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.
If the deafening outcrying from nearly every one of my favourite games news sites and social media brethren is anything to go by the console war has already been won and the new king is Sony. Whilst the fanboy in me would love to take this opportunity to stick it to all the Xboxers out there I honestly believe that Sony really didn’t do much to deserve the praise that’s currently being heaped on it. More I feel like the news coming out of E3 just shows how many missteps Microsoft took with the XboxOne with Sony simply sitting on the sidelines, not really changing anything from what they’re currently doing today.
The one, and really only, point that this all hinged on was the yet unknown stance that Sony would take for DRM on the PlayStation4. It was rumoured that they were watching social media closely and that spurred many grassroots campaigns aimed at influencing them. The announcement came at E3 that they’d pretty much be continuing along the same lines as they are now, allowing you to trade/sell/keep disc based games without any restrictions built into the platform. This also means that developers were free to include online passes in their games, something which has thankfully not become too common but could go on the rise (especially with cross platform titles).
There wasn’t much else announced at E3 that got gamers excited about the PlayStation4 apart from seeing the actual hardware for the first time. One curious bit of information that didn’t receive a whole lot of attention though was the change to Sony’s stance on free multiplayer through the PlayStation Network. You’ll still be able to get a whole bunch of services for free (like NetFlix/Hulu) but if you want to get multiplayer you’re going to have to shell out $5/month for the privilege. However this is PlayStation Plus which means it comes with a whole bunch of other benefits like free full version games so it’s not as bad as it sounds. Still it looks like Sony might have been capitalizing on the notion that there will be quite a few platform switchers for this generation and thus took the opportunity to make the service mandatory for multi.
It could also be partly to offset the extremely low (relative) price of the PlayStation4 with it clocking in at $399. Considering its specs it’s hard to believe that they’re not using the console as a loss leader yet again, something which I thought they were going to avoid for this generation. If the life of these consoles remains relatively the same that means they’ll at least get the console’s price back again in subscription fees, plus any additional revenue they get from the games sales. At least part of it will have to go to the massive amount of online services they’re planning to release however, but overall it seems that at least part of that subscription cash will be going to offset the cheaper hardware.
The thing to note here is that the differences between Sony’s current and next generation console are far smaller than those for Microsoft. This is the same Sony who were ridiculed for releasing the PSN long after Xbox Live, pricing their console way above the competition and, even if it wasn’t for games specifically, had some of the most insane DRM known to man. The fact that not much has changed (they have, in fact, got objectively worse) and they’re being welcomed with open arms shows just how much Microsoft has dropped the ball.
Whether or not this will translate into lost sales though will have to remain to be seen. The consumer market has an incredibly short memory and we’ve got a good 5 months between now and when the XboxOne goes on sale. It’s entirely possible that the current conversation is being dominated by the vocal minority and the number of platform loyalists will be enough to overcome that initial adoption hump (something which the Wii-U hasn’t been able to do). I’m sure that anyone who was on the fence about which one to get has probably made their mind up now based on these announcements but in all honesty those people are few and far between. I feel the majority of console gamers will get one, and only one, console and will likely not change platforms easily.
The proof will come this holiday season, however.
[UPDATE]: It has come to my attention that Sony has stated that they will not be allowing online passes from anyone. Chalk that up to yet another win for them.
I don’t think I’m alone in saying that the timing of Sony’s announcement at the beginning of the year was a little surprising. Sure when they started inviting press to an event for an unnamed product we weren’t exactly surprised to find out it was the PlayStation 4 but by the same accounts we were also under the impression that it was nowhere as far along as the XboxOne was. Indeed I had gone on record several times saying that we’d likely see the new Xbox this year (which we will) and that the PS4 would follow sometime next year. It follows then that Microsoft would be the first to announce it but Sony beat them to the punch and, based on the reaction of the gamer community, this move appears to have benefitted them greatly.
