Thursday, July 24, 2008

E3 2008: Microsoft's Borrowed Reinvention

Courtesy of Penny Arcade

Going into E3 2008, Microsoft was feeling pressure from both Nintendo and Sony. The Wii has been dominating worldwide, while the PS3, PS2, and even the PSP have been faring better than the Xbox 360 these past few months. Their holiday release schedule was largely unknown outside of a handful of major titles like Fable II and Gears of War 2. But they managed to pull out a few surprises while others were par for the course. While some of their ideas seem to be borrowed from other companies and the announced third-party loyalty smells like it was 'purchased', Microsoft had a decent conference that was at least better than Nintendo's field day.

Microsoft's new Avatar system looks very similar to Nintendo's Miis.

Perhaps the biggest announcement was the total redesign of their User Interface and of Xbox Live. The previous 'blades' look is now relegated to the guide menu, with the new look seemingly inspired in large part by Apple's aesthetic and overall design style. The gamertag card is now linked to a Nintendo-like Avatar, going with their new focus on community tools. Among those additions is a new Live Party channel. Similar to the grouping aspects of PS3's upcoming Home service, this allows friends to get together, form groups, and stay connected in-between games. Unlike Nintendo's Miis, Avatars are fully customizable with content purchased on the Xbox Live Marketplace. Created by Rare, you will be able to utilize them in Arcade games like Uno and Scene-It. They've also added Xbox Primetime, a game show channel where you compete in games like 1 vs. 100 and possibly win real-life prizes. You can't help but applaud their dedication to improve their services, but a lot of these shifts don't feel very genuine. The fact that many of them feel borrowed from others and that they're mostly trying to capture the Wii's casual audience doesn't sit too well with me. With the Xbox 360 receiving the title of the "hardcore" gamer's console, it looks like they're trying to stray from that image.

Final Fantasy XIII will be coming to both the Xbox 360 and the PS3 simultaneously in North America and Europe, but will remain PS3-exclusive in Japan.

Their casual market targeting is furthered by their karaoke title, Lips, where you can actually sing from your own music collection. Other titles like UNO Rush, a sequel to Galaga, and You're In The Movies show their casual side while the announcement of Geometry Wars 2 and the re-release of the N64 classic, Banjo Kazooie show their attempts to reassure the hardcore. Reiterations and release dates of previously announced titles like Fable II, Resident Evil 5, Gears of War 2, and a "semi-sequel" to Portal weren't surprising, but titles like Alan Wake and Halo Wars were suspiciously missing. Their "bought third-party loyalty" were seen in full-force with exclusive DLC content for Fallout 3, timed exclusive content for Rock Band and Guitar Hero, and the reiteration of Square Enix's surprisingly exclusive support for the Xbox 360 with a slew of RPGs. What is most shocking and controversial was the announcement that Final Fantasy XIII would also be coming to the 360 in North America and Europe, but not in Japan. I'm all for making games and content available to as wide of an audience as possible, but some of these exclusive deals make me question the utilization of Microsoft's deep pockets. The multi-platform release of FFXIII seems to be on course with Square Enix's previous track record of releasing exclusive titles Star Ocean 4, Infinite Undiscovery, and the timed exclusive Last Remnant on the 360. No matter how they have secured their titles, Microsoft has a pretty well-rounded line up for Holiday 2008.

I still don't agree with Microsoft's continued practices of 'nickel-and-diming' their consumers in the Marketplace as well as the overflow of content and the lack of quality control, but they have created a very robust video store. Their content catalog is only growing larger with NBC/Universal adding their support. And their video offerings are getting better with a partnership with Netflix to allow Xbox Live Gold and Netflix subscribers to watch and stream content directly to their 360. This is similar to their PC service, but now you can watch content directly on your television. They have also officially announced the Xbox Live Community Games channel, which follows up on their XNA initiative to allow consumers to create and sell games through the 360. With a fair pricing scheme that allows would-be developers to retain up to 70% revenue and pricing ranging from $2.50-$10, this sounds like a very good system. Their new services and community features are showing Microsoft's why Xbox Live is so big. While their pending game line up has some questioning its integrity versus some of the competition, it looks to hold up well.

Overall, it feels like Microsoft is grasping at straws. They seem to think that money is the answer to everything, buying loyalty and exclusive content rather than leaving it up to the publisher. This isn't a new business scheme by any means, but it doesn't feel right. The fact that some of their 'innovative' ideas don't feel very original is questionable as well. That aside, they seem to be implementing them well enough. While some accuse Microsoft of trying to appeal more to the casual rather than the core gamer, it's no where near the levels of Nintendo. Whether or not you agree with Microsoft's upcoming changes, service additions, and business practices, they at least added up to make a very decent E3 press conference.

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