Why the Xbox Durango rumors are full of shit. Also, why they aren’t.
I’ve been a gamer my whole life, and during that time I’ve learned a lot about the industry and the companies that make the games and hardware that I play. I’ve learned the most during the past 12 years especially – that’s roughly the amount of time I’ve been a games journalist. Sure, I’ve never been paid for my work, but I’ve gotten the perks and had the chances to talk to and meet some interesting people, and along the way those people have given me glimpses and insight into the inner-workings of the industry. It’s this knowledge combined with the years of playing games, studying game design and being at the front lines of video game and consumer electronics retail that has given me my current analytical capabilities. I am a gamer, a journalist, an analyst as well as a designer.
I’m writing this article for multiple reasons, key among them I believe many gamers are out of touch with the industry itself, and they need someone to lay it all out on the table to make sense of it all. A lot of gamers forget that the video game industry is exactly that: a multi-billion dollar industry that needs to make money in order to make games. Unfortunately, gone is the “Golden-Era” of video games from the 1990′s, where making games was more about passion and gaming was far simpler. Today, one bad game can ruin a company and shut it down in an instant.
So my goal is to help you – the average gamer – make sense of what these rumors ACTUALLY are, and whether or not any of them hold water.
So, here’s what we’ll be discussing today:
- The Next Xbox will be announced at E3 2012.
- The Next Xbox will release in 2013.
- The Next Xbox will not have a disc drive.
- The Next Xbox will not play Second-Hand (Used) games.
- The Next Xbox will have two different configurations.
So let’s jump right into it!
First and foremost, I hear people talking about how Durango will be announced at this year’s E3 and how it will release next year. As an analyst, this immediately sets off alarms; chief among them being Microsoft’s strategy with Kinect.
Microsoft released the Kinect a little over a year ago now, and the main reason they released the Kinect was to expand the life of the Xbox 360 console as well as to reach out to non-gaming consumers. Microsoft has publicly acknowledged that the hardware of the 360 has come close to being pushed to its limits. Instead of upgrading the 360′s graphical and processing power, they’ve added a new way to control the game, thus giving the system more time to be on the shelves before Durango is revealed.
I’ve also heard from a lot of these rumors that Microsoft will be announcing and releasing the Durango by 2013 in order to compete with Nintendo’s new console, the Wii U. There’s a problem with this; both Microsoft and Sony have acknowledged that Nintendo is no longer a direct competitor, so to speak. Microsoft representatives don’t just say these things to throw people off – Industry insiders like to be subtle about their plans by neither confirming nor denying a story. Case in point, Cedrick Delmas – Marketing Director of Microsoft France – talking to VG247:
“We’re not here to counter Nintendo and they’re not here to fight the other manufacturers. Nintendo has put itself in a different cycle, they’re advancing at their own pace.”
And in the same interview, Cedrick points out the exact same point I made earlier in this article – that the Xbox’s life cycle just isn’t complete yet.
“We’re in an industry that talks a lot, that likes to tell stories. I am not convinced things will happen this year. Xbox 360′s cycle is not at all finished. The proof is that we don’t see the logic in cutting the price this year. E3 is still premature. What’s certain is that there’ll be nothing new in 2012.”
Some of you will say “Well, that guy isn’t part of the Xbox team – he doesn’t know what he’s talking about!” So you think these companies just let their executives waltz up on stage and say whatever the hell they want? Of course not! Sure, it’s just one man working for one of the biggest hardware and software developers in the world. What could he possibly know?
Next, we’re going to discuss the feasibility of an Xbox without an optical drive. Again, the gamer in me screams this is impossible, unless Microsoft plans on moving back to cartridge-based games. Many people are arguing that Microsoft could be moving toward Flash Memory-based game cards, like the Nintendo 3DS or the PlayStation Vita. While this is plausible, it’s not feasible for non-portable gaming systems. Why?
Handhelds need the convenience of portability. Home consoles do not. While Flash-based cards are ideal for handheld systems, they make much less sense for full-fledged consoles due to the memory constraints that they possess. Let’s use the both the PlayStation 3′s media – Blu-ray Discs – and the PlayStation Vita’s media – Flash Cards – as examples.