Announcing a product early is always a risky endeavour as everyone will pick up on any half-baked ideas and descend upon them in a torrent of Internet rage. Indeed Sony copped quite a bit of criticism for doing just that as they failed to show the console (which feeds into the idea that it’s not done yet) and hand waved over a couple of the more important questions like backwards compatibility. Still the announcement set the tone for the next console generation with Sony putting games at the forefront and putting heavy emphasis on the features they’d built to enhance the gaming experience.
What did Microsoft bring to the table? Well if the following video is anything to go by:
The announcement had left me somewhat indifferent to Microsoft’s console, mostly thanks to the things that the above video highlights, and it appears that this sentiment has been echoed by many other gaming websites. Indeed whilst Microsoft may have made the right decision by broadening the console’s appeal through expanding its media offerings it’s certainly done nothing to endear them to the core crowd of Xbox gamers. You could leave the argument at that and still have a decent explanation for the backlash but honestly I think Sony’s press event set gamer’s expectations for the XboxOne long before Microsoft swaggered out with media-centric guns blazing.
Us gamers might have our various affiliations for different consoles, born from the days when we were allowed one and only one console which laid the groundwork for the fanboyism we see today, but we’re also astutely aware of what the competition is bringing to the table. Thus many of them would have been aware of what the PlayStation 4 was offering and would expect that Microsoft would have an answer to each and every feature that Sony had lauded at the PS4’s launch. Microsoft didn’t do this however, instead focusing on what they perceive as the major use case for the XboxOne: media consumption. Now this might not be too far out of left field, indeed more hours are spent watching Netflix than playing games on Xbox today, but I doubt that many of them were purchased solely for that. Indeed I believe many of them were bought by or for gamers primarily and the media integration was a nice add on for anyone else who wanted to use it.
Whether this translates into lost sales for Microsoft though will remain to be seen as whilst us gamers are a vocal bunch it’s entirely likely that consumers at large will view it as a solid DVR that also plays games. Like the Nintendo Wii before it this could have the potential to open up the Xbox to a much larger market, bypassing the vocal gamer community. It will be interesting to see how the sentiment develops over the next 6 months as that will determine if the XboxOne will retain its currently loyal gamer community or if they eschew it in favour of cementing their foothold as the center of your home entertainment system.
This year was already shaping up to be a great run for gamers, what with all the new IP heading our way and multiple high quality sequels, and the next console generation will likely be upon us before the year is out. Had you asked me last year what my predictions were I would’ve told you that we’d be lucky to see the next generation Xbox this year and it was far more likely that we’d see both of them sometime in 2014. I’m quite glad to be wrong in this instance however as whilst I might still be primarily a PC gamer I grew up on consoles and will always have a soft spot for them.
Today Microsoft officially announced their successor to the Xbox360: the XboxOne. If you’ve been following the rumours and leaks like I have there’s nothing too much surprising about the console itself as it sports the exact specs that have been floating around for a while. However there are still a few surprises from Microsoft’s next generation console and the launch event clarified some of the more controversial rumours that had been flying around. Suffice to say that Sony and Microsoft have very different audiences in mind for their next gen offerings, meaning that the choice between the two might no longer be based on platform exclusives alone.
Whilst I won’t go over the hardware specifications as they’re near identical to that of the PS4 (although I can’t find a confirmation of DDR3 vs GDDR5) there were a couple surprises under the hood of the XboxOne. For starters it’s sporting a BluRay drive which was kind of expected but still up in the air thanks to Microsoft initially throwing its support behind HDDVD, giving a little credence to the rumour that they wouldn’t incorporate it into their next gen offering. It also brings with it a HDMI in port, allowing those with set top boxes to run their TV through it. Whilst that doesn’t sound like much it’s telling of the larger strategy that Microsoft has at play here: they’re marketing the XboxOne as much more than a games console.
Indeed all the other features that they’ve included, like Snap Mode and the upgrades to their SmartGlass app, are all heavily focused on media consumption and making the XboxOne the central point of your home entertainment setup. Considering that current generation Xboxs are used to watch media more than they are to play games this change in direction is not surprising however it could alienate some of the more hardcore games fans. It seems Sony was well aware of this as their launch focused far more heavily on the gaming experience that their console could deliver rather than its additional media capabilities. The delineation then seems clear: if you want a gaming machine go for the PS4, but for everyone else there’s XboxOne.
