what felt like an impenetrable wall for far too long, I finally made it through to my first shortcut and that’s when the game started getting interesting.
You see Bloodborne, and all games that preceded it, revel in the idea of not holding your hand at all with the only tutorial coming in the form of a few notes scattered across the ground in your overworld area. How levels work, what the currencies are and what they mean, how you upgrade your weapons and how you can unlock other ways to improve your character are all things you have to discover incidentally or, like I did, Google furiously. It might surprise you to learn that I don’t count this as a negative of Bloodborne as many games I’ve played take a similar approach and the flip side to it seems to be that great communities are born out of sharing details like this. Once I had gotten to my first “safe” point I started to become intrigued about where I should go next and all roads pointed towards the first boss: The Cleric beast.
The boss battles are the ultimate goal for any hunter in Bloodborne both for their challenge and progression that they will provide you. They are, put simply, a terrifying thing to behold as they’re often several times your size and have attack patterns unlikely anything else you’ve seen before. For the most part you’ll be able to figure out what approach best suits you after a couple runs however there are some fights which will either require you to up your skill significantly or, and this can be heartbreaking, leave the fight and go and level up some more before you face them. Indeed after throwing my body at Martyr Logarius for hours on end I was forced to leave the battle to replenish my stocks of blood vials, something that made me feel so defeated that I considered just giving up then and there. I didn’t come back to that fight for a very long time but when I did the satisfaction I got from handing his ass to him is something few games have been able to give me.
The level system, whilst retaining the obtuse nature of the rest of the game, is one that requires you to balance all your requirements against each other. Being a jack of all trades will make the game incredibly difficult and will ultimately net you no benefits so you have to choose a few stats you want to excel in and then seek out the items that best suits that. Reading through some guides will help you make the right decisions early on to support the kind of playstyle you want to pursue, especially when it comes to points of diminishing returns, soft caps and hard caps on benefits that each point gives you. My Strength/Skill build seemed to work out quite well for the way I wanted to play the game and after I finished my initial playthrough I was able to start looking at dumping points into other stats to unlock certain choice weapons that I wanted to experiment with.
Bloodborne is mechanically sound for the most part however the hit detection they use does have its limits and sometimes its behaviour can be completely out of line with what you expect. I had numerous times when my sword went right through an enemy and failed to connect (no blood, sound nor enemy taking damage) and other times when enemies appeared to be able to hit me when their models were no where near me. Whilst death is an integral part of the game when they’re not the result of you getting greedy or stupid it does little to endear the game to you and indeed I stopped playing when these sorts of things happened too often. There was also the few performance slow downs I mentioned previously which were thankfully rare however in a game where timing and precision are key these sorts of things can be devastating if they happen at the wrong moment.
Bloodborne’s story is interesting although the way it’s presented, through various small bits of dialogue and vague allusions to things, makes it hard to discern whether or not it’s actually a good story. Sure you have enough to understand the motivations of certain characters but much of the lore behind the beasts, bosses and other NPCs are mostly built up out of conjecture. Sure this provides a healthy amount of discussion among the community however after reading the 100th fan theory about why the Great Ones can’t have kids you start to want a little bit more than just what everyone thinks it might be. Unfortunately it seems like closure isn’t something the developers of Bloodborne are interested in giving us so I’ll just have to say that the story is serviceable but far too vague to be much more than that.
Bloodborne is a game I honestly didn’t want to like when I started out playing it and indeed I was willing to give up very early on in the piece just so I could be done with it. However once Bloodborne got its hooks into me I couldn’t help but be intrigued as the game taunted me with ever greater challenges and the prospect of even better loot. I can remember clearly the point at which I transitioned from the terrified hunter, one who would walk around every corner, to the slayer of the night, one who feared no beast and laid waste to anyone who dared cross him. There are few games that can take you on a journey like that and make your progress feel meaningful but Bloodborne does it beautifully, all the while gnawing away in the back of your head that it could all come to a crashing end if you let your hubris get the better of you. If you’ve been putting off playing this style of game because it seems too harsh then I’d encourage you to give Bloodborne a few hours of your time as that frustration could soon turn into obsession, one that will be rewarded handsomely.
