Sunday, November 24, 2013

Some Personal Thoughts on the Xbox One Launch

The Xbox One has arrived, completing the cycle of the eighth generation of video game consoles. Now that the race is officially on, I wanted to take a closer look at Microsoft’s latest offering. At $500 USD, the Xbox One is $100 more expensive than the PlayStation 4 out of the box. Thankfully this time there's only one Xbox configuration to choose from, but that also means there is no "cheaper" option if you're looking to upgrade. The extra $100 mostly comes from the included Kinect. As I hinted last week this is a part of Microsoft’s wider product strategy with the Xbox: to them, the console war and the war for the living room are one and the same. As gaming machines both systems are somewhat identical in terms of raw power and their initial libraries, as expected. The difference, besides the price tag, is in how each company expects people to use the system. The Xbox One is for more than just games: it's designed to be the epicenter of your home theater. Sony's PS4 on the other hand seems to emphasize the games over all that. Time will tell which company’s strategy pays off.

I actually sat out the Xbox 360 launch, so I can’t give any direct comparisons between the launch of the Xbox One vs. its immediate predecessor as I did for the PS4 vs. PS3. I did manage to play a few rounds of Geometry Wars on my friend's 360 back in the wee hours of November 22, 2005. I remember being immediately impressed with the console, to the point that when I finally went home I ended up perusing eBay for a late play to get one (I assumed that they had all sold out at retail). I was surprised to see that 360s were selling at multiples of their suggested retail price, and a few were going for an astonishing $6,000 USD Buy It Now price. The high demand for the Xbox 360 that fall seemed to suggest that Microsoft was riding a wave of successful marketing and gamer good will. To that point Sony had dominated the console market with the PlayStation 2, having outsold all of its competitors combined. Though the PS2 had been adopted at a historic rate, there were signs that pointed to a receding tide for the brand, and Microsoft capitalized accordingly. The console landscape is different now that the dust has settled from the seventh generation. Both companies sold roughly the same amount of consoles worldwide, though the Redmond firm gained considerable ground in the US market. All that said, with the Xbox One, Microsoft made a number of high profile gaffes during the reveal events earlier in the year. It had to reverse course on a number of unpopular DRM schemes just a week after e3 2013 in the face of mounting criticism from its core customer base. During all that, Sony managed to get out of its own way with the PS4 and has done a remarkable job of turning consumer sentiment back into its favor. Indeed as we kick off the latest round of the console war, it feels like Microsoft is in the same predicament that Sony faced in 2006: how to top its own success.

Upon booting up, the Xbox One looks like a continuation of the Xbox 360 in terms of its operating system, though the One unlike its predecessor is a child of the One Microsoft strategy and actually runs a version of Windows. That's significant in that it's something we've not seen since the Dreamcast days, and theoretically makes the Xbox One a more capable entertainment device. I discovered that there was more set up involved than with the PS4, and disappointingly my system froze during controller calibration. After that hiccup things went smoothly, with the added step of setting up the Kinect. I’m a first time Kinect user so I didn't know quite what to expect. Sound calibration was needed for the voice commands, and after a volume test it was good to go. I’m not entirely sold on the Kinect but I can’t deny that its person recognition features and voice commands are cool, if nothing else. After Xbox Live account migration, I was ready to download my first games: Killer Instinct and Crimson Dragon. I also got a physical media game, Dead Rising 3. I have to say I was pleased by the "Day One" branding of cover. A word about this Day One business: there is no physical difference between Day One branded consoles and "standard" branded consoles. The included controller bears a "Day One 2013" mark and there is an achievement that can be unlocked by entering in the included promotional code. Other than that, there is no difference that I can tell. Here's what else you can expect if you’re buying one this holiday season:

22 Launch Titles

This number represents a slight improvement over the 18 titles available at the Xbox 360 launch. The Xbox One, naturally, has the current big name (and cross platform) franchises in Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, Battlefield, FIFA, and Madden, and a strong exclusive line up in Dead Rising 3, Forza Motorsport 5, and Ryse. So far, no surprises. I was surprised however to see the resurrection of Killer Instinct, the venerable Rare fighting franchise, this time with the development handled by Double Helix. Killer Instinct is a free to play game, with additional characters available for download. I give Microsoft credit here for trying a new business model for fighters, but perhaps I’m too old-fashioned to appreciate paying as you go to unlock characters. As a budding developer I’m interested in how the indie scene pans out, and I’ll write a longer article when I’ve had a chance to play with this aspect more. A word of caution to those who may be expecting it: there is no backwards compatibility with Xbox 360 games, although supposedly Microsoft is investigating a cloud based streaming option in the future. In any event, the launch catalog covers most of the bases competently; if there are no standouts here, the games are more than good enough to last us until 2014. 

