Posts Tagged ‘xbox one

Musings on Xbox One Backwards Compatibility with Xbox 360

For many people out there, there was no bigger announcement (save, perhaps, the news about FFVII) during E3 2015 than Microsoft revealing its plans to support local backwards compatibility in the Xbox One for last-generation games.  Not long ago, the very idea of backwards compatibility was considered to be technically impossible (or at least very difficult), so much so that former Xbox-boss Don Mattrick panned the idea.

So it was a great surprise to hear Phil Spencer announce that this very feature would be appearing on Xbox One this year.  In his reveal, he noted that there would be an initial 100 games available by the time it officially launched this holiday.  But he also sold the idea that these games would be running natively, which is absolutely inaccurate.  Like I noted in my E3 summation for Microsoft and Sony, there is no way it can be native because there is no hidden tri-core PowerPC processor somewhere inside the console.  Instead, the Xbox One OS is emulating its predecessor’s environment.  I believe he was trying to characterize it that way to draw a distinction between this feature and the PlayStation Now service, which relies on streaming.

So how was Microsoft able to pull this off?  Well, we’ll probably never receive a definitive answer, but I have a strange theory that might not be too far off from the truth.  You see, the process of emulating PowerPC on an Intel processor has already been accomplished — by Apple in 2006.  Back then, the Cupertino-based company was transitioning to Intel and needed to find a way to allow existing PowerPC apps to run on this new hardware.  That company’s solution was called Rosetta, which Wikipedia describes as a dynamic binary translator, and it worked surprisingly well.  I suspect that Microsoft was able to learn much from observing Apple’s work and managed to accomplish the same feat.  That said, it’s also important to remember that games are heavier programs than many of those old Mac applications that Rosetta handled so well, so I definitely have concerns about frame rates, load times, and other stability questions.

Indeed, while the Xbox 360 similarly offered backwards compatibility with its forebear, its performance ranged from passable to atrocious. I remember trying to play the original Xbox version of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and it was awful.  The frame rate issues were so bad that I had to quit.  (A later remaster for the PS3 was actually quite excellent, but that game was clearly recompiled for that console.  No emulation.)

Unlike how backwards compatibility used to work on earlier consoles, this process requires that these Xbox 360 games be downloaded from Xbox Live before they can be played locally.  When you insert the game disc, all it’s doing is verifying that you own that game, which means that there must be some recompile work needed to allow the game to function.  Microsoft touted that this process wasn’t difficult and that it only needed the approval of the publishers to make their games work, though I wonder what fees it will assess.  This leads me to another realization:

Not every Xbox 360 game will receive this treatment, as you can imagine there are publishers who have (or will have) remasters of last-gen games they intend to sell for current-gen consoles.  For example, why would SquareEnix authorize a backwards compatible version of Tomb Raider (2013) when it would rather have you buy the Definitive Edition on the Xbox One?1

So what about Sony?  Well, Worldwide Studios boss Shuhei Yoshida has already said that this announcement does not impact his company’s plans for PlayStation.  We’ll see if Sony changes its mind, but my guess is that the company will continue to rely upon PlayStation Now for this functionality, especially since trying to emulate the seven SPUs of the Cell processor sounds like an absurd proposition.  In truth, the rental (or subscription) model that Now offers is probably more attractive to publishers than allowing old game discs to work on new systems anyway.

Further still, those publishers would rather do an inexpensive port of those games and have them purchasable all over again on these new consoles.  And I must admit that this is how I’d rather play them, too, since they’re guaranteed to run better than through emulation.

Even so, Microsoft deserves a lot of credit for a very pro-consumer effort.

1. A potential counter-example is the inclusion of the first Mass Effect on the initial preview list.  We haven’t yet received a confirmation, but many people believe that EA intends to re-release the Mass Effect trilogy in remastered form during the lead-up to Mass Effect: Andromeda.  Why, then, would the company have allowed Microsoft to include this if it would compete with that release?  Easy answer, actually: Microsoft still owns the publishing rights to the first Mass Effect on the Xbox 360; in fact, EA was unable to bring this title to the PS3 until 2012 per a condition of that agreement.


Written by Michael

19 June 2015 at 12:03 am

The Way Forward for Nintendo

Despite what is now a relatively healthy library on Wii U (after a pretty bleak launch window), both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 have surpassed the Nintendo console’s install base with relative ease. VGChartz lists the Wii U as having sold 9.1M units, compared to the Xbox One with 11.3M and PS4 with 19.1M. Even more troubling is that the Wii U has been out longer a year longer than both Microsoft’s and Sony’s offerings.

