Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Curves and Lines of Grand Designs

So, E3 (the Electronic Entertainment Expo) came and went for 2017. The announcement that won the show? It depends whom you ask. But the company that won the industry? Right now I have to go with Microsoft, even though their current mainline console, the Xbox One, is not even winning the current generation. I think Microsoft has won console video games by ending the stair-step progression of hardware generations, leaving only software (gaming platform/OS) generations remaining relevant -- and that's where they are years ahead of Sony and Nintendo and iterating further.

Microsoft came into E3 aggressively with the Xbox One X, formerly known as "Project Scorpio," and a lineup of pretty decent looking titles, in particular the "MechaDestiny" shooter Anthem, and my own highlight of the show, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, complete with live accompaniment on piano by soundtrack composer Gareth Coker. Sony mostly phoned it in with a few high-profile games everyone will have forgotten about within a month of release, but they aren't exactly playing defense these days, so they had that luxury. Nintendo made a splash with new Mario, new Pokemon, new Splatoon, new Metroid, another new Metroid... plus a bevy of sweeteners to build momentum behind the Switch. And I was happy to see Hyperkin announce an HD clone player for Atari 2600 cartridges.

Right after the Ori trailer concluded and we got to wipe away our tears of joy and catharsis, Microsoft Xbox team chief Phil Spencer made an announcement that got big cheers -- and, if my guess is right, was worth even bigger cheers from even more people once we recognize its full meaning and context. The announcement was that the Xbox Compatibility Program would expand to support the original Xbox from 2001. The Program currently offers Xbox One and Windows 10 gameplay of Xbox 360 titles, with just under 400 titles supported at the time of this writing, over a third of the system's worldwide catalog (so far). There are likely always going to be a few corner cases from past systems that won't emulate properly, especially if they require special controllers, and there are games where the rights have expired out and they cannot be licensed forward. But it seems likely that essentially all past Xbox software will at some point soon play on the Xbox One and Windows 10, and that's where things get interesting.

Spencer has been banging the drum for a while now on the Microsoft gaming platform software, which is now branded as Xbox for both the X-Bone and Windows 10. The X-Bone, in essence, is really just a turn-key Windows 10 PC within the context of running games and official apps. The software supports "Play Anywhere," meaning if you own a title on the X-Bone or Windows 10 platforms, you can play via stream from one to the other. It's not seamless portability of login yet; there's some hoop jumping to do with e.g. disc games that I don't think they can solve in this generation, but it's remarkable that they've essentially there. Cross-play for online games is up and running as well.

Microsoft caught some flack for games like Anthem and Ori being "Xbox One and Windows 10 exclusives," as though that meant that the X-Bone could be ignored by gamers and they could just play on their PCs. What they failed to see in the big picture is that Microsoft has no problem with that now. It doesn't matter. The PC is the X-Bone. The X-Bone is the PC. Commodity hardware is just whatever rig you need to run the software. The software is the ballgame. The Xbox unified platform is about the software. New hardware will show up periodically but it's just spec bumps like the S and X. They don't really care how you play the games, as long as you engage.
And now, the Xbox unified platform is (almost) all Xbox games ever. Or it will be once they've caught it up, anyway. If you've ever bought an Xbox game, setting aside those corner cases, you can sign in on whatever generation of box you happen to own and just play it. From now on. Without needing to own and maintain legacy devices.

That's huge. Like I said, they've been intimating this for a while now, not exactly hiding the strategy, just giving us high-altitude generalities about where they were going here, but only in the last year or so have we seen enough that we really believe it, and recognize it taking shape.

And yes, the Playstation Network has Playstation Now, letting you subscribe to play previous-generation Playstation games, but it's not the same pitch. They're not promising extensive backward compatibility with the previous generation, and they're not promising software continuity moving forward across devices and generations. It's basically a rental. It's Netflix. The PSN functionally is somewhere short of the new Xbox scheme but ahead of the horribly shortsighted Nintendo Virtual Console that is not continuous between the DS series and the Wii series. Bought Mario 64 for the Wii VC and now you have a 3DS? Too bad! Buy it again on a cartridge! To credit Nintendo, at least the Wii U had near-perfect support for Wii games, and the Wii near-perfect support for Gamecube games, natively. Nintendo gave gamers one step worth of backward compatibility gratis. And with the Switch we're seeing a revamped scheme that looks promising. But Microsoft is still ahead in this game because they've been iterating on Xbox Live for 15 years now.

Look, Playstation 4 is winning this console generation. None of what I am saying suggests otherwise. Microsoft pissed everyone off in the X-Bone pre-release cycle with their "no used games" misfire and the $100 Kinect forced bundle and all that, which paradoxically is in line with what the Xbox software platform is doing now, it's just not what the public was ready to be told at that juncture. The 360 had beaten the PS3 but Sony took back the momentum from that point forward. The Japanese market embraces Playstation first anyway. All the major Japanese games not made by or for Nintendo are made with the PS4 in mind. The fighting game and JRPG genres have set up camp with Sony now and aren't budging.

But what Microsoft has done here is a forward-thinking process that I have to admit is impressive to my core and wildly exciting to me as a gamer, even as it poses an existential threat to my business. And I think that despite letting this generation get away, MS is setting the stage to be an unstoppable force in the future, because again, they don't need hardware generations anymore. New hardware is just a spec bump like the S and X when it happens. The key to the platform is software, the gaming OS, and the software is being made immortal.