The Xbox had always been Microsoft’s last piece in the Three Screens puzzle and it appears that the XboxOne will in fact be running a version of windows under the hood. In fact it’s running 3 different operating systems: Windows 8/RT, a second Xbox OS that’ll remain largely static (for developers) and the third layer sounds more like a hypervisor, managing access to resources for the 2 main operating systems. I speculated last year that Microsoft would be looking to bring WinRT to the next gen Xbox and that appears to be the case although how much of the functionality is directly compatible is still up for question as Microsoft has stated that you’ll “need to do some work” to port them across.
Unfortunately it does look like Microsoft wants to take an axe to the second hand games market as whilst the rumours of it needing to be always online have turned out to be false (although games can make use of Azure Cloud Gaming services which would require an online connection) installing a game to a hard drive locks it to that particular Xbox account, requiring a fee to do it on another. Whether or not you can play games without installing them is still up for debate however and the answer to that will make or break the second hand games market.
Additionally there’s going to be no backwards compatibility to speak of, save for transferring of licenses for media and your gamer score. Whilst this was not unexpected this combined with the lack of a second hand games market might be a dealbreaker for some. Whether this will push more people to Sony remains to be seen though as whilst they’ve alluded to backwards compatibility possibly coming via some kind of cloud gaming service that won’t be something former Xboxers will care about. It’s far more likely that the decision will be made on what the console will primarily be used for: gaming or media.
I’ve been something of a stalwart “buy all the things” consumer ever since I had a job that would allow me to do this but with the announcement of XboxOne I’m not sure if that will be the case anymore. I say this because I believe that the vast majority of titles will be cross platform, thanks to the x86 architecture, and as of yet there hasn’t been any compelling exclusives announced for either platform that would draw me to it. The Xbox360 landed a purchase solely for Mass Effect but I get the feeling that we won’t see another title that’s bound to a single platform like that again. With that in mind it’s highly likely that my current console collection will be slimmed down to one, and the last man standing will be the PS4.
I would love to be convinced otherwise though, Microsoft.
When Google announced the Nexus 4 I was genuinely excited, my Lumia was showing its age and I was eager to get back to the platform that I loved, especially one delivered by Google. However month after of month of delays which had me hanging on the order page every day eventually wore my patience down and I swore that Google wouldn’t be getting any money from me this time around. Whilst I’ll admit that I almost caved when they finally became available I stuck to my guns and kept searching for a replacement handset.
Initially I was sold on the ZTE Grand S as it’s release date wasn’t too far off into the future and it’s specifications were really quite impressive. Still being an impatient, instant gratification kind of guy I kept searching for other phones that had similar specs but would have a release date sooner rather than later. It didn’t take long before I stumbled across the Sony Xperia Z which not only matched the ZTE in every way it was going to be available months earlier. Within a week I had dropped the requisite cash for one and not long after it arrived at my doorstep.
The Xperia Z is by far the largest phone I’ve ever owned with a massive 5″ screen with an even more incredible 1080p resolution (yeah, that’s the same as my TV). For someone with large hands who struggled with the smaller screens on iPhones and my Samsung Galaxy S2 the increased screen real estate is just awesome, especially when it comes to typing on it. The screen itself is none too shabby either with that high DPI making everything look clear and incredibly detailed. It is a TFT screen which means that it’s viewing angle is somewhat limited (which is not usually a problem, but its certainly noticable) and it’s a little rubbish when used in sunlight. This can be combated somewhat by turning on auto-brightness adjustments which is strangely set to off by default.
Despite its size and glass casing the Xperia Z is quite light, especially when compared to the hefty Nokia device that I upgraded from. It’s not on the level of the Galaxy S2 where I’d sometimes forget I had it in my pocket, it’s far too large to forget about. I believe this is due to its rather unique construction where the glass layers are actually quite thin which, whilst reducing weight, does mean that when pressing on the screen you can sometimes cause the LCD to warp slightly which is a little disconcerting. Having said that though I’ve already managed to drop mine a couple times and it’s managed to survive with no noticeable consequences.