I don’t think Nintendo is necessarily trying to sell the most units, as though that were its singular measure of success, but I also don’t think the company wants to be a far distant third at the end of the cycle, as Strategy Analytics now predicts. The firm expects that by 2018, Sony will have sold 80M units, Microsoft 57M units, and Wii U 17M units. That is a mere 11% share for the house of Mario and Zelda. The saving grace for Nintendo is its strong software sales and the seemingly unstoppable 3DS, to say nothing of its enormous war chest funded by huge Wii profits in the previous generation.

There are a lot of articles out there that dissect the mistakes Nintendo has made with Wii U and attempt to explain why the console seems destined to turn in an even poorer performance than the GameCube (which was a cult hit but only sold 21.7M units), but I would summarize my feelings thus:

Underpowered hardware

The Wii U features hardware that’s not too dissimilar from the Xbox 360 and PS3. It is certainly more powerful than those 8-to-9 year-old machines, but it’s nestled somewhere between last generation and its new contemporaries. This is reminiscent of the Sega Dreamcast, which similarly came to market too early. The net result of this is that the Wii U is positioned well to receive game ports from last-generation consoles, but porting a current-generation title would be daunting and require so much downscaling that the investment in man hours would be difficult to justify. As development dwindles for those last-gen consoles, so will third-party titles for Wii U, I fear. A similar fate befell the Wii ultimately, but the long legs of the PS2 (which saw its last game released in September 2013) helped sustain it, so by then, Nintendo had sold north of a hundred million units.

Wii U Gamepad

The Gamepad is certainly a unique idea in gaming: it essentially offers a second screen to allow for a level of multitasking never exploited in console gaming. (GameBoy Advance to GameCube interactivity was interesting but never fully realized.) Problematically, however, is the fact that only one Gamepad packs in with the console, and worse still, the console will never support more than two of those simultaneously — if ever at all. Shigeru Miyamoto admitted last year that adding dual-GamePad functionality wasn’t even a part of Nintendo’s near-term goals. Instead, Nintendo envisioned that one player would operate the GamePad while the others used Wii remotes, which are themselves 9-years old now, presenting developers with the challenges of designing to accommodate asymmetric gameplay. It doesn’t help that the GamePad itself feels more like a toy than high technology. It also does not feature multitouch, an unfortunate oversight in a smartphone and tablet world.

Poor online support

Nintendo’s online multiplayer efforts have always felt timid and begrudging to me. In truth, I think that Nintendo would rather see players interact face-to-face in couch co-op rather than through the Internet — which old-time gamers like me can appreciate, actually. The problem is that some of the biggest third-party titles are designed with online gameplay in mind, so this strategy really only works well for Nintendo as a software developer, not companies like Ubisoft, Activision, or Electronic Arts. The future doesn’t look particularly bright on this front either. After all, we’re talking about a company that has consistently resisted technological progress if it wasn’t invested by itself: optical media in the fifth generation of consoles, full-sized DVDs in the sixth generation, and HD in the seventh generation. Even with Wii U, Nintendo opted for proprietary discs that cannot hold as much data as Blu-ray, which both the PS4 and Xbox One employ.

Poor third-party developer support

All of these things have led to poor support from third-party developers. Nintendo has long alienated these companies through various strong-arm tactics anyway, but these uneasy relationships have really damaged its ability to stay relevant in any generation with actual competition from other hardware manufacturers. New, envelope-pushing games won’t run on the Wii U’s hardware without serious compromise, the GamePad is something that developers are completely ignoring (instead hoping you’ve purchased the Pro Controllers instead — even Nintendo has relented to start focusing on these), and without strong online support, even DLC opportunities are bleak for these developers.

A solution

My idea would probably anger long-time Nintendo stalwarts, especially those loyalists who early-adopted the Wii U, but I don’t see another solution otherwise — reasonably, anyway1. That starts with completely abandoning the Wii U; I know that would be seen a deep betrayal, but there has to come a time when you admit defeat rather than continuing to beat your head against the wall.

What I would do is abandon attempts to embrace unusual input methods or gimmicks of any sort. While the company deserves a lot of credit for hardware innovation over the years (the ability to save progress in a game, the basic layout of the modern controller, triggers, analog sticks, and rumble among them), they’ve whiffed on motion controls and this faux tablet. (Despite Wii’s incredible sales figures, motion gaming never garnered enough hardcore-gamer interest to matter in the long term. Microsoft and Sony’s attempts to answer the Wii, in the form of Kinect and Move, seem pointless in retrospect, don’t they?) Even the 3D technology found in Nintendo’s handheld is mostly superfluous.