Bloodborne is available on PlayStation4 right now for $99.95. Total play time was approximately 35 hours reaching NG+.
My stance on game streaming services has been well known for some time now but for the uninitiated let me sum it up for you: I think they’re rubbish. The investment in capital required to get them to work well at scale seems incompatible with the number of potential users who’d want such a service and nearly all offerings in this space priced the games similarly to their full blooded, non-streamed cousins. Sony doesn’t share my view on this however having invested several hundred million dollars into buying game streaming service Gaikai and committing to providing a sort-of backwards compatibility service using that platform. Since I wasn’t entirely interested in the idea I hadn’t looked into it much further but at a tech level it’s quite interesting, even if I think the service won’t be the cash cow I’m sure Sony thinks it’ll be.
I’ve mentioned in the past that there weren’t too many ways for backwards compatibility to make it’s way onto current generation consoles even if some form of streaming service was going to be offered. I postulated around the potential ways of doing it, either by running a whole bunch of old consoles in a data center or developing an emulation framework, neither of which I felt was going to be particularly scalable due to my percieved lack of demand for the service. As it turns out Sony has gone with the former option for their streaming service, opting to run a bunch of PlayStation3s in the cloud and providing access to them through their new PlayStation Now service. However they’re not consoles as you’d recognise them, they’re in fact all new hardware.
Sony has developed a custom motherboard that contains on it 8 PlayStation3 chips allowing them to achieve a pretty incredible amount of density when compared to simply racking consumer units. Some back of the napkin calculations puts this at about 384 PlayStation 3s per rack, quite a decent number although I’m sure the cost of that hardware is going to be non-trivial. This custom solution does have its benefits though like them being able to throw in a new network interface and hardware video encoder, reducing the latency between the customer and their PlayStation3 in the cloud. This might not be enough to make the service feasible but it’ll do a lot to make the majority of games on their far more playable than they would be otherwise.
Right now the service offers up about 200 titles for individual rent or an all you can eat subscription that has a selection of 100 titles for $15 per month at the cheapest option. That’s a damn sight better than pretty much every other game streaming service I’ve seen before but it still suffers from the same restricted availability (only select US and Canada areas currently) issues which hamstrung other services. The one thing the service does have going for it though is the veritable cornucopia of devices that PlayStation Now can run on, including Sony’s recent range of TVs and even DVD players. That’s definitely an advantage that other competitors didn’t have since they all required another hardware purchase but I’m still not sure there’ll be enough demand even if the barrier to entry is low for Sony’s more loyal customers.
With the average cost of producing a PS3 apparently down around the $280 mark (which I’ll assume is relatively similar for the custom solution) it will take Sony around 18 months to recoup the costs invested in hardware based on the current subscription fees which doesn’t take into account the licensing arrangements for streaming. There’s potential for them to make up a bit more margin with the single rentals which appear to be quite a bit more pricey but it still seems like a long time for the investment to pay off. That being said with the life of consoles now getting dangerously close to 10 years there’s potential for it to work but I still think it’s a bit of a gamble on the part of Sony.
Ever since the Nintendo Wii was released back in 2006 there seems to have been a resurgence in non-standard peripherals for consoles although most are simply motion based controllers in a fancy case. The issue with non-standard hardware was, and still is, that game developers can’t rely on a consumer having it and thus many choose to simply not use them. It’s for this (and other) reasons that Donkey Kong 64 had to include the Expansion Pak as their game was inoperable without it and its distribution in the market place could not be relied on. However it seems that manufacturing costs have become cheap enough to make custom peripherals like this viable and thus they have returned in greater numbers than ever before.
The big issue I see with things like this is that once a good idea comes along it’s guaranteed that there will be a lot of copy cat ideas that come out not too long after. In the absence of any interface standards governing their interactions with the consoles this inevitably turns into an arms race of who can win the most support from developers, most often ending in a duopoly of two competing standards that will likely never completely agree with one another. Whilst I’m all for competition in the consumer space I’m also for an open set of standards so that I’m not forced to choose between two functionally equivalent products based on who or what they support.
Which is why Sony’s announcement today of Project Morpheus, their virtual reality headset, is slightly troubling to me.