The hardware under the hood is great on paper (Snapdragon S4 Pro quad-core 1.5 Ghz processor with 2GB RAM, 16GB on board storage) and it doesn’t fail to deliver in the real world either. Out of the box all motions are buttery smooth with all applications reveling with the insane amount of grunt that the Xperia Z has behind it. The only time that I’ve seen it struggle is when I’ve started to make modifications (like a custom launcher and theme) but even that only seems to happen at very particular times and disappears as quickly as it started.
Surprisingly such grunt doesn’t come at the cost of battery life thanks to the massive 2400mAh battery that powers the Xperia Z. Whilst it will gladly chew through all that energy should you give it a reason to (like playing Minecraft on it, for instance) in its default state it’ll last for days on a single charge. I charge my battery every night but most of the time it’s above 50% when I do, showing that it’s quite capable of going for 2 days without requiring a charge. This is all without its crazy STAMINA mode enabled either which disables data connections when the screen is off which I can only assume would increase the battery life further.
The camera is none too bad either being a 13MP Exmor RS chip, similar to the ones that power Sony’s powerhouse pocket cams like the NEX-5. It’s capable of producing some pretty decent pictures, like the one you see above, however like all smartphone cameras it languishes in low light when it tries to ramp up the ISO and just ends up creating a noisy mess. The HDR video also seems to be something of a gimmick as turning it on doesn’t seem to have a noticeable impact on the result video produced. I haven’t done any conclusive testing with it however.
Sony took something of a light touch when it came to customizing the underlying Android OS with their mobile theme being a thin veneer over the default Jellybean interface. They’ve also favoured the in-built applications over developing their own versions of them which is great as whilst Samsung’s apps weren’t terrible they paled in comparison to others, including the stock Android versions. The only application that got a lot of work was the camera app and realistically all that was done to support the not-so-standard features that Sony packed into it. Overall I was quite pleased with Sony’s approach as it shows that they’re focused on providing a great experience rather than attempt to shovel crapware.
However I can’t really give Sony all the credit for that as it really comes down to Android and the third party application ecosystem that’s developed around it. Whilst I hadn’t been gone from Android for long the improvements in many of the applications that I used daily is really impressive and things that felt like a chore on other platforms are just so much better. That coupled with the insane amount of customizability that Android allows has enabled me to make my Xperia Z truly unique to me coupled with all the functionality I had been missing on my Lumia.
Sony has really come a long way with their line of phones, from way back in the day when they launched their first Xperia (which I still have in my drawer at home) to today when they’re building phones that are, in my opinion, best in class. I’ll admit that I was a little worried that I had jumped the gun when I heard the S4 was going to be out soon but the Xperia is not only comparable, it beats it in several categories. The fact that Sony was able to release a phone of this calibre ahead of the competition says a lot about Sony’s development team and I’m happy to say they’ve created the best phone I’ve ever used to date.
You don’t have to look far on this blog to know that I’m a Sony fan although my recent choice in products would tell you otherwise. I do genuinely appreciate them as a company as whilst they’ve made a whole bunch of mistakes they’ve also delivered some amazing products on the years, typically in industries where they’re far from being industry leaders. My relationship began with them many years ago when I first laid my hands on the original PlayStation console and has continued on since then.
Today they announced the next generation of their home entertainment systems: the PlayStation 4.
Whilst the event is still unfolding while I’m writing this there’s already been a lot of rumours confirmed, surprises unveiled and of course a whole bunch of marketing blather that no one is interesting in hearing. Among the confirmed rumours are the fact that it’s an x86 platform under the hood, the controller has a touchpad on it (among several other features including a Kinectesque motion tracking system) and a customized PC GPU. Of course the really interesting things are the features that have managed to remain secret throughout the various leaks and speculative sprees that have been occurring over the past couple months.
