*UPDATE* This morning Microsoft announced they will unveil the NEW Xbox May 21, 10AM PDT
In February Sony officially kicked off the start of the next generation of gaming consoles (sorry Nintendo) by announcing the PS4 along with a ton of forward thinking features that showed that Sony got the memo about its current generation pitfalls. Things like instant streaming of games, the alleviation of load times, seamless gameplay sharing, and tons of other social gaming experiences that look very promising. A lot of this wasn't actually shown and still has to be proven as more then ideas, but it sparked excitement among gamers nonetheless. If the rumblings are true, in the next couple of weeks we should hear what Microsofts plans are for the 8th generation of video game consoles. Sony set the bar relatively high in most areas and has owned most of the positive conversation online ever since. It's time for Microsoft to show (some) of its cards and let their fans know exactly what they can expect.
While Sony has had a helluva line up of exclusives for the PS3 this generation, they've had plenty of hiccups and missteps that have made me wonder what the hell the exe's at SCE were thinking at times. Microsoft has also had it's own share of issues that gave me reasons to question which of the console makers new machines I'll be purchasing first. So to me and I think with a lot of other gamers, my loyalty is to no one at this point. Whoever can provide what I think is best for my needs will get my money first. Sure I'll probably eventually end up with both but the first console I purchase is usually the one I use the most. So here is what I think Microsoft needs to show to make sure myself and others are lined up on release day salivating to get our hands on a Xbox 720 (or whatever the hell they call it)
Every since the rumors of "Always-on" connectivity being required began to swirl around it's been an albatross around Microsofts neck, choking any positive news that came out about the Xbox 720. No one knows exactly what "Always-on" is actually referring to but the assumption is that the player will need to always be connected to the internet in order to use the system in any capacity. In fact a Microsoft Creative Director, Adam Orth was recently "let go" after he posted some tweets that addressed the "Always-on" rumors. In the tweet he expresses that having an "Always-on" device is the way of life now for most devices and folks should just #dealwithit. Microsoft didn't issue a statement to debunk the rumors or to calm the out cry, which kinda speaks volumes.
In one respect I understand why they would be looking to go this route with the Next Xbox. It makes it easier to control piracy and cheating via hacked consoles which has plagued the Xbox since inception. If the console is always online they can constantly ping the console to make sure the game being played is authentic and make sure the console itself hasn't been tampered with. But there are far more reasons why this would be a horrible idea for customers.
For one, everyone doesn't have access to high-speed broadband, better yet, consistent high-speed broadband. And we're just talking about the U.S., lets not even think about the worldwide implications.
If your internet goes out, your shiny new Xbox 720 is useless, even for single player games. Not cool. Also what happens during routine maintenance on XBox Live? Obviously we don't have all the answers so all we can do is speculate until Microsoft decides to share the details of the inner-workings of its console. There is even a rumor that speculates that the "Always-On" is in connection to their unannounced TV service and wasn't referring to gaming necessarily. Again, we'll have to just wait and see but after the Sim City debacle I can't see how anyone at Microsoft can say this is a good idea with a straight face.
First-Party Games (Exclusives)
Microsoft's strategy for the XBox 360 when it came to exclusives was two-fold. Focus on a few blockbuster 1st-party exclusive franchises like Halo and Gears of War, while solidifying their status as the console of choice for 1st-person shooters by purchasing timed exclusivity of Call of Duty DLC. This strategy has worked for the most part, at least in the American market. But as the next generation begins, Microsoft is going to have to develop some new IP's, continuing to go to the well of the same 4-5 franchises are already proving to be wearing thin. They also have Forza, Fable and a few other Kinect titles that have sold well this gen, but their lineup doesn't compare to the long list of successful franchises Sony has and have developed during the PS3's lifetime. It's no secret since the Kinect launched Microsoft Studios have put more of their focus into Kinect titles and positioning the Xbox brand as a family friendly console. As a gamer first, exclusives may be the deciding factor as to which console I ultimately take home this holiday season. I'm not expecting them to show much in the initial press conference but hopefully some teasers will be shown or at least mentioned prior to E3.
