New paradigms need early adopters and innovators

Sorry, Xbox 360 again.

In the aftermath of Microsoft’s u-turn after the backlash against the Xbox 360’s new features, some things start becoming apparent.

Microsoft had the right idea, but it got executed poorly, and handled worse. They wanted to go for a delivery model for gaming that’s like the current delivery models for apps, and like some movies and books (Netflix, Kindle, etc) – the core idea being that if the audience can switch over to digital-only, or at least a form of digital that might need the multiple-GB game disks acting as the first component of a game that would eventually be much  more embedded in a larger virtual ecosystem, allowing for easier, automated updates, upgrades, integrated mod purchases, portability, etc.

Having a game existing entirely and independently on a single DVD opens up the possibility of it being resold, exchanged, gifted, regifted, and yes, copied. Over time, they might have looked at a vision of a world where all purchases and ownership is virtual and linked to identity, and thus cut down on the resale, trade, and exchange markets, turning them into a new customer base. A purely virtual ownership would also allow for more opportunities to cross-sell, upsell, trigger in-game marketing (maybe based on the complex, detailed profile built up of the player).

The vision, it seems, didn’t get completely understood as it moved down the line from strategy to marketing to PR; end result, bad handling of the questions asked and the public’s assumptions made.

But why did the public react the way it did? Look at the expectations going in. The current 360-playing audience expects the next-gen console to be better, more powerful, faster, able to deliver a better gaming experience. And by that, they mean less latency, faster and better graphics, more realism, hardware support for more complex, realistic games, and maybe integration into a virtual ecosystem of add-on content, DLCs, demos, etc.

What they don’t expect, is a new paradigm of gaming delivery. Especially if the competition is delivering exactly what they are expecting. Nothing new, just better old.

What is a new gaming delivery paradigm? Google Play. Steam. Nexus Mods. Stuff the PC Master Race has been playing around with for years, and getting better, more organized. The biggest grouse I have, as a member of this community, is the amount of demand modern gaming places on my system. Hard disk space. RAM. Processor speeds. Graphics accelerators. Gamepads and adapters. Monitor size. Cabinet space. Installation issues. Viruses, trojans, malware. The living room has a good, large TV, sound system, and a nice couch, and it’s where I relax, not work. The computer is secluded, has a smaller screen and an upright chair, and it’s where I work. The living room has wifi, and the TV/console is online. Why should gaming not happen here?

That’s the main reason I bought a console. Easy plug-and-play, no dependency on system resources for work / downloads with a dedicated piece of hardware, and beautifully rendered graphics deserve a beautiful, big screen.

The Valve box is stepping in exactly here. Dedicated hardware that frees up your PC, makes gaming social and relaxed, and gives most of the PC gamer advantages… and console ones. It’s a new paradigm, so it won’t replace either the PC or the console – it’ll be an add-on. And over time, if it delivers on capabilities, it can replace consoles.

You need early adopters for a new paradigm, but console players are not early adopters. They’re followers, and they don’t like disruption, don’t want innovation. They want what they have, but better. Microsoft made the mistake of giving them something new – the mistake of confusing the huge market of 360 users as potential purchasers of the new system. Sorry, they aren’t. The audience you want is not playing the 360, or the PS3, or planning for the PS4. They’re using PCs, running mods, cracked games, constantly upgrading hardware and trying out new concepts. The Oculus Rift will come to PC first, as will Star Citizen. Consoles are a finished, polished product, and expected to perform as such.

Could Microsoft have done this better? Maybe by sticking the equivalent of a Valve box on top of a more powerful, flexible console. Give the masses something to be happy about and also experiment with, until they start using it more, getting used to it… then deliver the actual console. You’ll have a frankenstein console for a while straddling two paradigms, but it’s the only way. You’re trying to compete with both the PS4 (performance) and PC (innovation) – you have to deliver both.

Now it’s up to the Valve box equivalents. Hopefully with usable VR, solid-state drives, fast and easy but optional connectivity, and massively expanded storage coming up very soon, the PC can go ahead into innovation while the consoles follow for the mass audience.

XboX One: Will it impact my style of play?

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There’s been a lot of bad press about Microsoft’s flagship console recenyly, so I thought of doing a refcheck against my gaming style on consoles and see if I were handed a One tomorrow, would it be good or bad.

I play on controller, buy used games, sometimes trade back bad games but generally hang onto the good ones, and use the console for the high-end graphics, fast start and non-dependency on other systems (I have a PC that used to break down a lot before), I’m the only gamer and have a big TV in a small room. I look for intelligence and narrative in my games, but also a lot of the visual wow.

1. All my games are PS3 / PC. So I would have to buy all new games. But given I’m changing consoles, that’s probably fine – I’m ready for it.

2. I can’t buy used games. That’s a big problem – I generally wait for the reviews and buy well after release, usually from the replay sections. Now, I’m looking at spending close to 3K on average per game. Not really affordable – especially when I have a near-top-end gaming rig, where the new games are around a third of the cost.

3. Always-online (or at least once every 24 hours) – My internet connection is slow and sometimes unreliable. The speeds are usually decent late night – and a console means gaming from home, which usually will be always online. Not a very big dealbreaker, but there have been times (especially when moving) where home internet has been spotty and unusable for weeks. I don’t think I can use a wifi hotspot either – is it cable or router connection only?

4. Always-on Kinect: The console’s not in my bedroom or bathroom, but I am concerned about the security, since, if hacked, it effectively gives a clear indicator when I’m not home. The console’s in the living room, so no worries about porn or flashing the Kinect family.

5. Kinect: I’m not a major motion-games player; the room’s just too small, so I’ve always been more comfortable with the controllers.

6. Alternate systems: I’m probably not going to be giving up the current PS3, but my TV does have 2 more HDMI slots free, and I just disposed of my DVD player so I have enough storage space.

So on balance, there’s nothing dramatically new the One is delivering that makes it a compelling buy, and several okay reasons not to buy – privacy, cost of games, connectivity.

So, what are the alternatives?

a. I stick to the PS3. I’m pretty sure there’s enough games that are going to continue to be made for a while – just too many people own these rigs.
b. The PC. I already have it hooked to the TV with a wireless keyboard / mouse / gamepad combo; it’s running enough high-end hardware to nearly match the PS3. One major upgrade later, I’ll be sorted for years.
c. The Valve Steam box. All the PC goodness without the console issues, if you’re okay with Steam. I’d obviously have to have a much better network, but that’s something a few years in the future.

What can change this? If Microsoft comes out with absolutely AMAZING, kick-ass, unreplicable, exclusive games. A LOT of them. Not too sure how likely this is, and they will anyway be for PC as well. Oculus Rift is likely to be coming for PC first, and so will Kinect. And PCs WILL always have more customizability, control, hacks, mods, downloads, DLCs, and all the bells and whistles you could ever want. The only place where consoles had been able to beat them before – and the real reason I bought a console to begin with – was quality of display and hassle-free setup and use. All that changes with the new-generation consoles.

Long story short, time to start drawing up the specs for the next PC upgrade. 

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