Clearly the big news is that on May 21, Microsoft will unveil the successor to the Xbox 360. It is an exciting time for gaming. Exciting for everyone from system and dev fanboys/fangirls to indie diehards and the handheld hardcore. The new era of gaming has either already arrived in some forms or is set to land soon in others, cementing the eighth console generation. On the verge of the next Xbox’s announcement, it is worth looking back at industry trends for an idea of what to expect in the next round of consoles, but more importantly the console gimmicks.
Offloading Loading Screens
In all honesty, Kinect and Move were attempts at capturing the trailblazing success of Nintendo Wii‘s unique full motion gameplay gimmick. It is going to happen again. The PlayStation Vita will provide the dual screen support that Wii U‘s GamePad achieves and Microsoft being the company with a horse in every race will likely follow suit, whether at launch or later. Xbox Smartglass acts as a prototype in many ways to these off console screen shenanigans and it is possible the brand will be re-purposed to serve a dedicated tablet device for the new console. Whatever Heart-rate monitors, balance boards and Guitar Hero/Rockband instrument sets are pumped out be sure to see them appear in one guise or another on other consoles.
Tablets and pads aside, There is less reliance on a physical product nowadays. If games can be played without a controller they can certainly be played without a packaged game and the aforementioned streaming upgrades and potential off console hard drives should see gaming take a further step away from physical media. The various console stores will have high odds on becoming more relevant than they are already.
New User Interface
It might not be the most exciting gimmick or high on most people’s lists of expectations, but how gamers view and scroll through their consoles will be just as important to gamers, as it will be to Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo, if not more so. Hits and clicks will tell the console crafter what the player wants when not playing games; what they watch through NetFlix and LoveFilm, what they are likely to buy in online stores, what they think through user reviews (and thinly veiled market research practices like Miiverse), and ultimately how much time they spend on their systems. Much has been written about the growing potential for advertising appearances within games through either product placements or full blown commercials. The fact remains that marketing is already extremely prominent in the console user interface. Everything from a PlayStation Home to the Xbox avatar costume can convey an ad or implied message. Even by doing nothing and actively ignoring stealthy advertising, the gamer contributes to the process. The selections gamers make all combine to help console manufacturers and whatever third parties, correlate data to better suit future sales. The Amazon style ‘customers also bought’ bar seen on console stores is just a taste of what we see of that and will see in the future.
It is a safe bet that the next Xbox will be effective in steering the market from within just as the PS4 and Wii U promise to do. Microsoft needs a win in this area more than one might think; the disastrous response to Windows 8‘s bungled introduction to the market has been perceived by many to have caused a PC sales drop of 14% since its October release. This is the pad friendly tile face interface which Microsoft Chief executive Steven Ballmer described as a “Bet-the-company” moment at launch. Whatever users use come Xbox 720 time, it better be impressive for Microsoft’s sake. With more sophisticated UI appearing adaptable to multiple devices, Crystal Xbox owners will not just be on their consoles when they are on their consoles.
Sharing and Following
The PS4 can enjoy bragging rights on its real time Facebook posting and Ustream streaming capabilities via its ‘share’ button for now at least. If a PC giant like Microsoft cannot upstage Sony by doing something similar then frankly they would be beaten at their own game. Microsoft have been social media since MSN Messenger, before social media was social media. PS4’s stake in sharing is arguably in retaliation to the domineering popularity of Xbox Live’s inclusive online gameplay.
Sony and Microsoft do not just want to ‘friend’ and ‘follow’ players social media accounts, they also want to befriend and follow customers around on their phones. That is right, the battle for brand loyalty has gone mobile with PlayStation Mobile and Xbox Live (for Mobiles) set to become key players this gen. At present, phone technology is advancing far quicker than that of games consoles so who knows how much of that console experience will be in our pockets in the future.
As of this week, PlayStation Mobile have upped the ante by waiving the publishing fee for mobile developers which was previously sat at the $100 (€80/ £65) mark. Now that kind of cash is nothing to a big developer so Playstation’s outstretched arm is clearly reaching towards people that Microsoft have been trying to get to second base with for a long time; indie developers.
Claiming the Indie Frontier
Successful break away indie games provide ‘The next big thing’ in video games. Indie games are like the moon and Sony and Microsoft have been desperate to plant a flag and play golf on indie games for a while. Both systems have had their fair share of cult hits in the area before, so it will be interesting to see how Microsoft will respond to PlayStation’s supposedly developer consulted console of suped up physical and virtual memory mashed together on a x86-64 platform. Oh, and If there was any doubt of PlayStation’s mission to become the indie brand console then it should be noted that PSN added am indie game section to the PlayStation Store this week. Your move Microsoft.
Advanced Social Gimmicks
Gimmick wise, Microsoft have always been neither ‘micro’ or ‘soft’ in their approach to social gaming. Social gaming does not just have to mean throw a ‘Facebook’, ‘Twitter’ or whatever third party brand at the console either. The scope for social gimmicks unique to gaming is vast and if Xbox can patent a snappy enough new approach to this they could stand out from the competition.
Bringing together friends and strangers from far away effectively through consoles has been a tough enough nut to crack for gaming for well over a decade. It is not enough to just have the capability, if that were the case the Dreamcast would have dominated the market. No, social gaming needs to be delivered effectively in a novel way and Xbox 360 has arguably gotten closest to achieving this with Xbox Live.
A more advanced version of their online service on the Xbox 720 could wow the industry on May 21. With more players able to watch movies and play games together online in real time on a more sophisticated system, the Xboffins could create something to X-pand their ground braking idea. Just think, Xbox Live has over 35 million members. If Xbox successfully re -imagines gaming as a social event with a dedicated audience in excess of that number then they truly would be delivering a new new Xbox experience.
The Same Old Sh-tuff
Slims, premium models, price drops and special editions. It seems sometimes it is better to be the last person to the party in games consumerism because it certainly has npt been fair to early adopters over the years. If you’re not getting your account hacked then you’re coughing up for subscriptions and ‘points’. By now there is hope for a more streamlined and secure experience to gaming, at a push maybe even a less greedy one, but that is all there is – hope. Maybe Microsoft have learned enough lessons, time will tell.
On the games front, Xbox would be wise to establish new exclusives quickly. With two powerful systems running the same games all too often, really what is the difference? Trick question, there is not one and no number of vocal ardent fanatics delusionally married to their brand is ever going to change that, but Microsoft could. The launch needs to go off with an impressive list of games that are ‘Xbox Only’ for Microsoft to overshadow their competitors. Launching to keep up is instant defeat and Microsoft could Sega their fate there and then on that stage with anything less.
Here is to a triumphant list of hype inducing games everyone can be excited for come May 21. After all; the specs, techs, brand loyalty, functions, add-ons and gimmicks are ultimately utterly meaningless – Games are all that matter.