Xbox 360: Inside and Out
Xbox 360 Inside and Out: This special feature analyzes Microsoft's newest console, including discussions on hardware, games, and the upgrades to Xbox Live.
Xbox 360 Inside & Out
By the GameSpot Editors
While it's convenient to draw parallels between the Xbox 360 and the Sega Dreamcast--another white, modular console that launched before its two competitors--that's just a little too easy of a comparison. Yes, the 360 is hitting a fair amount of time before the Revolution and the PlayStation 3, but there isn't any substance in the comparison beyond the superficial similarities.
First and foremost, this is Microsoft. So love it or hate it, the company's got a fair chunk of change in the bank...at least the last time we checked. The success of the original Xbox has everyone on board with what it's doing now. You also can't underestimate the appeal and untapped potential of Xbox Live. The online service has been one of the key reasons Microsoft has had so much success this generation of consoles, and Microsoft is obviously hell-bent on pushing that advantage over the competition, which never really offered as comprehensive a service to gamers. Although the comparison to the Dreamcast is an easy one to make, Microsoft is doing enough things right with the 360 to make sure it won't go the way of Sega's last console. That's not saying it could never happen, but it's highly unlikely the 360 will fail to catch on with the masses.
Hardware, Software, and Services
As a game console, the Xbox 360 comes packing a serious amount of appeal for both gamers and developers. From a development standpoint, game creators are being handed the keys to a powerful piece of machinery that challenges them to try to tap its potential. The powerful hardware, complete with an unprecedented amount of RAM (one of the key things developers always want more of), is as tricked-out as a console has ever been.
Third-party support is shaping up strongly, with just about everyone who developed on the Xbox coming to the party in a big way. Even more significant is that Microsoft has made sure to fill gaps in the stable of third parties that were absent on the Xbox, namely Japanese support, which should help the company both stateside and in Japan. Finally, having someone like Peter Moore around, who was at Sega during the Dreamcast's life, helps quite a bit. Not only is he a smart guy in general, but also he has experience at Sega that will serve him well as Microsoft works to ensure the Xbox 360 finds its stride.
Above and beyond the meat and potatoes of the hardware and software, services like the new incarnation of Xbox Live have a lot to offer 360 owners and developers alike by opening the door to expanded community features, downloadable content, and microtransactions. As far as developers go, the 360 has a lot of potential for new revenue streams. Downloadable content was something we saw flirted with this generation, and, in most cases, it went well. The ability to extend the life of a game you've had for six months or a year adds quite a bit of value to it, especially if you're talking about something like a Halo, which has a huge fan base hungry for more content. The much discussed, but heretofore not implemented, concept of episodic content is also a very real possibility for developers to try. You'll also probably see crazy retail promotions that will let you have microtransactions based around game content or even products in the real world. Hopefully developers won't get too greedy by cluttering up games with product placements or blanketing them with microtransaction offers (although they probably will at some point).
Several Microsoft executives up and down the line have repeatedly stressed that the Xbox 360's strengths will be its hardware platform, software, and services.
Less Hulk, More Bruce Lee
Microsoft put a lot of work into getting just the right look for the Xbox 360. The final design was actually the result of a joint effort between Microsoft's in-house design team, a San Francisco design firm, and another firm from Osaka, Japan. Microsoft conducted color studies and performed market research to find out what a next-generation console should look like. The color studies predicted that consumer electronics will be moving toward a lot of whites, silvers, and glass, and the market surveys said the console shape should be more "organic" and "wild" than the previous Xbox.
The final Xbox 360 design definitely has an organic feel, with its soft curves and seamless face. The chrome media tray and green "ring of light" power button add some nice highlights to remind you there's a powerful game machine hidden inside. Microsoft's J Allard stressed to us that the Xbox team wanted the next Xbox to be "less Hulk, more Bruce Lee," and it looks like the final console shape successfully captures that combination of power and finesse.
The front of the console is extremely clean. Aside from the previously mentioned chrome media tray and power button, it's almost easy to miss the small infrared window and two memory card slots. Since the standard Xbox 360 controller is wireless, there's no need for front controller ports, but the system does have two USB 2.0 ports on the front panel hidden behind a plastic cover. The rear of the system has a third USB 2.0 port, an Ethernet port, and a slot for a small, gum-packet-sized Wi-Fi adapter. At this time, the wireless adapter will be sold separately. The system can stand vertically or horizontally, like the PlayStation 2. The new Xbox will also have interchangeable faceplates for extra customization, just in case you wanted a different color for your system.
As mentioned earlier, the Xbox 360 controllers have been designed to be wireless. The controllers have a similar layout to the Controller S, but the black and white buttons have moved to the shoulder areas. The controller itself is well balanced and has full vibration support. You can get a rechargeable battery pack for the controller that can recharge the batteries "lightning-fast," but you also have the option of plugging the controller into the system via USB to "trickle charge" the controller while you play. The bottom of the controller features an input jack that accepts any standard cell phone headset for voice communication. Best of all, Microsoft has confirmed that you'll be able to turn off your Xbox 360 with the wireless controller. Check out our hands-on preview of the Xbox 360 gamepad for more information.
Microsoft plans to release a video camera device for the 360 that will allow for videoconferencing, as well as add a visual interaction EyeToy-like element to games. Initial offerings could include simple parlor games like video poker chat or video checkers, but the camera might also make it possible for games to let you add your own images to them, like putting your face on a T-shirt or customizing a hero character to look just like you.