For starters it appears that the PS4 will come equipped with a whopping 8GB of GDDR5 rather than the 4GB that was previously advertised. This is interesting because the Durango apparently faced issues trying to integrate that amount of memory due to the bandwidth requirements and thus opted to go with DDR3 and a speedy 32MB cache to counter-act that. Sony has either made a last minute change to the design to get specification parity (although 4GB GDDR5 is arugably much better than 8GB of DDR3) or had this planned for quite a long time, meaning that they overcame the engineering challenge that Durango couldn’t (or wouldn’t, for various reasons).
One of the much speculated features was the integration of streaming services allowing users to share screenshots, game clips and all manner of things. Part of the leaked specifications for both Durango and Orbis hinted at an external processing unit that would enable this without the main GPU or CPU taking a hit. This has come to fruition and it appears that Ustream will the the platform of choice. Whilst I know a lot of people aren’t particularly thrilled with this (it seems a lot of us gamers didn’t get out of the anti-social gaming box we cocooned ourselves in during our formative years) for someone like me who reviews games it’s an absolute godsend as it means that my convoluted recording rig won’t be required just so I can get a few in game screen shots. Realistically this is just an organic progression of features that have been present in some games to making them available natively in the platform, something I’m sure the developers are thankful for.
There’s also a swath of remote play stuff which looks like a natural progression of the stuff that’s already in the PS3/PSP combo. Some of the pictures shown during the stream indicate that it might extend further than just the Vita and that’d definitely be something as not everyone (not even me, shocking I know) wants to invest in a Vita in order to get that kind of functionality. With their acquisition of Gaikai, which was ostensibly for the streaming backwards compatibility that’ll come for PS1/2/3 games, they do have the opportunity to take that same streaming and let you play your games anywhere with your PS4 providing the underlying grunt. There’s no mention of that specifically but all the key parts are there and that’d certainly give them a leg up on Microsoft when it comes to delivering a ubiquitous platform.
Fanboyism aside the PS4 does genuinely look like a great piece of hardware and the services that are being built on top of it are going to be really competitive. Sony has been lagging behind Microsoft for a long time in the services space and it looks like for the first time they’ll at least be at parity with them. We’ll have to wait for the Durango announcement first before we can make true comparisons between the two but if the leaks are anything to go by it’s going to be a good time for us gamers, whatever our chosen platform is.
Now if only they gave us a release date. That one delicious piece of information is curiously absent.
It was the year 2000, a time when Napster was still nascent and the Internet was still that esoteric play ground for nerds or those who dared to trudge through the horror that was GeoCities. By this time I was already fully set in my geek ways with my very own computer in my room that I’d while away countless hours on, usually on Dune 2 or Diablo. Of course the way of the geek isn’t exactly cheap, my new computer had set my parents back a rather pretty penny or two, and they had said in no uncertain terms that I was no longer allowed to spend their money any more. It was time for me to get a job.
I was apprehensive at first after the horror stories I had heard from friends working in various fast food restaurants and other entry level jobs but the motivation to be able to have my own capital, money that I couldn’t be told what do to with, was far too tantalizing to give up. As luck would have it I landed in what was then geek heaven of Dick Smith Electronics and whilst it wasn’t all roses from day 1 it certainly was the perfect place for me, allowing me to fiddle with gadgets endlessly without having to shell out the requisite dollars.
Then one day a particular gadget caught my eye, the Sony MZ-R55. For those who aren’t familiar with this magnificent little beast it was one of the first MiniDisc players from Sony that you could truly consider portable as most of the models prior to that were rather large and bulky, even if they were “portable” in the true sense of the word. It’s size didn’t come cheap however as whilst CD players had become a commodity item at that point, with even the most expensive and lavish units costing under $100, the MZ-R55 was retailing for $500+ even with my ludicrous cost price + 10% employee discount. The price didn’t phase young me however, that MiniDisc player would one day be mine and that day did eventually come.