I would recommend that Nintendo release a new home console that is largely based on the Xbox One’s specifications. I suggest this because chasing the PS4 would be likely too expensive. Instead, Nintendo could simply match the Xbox One’s hard drive space, processor, GPU, and RAM, and probably price this hypothetical console at $299. By embracing x86-64 based processor architecture and Open-GL graphics standards, developers could easily port current-generation titles to work on Nintendo’s new system. Further, the existing Pro Controller for the Wii U should serve as a model for the next generation’s, as it is largely held in good esteem. I also believe that this generation will last for more than five years, so there is still time to capitalize on it. Further still, omit the media functionality altogether: smart TVs and set-top boxes are obviating the need for this, anyway. This would be a gamer’s machine.

The complaint from Nintendo employees and fans alike will be, “Well, how would this console differentiate itself from the competition?” The answer, of course, is that Nintendo produces some of the best games in the world, and they’re only available on Nintendo hardware. That’s the hallmark. What I want Nintendo to realize is that its contributions to the world of gaming no longer lie in zany sensors or strange peripherals; Nintendo’s most important contribution is its software library. This company shepherds some of the greatest and most historic franchises in history, all of which ooze with clever ideas and fine craftsmanship. For all the problems AAA games have had in the last year or so, with so many broken at launch, Nintendo deserves credit for consistently releasing games that WORK. The few games Nintendo releases each year is the only thing sustaining the Wii U right now, but these titles are keeping the system alive. And let us not forget the incredible breadth the Virtual Console spans.

This hypothetical console (which I would love if Nintendo named something that harkens back to its history, like NES Ultra) would not be the best-selling one by a long shot, but it would appeal to gamers who love Nintendo games but still offer them access to third-party titles. Nintendo’s online efforts would never compare to Xbox Live or PSN, admittedly, but there are enough gamers for whom that wouldn’t be a deal breaker, so long as they could at least play those multi-platform games without having to own multiple consoles.

With some measure of longing, I admit that the last Nintendo console I loved was the GameCube, even with all of its shortcomings and poor sales. I want to love another one — a piece of hardware that is more concerned with fostering amazing game development rather than trying to define itself with gimmicks.

1. The most prominent idea I’ve heard involves focusing all hardware and software efforts on a new handheld that can stream its content to TV.  This would be like an inverse Wii U, where the GamePad holds all the console’s intelligence and streams its content to a TV-attached receiver.  This would be clever, but I feel that handheld consoles are destined to lose to smartphones, especially as time spent playing mobile games continues to increase.  Moreover, the kind of technological miniaturization required to stand toe-to-toe with iOS or Android devices would be challenging to do in terms of engineering as well as in manufacturing scale.

Alternatively, the other idea I’ve heard is that Nintendo should abandon hardware development altogether and create games for PS4 and Xbox One.  This is an intriguing notion to be sure, and one that I would selfishly enjoy given my current investment in console hardware, but I really believe that Nintendo should give one more crack at this.  The home console space was dead and buried after the Video Game Crash of 1983, but the NES single-handledly resurrected it.  Seriously, long live Nintendo — if for nothing else.

Written by Michael

24 February 2015 at 11:51 pm

Posted in Games, Musings

Tagged with , , , , , , ,

Why PlayStation 4

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As we entered this year, I was pretty convinced I would be getting Microsoft’s next-generation console.  Indeed, my brother and I owned more than forty games between us on the Xbox 360, making it the most prolific console, title-wise, we’ve ever owned, so upgrading to its successor seemed like a no-brainer.

That said, I owned a PlayStation 3 and liked a lot about it, especially its adhere to open standards (including non-proprietary, user-replaceable hard drives, Bluetooth, mini-USB charging, day-one inclusion of WiFi, day-one use of 1080p-capable HDMI, and rechargeable controllers out-of-the-box).  But I never treated it like my primary console, and so I was leaning towards not giving much consideration to the PlayStation 4 until, perhaps, later in this generation when certain exclusives came out.  (Really, my relationship with PlayStation was always awkward anyway: I grew up a Nintendo fan, so I had strong feelings about those N64 vs PlayStation days.)