Since it’s still in the prototype phase details are pretty scant on what its specifications will be but it’s apparently rocking a 1080p display (I’m guessing there’s 2 of them in there) and can apparently do full 360 degree tracking. Predictably the motion tracking relies on the PlayStation Eye accessory indicating that it’s probably got most of the same technology in it that the DualShock4/PlayStation Move controllers do. There doesn’t appear to be any headphones built into it but if it’s got all the same core bits and pieces as a regular PlayStation controller than I’m sure there’ll be a headphone port on it. Essentially it looks like the Oculus Rift did way back when it first debuted on Kickstarter, albeit far more reliant on Sony technology than their product will ever be.
Therein lies the crux of the issue with peripherals of this nature. Sure they add functionality and experiences that would be otherwise impossible to accomplish on the platform by their own but when they’re built like Sony’s, reliant on a whole bunch of things that are only available on that platform, I almost immediately lose interest. As someone who plays across multiple platforms in the space of a year the last thing I want to do is flood my living room with all sorts of one shot peripherals that have no use outside a couple narrow scenarios. Instead I’d prefer one that works across a multitude, something which is technically possible (I won’t tell you how much research I did into finding a cross platform compatible arcade stick for the fighting games I play) but rarely occurs in the wild.
What I’m really getting at here is that whilst I’m super excited for these kinds of virtual reality devices to become commonplace I also want a set of open standards so that when you buy one you’ll be able to use it pretty much everywhere. Oculus Rift has a big head start on everyone in this regard so I really hope that they’ve seen this problem on the horizon and are working towards a solution for it. With something like that in place companies could then focus on making the better headsets rather than trying to coax everyone into their ecosystem. It’s probably a pipe dream, I know, but it would be to the benefit of everyone if it happened.
Us gamers tend to be hoarders when it comes to our game collections with many of us amassing huge stashes of titles on our platforms of choice. My steam library alone blew past 300 titles some time ago and anyone visiting my house will see the dozens of game boxes littering every corner of the house. There’s something of a sunk cost in all this and it’s why the idea of being able to play them on a current generation system is always attractive to people like me: we like to go back sometimes and play through games of our past. Whilst my platform of choice rarely suffers from this (PCs are the kings of backwards compatibility) my large console collection is in varying states of being able to play my library of titles and, if I’m honest, I don’t think it’s ever going to get better.
For the current kings of the console market the decision to do away with backwards compatibility has been something of a sore spot for many gamers. Whilst the numbers show that most people buy new consoles to play the new games on them¹ there’s a non-zero number who get a lot of enjoyment out of their current gen titles. Indeed I probably would’ve actually used my PlayStation4 for gaming if it had some modicum of backwards compatibility as right now there aren’t any compelling titles for it. This doesn’t seem to have been much of a hinderance to adoption of the now current gen platforms however.
There does seem to be a lot of faith being poured into the idea that backwards compatibility will come eventually through cloud services, of which only Sony has committed to developing. The idea is attractive, mainly because it then enables you to play any time you want from a multitude of devices, however, as I’ve stated in the past, the feasibility of such an idea isn’t great, especially if it relies on server hardware needing to be in many disparate locations around the world to make the service viable. Whilst both Sony and Microsoft have the capital to make this happen (and indeed Sony has a head start on it thanks to the Gaikai acquisition) the issues I previously mentioned are only compounded when it comes to providing a cloud based service with console games.
The easiest way of achieving this is to just run a bunch of the old consoles in a server environment and allow users to connect directly to them. This has the advantage of being cheaper from a capital point of view as I’m sure both Sony and Microsoft have untold hordes of old consoles to take advantage of, however the service would be inherently unscalable and, past a certain point, unmaintable. The better solution is to emulate the console in software which would allow you to run it on whatever hardware you wanted but this brings with it challenges I’m not sure even Microsoft or Sony are capable of solving.
You see whilst the hardware of the past generation consoles is rather long in the tooth emulating it in software is nigh on impossible. Whilst there’s some experimental efforts by the emulation community to do this none of them have produced anything capable of running even the most basic titles. Indeed even with access to the full schematics of the hardware recreating them in software would be a herculean effort, especially for Sony who’s Cell processor is a nightmare architecturally speaking.