Sony uses Blu-ray discs as the preferred storage medium for games on the PlayStation 3. Blu-ray offers a massive amount of storage – up to 50GB of information – on a CD-sized disc. Current generation games are massive, blockbuster sized pieces of software, utilizing cutting edge graphics and massive amounts of processing power to pump out beautiful and engaging gameplay experiences. Many games on the PS3 have actually surpassed this 50GB limit, like Konami’s Metal Gear Solid 4. Hideo Kojima noted that during development, his team actually RAN OUT OF SPACE on the disc, and had to either compress or completely remove much of the game’s audio. As I said, current generation games use a massive amount of memory.
The PlayStation Vita, on the other hand, uses Flash-based “game cards” to store its games and save data on. The PlayStation Vita is a beautiful little handheld, and pumps out some serious graphics for a handheld. It even has the ability to play certain PlayStation 3 games on the go, making it a much-desired system for a lot of gamers. But looks can be deceiving, especially to the uninformed average gamer – no offense folks; it’s not an insult, just an observation.
One of the reasons the graphics on the Vita look so good is because of its smaller screen. Sure, the graphics are better than anything we’ve ever seen on a handheld, but blow up that 5 inch screen to full size – let’s say 24 inches – and it’ll look pixelated and jaggy. That’s because the Vita’s output resolution is smaller than the PlayStation 3′s. The Vita isn’t powerful enough to display full 1080p in native resolution, and the only way to play PS3 games on it is through streaming technology – the Vita doesn’t actually process the game, it just displays it.
Trust me; this is all relevant to my point. The Vita’s games fit on flash -based cards, similar to SD cards. The cards only hold about 4GB of space, which is far less than needed for full current generation console games. Now imagine a next-generation title with all of its fancy graphics, advanced gameplay mechanics and next-level multiplayer capabilities. If we can’t fit a CURRENT generation game on a 50GB Blu-ray, what makes people think we can squeeze next-gen games down to 4GB?
Not to mention how much it would cost to produce games on flash-based memory chips of that capacity. A 50GB title on flash memory might cost upwards of $100 per card for the consumer, based on current trends in the market and the rising prices of flash memory. Blu-ray technology, on the other hand, is becoming more cost effective to produce. Blu-ray players are getting less and less expensive every day as they become more widely utilized in homes.
And for those of you that believe Sony “owns” Blu-ray? Sony is a part of the “Blu-ray Disc Association” – a group of companies that invests in and regulates the use and rights of the Blu-ray format. Yes, Sony helped develop and market Blu-ray during the most recent format war between Blu-ray and HD-DVD (a format I heavily favored over Blu-ray, by the way) but Microsoft isn’t holding a grudge. After HD-DVD lost the war with Blu-ray, Microsoft realized their strategy of selling an add-on player for the 360 hadn’t helped HD-DVD’s bid for market dominance, and never pursued the idea of a Blu-ray add-on because it was not financially and commercially sound.
When Microsoft released the Xbox 360 S, the main reason for not including a Blu-ray drive in the system was not because Microsoft is opposed to the idea; it’s because the difference in encoding between DVD9 Xbox 360 discs and Blu-ray discs would prevent one format or the other from not working properly. Would you want Microsoft to release a Blu-ray equipped Xbox that couldn’t play the DVD9 games you already own? Of course not, and neither does Microsoft!
So of course, it would make sense on a financial level for Microsoft to adopt Blu-ray as the format for its next console versus creating a new format. Blu-ray is more widely adopted at this point, with the market saturation of HDTVs growing exponentially every day. We’ve already seen Microsoft turn the Xbox 360 into more than just a game console; Microsoft wants to embrace as many consumers as possible and make their consoles entertainment hubs, capable of viewing movies, watching TV and playing games. So IF Durango uses physical media, it will most likely be Blu-ray.
