Kinect, the next generation and Indie Game frustration - Microsoft's year in videogame news.
Microsoft began 2011 buoyed by the immediate success of Kinect. Sales of the Xbox 360 motion sensor soared past eight million units in just two months, dwarfing its internal target of three million. Kinect would soon be named the fastest-selling consumer electronics device of all time by Guinness World Records, and would help Microsoft set an internal record too: its revenue for the last three months of 2010 came to $19.95 billion.
In the run-up to E3 it became quickly apparent that Microsoft's vision for the Xbox 360 in 2011 centred on repositioning the console as a media hub powered by Kinect. Days before the conference kicked off in June, corporate communications VP Frank Shaw noted that 40 per cent of all Xbox 360 activity was spent doing something other than playing games, saying: "The vision for Xbox is straightforward: all of the entertainment you want, with the people you care about. Made easy."
Yet few were expecting Microsoft's E3 conference to be so thoroughly dominated by Kinect. There were the family-focused titles, of course - Disneyland Adventures, Sesame Street: Once Upon A Monster, Dance Central 2 - but Microsoft's Kinect fever had spread to the core, shown off in Mass Effect 3, Fable: The Journey and that risible Kinect Star Wars demo. Only Gears Of War escaped, Epic's design director Cliff Bleszinski saying it would have felt "tacked-on," advice which would have been well-heeded elsewhere.
Peter Molyneux admitted that his decision to only show an on-rails section during his on-stage demo of Fable: The Journey, due to his timeslot being halved, was "a horrendous mistake" after the watching press decided the game was entirely on-rails, and he later admitted Kinect "has some real problems." Gamers who feared the worst after Microsoft's Kinect-heavy E3 presser were far from placated by the announcement of Nuads: Kinect-powered, interactive advertising.
Microsoft has spent much of the year getting on the wrong side of those who develop for its Xbox Live Indie Games service. The company said it would investigate after Cthulhu Saves The World developer Robert Boyd spotted that his game had dropped several places in the top rated chart, while the little-known College Lacrosse: The Video Game had soared up the rankings. The latter game's developer had asked its 175,000 Facebook fans to boost the game's rank by giving it five-star ratings, taking advantage of Microsoft allowing anyone with a free xbox.com account to rate titles on XBLIG.
Fans complied with the request, but also gave low scores to games in the upper echolons of the top rated chart. Microsoft tweaked the rating system in response, restricting it to Xbox Live Gold members, but was unable to roll back suspicious votes. Boyd was putting it mildly when he described the situation as "highly disappointing," but if he and his peers felt unloved by Microsoft, much worse was to come.
Xbox Live mouthpiece Larry "Major Nelson" Hryb trumpeted the Metro dashboard update, with its voice and gesture controls and an integrated Bing search, as "simpler, cleaner and easier to navigate." Unless you're an Indie Games developer, of course; when Metro was rolled out in early December it was quickly found that the Indie section wasn't, well, quickly found. "If I had trouble finding it," Boyd told us, "I can only imagine that few people are going to stumble upon it accidentally." Several other developers shared their frustrations with us, with one, Mommy's Best Games, releasing a co-op shooter, Game Type, satirising the difficulty of finding Indie Games on the new dash.
While Microsoft continues to insist there is no Xbox 360 successor on the horizon, the news tells a different story. In March it sought to fill three hardware development vacancies; both EA and Crytek were forced to deny claims that they were already in possession of next-gen Xbox hardware, the publisher insisting the report in question was "a total fabrication."
Yet with the console on its last legs in Japan - as our report in August revealed - and even the likes of Braid developer Jonathan Blow saying the current generation's RAM limitations are making porting problematic, a new Xbox can't be too far away. Last month a source told us that Ubisoft Montrťal, and other major studios, were already in possession of 'target boxes' approximating the final specs of the Xbox 360's successor. That source went on to insist that Microsoft was planning on pulling the rug out from under Nintendo's Wii U launch by releasing its new console before the end of 2012. With sales of PS3 close to overtaking Xbox 360, we can't imagine Microsoft will accept being in last place for long, no matter how well Kinect performs.
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