It wasn’t just geek lust after the size that attracted me to MiniDiscs it was the audio quality coupled with the amazing ability to have tracks I could skip to that pushed me over the edge. My MP3 collection had just started to take shape and I wasn’t impressed with the quality I got when they translated to tape. Recording on MiniDisc however, which was done by a pure optical TOS-LINK connection from a SoundBlaster Audigy card, proved to be far superior in every respect. Plus having a remote and a rechargeable battery proved to be the ultimate of convenience features and my little MZ-R55 saw use every day.
The player also earned a special place in my heart when I journeyed to Japan in 2001. You see apart from myself and a close friend of mine there were no other MiniDisc users that I knew of and I certainly didn’t sell many of them at work. In Japan however they were far bigger than CDs and there were even terminals where you could choose a selection of tracks and then have them burnt to a MiniDisc while you were waiting. That wasn’t what won the MiniDisc a special place in my heart however, no it was something far more special than that.
The trip was part of a school excursion arranged my Japanese teacher and part of that was a home stay with a family. I was billeted with a family of 3 girls and their mother. My host sister’s name was Akiko and I spent 5 days in their house speaking horrific Japanese, enjoying their company and even putting on a “traditional” Australian barbecue at their house. At the end of it all, during a tear soaked farwell that had all of the home stay families gathered together to see us off, she handed me a single MiniDisc with all her favourite songs on it. I had been fairly stoic up until that point but it was then that I lost it and spent much of the rest of the trip listening to it. Maybe that’s why I love Utada Hikaru so much.
And then today news reached me that Sony was stopping production of all MiniDisc systems next month.
You’d think that I’d be upset about this but MiniDisc had been an also ran for some time now; I had already mourned its death a long time ago. Instead when I heard about that today all I remembered was that amazing piece of technology that found its niche in a couple places, one of them in my home. Sure it had its share of problems and no one in their right mind would spend as much as I did in order to use them but it was like the vinyl of my geek generation, it just felt all over better. Whilst other manufacturers might continue to make MiniDiscs and their associated systems Sony was the original and them shutting down production signals the end of its era, even if it had technically happened years ago.
For those of us who had MiniDisc players we loved them to bits, sometimes literally with later models that had a tendency to shake screws loose. They were a stop gap technology that was the first to bridge the gap between the digital and physical world without having to resort to analogue means and the format itself was something of a technical marvel to with the discs being almost archival levels of quality thanks to them being based on Magneto-Optical technology. I really could go on for hours about how good they were and all the fond memories I had with my MZ-R55 but I’m already emotional enough as it is.
Here’s to MiniDisc. You might not have been the raving success that the WalkMan was but you were everything that it was and more to me. You won’t be forgotten, that I can assure you.
You wouldn’t have to be a reader for long to know that my preferred gaming platform is the PC but I’m pretty sure it comes as no surprise that I have all of the current generation consoles (apart from the WiiU, but I do have a Wii). I grew up with both platforms and arguably I was more of a console gamer when I was younger but as time went on I found that PC gaming just sat better with me. What I’m getting at here is that whilst I might be a PC gamer I’m certainly not one to call for the demise of the consoles and indeed believe that the platform will be around for quite a long time to come.
Others don’t share that view, in particular Ben Cousins who wrote this article on Kotaku outlining the reasons why consoles are going away:
Many people (me included) have been saying publicly that they think the ‘console’—dedicated hardware designed primarily for gaming—is on its way out.
I used to keep a list of famous developers and executives who shared my view, but it got too big to maintain!
He then goes on to list 5 data points and 2 assumptions that back up his claim and on the surface they appear plausible. Indeed many of the supporting points are based at least partially on ideas that everyone involved in the games industry knew about but I feel the conclusions drawn from them are a little over-reaching, enough so that his idea that consoles are going away is at the least premature and at the worst grossly misinformed.
Take for example the first data point about consoles being sold at a loss. This is no revelation as console makers have been doing this for decades prior and have still managed to turn a profitable business from them. Indeed while Nintendo might be breaking its usual rule of not selling consoles at a loss it doesn’t take much for them to become profitable with the sale of a single title enough to push it over the line. In fact if you look at the past 5 years things look pretty good for the major consoles, especially for Microsoft and Nintendo. I believe Cousins is being slightly unfair by going back further than that because those years were right at the beginning of the current generation console’s life and that’s arguably the point at which the greatest losses will be incurred.