While the Xbox 360 will be "video camera ready," the actual camera might not be available until after launch. Allard told us that Microsoft will hold off on the video camera release until there's a "critical mass" of content. "I think it will probably be when we have five or six meaningful games that do interesting things with it. I think that’s the right time to do it. Launch might not be the right time."
We also asked Chris Satchell, the General Manager of XNA at Microsoft if we could possibly connect a USB keyboard to the 360. He told us that, "we will allow you to plug in a USB keyboard. It's very useful for the text entry. What we're not enabling it for, we're not enabling it for gameplay." So the keyboard is a go for text entry, but a no-go for game control.
It seems like a whole cottage industry has been built around discussing Xbox 360 media rumors. You'll hear such wonderings as whether the system will have a hard drive, DVD or HD-DVD, or possibly Media Center funtionality, among other things. The current design features a removable 20GB hard drive for game saves, Xbox Live file downloads, and storing pictures, music, and movies. Microsoft has indicated that it can make larger hard drives in the future if there's a demand. Since the hard drive is removable, 360 owners can use it to transfer save games and media over to a friend's house. Memory cards will be 64MB in size, but, as with the original Xbox, most users will only need a memory card to transfer data to a different system, since most people will already have a hard drive for game saves and downloadable content.
The Xbox 360 has a 12x DVD-ROM drive that can read Xbox 360 DVDs and the usual optical media formats, such as DVD-Video, DVD-ROM, DVD-R/RW, DVD+R/RW, CD-DA, CD-ROM, CD-R, CD-RW, WMA CD, MP3 CD, and JPEG Photo CD. You can get files onto the Xbox 360 through the USB ports, or you can take advantage of its Media Center extender capabilities by streaming media over to the box from any Windows PC on your home network. Microsoft will also offer a DVD Media Center remote control accessory that will give you easy access to the system's media player control options.
Processor and Graphics
As rosy as the Xbox 360 sounds, there are obviously some unknowns that could dampen the party. The two main unknowns are cost and backward compatibility. Price has been and will always be one of the great sticking points for any new piece of hardware. The challenge for hardware manufacturers is to find the sweet spot between what consumers will comfortably pay for the latest, greatest console and what price won't cause the manufacturer to go bankrupt. Historically, hardware manufacturers have always sold their consoles at a loss, while making money on software. The trick has always been balance, and we think that's going to hold true for the 360. All the console's components and features don't come cheaply, due to their customized nature, so it's going to be interesting to see how much it retails for.
Microsoft learned from the Xbox that if you want to control the price and performance "destiny" of the console, you have to "own the silicon." As you may remember, Intel and Nvidia provided the silicon for the first Xbox, and Microsoft found that it's much more difficult to achieve cost reductions year after year when your suppliers have prices locked in under contract. Even though a console may offer the same functionality over time, manufacturers reduce production costs over time by incorporating new technology, improving integration, and introducing other cost-cutting measures that help make the hardware more affordable to produce.
When design work started up on the 360, Microsoft decided it needed to own the actual chip designs instead of simply buying chips from suppliers. Microsoft worked with IBM and ATI to architect the CPU and graphics chip for the next Xbox. Since Microsoft owns the chip designs, it can place its own chip orders with the third-party semiconductor foundries that produce the silicon. Microsoft also decides when it's appropriate to move to a smaller manufacturing process, like going from 90nm to 65nm, to reduce costs.
As we've seen on the PC side, it's very important to make sure the CPU and GPU are well matched to make sure the system functions at maximum efficiency. If you pair an underpowered CPU with a powerful GPU, the CPU will bottleneck system performance, and all that extra GPU power will go to waste. Microsoft decided early on to go with a multicore CPU design after deciding that a superfast single-core CPU wouldn't be a viable option, since the processor would be difficult to shrink down when the time would come to reduce costs. This shift from single-core to multicore processing is happening right now in the desktop market, as Intel and AMD are just starting to ship dual-core processors this year.
The Xbox 360 will have a custom-designed IBM processor that has three processing cores, each capable of handling two threads, or two separate applications. Six total threads provides a lot of processing power, but it adds to the software complexity, because you now have to manage resources between all the processes. Microsoft has a lot of experience with multithreaded applications, and the company is confident that developing on the processor won't be a problem. It might take developers a while to figure out the most efficient way to use all the threads, but the large number of threads will give programmers a lot of flexibility. The 165-million transistor chip will run at 3.2GHz, and it'll have a vacuum-sealed, water-cooled heat sink to handle heat dissipation.
The Graphics Processor
Microsoft will pair the IBM processor with an advanced 500MHz ATI graphics chip. The ATI chip will have "48-way parallel floating-point dynamically-scheduled shader pipelines." Today's PC desktop video cards max out at 16 pipelines, but the technologies aren't quite the same. The new ATI graphics chip will be based on a new unified shader model that processes vertex and pixels through the same multipurpose pipelines. Current PC video cards have pipelines dedicated to pixel processing or vertex processing. ATI's current top-of-the-line Radeon X850 XT PE graphics chip, for example, has 16-pixel pipelines and 6-vertex pipelines. We don't know how these new hybrid pipelines will perform compared to the older, dedicated pipeline designs, but with 48 of 'em, we're betting that the next-gen ATI chip will live up to expectations.