There’s also the possibility that Sony has had the Gaikai team working on a Cell to x86 transition library which could make the entire PlayStation3 library available without too much hassle although there would likely be a heavy trade off in performance. In all honesty that’s probably the most feasible solution as it’d allow them to run the titles on commodity hardware but you’d still have the problems of scaling out the service that I’ve touched on in previous posts.
Whatever ends up happening we’re not going to hear much more about it until sometime next year and it’ll be a while after that before we can get our hands on it (my money is on 2016 for Australia). If you’re sitting on a trove of old titles and hoping that the next gen will allow you to play them I wouldn’t hold your breath as its much more likely that it’ll be extremely limited, likely requiring an additional cost on top of your PlayStation Plus membership. That’s even if it works as everyone speculating it will as I can see it easily turning out to be something else entirely.
¹ I can’t seem to find a source for this but back when the PlayStation3 Slim was announced (having that capability removed) I can remember a Sony executive saying something to this effect. It was probably a combination of factors that led up to him saying that though as around that time the PlayStation2 Slim was still being manufactured and was retailing for AUD$100, so it was highly likely that anyone who had the cash to splurge on a PlayStation3 likely owned a PlayStation2.
In the general computing game you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s 2 rivals locked in a contest for dominance. Sure there’s 2 major players, Intel and AMD, and whilst they are direct competitors with each other there’s no denying the fact that Intel is the Goliath to AMD’s David, trouncing them in almost every way possible. Of course if you’re looking to build a budget PC you really can’t go past AMD’s processors as they provide an incredible amount of value for the asking price but there’s no denying that Intel has been the reigning performance and market champion for the better part of a decade now. However the next generation of consoles have proved to be something of a coup for AMD and it could be the beginnings of a new era for the beleaguered chip company.
Both of the next generation consoles, the PlayStation 4 and XboxOne, both utilize an almost identical AMD Jaguar chip under the hood. The reasons for choosing it seem to align with Sony’s previous architectural idea for Cell (I.E. having lots of cores working in parallel rather than fewer working faster) and AMD is the king of cramming more cores into a single consumer chip. Although the reasons for going for AMD over Intel likely stem from the fact that Intel isn’t too crazy about doing custom hardware and the requirements that Sony and Microsoft had for their own versions of Jaguar could simply not be accommodated. Considering how big the console market is this would seem like something of a misstep by Intel, especially judging by the PlayStation4’s day one sales figures.
If you hadn’t heard the PlayStation 4 managed to move an incredible 1 million consoles on its first day of launch and that was limited to the USA. The Nintendo Wii by comparison took about a week to move 400,000 consoles and it even had a global launch window to beef up the sales. Whether the trend will continue or not considering that the XboxOne just got released yesterday is something we’ll have to wait to see but regardless every one of those consoles being purchased now contains in it an AMD CPU and they’re walking away with a healthy chunk of change from each one.
To put it in perspective out of every PlayStation 4 sale (and by extension every XboxOne as well) AMD is taking away a healthy $100 which means that in that one day of sales AMD generated some $100 million for itself. For a company who’s annual revenue is around the $1.5 billion mark this is a huge deal and if the XboxOne launch is even half that AMD could have seen $150 million in the space of a week. If the previous console generations were anything to go by (roughly 160 million consoles between Sony and Microsoft) AMD is looking at a revenue steam of some $1.6 billion over the next 8 years, a 13% increase to their bottom line. Whilst it’s still a far cry from the kinds of revenue that Intel sees on a monthly basis it’s a huge win for AMD and something they will hopefully be able to use to leverage themselves more in other markets.
Whilst I may have handed in my AMD fanboy badge after many deliriously happy years with my watercooled XP1800+ I still think they’re a brilliant chip company and their inclusion in both next generation consoles shows that the industry giants think the same way. The console market might not be as big as the consumer desktop space nor as lucrative as the high end server market but getting their chips onto both sides of the war is a major coup for them. Hopefully this will give AMD the push they need to start muscling in on Intel’s turf again as whilst I love their chips I love robust competition between giants a lot more.