I’m also not sure how 40% of the sales occurring after the price drops supports his idea that these people are somehow the mainstream gamers. Taken literally that means that the majority, I.E. >50% of current gen console owners, bought their console before these price drops/product revisions occurred. I’d also argue that a portion of those new sales were also current owners upgrading older consoles as in the case of the Xbox the original was something of a jet engine when used and the subsequent iterations vastly improved that experience. I’ve heard similar tales from PS3 Slim owners as well so I don’t feel the “mainstream gamer” argument holds up with console sale figures alone.
It’s not a secret that mobile devices are pervasive but it’s also quite known what they’re capable of and what their primary use is. Indeed console makers are aware of this and have been working to expand their console experience onto the mobile platform. Microsoft has long been working towards achieving their Three Screens idea which would see the experience between Xbox360, Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 unified together enabling developers to provide the same experience regardless of the platform. We’re still a long way from achieving that and whilst smartphones do a good job of getting close to the console experience they’re still not in the same league, something which console owners are acutely aware of.
The rest is speculation based off those points which I won’t bother digging into but suffice to say I don’t get the feeling that consoles are going to go anywhere in a hurry and I’m willing to say that there’ll definitely be several more generations to come. The mobile market might be growing but I believe it’s an additive market, one that’s bringing more gamers in not one that’s cannibalizing gamers away. There’s also the fact that consoles are increasingly becoming the media centre of the house, something that smartphones are going to have a hard time replacing. Still we’re both deep in speculation territory here so the only way to settle this will be to wait it out and hope that both our opinion pieces are still online in a decades time.
One thing that not many people knew was that I was pretty keen on the whole Google TV idea when it was announced 2 years ago. I think that was partly due to the fact that it was a collaboration between several companies that I admire (Sony, Logitech and, one I didn’t know about at the time, Intel) and also because of what it promised to deliver to the end users. I was a fairly staunch supporter of it, to the point where I remember getting into an argument with my friends that consumers were simply not ready for something like it rather than it being a failed product. In all honesty I can’t really support that position any more and the idea of Google TV seems to be dead in the water for the foreseeable future.
What I didn’t know was that whilst Google, Sony and Logitech might have put the idea to one side Intel has been working on developing their own product along similar lines, albeit from a different angle than you’d expect. Whilst I can’t imagine that they had invested that much in developing the hardware for the TVs (a quick Google search reveals that they were Intel Atoms, something they had been developing for 2 years prior to Google TV’s release) it appears that they’re still seeking some returns on that initial investment. At the same time however reports are coming in that Intel is dropping anywhere from $100 million to $1 billion on developing this new product, a serious amount of coin that industry analysts believe is an order of magnitude above anyone who’s playing around in this space currently.
The difference between this and other Internet set top boxes appears to be the content deals that Intel is looking to strike with current cable TV providers. Now anyone who’s ever looked into getting any kind of pay TV package knows that whatever you sign up for you’re going to get a whole bunch of channels you don’t want bundled in alongside the ones you do, effectively diluting the value you derive from the service significantly. Pay TV providers have long fought against the idea of allowing people to pick and choose (and indeed anyone who attempted to provide such a service didn’t appear to last long, ala SelecTV Australia) but with the success of on demand services like NetFlix and Hulu it’s quite possible that they might be coming around to the idea and see Intel as the vector of choice.
The feature list that’s been thrown around press prior to an anticipated announcement at CES next week (which may or may not happen, according to who you believe) does sound rather impressive, essentially giving you the on demand access that everyone wants right alongside the traditional programming that we’ve come to expect from pay TV services. The “Cloud DVR” idea, being able to replay/rewind/fast-forward shows without having to record them yourself, is evident of this and it would seem that the idea of providing the traditional channels as well would just seem to be a clever ploy to get the content onto their network. Of course traditional programming is required for certain things like sports and other live events, something which the on demand services have yet to fully incorporate into their offerings.