This advanced technology has allowed Microsoft to substantially raise the bar on visual requirements for Xbox 360 games. Next-generation games must support at least 720p HDTV resolution, 5.1 multichannel sound, and full 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio (no letterboxing). Games must also have at least 2x antialiasing to improve image quality. According to Microsoft's Peter Moore, "Jaggies need to be a thing of the past," and there's no doubt the Xbox 360 hardware will be powerful enough to make them so. The graphics chip will also have 10MB of superfast embedded DRAM, which is just large enough to fit in an HD resolution frame buffer with antialiasing.
The Xbox 360 will have 512MB of system memory, which is shared between the CPU and the GPU. However, the graphics will take up much of the space since the HD video requirements mean developers will have to use larger high-resolution textures to give games extra detail. The extra memory also allows for larger game levels for improved gameplay. Sound will be 5.1 out of the box, but since the all the audio is done in software, the Xbox 360 can easily support additional sound channels if games wanted to move up to 6.1 or 7.1-channel output. Check out our Xbox 360 hardware page for a
Microsoft hasn't announced if the Xbox 360 will be backward compatible, but the system is powerful enough to emulate the original Xbox. Microsoft also hasn't discussed pricing or release dates just yet, and the contents of the final retail package are still in a state of flux. When we last spoke with company officials, they told us they're planning a worldwide holiday launch. And right now, the current package includes a 20GB hard drive, the base console, and a single wireless controller. Microsoft hasn't ruled out offering different retail packages just yet. Because the system components are so modular, the company can easily swap accessories in and out of the final package to create an attractive offering. It's very possible we'll see a completely different package after Microsoft gets more feedback on its 360 plans during E3.
One of the reasons the Xbox 360 seems poised for success is that developer support is very strong. Microsoft's Peter Moore noted that about 4,000 developer kits for the new console have already been distributed. While many developers, especially Japanese ones, were skeptical of the Xbox when it arrived in 2001, most of the naysayers eventually came on board. The one key thing about the industry now is that the days of seeing the sorts of exclusive deals that helped Nintendo rule the roost back in the day are probably gone for good. The fact that a company like Rockstar would convert its Grand Theft Auto games over to the Xbox speaks to how Microsoft made believers among the development community.
The nature of the video game business for publishers is to reach as many people as possible. Consoles with user bases in the millions can't be ignored. There's been enough excitement in the development community over the current Xbox hardware and the potential of Xbox Live that making the leap to the 360 right now makes smart business sense. The powerful hardware, which MS has made no secret it's aiming to make as developer-friendly as possible, will have a very powerful draw on developers, who are always hungry for more muscle to realize their visions.
This has ensured a healthy amount of support in the US, but, based on all the announcements that have been made in the months leading up to E3, it appears MS has managed to entice the Japanese development community as well. With support from heavy hitters such as ex-Square motherbrain Hironobu Sakaguchi, who is now with Mistwalker, and ex-Sega visionary Tetsuya Mizuguchi, the 360 is poised to have unique content that should have a strong appeal to the Japanese market and, by default, the US one. By signing developers of that caliber and by retaining close ties with Tecmo's amazing Team Ninja, all signs point to the 360 software library having some great content. This is ultimately all coming about because Microsoft has shown it "gets" what's needed to be a success in the console space and that confidence is picked up on by developers who are eager to throw down with someone who's hungry to make a mark in the industry.
Here are some games that have been announced or are known to be in development on the Xbox 360.
Alan Wake Developer: Remedy
The maker of the Max Payne series will be bringing this game to the Xbox 360. The screenshots and first trailer show a quiet, eerily idyllic setting in a heavily forested area near the coast.
Blue Dragon Developer: Mistwalker
Hironobu Sakaguchi and other ex-Square developers are hard at work on a role-playing game for the Xbox 360. Character design will be done by noted illustrator Akira Toriyama. The two previously collaborated on the classic SNES RPG Chrono Trigger, which bodes well for Blue Dragon.
Call of Duty 2 Developer: Infinity Ward
It hasn't been officially announced on the Xbox 360, but sharp-eyed GameSpot editors spied this World War II shooter at the taping of the Xbox 360 premiere event. The PC version of the game will follow the storylines of four different soldiers, as well as offer squad-based combat.
Condemned Developer: Monolith
This survival horror game from Sega and Monolith will follow Ethan Thomas, an FBI agent in the Serial Crimes Unit (SCU), which is a team of G-men dedicated to tracking down serial killers, Clarice Starling-style. While playing as Thomas, gamers must navigate "urban environments filled with deadly sociopaths who lurk on the periphery of humanity," according to Sega. Sign us up.
Dark Sector Developer: Digital Extremes
This first-person sci-fi action game is being developed by the same folks that brought you Unreal Championship and Unreal Tournament 2003. The first trailer shows a stealthy alien skulking his way through the halls of a human base or ship.
Publisher: Majesco Games
The developer of the surprise hit, The Chronicles of Riddick, are hard at work on a new action game, which is adapted from a comic book of the same name. Players will take the role of a Mafia hitman named Jackie Estacado who is possessed by strange, mystical powers.
Demonik Developer: Terminal Reality
Publisher: Majesco Games
Noted horror author Clive Barker teams up with the makers of Bloodrayne to produce this game, which will be based on a horror movie. If the storyline is as compelling as Undying, Barker's last foray into games, then Xbox 360 players should be in for a treat.
Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Publisher: 2K Games
The creator of the monstrously epic Daggerfall and Morrowind role-playing games will bring the next iteration in the Elder Scrolls series, Oblivion, to the Xbox 360. The game promises to offer the same open-ended style of gameplay and story advancement as its predecessors.
This car combat game hearkens to The Road Warrior and other car combat films and games. Pick a car and outfit it with machine guns, cannons, and other weapons before driving it to battle in the streets of a city called Staunton. Xbox Live support means you can shoot up your friends and their rides too.
Gears of War Developer: Epic Games
Publisher: MS Game Studios
Probably the most impressive-looking of the first batch of titles revealed for the Xbox 360, Epic Games' Gears of War looks like it's going to be a hard-hitting sci-fi-themed tactical shooter. Featuring a behind-the-back, third-person perspective and an impressive level of detail in the characters and environments, Gears of War has blockbuster sci-fi hit written all over it. We wonder how it'll actually play, though.
Ghost Recon 3 Developer: Ubisoft
If the previous games in the series are any indication, players will lead a team of highly trained and heavily armed special forces units through intense tactical battles in Ubisoft's upcoming shooter.
Kameo: Elements of Power Developer: Rare, Ltd.
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Originally slated for release on the Xbox, Rare's platformer will instead debut on the Xbox 360. The titular heroine of the game has the ability to magically transform into different monsters, giving her specialized powers to fight off the evil trolls that have invaded her land.
Madden NFL 06 Developer: EA Tiburon
Publisher: EA Sports
An action-packed trailer for the next-generation of Madden NFL games aired on ESPN during the NFL Draft a few weeks ago. The videos and screenshots taken from that trailer are not actual in-game footage, but they should give us a good idea of what to expect from the game as far as camera angles, special effects, and graphical fidelity go.
NBA 2K6 Developer: Visual Concepts
Publisher: 2K Sports
Stunningly realistic visuals demonstrate set our expectations high for the next installment in Visual Concepts' acclaimed basketball series, coming to the Xbox 360.
Need for Speed Most Wanted Developer: Electronic Arts
Publisher: Electronic Arts
EA's hugely successful street racing series is coming to the Xbox 360, complete with some high-speed, dangerous police chases this time around.
Perfect Dark Zero Developer: Rare, Ltd.
Publisher: MS Game Studios
Perfect Dark Zero is the sequel to the classic Rare shooter from the Nintendo64. Details on the game were spilled by a clan of female professional gamers, whose members revealed that the game would include spy gadgets and jetpack-like devices.
Project Gotham Racing 3 Developer: MS Game Studios
Publisher: Bizarre Creations
The beloved Xbox racing franchise is officially headed to the Xbox 360. Kudos to whoever made that decision. We can't wait to see how it turns out.
Quake 4 Developer: Raven Software
Like Call of Duty 2, Quake 4 hasn't been specifically announced for the Xbox 360 yet. But the Raven-developed sequel to id Software's classic shooter series was spotted in trailer form at the taping of MTV's Xbox 360 premiere show.
THQ is developing a GTA-style action game for the Xbox 360.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 06 Developer: EA Sports
Publisher: EA Sports
We're almost frightened to think about how realistic Tiger Woods is going to look in the first Xbox 360 installment in his highly acclaimed golf sim series.
Tomb Raider: Legend Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Lara Croft is back, but you probably already knew that just from hearing the collective swoon of prepubescent boys. In her latest adventure, she'll be platforming through various settings, such as an office building, a mineshaft, and (what else?) a medieval tomb. Also look for her to wield her signature guns akimbo, as well as a rocket launcher.
Tony Hawk's American Wasteland
American Wasteland will set the Tony Hawk series in one gigantic Los Angeles, free from loading times. The game will also feature BMX biking and online play via Xbox Live.
A Look Back
When Microsoft first launched the Xbox Live service in late 2002, it made some bold, forward-thinking moves that were actually fairly risky at the time. The service was broadband-only at a time when broadband hadn't quite yet penetrated your average household. Microsoft also made the system closed and proprietary, which allowed for voice chat, universal logins, and more-consistent user interfaces. However, it also went against the conventional wisdom of the time, which was to leave each publisher on its own as far as providing online service and matchmaking for games. As the years have passed, most would agree that the Xbox Live model has been very successful, giving Microsoft's online gamers an added sense of community with the unified logins (EA games notwithstanding) and a more consistent overall experience. With the launch of the Xbox 360, Microsoft continues to propel the Xbox Live service forward by adding features that may seem strange or not all that useful at first, but have the potential to carry online gaming and online communities, as a whole, well into the future. It's also taken steps to address a lot of the primary concerns that cropped up with the existing service.
Who Are You? Who Am I?
One of the primary new features of Xbox Live for the Xbox 360 will be the introduction of gamer profiles. While user names, or "gamertags," are already consistent on the current version of Xbox Live, it's difficult to glean much useful information from them. Where does this person live? What games does he or she play? What's this person's reputation with other online players? The gamer profiles in the new version of Xbox Live promise to more easily answer all these questions about your opponents, as well as let you customize your profiles with an avatar, a motto, and your style of play (aka "gamerzone") so you can give people clues about your personality and whether you're an intense, competitive gamer or one who's more interested in just playing for fun.