It’s been a rough few months for Microsoft’s gaming division with them copping flak from every angle about nearly all aspects of their next generation console, the Xbox One. I’ve tried to remain mostly neutral on the whole ordeal as I had originally put myself down for both consoles when they both released but that changed when I couldn’t find a compelling reason to get both. Since then Microsoft has tried to win back the gamers it alienated with its initial announcements although it was clear that the damage was done in that respect and all this did was helped to keep the loyalists happy with a choice they were never going to make. Since then it’s been all quiet from Microsoft, perhaps in the hopes that silence would do more to help than anything else they could say at this point.
However a recent announcement from Microsoft has revealed that not only will Microsoft be allowing independent developers to self-publish on the Xbox One platform they’ll also be able to use a retail kit as a debug unit. Considering that traditionally development kits were on the order of a couple of thousand dollars (the PlayStation3 one was probably the most expensive I ever heard of at $20,000 on release day) this announcement is something of a boon for indie developers as those looking to do cross platform releases now don’t have spend a significant chunk of change in order to develop on Microsoft’s console. On the surface that would seem to be a one up on Nintendo and Sony but as it turns out Microsoft isn’t doing something truly notable with this announcement, they’re just playing catch up yet again.
Sony announced at E3 that they’d allow indie developers to self publish on the PlayStation4 however you’ll still need to get your hands on a development kit if you want to test your titles properly. This presents a barrier of course, especially if they retain the astronomical release day price (I wouldn’t expect that though), however Sony has a DevKit Loaner program which provides free development kits to studios who need them. They also have a whole bunch of other benefits for devs signing up to their program which would seem to knock out some of the more significant barriers to entry. I’ll be honest when I first started writing this I didn’t think Sony had any of this so it’s a real surprise that they’ve become this welcoming to indie developers.
Similarly Nintendo has a pretty similar level of offerings for indies although it wasn’t always that way. Updates are done for free and the review process, whilst still mandatory, is apparently a lot faster than other platforms. Additionally if you get into their program (which has requirements that I could probably meet, seriously) you’ll also find yourself with a copy of Unity 4 Pro at no extra charge which allows you to develop titles for multiple platforms simultaneously. Sure this might not be enough to convince a developer to go full tilt on a WiiU exclusive but those considering a multiplatform release after seeing some success on one might give it another look after seeing what Nintendo has to offer.
Probably the real kicker, at least for us Australians, is even despite the fact that indies will be able to self publish on the new platform after testing on retail consoles we still won’t be able to see them thanks to our lack of XBLIG. Microsoft are currently not taking a decisive stand on whether this will change or not (it seems most of the big reveals they want to make will be at Gamescon next month) but the smart money is on no, mostly due to the rather large fees required to get a game classified in Australia. This was supposed to be mitigated somewhat by co-regulation by the industry as part of the R18+ classification reforms and it has, to some extent, although it seems to be aimed at larger enterprises currently as I couldn’t find any fee for service assessors (there was a few jobs up on Seek for some though, weird). Whilst I’m sure that wouldn’t stop Australian indie devs from having a crack at the Xbox One I’m sure it’d be a turn off for some as who doesn’t to see their work in their own country?
I’m getting the feeling that Microsoft has a couple aces up its sleeve for Gamescon so I’ll hold back on beating the already very dead horse and instead say I’m interested to see what they have to say. I don’t think there’s anything at this point that would convince me to get one but I’m still leagues away from writing it off as a dead platform. Right now the ball is in Microsoft’s court and they’ve got a helluva lot of work to do if they want their next gen’s launch day to look as good as Sony’s.
When was the last time you picked up a compact camera? I’ve got one sitting in my drawer beside me (the Sony DSC-HX5V that I reviewed all those years ago) and it’s been there for the better part of 2 years, not seeing the light of day. I’d hazard a guess that everyone has at least one digital camera lying around their house somewhere that simply doesn’t get used anymore and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why. When the picture quality of your smartphone is comparable to your pocket cam there’s really no reason to bring it along, even more so when your smartphone has all those convenient options for sharing them instantly. With that in mind it seems a little odd that the major camera manufacturers still bother making them as it seems clear where the future of that segment is.