Whilst I’m not entirely enthused with the idea of yet another set top box (I’m already running low on HDMI ports as it is) the information I’ve been able to dig up on Intel’s offering does sound pretty compelling. Of course many of the features aren’t exactly new, you can do many of the things now with the right piece of hardware and pay TV subscriptions, but the ability to pick and choose channels would be and then getting that Hulu-esque interface to watch previous episodes would be something that would interest me. If the price point is right, and its available globally rather than just the USA, I could see myself trying it out for the select few channels that I’d like to see (along with their giant back catalogues, of course).
In any case it will be very interesting to see if Intel does say anything about their upcoming offering next week as if they do we’ll have information direct from the source and if they don’t we’ll have a good indication of which analysts really are talking to people who are involved in the project.
I love me some Sony products but I’m under no delusion that their user experience can be, how can I put this, fantastically crap sometimes. For the most part their products are technologically brilliant (both the PS3 and the DSC-HX5V that I have fit that category) but the user experience outside that usually leaves something to be desired. This isn’t for a lack of trying however as Sony has shown that they’re listening to their customers, albeit only after they’ve nagged about it for years before hand. After spinning up my PS3 again for the first time in a couple months to start chipping away at the backlog of console games that I have I feel like Sony needs another round of nagging in order to improve the current user experience.
The contrast between Sony’s and Microsoft’s way of doing consoles couldn’t be more stark. Microsoft focused heavily on the online component of the Xbox and whilst there might be a cost barrier associated with accessing it Xbox Live still remains as the most active online gaming networks to date. Sony on the other hand left the access free to all to begin with and has only recently begun experimenting with paid access (the jury is still out on how successful that’s been). One of the most notable differences though is the updating process, major source of tension for PS3 owners worldwide.
As I sat down to play my copy of Uncharted 3: Drake’s Fortune I first greeted with the “A system update is required” message in the top right hand corner of my TV. Since I wasn’t really planning to go online with this one just yet I figured I could ignore that and just get to playing the game. Not so unfortunately as it has been so long since I last updated that Uncharted 3 required an update to be applied before I could play it. Fair enough I thought and 15 mins later I was all updated and ready to go. Unfortunately the game itself also had an update, pushing back my game time by another 5 minutes or so. This might not seem like a lot of time (and I know, #firstworldproblems) but the time taken was almost enough for me not to bother at all, and this isn’t the first time it has happened either.
Nearly every time I go to play my PS3 there is yet another update that needs to be downloaded either for me to get online or to play the game that I’m interested in playing. My Xbox on the other hand rarely has updates, indeed I believe there’s been a grand total of 1 since the last time I used it. Both of these approaches have their advantages and disadvantages but Sony’s way of doing it seems to be directly at odds with the primary use case for their device, something which doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. In fact I think there’s a really easy way to reduce that time-to-play lag to zero and it’s nothing radical at all.
Do the updates while the PS3 is turned off or not in use.
Right now the downloading of updates is a manual process, requiring you to go in and agree to the terms and conditions before it will start the downloads. Now I can understand why some people wouldn’t want automatic updating (and that’s perfectly valid) so there will have to be an option to turn it off. Otherwise it should be relatively simple to periodically boot the system into a low power mode and download the latest patches for both system and games that have been played on it. If such a low power mode isn’t possible then scheduling a full system boot at a certain time to perform the same actions would be sufficient. Then you can either have the user choose to automatically install them or keep the process as is from there on, significantly reducing the time-to-play lag.
I have no doubt that this is a common complaint amongst many PS3 users, especially since it’s become the target of Internet satire. Implementing a change like this would go a long way to making the PS3 user base a lot happier, especially for those of us who don’t use it regularly. There’s also a myriad of other things Sony could do as well but considering how long it took them to implement XMB access in games I figure it’s best to work on the most common issue first before we get caught up in issue paralysis. I doubt this blog post will inspire Sony to make the change but I’m hopeful that if enough people start asking for it then one day we might see it done.