You'll also have the ability to more easily give feedback on other players, which ties in to each person's reputation score on his or her gamer profile. In the current iteration of Xbox Live, you can lodge complaints with administrators by submitting the offending gamertag. But nothing happens until enough legitimate complaints are made about rude players. The new version of Xbox Live promises to be more effective, because you don't have to wait on administrator action to see results. Give an offending player a thumbs-down, and that will hurt his or her reputation score, making it less likely others will play with him or her. But more importantly, the system knows which players you have given poor feedback on. So if you give someone a thumbs-down, you're less likely to be matched up with him or her again. If you give another player a thumbs-up, the system will be more likely to match you up again. Did you forget to write down the name of that jerk who disconnected on you in Madden last night? You don't have to, because the system will record the last couple of hundred players you played with. You can just head into that player history, give a thumbs-down to the plug-puller, and then send a challenge off to the guy who did give you a good match the previous day.
Everything Counts In Large Amounts
What's more, all the games you play on your Xbox 360--online and offline--will be logged and counted toward a numeric ranking, which is your "gamer score." No matter what you play, your progress in Xbox 360 games will translate into points that feed into your gamer score, which will undoubtedly result in a macrolevel competition between Xbox Live players. Individual achievements you accomplish are also viewable through your gamer profile, which will let you show off and also let prospective friends examine what games you're playing and what you're good at. So when you send that Forza Motorsport challenge over to 1337Ricerboi--and after he checks your profile--he'll know that you're the current world lap record holder on the Nürburgring track. Maybe he'll also see on your list of achievements that you've beaten Jade Empire and Knights of the Old Republic II. So during your race, you can argue about which Bioware role-playing game is better.
Geographical locations of players, self-categorized gamerzones (or playing styles), reputations, and gamer scores are all criteria that can be considered by the matchmaker in the upcoming version of Xbox Live. Having more data to work with, in theory, means you're less likely to be stuck in a match that isn't enjoyable to you. Of course, a lot of the success of the new "intelligent" matchmaker is going to depend on how large the online community is for a given game. If you're looking for a match in Halo 3, the matchmaker will probably have lots of options. But if you're an American fiending for a gritty game of Rugby 2007, you'll probably still have to settle for whoever's available. Still, it's tantalizing to know that hardcore shooter jockeys who spend hours honing their sniper rifle skills are less likely to get stuck on the same server as casual players just looking to let off a bit of steam.
Marketplace and Microtransactions
Matchmaking and community-building features are just two areas that Microsoft has focused on improving for Xbox Live for the Xbox 360. Another interesting addition is what the company is calling the Marketplace. As in the current version of Xbox Live, you'll be able to download new content, such as extra levels, from the Marketplace. Microsoft also envisions the Marketplace as being a source of other smaller bits of content, such as special clothing for player characters or decals and parts for cars to be used in-game. These bits of content could be sold on the cheap, for as little as a few cents. What's more exciting is the possibility that players themselves might be able to design, distribute, and even sell such content themselves.
But who's going to want to pull out a credit card to buy either a 25-cent skin for an Xbox 360 interface or a 10-cent T-shirt for a Tony Hawk character? Microsoft thought of that, too. Unlike the current iteration of Xbox Live, where all transactions require a credit card, the new version of XBL will let you store money, or value, in an account that you can use for purchases. So if you have your credit card handy, you can dump $20 into it once with your credit card, and then you can make a week or more than a week's worth of microtransactions thereafter, snapping up clothes for your sim or snatching new tracks to race on. If you don't have a credit card, you'll be able to buy a card (with cash) from a traditional brick-and-mortar store that you can bring home to recharge for use with your Marketplace account.
Music, Movies, and Demos
The Marketplace won't just be restricted to added levels and other bits of small content, though. Microsoft imagines you'll be able to download music and videos, such as game trailers, onto your Xbox 360 through Xbox Live. Even fully playable demos are not out of the question, which opens up a number of interesting possibilities. Since this content may or may not be free, publishers may consider funding small demos of some games for distribution solely over the Xbox Live Marketplace. Microsoft's J Allard likened this to the way television studios fund and release pilot episodes for shows that are considered edgy or risky just to see if they catch the public eye. Let's say a developer approaches a publisher with a quirky idea for a game the publisher thinks has potential. But the game is too risky to gamble millions of dollars on for a full, traditional development and publishing cycle. With the ability to release a small pilot demo over the Xbox Live marketplace, the publisher can test the waters by using less money, and if the proof of concept ends up popular, then the publisher can begin producing the full-fledged game (or even just release episodic content) with greater assurance. Obviously, it remains to be seen if any publisher will actually go this route, but the technology in the new version of Xbox Live will make it a possibility.
And You Thought Your Cell Phone Was A Leash
The newest iteration of Xbox Live for the Xbox 360 will include enhanced communication options, like "ubiquitous" voice chat. What this means in plain English is that you no longer have to be in the same game session or even in the same game to be able to voice-chat with a friend. You'll be able to send and receive messages and voice chat requests no matter what you're doing on the Xbox. Conceivably, one person could be playing a game while the other could be watching a movie, and both could still chat with each other. Even if you're logged into a four-player split-screen match on one Xbox 360, the system is intelligent enough to send a message request to the correct person on that box (it will illuminate the ring of light on the recipient's controller) so the other three people can continue to play while the social butterfly attends to his messages. Of course, it could get annoying to be constantly receiving pop-up message requests while you're doing stuff. So, like any instant messenger client on a PC, you'll be able to set a "do not disturb" status so that nothing interrupts you in the middle of a Madden game.