Multi-Media Strategy (Xbox LIVE)
This current generation I have been of two-minds about Xbox Live Gold and it's value. Purely from a gamers perspective I initially found it appalling that Microsoft would charge a subscription fee for me to play my games online. I didn't have to pay to play on my PC or on my PS3, so why should I have to pay Microsoft? But after a few years of playing PS3 online, why pretty good as free service, there were a few things I found I wanted that were missing, primarily fast servers. Downloading anything on the PS3 is a chore (firmware updates) and at times I'd wish I could pay a little bit a year to get access to servers that would actually use my 30 Mbps internet connection.
With that said, Xbox Live restricting access to the multi-media apps was asinine, especially in the beginning. Having to pay a subscription to use my subscription just felt wrong and greedy on Microsofts part. Granted they've added a lot to Xbox Live Gold over the years and now seems worth it if you are an online gamer and use a lot of the media services. However if you don't happen to play a lot of games online that $60/yr (I know you can find it for cheaper) can't sit well with a lot of families, especially with subscription free Roku's and Apple TV's for $99.
The most recent rumors of Microsoft possibly lining up deals with major cable companies to use the Xbox 720 as a cable box and overlay their user interface on top sounds fantastic. This is everything people hoped the Google TV could be and what some hoped the mythical Apple Television should be. There are dozens of interesting possibilities for Microsoft by being able to control the cable signal and the UI. Integration with Xbox LIVE for one opens up tons of doors for sharing, interactivity and Kinect navigation.
If cable isn't your thing, Microsoft has also opened up its own production studio in Santa Monica, CA that's said to be producing a range of their own "cable-quality" original content. There is speculation that some or all of this will come on top of the existing Xbox Live Gold subscription as a premium tier. Hopefully we'll learn more details about Microsoft's entertainment plans during the announcement. As a "cord-cutter" i'm always excited to hear about quality content being provided over the internet that I can watch on my TV. The entertainment deals part of the equation has always been a weak point for the PS3 and may be the leg up Microsoft needs to offset Sony's current momentum, or the potential backlash from the "Always-On" rumors if true.
Windows 8/Windows Phone 8/RT
With the huge investment Microsoft has put into their unified interface mantra of Windows 8, RT tablets and Windows Phone 8 mobile OS, I'd be shocked if the Next Xbox isn't using some type of tiled Metro UI. Not only am I expecting it to visually look like Windows 8 devices but I'm also expecting some great interoperability between these devices as well. Like using a Windows Phone, tablet or PC to push content to your Xbox to watch on the TV, similar to Apple's Airplay. I'd also expect to see a more fleshed out version of SmartGlass that perhaps television networks or studios could take advantage of if you use your Xbox 720 as a cable box. There are lots of possibilities to be explored that could put Sony and Apple both on the defensive if Microsoft plays their cards right.
By the time the first iteration of Kinect came out, it had been stripped down from it's original form before being added to the XBox. They choose not to include a dedicated processor like it had when they purchased the technology, but to use one of the cores from the Xbox 360 to power it. This of course limited the Kinects potential but was done for cost savings reasons and to keep the device affordable. Microsoft has had time not only to improve the software but it'll have a lot more power and memory under the hood to take advantage of. I'd like to see a lot higher precision (reading individual fingers) with a lot less lag. It would even be nice if they added some Siri/Google Now type features but geared it towards entertainment. Based on your uses it could suggest TV shows, Movies, pre-record things it thinks you may like, all of this should be capable with the next version of Kinect. I could go on and on about the things I'd like the Kinect to do, whatever they have cooking, I just hope Microsoft exceeded my expectations.
After Microsofts reportedly May announcement, E3 is in June where I expect to see both companies showing off everything they got in hopes of wooing gamers, both hardcore and causal to buy their latest hardware. It's an interesting time for the video game console market. The last time a new console was released by Microsoft or Sony, both the iPhone and the iPad had not been released. Mobile gaming is becoming increasingly sophisticated as the hardware is improving on a yearly basis and the price of software is much cheaper do to scale. While the price to make big budget console games continue to increase, some are skeptical on the viability of these machines in the future.
I'll be at E3 and plan to have some great coverage here so stay tuned. Until then, let me know in the comments what Microsoft or Sony has to do to make you a believer.
Note: I didn't mention backwards compatibility because with Microsoft moving to a new architecture it's pretty much a given that there isn't any hope on that front. If Microsoft does have some sort of plan to satiate the understandable outrage of those that have spent lots of money on Xbox Live games then I will be pleasantly surprised.