Indeed if you check out the recent financial results of both Canon and Nikon they both cite the lagging sales in compacts as a contributing factor to their recent decline in sales and profit. It’s not just isolated to them either, pretty much everyone in the camera business has been hurting recently and it seems to be all directly related to their continued presence in the compact market. Now I’m not saying that this market needs to disappear completely, there’s still people out there to sell them too, however when your bottom line is having an axe taken to it because of one particular product line it’s time to rethink your presence there. Indeed when the major player’s interchangeable lens system cameras are doing so well in comparison it seems inevitable that this is the direction they should take, although some would think otherwise.
Nikon’s president Makoto Kimura doesn’t want to abandon this sector and instead wants to “change the concept of cameras”, potentially with a non-camera device. As some analysts have picked up on this sounds an awful lot like they might be trying to enter into the smartphone market somehow but in all honesty that’s the last thing they should be doing. If Nokia’s attempt at bringing better camera technology to the mobile platform is anything to go by then I can’t imagine Nikon’s going much better, especially considering the luke warm reception their Android based pocket cam received. It would be far, far better for them to simply drop the whole sector together and then refocus their efforts on further improving their mirrorless and DSLR ranges which will always have a strong market behind them.
I’m not advocating that they just straight up stop making them, there’s still a bit of money to be made here, but it’s obvious that even super cheap compacts aren’t enough to pull consumers away from their smartphones. Instead they should gradually taper away their involvement in the area, reducing the number of models they produce significantly. It’s very possible that there’s a sustainable niche in there somewhere which could support a couple models and reducing the available product lines would show that. If they became unsustainable then it’d be time to drop that area completely and then put those resources to use in their other imaging sections. There’s also the possibility of licensing out their technology to smartphone manufacturers in order to get at some of the action that they’re currently missing out on although whether any of their tech is applicable is an engineering question I can’t answer.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for compact makers, all it means is that part of their market has been eaten away by technological advancements in other fields and it’s time for them to adapt. I think they’re all well placed to whether this change as their businesses outside their compact range are all strong, even growing in most cases. Whilst the loss of the compact sector won’t necessarily mean a boost to the DSLR/mirrorless sector it will mean they’re spending less money on a shrinking sector, something which seems like smart business sense. Hopefully they take this path sooner rather than later as I’d hate to see my favorite camera manufacturer suffer unduly because of it.
There was an awful lot of noise last month around the whole XboxOne DRM/features/whatever debacle that ended up with Microsoft doing a 180 on their often-on DRM stance. Ostensibly it was reactionary due to the amount of praise that Sony was getting at Microsoft’s expense, even though they’d managed to hold fast during the initial PR stampede. There were a few though, certainly not the majority but a non-zero amount, who lamented this change by Microsoft, saying that they had capitulated to the crowd and were essentially keeping gaming services in the dark ages. There’s a little meat to this story as the removal of the daily check-in requirement meant that some of the features that came along with it had to go away. Initially the things people were talking about didn’t require a daily check-in to achieve (like worlds that “live on” between game sessions, I think Animal Crossing had that covered pretty well) but there was one that was so revolutionary that I thought people were just making it up.
That was the ability to sell your digital only games.
Now as someone who’s got a massive library of these kinds of games on Steam (last count was in the realm of 300+) the ability to sell, or even just transfer, these games would be a pretty great feature. It’s possible that residents of EU countries might end up getting this by default thanks to a 2012 CURIA ruling but the idea that this could come to the XboxOne, regardless of territory, would be very appealing to a lot of gamers. The often on check is then required to make sure you haven’t sold the game through one channel and then continue to play it offline, which makes some sense in context, although I’d argue that the number of people who’d do such things would be in the minority (and you could just check whenever they did eventually get online anyway). However all that still has the one enormous caveat that I think was the crux of the issue for everyone: you have to rely on a service that may or may not be there in the future.
“Ah ha”, I hear you say, “but that’s the same for Steam and everyone just accepts it there!” and you’re right, to a point. That was probably the biggest thing that Steam had going against it at the time as PC gamers were most certainly not welcoming of it, I know I certainly wasn’t. However once the value proposition became very attractive, mostly through the sales, ease of use and increasing broadband penetration we started to warm to the service. There was also the assurance from Gabe Newell (although trying to source a direct quote relating to this is proving elusive) that should Steam have to shut down there’ll be a patch issued that would free your game library from its decaying hands. With Microsoft’s announcement there wasn’t, or at least it wasn’t communicated well, an equivalent assurance that would allow gamers to continue to play such games past the time when the Xbox Live service disappeared.