Redesigned Xbox Controller

The Xbox 360 controller is probably one of the best standard controllers that has ever been made, and Microsoft was wise not to deviate from the winning formula too much. Like its counterpart the Dualshock 4, the Start button and the “Back” button (aka, Select) have been repurposed into what appear to be two menu buttons, if I’ve studied my iconography well. The iconic Xbox button has been moved slightly up on the face, but still rests in a prominent position in the center. The circular D-Pad has been replaced with the more practical cross D-Pad. There have been minor tweaks to the analog sticks, face and shoulder buttons, along with fine tuning to force feedback mechanics, which now can be localized to areas (to create the sensation of say, gun recoil). My only complaint is that installing two double-A batteries (included) struck me as something of an anachronism for such a high tech device, but this can be forgiven. The Xbox One controller is more of the same excellent stuff you’ve come to expect.

The System Itself

The Xbox One is a big system. It’s noticeably larger than the PS4, though I couldn’t detect that it made much more noise. I find it to be reminiscent of a VCR, and if you did a side by side comparison it would probably be roughly the same size. Looking at a tear down of the system, it appears to have a massive heat sink and cooling fan; presumably to avoid the overheating problems of the Xbox 360. The CPU is the same customized 8 core AMD processor found in the PS4, but clocked slightly higher at 1.75 GHz. The memory architecture is an interesting choice from a developer perspective: the Xbox One has 8 gigs of RAM (like the PS4), but unlike Sony’s offering Microsoft elected to use GDDR3 RAM. The Xbox One does have an embedded cache of SRAM (32 MB) that could theoretically make up the difference. The upshot is that, at least on paper, it’ll take more effort on the part of Xbox One developers to reach complete graphical parity with PS4 games. That said the HD revolution has long since become an institution for gamers anyway, so it may not matter for most. I have yet to play with SmartGlass app integration. It may not be completely up to par with the native remote play features of the PS4-PS Vita or the Nintendo Wii U’s gamepad. Rounding out the package is the Kinect. As I mentioned I have limited experience with this device, but so far it seems as though it justifies the additional cost over the PS4, if you have a strong desire to control your home theater with your Xbox and your voice. Microsoft released a graphic that contains all of the voice commands which shows how to perform most common functions with the “XBox, $action” prompt. Finally, there is a redesigned Xbox Live headset included; a nice throw-in, and once I manage to get in a multiplayer session I’ll be able to see if it’s superior to its predecessors. For a more in-depth review of the entire system, I present once again the writing of Mr. Orland who gives an excellent yet tempered overview.

As I was writing this post Microsoft reported that it had sold a million units in a 24 hour period, so in terms of sales the Xbox One is neck and neck with the PS4. This is shaping up to be an interesting battle, and I’m glad that I’m fortunate enough to be able to view it from both sides at the start this time.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Some Personal Thoughts on the PS4 Launch

The PlayStation 4 has finally arrived, and I have to say so far it’s been a more enjoyable experience than the PlayStation 3 launch. Since 2006 I’ve moved into the hobbyist game developer realm from the enthusiast game press world, so I followed the console reveal events earlier in 2013 with a more holistic interest than I did for the PS3 and Xbox 360. I was pleased, for instance, that Sony and Microsoft had selected x86 architectures and unified memory paradigms over the exotic custom hardware designs that had characterized the last generation. As for the consumer aspect of both systems: now as a thirty-something gamer, right smack dab in the middle of my "go-go-go!" years, I had been disappointed by Microsoft's initial positioning of the Xbox One. On the other hand, Sony had seemed to have learned from its many mistakes with the PS3 launch, this time around by putting its stakeholders first – i.e., gamers and developers – as opposed to continuing to reach for Total Living Room Domination™ as it appeared Microsoft was doing. I preordered Sony’s console as soon as I was able to and didn’t look back. Now that the PS4 is unboxed, set up, and I’ve spent some time with it I wanted to share my thoughts on this machine.
I mentioned that the PS4 launch was "more enjoyable" than the PS3 launch, which is hard to qualify. Last time around, Sony’s system was beset by product shortages, a conspicuous lack of desirable exclusive launch titles (Resistance: Fall of Man, anyone?), and a rather high price tag ($600 USD for the “real” version as my good friend used to say). So, it was hard to get, it didn’t have desirable games, and it was very expensive. Still, at the time I was the erstwhile Editor-in-Chief of my gaming news site, and I felt obligated to get the PS3 at launch to cover it and its games, as uninspiring as the initial offerings were. I will admit that during that time all it actually did was to collect a fair amount of dust, and as for its supposed competitive advantage in being a cheaply available Blu-ray player: the original Talladega Knights pack-in disc still remains in its shipping plastic, unwatched, till this day. Of course later on in its life cycle the PS3 would get some excellent and iconic games, notably for me Metal Gear Solid 4, Uncharted, Heavy Rain, Little Big Planet, The Last of Us - yes, I’m only counting exclusives here, and in a future post I may explain as to why – but as far as its launch goes, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, the hype and expectations surrounding the PS3 were on par with The Phantom Menace.  And I don’t feel out of line saying that just like in the immediate aftermath of the first prequel Star Wars movie, many were left feeling a little let down, and that the delivery had left something to be desired.