Then we got a February event from Sony detailing the PS4, and I left it pretty impressed with the new attitude Sony was exuding from its development team, most specifically in the form PlayStation 4 architect Mark Cerny, an industry legend and maverick who helped usher in some of the most important franchises in gaming history.  He spoke about Sony’s passion for gaming, and how the PS4 was going to be a gamer’s gaming device.  This was a pretty strong turnaround from the all-in-one entertainment and media console that the PS3 was billed as.

Despite my positivity, I knew that I still needed to see Microsoft’s response.  Sure enough, the company held a pre-E3 reveal for the Xbox One, and literally proceeded to spend the first thirty minutes of a one-hour event talking about how great its television integration was going to be.  I felt like I was watching a Sony event from the days of yore.

Oh, I know that many Xbox-loyalists had a good excuse for this: they said something along the lines of, “Of course the Xbox One will have games.  That’s a given.  Why show stuff everyone knows will be there?  This event is about showing how it’s so much more than just a gaming machine.”  There’s a certain internalized logic to this idea, but it ignores the audience Microsoft was actually reaching — namely, gamers.  It’s preposterous to think that anyone besides the hardcore were turning into this event; the features they proceeded to focus on were certainly tantalizing, but wholly secondary to the early-adopter crowd an event like this attracts.  Indeed, when it came time to show a game during the back half of the reveal, Microsoft chose to show Call of Duty: Ghosts, a current-gen title that’s being cross-released on Xbox 360/PS3 and Xbox One/PS4.  While the up-port certainly looks better than its current-gen version, this title did not even remotely look next-gen, and thus inspired very few with positive feelings about Xbox One.  (Later demonstrations of games like Titanfall certainly improved my attitude towards the hardware, but not enough to sway my opinion by the time E3 hit.)

If the company were trying to broaden its appeal with this wide-net strategy, then it should have made them secondary in this presentation and made sure to first lock in the hardcore gaming crowd, trusting that these Xbox early adopters would proselytize these TV features to their non-gaming friends and family.  (I’m convinced this is how the Wii was so successful — word of mouth and personal demonstration.)

Sony did not take this tact, as I’ve already mentioned.  Instead of using Microsoft’s approach, again summed up as, “of course there will be games — that’s a given — check out these cool media features instead”, Sony instead said, “of course there will be media support — that’s a given — check out these cool games instead”.

Now you have my attention.

Console Hardware Considerations
Microsoft has doubled down on Kinect, its camera-based motion gaming technology.  Many are dismissive of this, since it is ostensibly intended for casual gaming in much the same way that the Wii was.  Even so, I appreciate how impressive the technology is, so I’m not strongly against it.

What frustrated me, however, was that it became clear that Microsoft had traded some of its horsepower in order bundle this device in with every console.  (Sure, making them mandatory ensures more developer support, but this seems ham fisted in light of the concessions made.)

How so?  By all accounts, Sony has architected a state-of-the-art gaming machine, with its1.84 TFLOPS of processing power and its 8GB of ultra-fast GDDR5 (!!!) memory.  That’s not to say that Microsoft’s Xbox One will be a slouch (1.23 TFLOPS, 8GB of the slower, hotter GDDR3 memory), but these numbers are notably better for Sony.  Will this translate to any dramatic difference in graphics?  I have no idea, except to say that while cross-platform games on Xbox 360 and PS3 looked very similar, despite PS3’s mostly stronger specs, the first-party exclusives Sony enjoyed were pretty blow-away.

Now, the Xbox One will debut for $499, of course, whereas the PlayStation 4 will cost $399.  For $100 more, Xbox owners will get weaker processing and memory and a mandatory camera that the hardcore will mostly be uninterested in at best, hostile towards at worst.

The tech enthusiast in me, who craves horsepower above the still-experimental Kinect, is more inclined to embrace Sony’s vision in this scenario.

(I also find it frustrating that Microsoft did choose older, less heat efficient RAM for its new console, as mentioned above.  The net result of this is a large, boxy device that looks an awful lot like a cable box — which I guess is deliciously appropriate.  Adding further insult to injury on the aesthetics front, the Xbox One also requires an external power adapter, unbelievably, due to these thermal issues.  Just like the PS3, the PS4’s brick will be internal, where it belongs.  Stranger still, the TV functionality will require the use of a thinly-wired infrared blaster pointed at or affixed to your TV’s sensor — now we’re just getting tacky looking.)