Indeed this problem faces all gamers as many titles move towards a more connected model which could mean that core features become unusuable the second the developer can no longer support running the back end infrastructure. For some times, ones that are traditionally multiplayer only, this is kind of expected but the difference between Diablo and Diablo III for instance is that in 20 years I can almost guarantee the former will still be able to be run by anyone with the disc, the latter I’m not sure will see the end of this decade. Sure the number of people doing this might not be in the majority but they’re a vocal one and the sole reason why services like GoG exist. Had Microsoft given some assurances to the contrary they might not be in the position they are today and those features might still be available to Xbox customers.
It may seem like we’re just being backwards Luddites bent on keeping the status quo but it’s far more than that, we just want to be able to play our games long into the future like we can do with so many titles we grew up on. I see no technical reason why systems can’t be built to enable both sides of the equation, one that allows us to sell/trade digital games whilst also giving the opportunity to play offline whenever we want, but the reasons are far more likely business in nature. It’s a real shame as Microsoft could have really outdone Sony on this particular front but it seems like they’re instead gearing up for being second place, capitulating just enough so they don’t end up competing with the Wii U for scraps of market share.
Whilst its easy to argue to the contrary Microsoft really is a company that listens to its customers. Many of the improvements I wrote about during my time at TechEd North America were the direct result of them consulting with their users and integrating their requests into their updated product lines. Of course this doesn’t make them immune to blundering down the wrong path as they have done with the XboxOne (and a lot would argue Windows 8 as well, something which I’m finding hard to ignore these days) something which Sony gleefully capitalized on. Their initial attempts at damage control did little to help their image and it was looking like they were just going to wear it until launch day.
And then they did this:
Essentially it’s a backtrack to the way things are done today with the removal of the need for the console to check in every day in order for you to be able to play installed/disc based games. This comes hand in hand with Microsoft now allowing you to trade/sell/gift your disc based games to anyone, just like you can do now. They’re keeping the ability to download games directly from Xbox Live although it seems the somewhat convoluted sharing program has also been nixed, meaning you can no longer share games with your family members nor can you share downloaded titles with friends. Considering that not many people found that particular feature attractive I’m not sure it will be missed but it does look like Microsoft wanted to put the boot in a little to show us what we could have had.
I’ll be honest and say I didn’t expect this as Microsoft had been pretty adamant that it was going to stick around regardless of what the consumers thought. Indeed actions taken by other companies like EA seemed to indicate that this move was going to be permanent, hence them abandoning things that would now be part of the platform. There’s been a bit of speculation that this was somehow planned all along; that Microsoft was gauging the Market’s reaction and would react based on that but if that was the case this policy would have been reversed a lot sooner, long before the backlash reached its crescendo during E3. The fact that they’ve made these changes shows that they’re listening now but there’s not to suggest that this was their plan all along.
Of course this doesn’t address some of the other issues that gamers have taken with the XboxOne, most notably the higher cost (even if its semi-justified by the included Kinect) and the rather US centric nature of many of the media features. Personally the higher price doesn’t factor into my decision too much, although I do know that’s a big deal for some, but since the XboxOne’s big selling points was around it’s media features it feels like a lot of the value I could derive from it is simply unavailable to me. Even those in the USA get a little bit of a rough ride with Netflix being behind the Xbox Live Gold wall (when it’s always available on the PS4) but since both of them are requiring the subscription for online play it’s not really something I can really fault/praise either of them for.
For what it’s worth this move might be enough to bring those who were on the fence back into the fold but as the polls and preorders showed there’s a lot of consumers who have already voted with their wallets. If this console generation has the same longevity as the current one then there’s every chance for Microsoft to make up the gap over the course of the next 8 years and considering that the majority of the console sales happen after the launch year it’s quite possible that all this outrage could turn out to be nothing more than a bump in the road. Still the first battle in this generation of console wars has been unequivocally won by Sony and it’s Microsoft’s job to make up that lost ground.