Select/Start Games Editorial: How to “fix” the Xbox 360.

I own an Xbox 360, and I think the system has a lot of potential, but I don’t think it’s living up to that potential like it should. I hear a lot about what the competition is doing wrong, and what needs to happen in order to “fix” said competition, so in the sake of fairness, I decided to compile my own personal thoughts about what I think Microsoft needs to do to really make the Xbox 360 sing.

First, however, I’d like to point out the things I think don’t need to be fixed about the 360:

Xbox LIVE features. The feature set of Xbox LIVE is one of it’s shining lights, and it has seamlessly integrated those features in the games that release on the 360. Cross game chat, invites, etc, are all executed rather flawlessly, and the competition should take note. This, to me, is Microsoft’s golden child, and key contribution to console gaming. It is their strength, and they should focus on maintaining that quality,  and continuing to push it’s services, as the competition isn’t resting on its laurels, and is slowly but surely catching up to LIVE.

Now onto the things that need fixing.

First, Xbox LIVE should be free.

There is no excuses or justifications for Microsoft alone to charge for their online service. The PC has a better, more robust feature set than Xbox LIVE, and it is free. The PSN is free. Even the Wii, DS, and PSP have free online play. What make’s LIVE so special that it must charge its users for the privilege to use it?

Achievements, chat, messages, etc, are Xbox 360 features, not LIVE features. Yes, LIVE is generally the hub by which all of these features coalesce into a polished experience for the gamer, but many are simply built into the Xbox 360’s DNA, not LIVE’s.

Microsoft makes more than enough money from micro-transactions, DLC, and other revenue generated through the Xbox LIVE Marketplace, that offering a free service, with dedicated servers wouldn’t be  a problem for them to handle.

No one should have to pay more than their ISP cost to play online. Being a 29 year old adult with rent to pay, car notes, gas, lights, transportation costs, food costs, phone bills, etc, the less I have to fork out in uneccessary expenses, the better. LIVE is $50 a year, but I’d much rather put that money towards a new game, or some other item that comes up that must be taken care of.

When there are free alternatives (like the PC and PSN), I’ll take free everytime.

An example of what I mean is this: Left4Dead is available on the PC and Xbox 360. I have the PC version. Why? Because I can play co-op online for free on the PC, whereas I’d have to have Xbox LIVE in order to play it co-op on my Xbox 360. One of the best games released on the Xbox 360 last year, and I have it on my PC instead. I don’t think that is what Microsoft wants, ultimately, since they get more revenue from software sales on their 360, than through licensing on the PC.

Secondly, Microsoft should drop Unreal Engine 3.

The sole reliance on this engine will ultimately hurt the Xbox 360 in the long run. Don’t get me wrong, the UE3 is still a damn fine looking engine, but the problem is that it’s a 3rd party engine, being licensed out to developers. What this does is dilute the impact of each title that uses the engine.

Gears of War was hands down the most visually stunning game released in 2006. No arguments. It showed that the Xbox 360 was a graphical powerhouse, and filled owners with a sense of excitement and anticipation for what the console could do.

Fast forward to a few years later, and you have so many games that use UE3, that Gears of War 2 left many folks “mehing” in disappointment. Not because of the gameplay, but because Gears 2, while good looking also, wasn’t unique anymore. It didn’t stand out from the UE3 crowd like the first did.

Take a look at these:

Gears of War 2

Mass Effect

Too Human

Bioshock

The Bourne Conspiracy

Dark Sector

50 Cent 2: Blood in the Sand

The Last Remnant

Art Design and overall visual aesthetics may be different, but the way Unreal Engine 3 renders things like textures, draws lighting, and loads data is the same across the board. There’s no denying that it looks good. That’s not what I’m contesting. What I’m trying to illustrate is that when so many developers have access to the same engine, a very de ja vu, “me too” effect begins to happen with the games, and the overall effect is that all of the titles lose their appeal.

I think Unreal Engine is a very good engine, with excellent tools and scalability, and games like Bioshock and Mirror’s Edge use Unreal Engine 3, and differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack, but many developers are simply using it as a crutch to get the games out the door, and looking good enough pass in this next gen, HD era.

Now, take a look at these games, built from the ground up for the Playstation 3, using their own engine, and not a 3rd party licensed one:

Resistance 2

Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction

Little Big Planet

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots

Heavy Rain

God of War 3


Killzone 2

The difference in the games goes beyond just their art design, but the games are clearly not using the same engine, and the strengths of using individual engines for both should be evident: You have an engine that is not only optimized for the console it is developed on, but it is optimized for the type of game you are developing. Killzone 2’s engine may not work for God of War 3, because it is optimized for a first person shooter.

This is where I think Microsoft should take a page from Sony’s book and begin to develop games from the ground up with the express purpose of optimizing and maximizing the Xbox 360’s potential. Which conveniently brings me to my next point.

Make the HDD Mandatory

Many people have argued that DVD is enough for games this generation, but what we are seeing with the Xbox 360 and it’s relatively stationary graphics evolution, is that developers are being hindered by the 7.5gig space allowed them on a DVD, in comparison to the 25-50gigs of space allowed to PS3 developers on a Blu Ray disc.

Microsoft opted to not include an HD DVD drive in the Xbox 360, which featured 15-30 gigs of potential room for developers to play around with. From Rockstar Games, to Bioware, to Id Software, the lack of DVD space is becoming a real issue as games in this HD era get more complex, and require more complex texture data.

