The Xbox Reveal: A Reveal of Services

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Art by NeoGAF User “Family Fry”

I guess this is my last chance to lay down any “predictions” for what Microsoft will show us on May 21st when they unveil the next Xbox. The thing is, I haven’t really had any specific “predictions.”

I haven’t tried to think about what games they might show because I actually don’t think individual games themselves are the focal point for Microsoft anymore. I’ve thought about (and even previously laid out here) some general things that I think will be important for the next Xbox, but not actual pieces of content. Like I’ve said before, I think it’s gonna be more about the services.

The Service of the Games

I know Microsoft (or someone else) has said that the conference is gonna be about the games, and that’s true in a collective sense, but in my opinion they are no longer in the state of hyping individual big-hitter games. Even now the Xbox 360 business is no longer that kind of environment. The 360’s main killer app has been Xbox Live. Even after the PS3 has collected more exclusive games as well as parity in multiplatform games (especially this year), people still mostly buy their games on Xbox 360 because they want to stay plugged into Xbox Live.

Exclusive content and software is how you ensnare people onto your platform, but Microsoft already did that over 10 years ago with Halo and many other games. They may try to bring out more exciting exclusives on Tuesday, but that’ll really just be icing. The most important game there is probably going to be Call of Duty: Ghosts, and it’s multiplatform. The only really critical thing Microsoft has to do is keep those Xbox Live customers. The more difficult task is for Sony and Nintendo to convince people that their services are better.

This is why I think the crux of the reveal is actually going to be a massive upgrade to Xbox Live. In March 2005 the crux of the Xbox 360 reveal was the introduction of the Gamertag and Gamerscore system, as well as many other advancements like party chat, custom soundtracks, and so-on. Microsoft will likely try to introduce similarly groundbreaking features. What those might be I have no idea — perhaps a massive upgrade to the Achievement system. Valve is already trying this on Steam with digital trading cards.

I think we can make some assumptions however based on what other services are already doing or talking about doing. I’ve said multiple times that they should just rip off Steam. I think it’s a given that next gen, all retail games will also have physical versions come out at the same time. Sony and Valve already let you pre-order those digital editions. I should be able to pre-load them before the actual release date. Sony’s boast of letting you start playing before the download is even finished sounds like an excellent feature on paper.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Microsoft tried to turn XBL into a full-blown social network, or at least a part of a greater Windows 8 social network. Sony, Nintendo, and Valve are already trying to do this. Sony and Nintendo are letting you follow players and share what’s happening in your game similar to Twitter. Nintendo and Valve are letting you discuss games in forums native to the central interface.

I’m also still intrigued at what Microsoft plans to do with Xbox services in general outside of games. I know people have said the conference is gonna be all about the games, but just look at where Microsoft has taken the Xbox 360 interface in recent months. They want this thing to be a living room box for all your entertainment software, not just games.

The Service of the General Entertainment

In at least one previous post I’ve already gone over how console manufacturers are preparing to basically sell general-purpose living room computers, and how I even think the Xbox is basically going to become the living room extension of Windows 8, running Windows 8 apps. There’s a very good reason a lot of people don’t think console manufacturers can succeed with this route though: price.

This strategy would put $300-$500 consoles up against $100 set top boxes like the Apple TV and Roku box as well as $100 smart Blu-Ray players, not to mention Smart TVs. The only advantage a game console has over those machines is additional horsepower and the fact that they run the games hardcore gamers want. The weaker boxes are already powerful enough for the software that 90 percent of consumers care about. You don’t need a $400 console to run Netflix.

What if however, console manufacturers leveraged that extra horsepower for special operating system features that set top boxes and Smart TVs can’t match yet? That’s basically what Apple’s been doing.

Think about it: Why do you keep buying more powerful iPhones and iPads? Certainly not to keep running the same apps — that facebook or twitter or Netflix app runs just fine on the older models. The main selling points of the newer models end up being sophisticated OS features like Siri, the iSight camera, FaceTime, turn-by-turn GPS navigation, app multitasking, and so-on. This is also partly why people keep buying $600 iPads when they can get most of the same software on other tablets that cost much less. Microsoft already outmaneuvered Sony with this song and dance last time around.

One of the most commonly lauded features unique to the Xbox 360 is party chat. The PS3 doesn’t have it because Sony neglected to set aside the proper amount of memory to allow for it at an OS-level. Sony’s sharing and streaming functionality is an OS feature but is probably only possible due to its extra horsepower. I think it’s even likely that Microsoft is planning to leverage the horsepower in a similar OS-level way not only for games, but general purpose apps too.

One of the rumors talked about “fast app switching.” Basically, the Xbox allowing you to multitask apps in order to instantaneously switch between them as well as the games. It would be an interesting feature that Smart TVs and set top boxes can’t do. Another rumor suggested Kinect’s voice recognition could become the Xbox’s version of Siri.

Oh man I almost forgot about Kinect 2.0. Rumors abound that it will be required for the next Xbox to function. I absolutely believe that’s the case. If there’s one “prediction” I think I’ll make it’s that Kinect 2.0 will come packaged with every single unit of the next-gen Xbox and will be an integral part of controlling the OS.

Generally speaking though, the closest thing to a “prediction” that I’m willing to make is that Tuesday’s reveal is gonna be more about the service of the games than the games themselves.

BULLETS:

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