Two Levels: Silver and Gold
Two levels of Xbox Live service have been specified for Xbox 360. The silver level is free and actually includes almost all available features. You'll be able to create your gamer profile, browse the profiles of others, add to your gamer score by playing games, buy stuff on the marketplace, engage in voice chat with a friend, and even play massively multiplayer games (assuming you've paid the fees for that game). You just can't play the regular multiplayer games on the silver level. Ponying up the money for the gold level of service lets you play online, and it gives you access to video chat (with the Xbox 360 video camera), special tournaments, and other premium content and activities.
It's not every year that a major new system launches, complete with hype about the hardware, viral marketing campaigns, and a kickoff show on MTV to boot. In this section, several GameSpot editors chime in on the launch of the Xbox 360.
Show Me Something
I've never experienced a platform launch that was anything like the Xbox 360 unveiling. This has been a really wild ride, and while it's been very frustrating from my perspective as an editor, it's been really exciting from my perspective as a game player. I was fortunate to be able to attend the taping of the MTV special, which you can read all about in my account of that event, but what really struck me about all this is how Microsoft's really harnessed grass-roots support for its new console. Rather than go to the mainstream media or the gaming press to break news of the new console, Microsoft went straight to an outlet that can speak directly to its target audience.
As for all those leaked images and rumors over the months, frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if most of them were carefully contrived as part of the overall marketing effort. I mean, we're talking about the company that green-lighted ilovebees.com and ourcolony.net, here. Microsoft is all about the viral marketing and not playing by the rules with the Xbox 360.
As for the system itself, I think it looks great, and I'm really excited about the features that it has to offer. It's the same sort of gut reaction I had to the PSP and the iPod. I see it, and I go, "Ooh, I want one."
Then I take a step back, and I realize I know little or nothing about the games for this thing that's coming out in November. What I've seen of the games thus far has me almost completely unimpressed. So I know there's going to be a lot of work that needs to be done in the coming months, because, after all, I don't plan on buying an Xbox 360 just because it looks nice.
I'm happy with the current generation of games. It will take a lot more for Microsoft to convince me that the Xbox 360 represents the next generation of gaming, even though I admit the company's done a great job of building up a lot of excitement over its new machine.
Hardware Has Evolved. What About Game Design?
It's easy to get excited about the Xbox 360 when you start running down the list of features in the hardware. A lot of it just seems like common sense, but the standardization of things like HD support and Live Awareness go a long way toward making the Xbox 360 sound like the future. Could all of this mean that we'll finally be able to do away with the silly check boxes on the back of every game box? If nothing else, I'd imagine we'd see that space reduced to key stuff, like how many players the game supports.
Some of the other more buzzwordy stuff, like "microtransactions" and "episodic content," sounds like it could finally pan out this time around. But these words are approaching "set-top box" on the consumer electronics cliché-o-meter, so I'm going to have to wait to see more of them before I get on board with either of the concepts. Done right, they could be very big, though.
But let's face it. While the gadgety nature of a game console that hooks up to your Media Center PC and receives messages from your friends all the time appeals to my gadget-dork side in much the same way that the PSP's video playback feature does, it all comes back to the games.
What games can we expect to see on the Xbox 360? So far it seems likely that we'll see Madden and another Perfect Dark game. So, let me get this straight. For your all-new mind-busting game console, you have...a football game and a sci-fi-themed first-person shooter. You don't say. Will someone please make a World War II-themed first-person shooter, too? And 20 different racing games that randomly fall into either the "sim" or "arcade" categories? OK, not to needlessly sound pessimistic, but my real point is that this is a new console, and I'd like to see something totally world-shattering. Something that actually ushers in a new era in gaming. Will the Xbox 360 be up to the task? Or will we just be playing the same games with better graphics and 64 players online instead of just 16? That's the real question. All of the console's integrated and standardized features will certainly make the act of playing a game much, much smoother, and hopefully we'll see some game developers take some interesting chances this time around.
Don't Throw Out Your Gaming PC Just Yet
For the last few years, we've seen or heard of a few attempts to bring PC games into the living room. While they sound interesting, none of them are out the door, and none of them have proven themselves to be anything more than novelties.
I'm all for media center functionality in the new console, assuming it all works as advertised, because there's already too much junk piled up around my TV (including my Xbox, my PS2, my GameCube, my Dreamcast, my Neo-Geo cartridge system, and an old DVD player I'm still holding onto for some reason). I don't think I see the Xbox 360 and the PC game markets seamlessly converging just yet, which is apparently what Microsoft seems to hope will happen with its XNA developer environment (a set of developer-only tools that will apparently bundle in support for USB controllers and Xbox Live-style online functionality). I met with Dean Lester of Microsoft, who heads up the Games for Windows group, at Game Developers Conference 2005, and Lester emphasized such particular strengths of the PC platform as online play, community support, and the default mouse/keyboard control setup. The fact is that PC and console game audiences are also different, and in some cases, they simply have different preferences that have been built up from generations of games. So, no, there's no need for console developers to desperately try to cram some kind of traditional mainstay PC genre, like real-time strategy, onto consoles.
I also don't see the Xbox 360 as the preferred platform of choice for people to play World of Warcraft. And unless the 360 comes with an optional mouse and keyboard, I don't know that it would even be fair to pit the owners of the console version of a Halo 3 against the owners of a PC version, because two analog sticks and trigger buttons just won't cut it against mouse aiming. (That's not a derogatory remark against your amazing console Halo skills; that's just a statement of fact that mouse aiming is infinitely more precise than the current generation of console controllers allows. Don't believe me? Try it yourself.)
