The fall of Xbox Live?

Digital distribution of video games is nothing new. It wasn’t really done right until it was done by Microsoft in 2004, when it launched a service for the Xbox dubbed Xbox Live Arcade. The service allowed consumers to buy digital copies of games and download them directly to the Xbox console. Most games range from $5-20 and offer games from major publishers like EA and smaller indie developers.
XBL was the clear front-runner in the rapid-growing video game digital distribution business. It set a standard that other companies were forced to follow or risk falling behind. Things like friends lists, leaderboards, achievements and downloadable bonus content helped foster a sense of community and show everyone what the online games market could be. This type of service was revolutionary at the time and quickly, others jumped on board. Valve released its version, Steam, for the PC platform, and Sony released PSN for the Playstation 3.
And then Microsoft lagged.
Lagged might be the wrong word. It was more like they did nothing else. Other companies expanded into this new niche of cyberspace by adding new features to the XBL formula; Microsoft perched on its laurels as the angry birds came home to roost. While Microsoft did…nothing, Valve aggressively expanded into the PC market, their penetration driven by having two of the all-time top-rated PC games at the time (having since added two more to the Metacritic all-time top 10). While Microsoft led with its hardware, Valve led with its software and innovation.  Console rival SONY got in on the metagame as well.  Releasing at a higher cost, but with superior hardware that included a larger hard drive, the Playstation 3 platform’s Playstation Network further split the market. Copying all of the popular XBL features along with subscription free service and integrating the Playstation 3 network with their wifi-enabled portable platform, the Playstation Portable, gave Playstation an arguable edge. Now consider that Nintendo has digital distribution services for its Wii, DSi, and 3DS consoles and the impending threat of mobile and tablet-based gaming, and the digital distribution looks really crowded all of a sudden. Microsoft will have to make some changes before it’s game over for the XBL.
A recent prescription for success that’s been getting some buzz of late comes from Ron Carmel, writer for the 2D Boy blog and former EA developer.  Ron provides a large body of relevant evidence to support his claim, citing the well-known frustration of his indie-developer colleagues.  Carmel’s advice boils down to this simple list, a practical 10 corrections:
  1. Create a fair contract for publishers/developers.
  2. Raise awareness for the product.
  3. Allow indie developers to self-publish without assigning a producer to oversee.
  4. A better system for updating instead of forcing TCRs(technical certification requirements)
  5. Get rid of the exclusivity requirements for the developers.
  6. Get rid of the greenlight process and open development to anyone.
  7. Give every console the ability to develop.
  8. Automate everything for the developers. They should be able to submit, set price and set a release date all from a web interface.
  9. Get rid of the current ESRB system and allow developers to set the rating on their own.
  10. Don’t force developers to make game-related avatar-items.
As I’m sure you can tell by reading this list, giving the developers more control will only help to provide better and more games, faster. Which we all want…at least I do.
Then again, who is Ron Carmel to be questioning Microsoft?

Cloudy days ahead

The term “cloud” is being thrown around the internet and gaming scene quite often these days. Simply put, cloud gaming is a game that’s being streamed directly to your computer from a server. A cloud-based service can be used for many different things. Services like email, Google word, Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube. Some major gaming platforms like Steam, XBL, and PSN use cloud integration.

The major difference between cloud gaming and other forms of cloud-based services and/or content is that the processing power required for gaming is more taxing than most other computer operations.  This means that, despite Google documents processing power in the cloud, it’s still just doing word processing or streaming audio and video in the case of Netflix, whereas cloud-based gaming relies on dynamic generation of audio and video in response to player-constructed inputs. (i.e. mouse and keyboard).

The advantages to using cloud-gaming are numerous. The necessity for big, expensive, hardware such as computers and consoles would be a thing of the past. The server supplying the game would handle all the processing. Theoretically, you could play on laptops, tablets, TVs or even smartphones. This could be offered as a subscription service (i.e., Netflix) rather than having to buy games individually.

Now here’s the real issue. Is cloud-based gaming a viable option for the future, or is it just a pipedream? With the demand for streaming audio, video and online gaming growing exponentially there are already concerns whether the bandwidth required is available. Even with the huge leaps forward that have been made in internet speeds in the past 10 years, cloud-based services have come  to represent a formidable portion of internet traffic. How much data can we shove down this pipe and not experience latency? Current cellphone plans are based on data usage. Cell phone companies already rely on ISPs  to help with their capacity issues. This could severely hamper or even make it impossible for cloud gaming to be successful.

As it stands now, cloud gaming only applies to single-player games. But recent games have been steadily incorporating multiplayer  options. To the point that single player often takes a back seat to multiplayer with popular franchises like Call of Duty and Counter Strike.  This could lead to some serious problems for companies like Gaikai, OTOY, and OnLive. Being able to support multiplayer games is a must for gaming companies. With the bandwidth concerns they are already facing,  a viable solution will need to be found to be able support anything more than single player.

Cloud-gaming could be the wave of the future. It could change when, where and how we game…if the internet speed, bandwidth issues and server capacity/processing power catch up enough to support it. That’s a few too many could’s, should’s and if’s for me though. Guess I’m stuck with my bulky Xbox for now. But so are all my friends.