Game Buzz is a weekly opinion column designed to take an irreverent look at one of the biggest news stories to break in the past week. Every Friday we’ll be bringing you another slice of reaction to topical gaming news, and inviting you to agree, disagree, shout assent, vent rage, scream and complain to you heart’s delight. This week we take a look at Microsoft's assertion that a lack of high-capacity media discs is all part of the game plan.
I love fanboys. I think it has to do with the inevitability of it all, the way a multi-layered argument with a variety of different yet equally considerable perspectives can be distilled so swiftly and decisively down into jokes about the sexual predilections of one's mother or the lack of another's genitalia. You can count on Nintendo fanboys being historical snobs, Sony's come with an air of superiority, feeling like the world of gaming owes them something, and Microsoft's are the modern day equivalent of Chaucerian social-climbers: new to the party, loud, obnoxious and rude.
This week showed us that even the most well informed people can begin to get a little catty when the tough questions start rolling in. I am, of course, referring to the ongoing battle of the consoles that has begun a new chapter thanks to Microsoft's stubborn refusal this week to acknowledge the barest hint of poor planning with regard to their faith in DVD and subsequently digital distribution. The last month, in fact, has been peppered with big-hitters from both Microsoft and Sony letting it all hang loose and subtly backhanding the competition like men at a urinal trying to see who can pee the highest: it makes no real difference, but it's quite amusing. In a sad way.
I made the point a couple of weeks ago that I felt Microsoft's stable of exclusivity was in real jeopardy (or rather, non-existent) and that they'd need to do something dramatic and decisive to change what looks like a plummeting fall into last place. Last month Rob Dyer waded into the seas of console war debate and powerfully stated in no uncertain terms 'they have very few first-party studios at Microsoft. Bungie's next Halo is the last one, Rare rarely puts out anything, you've got Peter Molyneux with his Fable stuff... but they don't have first-party development studios inside at Redmond or anywhere for that matter. We do. So rather than putting their money behind that, they've been going to Epic or Valve or BioWare to do what they did with Mass Effect, and that's where they throw their dollars."
He makes a good point. But so far Microsoft has enjoyed a relative lead in global sales assisted, of course, by their larger install base, their flying headstart and, as Microsoft's Product Director Aaron Greenberg pointed out earlier this week, a price point that sees the console retail for $100 less than the PS3. However, that gap is closing and, as Dyer noted, there is an enormous possibility that this trend will begin to reverse this year, and it's all to do with space.
Dyer gave some guff about how console-specific marketing was going to really drive sales rather than dwindling exclusives, but to be honest just walking into your local Gamestation or browsing the web for a second or two is going to tell you the truth about a multiplatform game, but he was spot on when he said this: 'If you take advantage of what the PS3 can deliver – more content on the Blu-ray disc, better graphics, being able to get more of what the player wants onto the disc – you're going to see those sales translate.' [EA and Eidos] would both tell you that by focusing on PS3 and its virtues and what it provides, it translated into much bigger sales and bang for the buck.'
And herein lies the rub for Microsoft: that niggling space issue. I have to say that when Capcom came out of the New Year moaning and grumbling with hyperbole about having the development team in tears regarding the cut material for Lost Planet 2 I remained relatively apathetic towards this space issue. But, having seen a rather sub-par Final Fantasy XIII arrive on 3 discs with noticeably inferior graphics for my Xbox 360, I'm starting to wonder if there isn't something to this.
Greenberg laughed everything off this week, but then he has to, shuddering in a corner with tears streaming down his face just wouldn't have cut it, although it might have been a more honest reaction. No, instead of confessing that Microsoft may have dropped the ball a little when they refused to back HD-DVD or offer an alternative form of tangible high capacity software, Greenberg suggested that the lack of Blu-ray was in fact integral to the Microsoft game plan and was the key to the console's success.
Sony bet on the physical disc, and there are costs associated with that," Greenberg told Edge magazine.
"The fact that we're able to offer a console starting at $199 is a benefit of not being burdened with that cost."
He added: "For us, our bet was on digital distribution, that was the future - the ability to [play] 1080p movies with no disc, no download required; we have the largest movie and TV library, the largest HD library of any console.
Unfortunately, the drive towards digital distribution for the Xbox is a very real worry. As any PC gamer will testify, buying anything other than exclusive indie games over Steam is tantamount to walking up to a GAME clerk and simply handing over all of your money and clothing. Digitally distributed software is, as precedent suggests, incredibly expensive and does not depreciate in the same manner as physical media.
What I hope will happen will be a certain synthesis between the two, be it via core content on a disc backed up by Day One free DLC or an incorporation of cloud based servers to deliver an experience not unlike OnLive. As the shift towards a heavier emphasis on digital distribution begins to take place, I think we'll start to see the tiered levels of Xbox LIVE that has been bandied about in forums and over analyst phone lines for some time along with a significant retooling of the price system.
I say 'think', but what I really mean is 'hope'. You see it's hard not to take a look at this and immediately dive for the comfort cushion of cynicism. Digital distribution means big money for all concerned and it's hard to see the corporations putting the thoughts of us gamers before their own wallets. The sad fact of the matter, though, is that they might have to or everyone will begin abandoning ship as that price point starts swinging the other way. Microsoft have made millions through accessories by releasing an essentially unfinished console, but those cracks are beginning to show, and I don't think they'll be able to pull a fast one like that again without some serious recrimination from the community.
To be honest, I'll start caring more when this begins to impinge on the games I actually care about (sorry Capcom). Until then I reckon I'll just do what all the other Xbox fanboys are doing and continue to quietly pleasure myself in a dark corner at the very thought of jetpack-laden Spartans in Halo: Reach.