Microsoft’s solution is simple: Allow developers to require a cache or install to the 36o’s hard drive. This will allow them the breathing room they need to expand their games and ideas, resulting in not only games that look better, but run better also (Mass Effect on the Xbox 360 suffered from texture load in, framerate issues, and horribly long load times. The PC version alleviated just about all of these issues – except the texture loading – that’s a UE3 issue, because the game was installed to the HDD of PCs). This also saves developers money because they don’t have to pay the extra fees Microsoft charges when a game requires more than one disc.

In the end, it’s a win for the developers and more importantly, us gamers, because we get a better product in the end. Now, developers have been doing a fantastic job working within the 360’s limitations and creating some truly amazing games, but why limit their creativity and potential when you don’t have to? If caching or installing to the hard drive will allow the developer to produce a better product, one that really shows off what the 360 can do, they should be allowed to do it.

Bigger and better games will allow the 360 to continue to compete with the PS3 in the long run. While I don’t think both consoles are equal in terms of power, I think the 360 is capable of so much more than what it’s currently showcasing via the Unreal Engine 3 based Gears of War 2.

Of course, by allowing developers to require the HDD in lieu of a larger disc format, Microsoft would be forced to pull the HDD less Arcade Xbox 360 SKU off of shelves, meaning a sacrifice of their “half the price of the competition” bullet point. It’s no denying that the Arcade 360 is selling rather well, but for me, as a gamer, I want the best games possible on the platform I’ve spent my money on, not better sales to fuel fanboy debates on the internet.

I think the 360 can do so much more, but is being held back by lack of a larger capacity disc, and lack of an HDD. I don’t think it needs the larger disc if it has the HDD, but lacking both? In the long term, that isn’t a good thing, especially when the competition has the benefits of using both for it’s games (some PS3 games require installs, like MGS4, while others simply stream the data from the large Blu Ray discs, without installs, like Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. Killzone 2 doesn’t require an install either).

Lastly, Microsoft needs to invest in more First and Second Party game development studios.

This is where I will not give them any sorts of free passes. Currently, Microsoft has 5 in house development studios: Lionhead, Rare, Turn 10, Wingnut Interactie, and Xbox Live Productions.

They have, over the course of this generation, allowed other studios to either go independent (meaning they can make games for whatever console they please, even rival Playstation 3), or closed them down altogether (like Ensemble and ACES Game Studios).

For a console manufactuer that is trying to dominate the gaming industry, this is unacceptable.  A console needs games, and while the 360 most certainly has software, most of it is either multi-platform, timed exclusives, or owned by 3rd parties, meaning that, if those 3rd parties choose, the franchise may go multi-platform (for example, EA owns Bioware, who owns the Mass Effect franchise. If EA decides to move the franchise to the PS3 also, it will go. Microsoft has no say in this, because they don’t own the Mass Effect IP, despite publishing the first title).

For contrast, Sony Computer Entertainment owns 16 First party studios, and has exclusive deals with 14 second party studios. All of which develop titles exclusively for the Playstation brand. Sony also owns the rights to every title created by those developers, so even if they decided to go multi-platform, IPs like Resistance, Ratchet and Clank, Little Big Planet, and Heavy Rain, for example, would remain exclusive to the Playstation brand.

What does all this mean for a gamer like me?

In short, the less studios Microsoft has developing titles for the 360, the less games I have to play on the 360 I spent my hard earned money on. As a gamer, this upsets me. I want a nice variety of games to play on my consoles, with good quality, and in a variety of genres. And I’m sorry, but 5 internal development studios, at the most, can only develop 2 or 3 games at a time, depending on how large the development team is to begin with.

For a company that is trying to establish itself as the “industry leader,” it’s going to need a little more than 5 studios and Halo and Gears of War (which, again, is not owned by Microsoft, but Epic Games).

On the other hand, you have Sony, with 30 studios working on titles, with just about all of them except the MMOs that will never see another platform outside of the PS3 (the MMO’s will release on the PC as well). To me, that is how you establish yourself as an industry leader, pushing forward gaming technology. Sony isn’t relying on 3rd party game engines like Unreal Engine 3, and they aren’t relying on 3rd party developers to supply them with exclusives.

I would love to see Microsoft spend their millions on opening up brand new game development studios, instead of spending millions on downloadable content for 3rd party games that are a year old or more.

Even if Microsoft just opens up another 5 studios, 10 is better than 5. It’s not as if Microsoft doesn’t have the financial resources to make this happen, and to make these changes.

I think the Xbox 360 is a good console, with a lot of potential (especially once the hardware failure rate issue stabilizes), but I think Microsoft itself is holding it back. LIVE is an excellent contribution to gaming, but when all of your major titles are either using the same old UE3 technology, third party owned timed exclusives or multi-plats, or being hindered by things like lack of HDD or larger capacity disc, you are doing a disservice to the fans out there that spent their money to support your Xbox 360. And they deserve better than that.

The changes I highlighted above are not unreasonable, nor are they out of the realm of possibility. With the Playstation 3 slowly but surely ramping up it’s feature set and software lineup, the ball is in Microsoft’s court to respond in kind, and keep Sony on their toes and off balance. Price cuts can only do so much, when the software is starting to dry up due to lack of development houses working on exclusive titles.

What good is it to the consumer who buys that nice, cheap 360 unit, where there isn’t enough compelling content to play?

Do these few changes, and the 360 could easily continue to surpass the PS3 in terms of install base, and public perception. You don’t want to give a company like Sony an opening to surpass you.

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One Response to “Select/Start Games Editorial: How to “fix” the Xbox 360.”

  1. […] How to “fix” the Playstation 3 A few weeks back, I posted an editorial on how to “fix” the Xbox 360. Now it’s time to turn the microscope on Sony’s big black box, and see what can be done […]

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