I do hope to see a great console from Microsoft that plays great games, though. I just have to clear some more space around my already-cluttered TV area for it.
The Cat's Out of the Bag
Until about a month ago, watching Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft address the next-generation console was like watching giants engaged in a staring contest. Since the Xbox 360 will be the first to launch, Microsoft was forced to blink first, although its reps did an admirable (if at times maddening) job of stonewalling. Even when thousands of gaming forums were plastered with photographic evidence of the Xbox 360's technical specs and/or existence, Microsoft repeated the sentence "Microsoft does not comment on rumors or speculation." with the single-mindedness of an entranced Tibetan monk levitating off the floor of a Himalayan retreat.
But all that began to change after J Allard gave his speech at the Game Developers Conference in March. One of Allard's slides showed him wearing an ant logo T-shirt, a logo that soon appeared on the home page of Ourcolony.net. That linked the site to Microsoft, giving all the images displayed on it the stamp of legitimacy, including images that showed the console's hard drive, controllers, and several games.
In turn, Ourcolony.net's pics and screenshots gave credence to further leaked images and disproved that one widely circulated photo of the Xbox 360 prototype was not the final model. But the start of May saw the biggest leaks, courtesy of the Xbox 360 launch party in Los Angeles, which all but opened the information-leak floodgates.
However, news-wise, the most interesting chapter of the Xbox 360 story has not yet been written. Is Microsoft's decision to launch this year a brilliant tactical move to make it the first out of the next-generation gate? Or will its rush to release a new console just four years after the Xbox allow Sony and Nintendo to trump the Xbox 360 with more-innovative and powerful consoles? We won't know the answer to that until next year...at the earliest.
What the Xbox 360 Means to PC Games
The Xbox 360 is such a fascinating piece of hardware, and it's so much more impressive than its predecessor. After all, when the first Xbox shipped, PCs had already caught up and passed it in terms of technology. That won't happen with the Xbox 360, which is a monster of a machine. Couple all that power with high-definition televisions, and you've got an extremely high-end system with a pretty sharp display. I would imagine that we will definitely see many major PC titles, such as action games, make the jump to the Xbox 360 easily. Games like Quake 4 are an obvious fit with the Xbox 360, especially with Xbox Live, which is still by far and away the best multiplayer system out there on any platform. Moreover, developers won't need to strip down PC games to make them work on the Xbox 360, at least not for a very long time. It'll take years before AMD and Intel put out CPUs that can do what the Xbox 360 CPU can do. (Graphics is another story, and we'll have better graphics chips than the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on the PC in a year).
On the flip side, I definitely see more multiplatform games, especially since publishers will try to keep development costs down. That raises an interesting problem for the PC, because if the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 have multicore architectures with six or more hardware threads, that completely outclasses the best that the PC has to offer. Intel and AMD are just beginning to ship dual-core chips that have two hardware threads. That means that, assuming a game is designed for a console to take advantage of all those threads, it could result in the PC getting a stripped-down version missing the advanced physics and AI found in the console version. PCs should catch up and overpass the next-generation consoles within two to three years, and then we'll see a lot of the cutting-edge development happening on the PC. But for now, I'm really looking forward to getting my Xbox 360.
Sports Gaming in the Uncanny Valley
I recently heard a phrase with which I was not familiar: the uncanny valley. This refers to the human response toward artificial things that are designed to appear lifelike. The concept boils down to this: As something artificial becomes more and more humanlike in appearance or movement, it initially generates an increasingly positive, empathetic response from humans. At a certain point, however, as appearance and behavior become more uncannily humanlike in nature (yet still not quite human), the human response becomes strongly negative, thus the "uncanny valley." Though the phrase was initially coined to apply to robotics, it may also apply to the hyperdrive pace of graphical achievement that will likely be a hallmark of the Xbox 360 and its console peers.
That said, and despite what EA's Madden NFL Next Gen commercial suggests, I don't expect sports games to look that much better on the Xbox 360. Oh sure, I'm certain that the players will be more animated and more lifelike, the stadiums will be more alive, the lighting will be more vibrant, and so on. But will this visual upgrade be akin to crossing the same graphical chasm as the one between Madden '97 and NFL 2K on the Sega Dreamcast? I doubt it.
So with that said, what can we expect from Xbox 360 sports games? Personally, I'm just hoping for more. By "more" I mean more of everything that we already love about sports games: more playbooks to choose from, more cars on the track for online races, and more and better matchmaking services to accurately hook you up with someone of a skill level of your choosing. This quantitative philosophy especially applies to online gaming, which is poised to take on an even bigger presence in the next half decade. We've heard rumors of the next generation of Xbox Live--the ability to watch online games without necessarily having to participate in them comes immediately to mind--and I think it's just a jumping off point for where things can potentially go.
This "more is more" approach applies to a special sports gaming love of mine: customization. I love the idea of creating your own completely unique virtual persona online and using that profile across any number of sports games. Picture this: You pop online with your virtual athlete on Xbox Live 2 to enter him into a welterweight boxing match. Then you take him to Monaco for a Formula One race and end up snowboarding in the Alps just before heading back to Chicago for a Sunday morning NFL league game against your best friend in Poughkeepsie. No matter what game you're currently playing, potential opponents will be able to see what games you own, your current skill level at those games, and your preferred game settings for each one.