For gamers, it's all upside, because it allows anyone on the unified platform to move past the physical properties of previous hardware now. Technology marches on and interoperability changes. Right now, people are ditching 1080p and moving to 4K UHD TVs. Not all that quickly, because a decent 1080p TV is cheap and tends to last a while. But that's the direction the market is going. And with each successive iteration in televisions, we're seeing more and more legacy connectors deprecated. S-Video is basically gone now. DVI is long gone. Composite video is now a shared port with the green connector on YUV component, if even that: I saw this year's TVs at Costco and the component connectors have been deprecated to a break-out box with a stepped connector. These TVs even do away with the customary VGA port. It's all HDMI all the time, with USB ports for flash drives and to power peripherals, and high-end models offering uncompressed digital audio outs. That's just in hardware; image processing and upscaling is built-in as cost-effectively as they can make it, and you can't spell "upscaling" without "LAG," which is what you get when you plug an old game system into a new TV that doesn't have a non-processing Game Mode setting. Bottom line, to play video games on a modern display, they have to output that display's native video signal.

Microsoft's timing has more to do with where their particular console project began than the state of the technology, but it just so happens that the Xbox 2001, Playstation 2, Gamecube, and Dreamcast are just now on the cusp of becoming difficult to connect and play on those modern displays. The X2K1 does have component out with the proper cable, but that's the next connector set starting to disappear from TVs. The PS2 maxes out with component as well, for now. The best connector for Dreamcast is its native VGA outlet, which some TVs still have but 704x480 looks like garbage on a 4k screen. The Gamecube Component Cable is an absurd rarity commanding prices over $250 on the secondary market, so it's a good thing the modders finally figured out how to install an HDMI output or we'd be stuck watching the 'Cube die with composite and S-video. It's true that you can just use a white Wii with component, but not all GCN games are compatible, and the Gameboy Player is not compatible, and so on and so forth and oh my God I'm cross-eyed. The Switch is supposed to be adding GCN games to its Virtual Console, so assuming Nintendo ever unifies the VC and eternalizes it like Microsoft is doing, we'll be in an interesting and encouraging situation there. But right now we're not there, I love Nintendo but their gaming software platform is five years behind Microsoft's.

Moving backward from that generation, it's basically a near-complete break at this point. The Playstation 1, Saturn, and Nintendo 64 are all but unplayable on modern displays, when they can connect via composite video at all. Maybe money is no object and you buy an XRGB Framemeister and connect them that way. Maybe you go with my plan and find a PVM RGB monitor and play in 240p as the console was originally designed to work. In either case you're not playing natively on a modern display. Oh, and this was the last generation with the old phosphor-triggered light guns, so you're not playing Virtua Cop, House of the Dead, Time Crisis, or, well, Duck Hunt on your modern display at all. Not unless you're using a new console with accelerometer controllers, e.g. Wiimotes, as your "gun" for downloadable classic games.

Before that generation? Now you're in full-on retro territory if you're an autistic purist like me, placing flux to solder and physically modifying the hardware to get the most out of it, or else you're doing the cost-effective thing and playing on a nice cheap Retron clone console, or you're buying the games on Xbox Live Arcade, PSN, or one of the Nintendo VCs, or you managed to find a NES Classic for less than half a grand, or else you're emulating and you're a dirty, filthy pirate, matey. Seriously though, no judgment from me on that, because there's some stuff you'll just never be able to play any other way, and emulation comes with compromises purists abhor.

What the Xbox unified platform is promising is so much simpler and more straightforward, and takes the equipment out of the way and just makes it where you get to play the games. And that's the value add I've been touting for Apple for years, the computer just disappears and it's just the user and what they're creating or enjoying. We also get to avoid the indecent spectacle of being in the year 2026 and having a craving for 16-bit RPG time and knowing there isn't a Genesis available for love or money or a display that you could connect a Genesis to anyway, and our ISP has blocked torrents so emulation is out, and so we're trying to get an old Xbox 360 to work so we can load up Live Arcade and find our purchase license for Phantasy Star II and give it a whirl. Instead, we can just turn on our Xbox Seven Q and it should be right there on the dashboard, as though it hadn't been 20 years since we bought it.

The business aspect is where there is some downside for specialty retailers like me, and I don't expect or require any sympathy on this because I knew this day would eventually come and I plan to make hay while the sun shines. Under the New Xbox Ecosystem, physical software media is in its last throes of being a required element. Right now they distribute blu-rays because it's a reasonably cheap and non-cumbersome way to transfer 45 gigs of data to an end user and there is some aesthetic/nostalgic desire for physical copies of games. But the two platforms growing the most, iOS and Android, have *always* been digital delivery only. So we can see what's coming and the necessity of a disc is an impediment now, taking us out of immersion and forcing us to move a plastic donut so we can play a game rather than just pressing the button.

And all that stuff eventually puts me out of business in at least the video game category. It's fine though. The goods will still circulate for a while yet, with millions upon millions of carts and discs and systems still out there. Price and access and nostalgia and purism and the collecting urge all still exist. I'll have plenty of time to wind down the category. But while I'm doing that, I think a lot of people will be playing games on their X-Bone/PC, whether that's instead of or in addition to a PS4 and Switch. And next go-round? If I'm right, Microsoft won't have to stair-step to it again, which means neither will we. It's just... already there. Every now and then we just refresh our receive-o-tron box to whichever iteration they're currently stocking.

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