Since we’re on the subject of media storage and formats, let’s talk about how DRM fits into this puzzle. Many “reports” have surfaced that claim Microsoft will implement a special type of digital rights management (DRM) in Durango that will keep consumers from playing second-hand (used) titles.
The hardcore gamer in me screams out in fury. So does the analyst. Finally, a point they can agree upon.
This is lunacy; total business and market suicide. The second-hand market is too large to ignore, and even if it’s something that everyone in the industry hates, it’s an integral part of the system. Were Microsoft to find a way to lock us out of our games on our consoles, there would be riots. I mean, all you have to do is ask yourself if you would buy such a product.
Microsoft knows this, and so do the publishers. Common sense states it’s a bad idea, and as does business sense. For now, the era of “online passes” works for both parties, even if gamers hate it and wish they could damn it to hell for all of eternity.
Let’s wind this article down. Let’s look at whether or not Microsoft will continue to offer two different configurations of its next console. This ties in very closely to whether or not Microsoft will include an optical drive in Durango. The simple answer is of course; Microsoft has seen success with two different configurations of the Xbox 360, so why wouldn’t they do the same with their next piece of hardware?
The real question isn’t if they will offer two configurations. The real question we should be asking is whether or not one of the configurations will be less like a game console, and more like an Apple TV or a Roku. If the drive-less rumor is true, then the less expensive configuration could be meant to expand the Xbox brand into the category of set-top media centers. This could work if Microsoft does several key things:
- The box has to be backwards compatible with ALL Xbox Live content, including Arcade titles and downloadable games. This would allow the “full” Xbox experience sans optical drive, minus the ability to play current generation disc-based titles and movies.
- Of course, this would mean the box would require a MASSIVE hard drive or the ability to use outside sources of memory; i.e. SD cards, USB drives and external USB Hard Drives.
- The hardware would need to allow the use of a game controller and all of the system’s peripherals, so it would need quite a few USB ports to support not only controllers and chargers, but also all of your memory options.
- A more robust LIVE experience, including day and date download availability of new titles and less expensive options for that media. One of the main problems many console gamers have with digital distribution is the price: Why buy a new game digitally for the same price as a physical copy? Shouldn’t the digital copy cost less than the physical copy? After all, we shouldn’t have to pay for packaging and materials since we’re not getting them. Also, the service needs competitive pricing to stay current with in-store offers as well.
- Finally, publishers will have to agree to all of this. Digital distribution has not yet reached the point where it can replace physical media. Are publishers and developers willing to take the risk that their content might not sell as well digitally as they would in the stores? (Don’t lambast me for this – I KNOW Indie developers thrive off the digital market, and that it’s easier to release it digitally than it is to get it to the physical market. However, NO ONE can deny that there is still a significant and dominating market for physical content!)
Part of me is still skeptical about not having an optical drive, especially since a media center configuration could still have enough hardware variants to warrant its own multi-SKU setup. For example, multiple versions with varying sizes of hard drives. While the idea of an Xbox Media Center is appealing to some, I don’t see it catching on with the mass market quite yet. I see something like this coming with the ninth generation of consoles, mainly because digital distribution has yet to overtake physical sales.
So do the rumors hold water? Is any of this possible? Sure, it’s all possible, but it just doesn’t add up.
- I’m almost certain we won’t see an announcement at E3 this year, and I’m even more certain we won’t see a new Xbox until at least 2014.
- Will there be two models? Almost certainly.
- Will Durango be able to play second-hand games? Only if Microsoft doesn’t want to shoot themselves in the foot.
- Will it play games on a CD, or will Microsoft opt to use flash memory? The evidence overwhelmingly supports an optical disc-based format.
There you have it folks; that’s my professional opinion on the matter. Could I be wrong? Absolutely, but I hope you’ll agree that the points I’ve made make sense. If Microsoft is thinking as logically as I am, we’ll see many of my predictions and observations make it into Durango. I hope you’ll agree with what I’ve written here. If not, feel free to pass this article around to as many people as you’d like, and feel free to call me an idiot:
I could use the publicity ;D