Of course, I'm not talking about quantity over quality, because games will still need to get the gameplay right. But if there's one thing I'm looking forward to while gaming in the "Uncanny Valley," it's the idea that I can make every Xbox 360 game I buy uniquely my own.
It's Not About The Box
Do I plan to be among the first people to buy an Xbox 360? Of course I do. But, do I really feel the same need to upgrade my current-generation consoles right now like I did five years ago? Not at all.
I'm sure that Microsoft has plenty of other neat features planned for its new console, but one of the main focuses for the next-generation consoles (with the possible exception of whatever Nintendo is planning), as always, seems to be on how much sweeter their respective games' eye candy will be. Realism (both in terms of graphics and gameplay) has its place in many games, of course, but as realistic visuals become more commonplace in games, I'm becoming less interested in them and more excited by games that shun realism in favor of imaginative and stylized looks. Jet Set Radio Future, Viewtiful Joe, and Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath are good examples that spring to mind. I guess the way I feel about in-game visuals isn't entirely dissimilar to the fact that I have little interest in paintings that look like photographs.
With that said, one of the Xbox 360 games that I'm most excited about right now is Tomb Raider: Legends. Not because I'm aching to see Lara Croft with improved curves and lifelike bounce animations, but because the original Tomb Raider remains one of my favorite games to this day, and I'm hoping that Legends might be the sequel I've been waiting for since 1996. Having the power of the Xbox 360 at its disposal no doubt makes Crystal Dynamics' job easier in many respects, but frankly, I'd have no objection to playing a great new Tomb Raider game on my trusty PlayStation, much less my PS2 or Xbox. It's not about the box; it's about the experiences that the box facilitates. And visuals count for very little if everything else isn't up to scratch.
But Is It Fun?
The Xbox 360 is shaping up to be a pretty slick product. I like the fact that Microsoft is taking steps to keep development for the thing as simple as possible. That's going to be a huge factor in how these next-gen consoles are actually going to come across to Joe Videogamer. Are you ready to pay $70 to $90 for a next-gen game only to watch your favorite developers still lose money? No, thank you. I'd rather not see all these new games go through the five publishers in the world that can muster the huge amounts of capital that might become necessary to make them. That doesn't spell "fun games" or "feasible model" to me. It seems that the Xbox 360 platform is essentially a cutting-edge version of what we already have in PCs and on the Xbox, so programming for it shouldn't require as much R&D expenditure.
Although we have every reason to believe that the 360 will be backward compatible, I'm going to be really upset if it isn't, because that means that Microsoft will be planning to kill off the still-perfectly-good Xbox platform. I'm not going to bother keeping that behemoth in my entertainment center either way. The rumor that there would be a version of the console without a hard drive gave me pause, but I'm very glad that they'll have some nifty, removable solution in place to keep caching and downloadable content in the mix.
At the moment, the only Xbox 360 game that I'm really dying to know more about is Alan Wake, which will also be coming out on the PS3, apparently. This could just be an effect of the game's incredibly cryptic trailer, which leaves you in desperate need of exposition, but I'm also captivated by the game's setting. The fictional mountain town looks a lot like the Lake Tahoe region of California where I grew up. It's gorgeous. Plus, even though we have no information about it whatsoever, Alan Wake's already giving off sort of a Resident Evil 4 vibe. What's wrong with that town, exactly? Zombies? Cultists? Zombie cultists? I gotta know.
Xcited About That Xbox
Is it already time for the next round of consoles to launch? It seems like just yesterday I sat in the freezing rain all night in order to secure a PlayStation 2 on launch day. But that's hyperbole for another day. Perhaps this is just a sign of my old age, but I'm still almost completely satisfied by the graphical capacities of the current generation of consoles. So when it comes to the new cutting-edge graphics of the Xbox 360...whatever. Games like Burnout 3: Takedown and God of War still blow my hair back. Microsoft could wait another year and I'd still be plenty happy this Christmas.
I can't help but be reminded of the Dreamcast scenario here, where Sega saw its console sales eradicated by the mere rumor that the PlayStation 2 would be coming anytime soon. But Microsoft is in infinitely better shape than Sega was when it launched its swan-song console. Nonetheless, I question the wisdom of launching the console so far ahead of the competition. Arguably, the Xbox's biggest strength was its technical superiority over the PlayStation 2, which is something Microsoft throws into jeopardy by giving Sony a whole year to further develop its next-generation platform. Just food for thought.
But still, a new console launch is exciting no matter how you slice it. What I am most eager about seeing in the Xbox 360--and, more generally, in all next-gen systems--is the establishment of new standards. Stuff like standard high-def support, 5.1 support, wireless controllers, and online capabilities all combine to strike me as a significant step forward for gaming consoles. When you can pop in an Xbox 360 game and know that it will play in native widescreen, it'll be a good day.
I'm also intrigued by the detachable hard drive that the Xbox 360 is sporting. Like, hey, why the hell is it detachable in the first place? Going off pure gut instinct here, I wouldn't be surprised if some kind of high-tech sleeve were released, allowing you to turn the hard drive into a makeshift iPod. Though, if Microsoft is going to offer downloadable TV shows and movies over Xbox Live, that little gadget better have a nice PSP-style screen on it.
Oh yeah, and I hear it'll play some games, too.