In comparison to all that, the PS4 has impressed me to the point that I can say that history is not repeating itself this time. No politicking or bribery was needed to secure a limited spot in a store line; there were some high profile release titles available on day one (albeit third party), and the system had price that I could live with at $400. So far, so good. Upon starting the PS4 up, no lengthy updates were needed just to get anywhere; no unfamiliar operating system interface greeted me with a crescendo of string music, expecting me to know intuitively how to navigate it. In other words, the PS4 got out of my way fairly quickly and let me do what I wanted to do. Within a reasonable amount of time (i.e., 15 minutes), I was playing my first game, having downloaded it from the PlayStation Network.  That’s a lot more than I can say about my first experience with the PlayStation 3.

Putting aside my lingering hard feelings from that mid-autumn day in 2006, here’s a breakdown of how the PS4 is, and if you’re planning on purchasing one for yourself or a loved one this holiday season, here’s what you can expect:

23 Launch Titles

It may not seem like an overly impressive number, but 23 titles is actually a good amount, considering the previous generation had 14. Some of these games represent popular franchises at the moment - Call of Duty: Ghosts, Assassin’s Creed IV, Battlefield 4, and the latest Madden. In the past I would have scoffed at these as cash-in ports, but I can’t deny it is often a good thing to have popular heavy hitters around on day one. These are supplemented by first party offerings in the form of Killzone and Knack. The Killzone franchise, if you recall, was Sony’s answer to Microsoft’s Halo, and Knack is a fantasy action game with the pedigree of Mark Cerny, if nothing else. The available indie titles are strong too and free for download, if you pay the $49.99 USD subscription for PlayStation Plus. In the scheme of things the launch catalog for any game console is usually the bane of early adopters and a hard puzzle for the console makers to solve. They have to sell the system and conventional wisdom says it’s the software that does it – the fabled launch killer app - but at the same time the companies have to reconcile themselves and their mainstream customers to the idea most of the early software are either trial runs for the developer or ports from the previous generation that are already available for the current – and outgoing - generation.

Redesigned DualShock Controller

Beyond the games, the controller is one of the most important facets of a game console. After all, you’re going to be spending a lot of time clutching the thing, so it’s no small thing for a console maker to get this right. This is one area that Sony traditionally has done very well in, having knocked it out of the park more or less with the original DualShock and kept the winning formula ever since. It would have been hard to complain if they had kept things the same, but thankfully the DualShock 4 is a clever redesign that improves on the old model. Gone are the venerable Start and Select buttons that used to occupy the center of the controller, replaced with smaller “Share” and “Options” buttons. New to this controller is a large touch pad which can also be pushed in, a built-in speaker, and a headphone jack. A light sensor occupies the front now, presumably integrating the PlayStation Move functionality in conjunction with the PS camera (sold separately naturally). Ergonomic tweaks to all of the face buttons, the D-pad, the analog sticks, and the shoulder triggers round out a well-conceived upgrade to the total package. In short, the new controller is awesome.    

The System Itself

Finally, there’s the hardware. The PlayStation 4 continues the good trend from the redesigned PS3 slim model: it takes up a lot less real estate than the original "phat" PS3, and it’s virtually silent when compared to the same (to Sony’s credit, mine is still running strong after all these years). Aesthetically I find it to be a throwback to the PS2, with a nice indicator light that bisects the console. Two USB ports are placed intelligently in line with the disc slot. A 500 gig internal hard drive seems ample for the time being, but those who have embraced the death of physical media distribution for games may think otherwise. As far as the internals go, the PS4 has an 8 core AMD processor, 8 gigs of system memory, and developers seem pleased with the set up. I hopefully will get an opportunity to write a thorough post about this in the future as I spin up my own projects. One thing that may or may not be a deal breaker for some: the PS4 is currently not backwards compatible with the PS3 or earlier games. Sony has plans for some kind of cloud solution to this, but until they offer something more concrete, I wouldn’t retire its predecessor if you still are working on your backlog of games. As for the rest, I currently don’t have a PS Vita or the PlayStation camera, so I can’t speak to the integration with those devices. I have not tried some of the other features such as Music Unlimited, because frankly I don’t really care about these add-ons. Kyle Orland gives an excellent overview of the good, the bad, and the ugly of the PS4 in its first 48 hours of life on the market. He’s a little overly negative about certain things (sluggish interface is “unforgiveable”, really?) but overall he’s hit the nail on the head for the discerning consumer. Of course, market success ultimately means more than what the critics or the peanut gallery has to say, and Sony has reported it has already sold over a million consoles on the first day, considerably outpacing the PS3 and even surpassing the PS2, which took a whole 3 days to move the same amount.      

Impressive, Sony. Now let’s see what Microsoft has to offer in return in just a few short days.