I’ve long felt that the Xbox 360 controller was the best design I had ever seen, it’s horrid D-pad notwithstanding.  (I think the GameCube controller is a close second, which really pioneered the asymmetric analog stick layout and curved triggers.)  On the other side, I liked but didn’t love the PlayStation 3’s DualShock 3, which featured looser symmetric analog sticks and flat triggers, and a lighter, flimsier feel overall.  While it was awkward switching from the Xbox 360 gamepad over to the DualShock 3 at any given time, I was always able to adapt after an hour or so of gameplay, I should note.

But I have a DualShock 4 sitting next to me right now, courtesy of a local GameStop selling them way early.  I think I’ve found my new favorite controller.

This design has ergonomics in spades, feels very solid, has much tighter analog sticks (still symmetric, but that’s fine), and great curved triggers.  I haven’t picked up a Xbox One gamepad to compare, though I’ve read several comparisons that favor the DS4.  Either way, I’m very pleased with this design and won’t feel like I’m compromising on the feel of my gamepad when I play games in the future.  (For those wondering about Sony’s unexpected and, admittedly, unusual decision to include a touchpad, this is quite easy to reach.  Ergonomically, this inclusion is fine; I only hope developers will made good, appropriate use of it.)

At the end of the day, however, it’s all about the games.  We’ll have to ignore cross-platform AAA titles, since they essentially look and play the same across different systems, and should continue to do so in this new generation.  Instead, I’m more interested in the exclusives.

In the world of Xbox, I only ever really cared about one exclusive, which was my favorite franchise of this generation: Mass Effect.  (This series has since come to the PlayStation but the first title was solely Xbox-only for quite a while.)  Many others are in love with games like Halo, Fable, Forza, Gears of War, and so on, but these series didn’t interest me all that much.  (Halo and Gears are both first-person shooters, which I never cared that much about, Fable is a neat fantasy RPG game that just never hooked me, and Forza is a racing series — a genre I haven’t touched since the N64 days.)

Meanwhile, I’ve been enjoying the Uncharted trilogy, The Last of Us, Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls, Journey, inFAMOUS, and so on over on PlayStation this generation.  These aren’t casual throwaways to me, either.  I strongly feel that these are some of the finest games ever made.  Throw in the now cross-platform Mass Effect trilogy along with the Dragon Age games and Skyrim, and you have a set that I could probably play for a decade, over and over again without evening buying a PS4.

Sony’s commitment and support for indie development can’t be ignored by me either.  The mid-tier developer has all but gone extinct towards the end of the current generation, and so it will be critical to see indie releases fill in the gaps between the AAA games that will debut periodically throughout each year.  Indie games are also exceptionally well placed to do risky or avant garde things, pushing the storytelling and gameplay boundaries of what I thought was even possible in this medium.  —Seriously, go check out previews for games like The Witness.  Or over on PC, Gone Home.

Indeed, one of my all-time favorite games, Journey, is the epitome of what indie studios can do.  I was so touched, so moved, that my time with it left an indelible mark: my thoughts return to it far more often than I would have dreamed a game could elicit.  But due to the kind of audience I believe the Xbox world engenders, with its concentration on shooters and sports titles, I don’t think it would have been nearly the success on that platform as it was on the PS3.  I predict that creative, mind-expanding games like this will continue to find a welcoming home on PlayStation, whereas they will only be an afterthought on Xbox.

Microsoft has improved its relationship with indie developers in recent months (after some true horror stories), so I’m sure there will be many great titles available to both.  However, the buzz out of those studios seems strongly tilted towards PlayStation, and Sony has strongly embraced this trend.

Now you have more than my attention.  You have my business.

A Brave New World
I’ve spent a lot of time bashing the Xbox One, I’m sure it seems like.  Undoubtedly, however, it will be quite good despite my complaints, and I might even one day own it as a second console, in much the same way that I planned to own a PS4 before everything transpired this year.  And while Microsoft seems to be embracing the casuals with its Kinect and with TV integration, and Sony the gaming hardcore with its technical prowess and focus on gaming itself, I’m left with one last thought: inconceivably, I — an ardent Nintendo fan in my childhood, an avowed Sony-hater — chose PlayStation.  A teenaged version of myself would have had a hell of an argument with the current me.

P.S.  Check out Sony’s #4ThePlayers campaign, especially its “Since 1995” commercial.  I’ve never been able to say these words about this company, but Sony gets it: http://blog.eu.playstation.com/2013/10/21/playstation-4theplayers-since-1995/

Written by Michael

27 October 2013 at 11:55 pm