Tuesday, December 22, 2015

. . . Xbox 360 gaming on the Xbox One

In the crowded chamber on Day-0 of the 2015 Electronic Entertainment Expo, the games journalists assembled there were present both to listen to the various personalities associated with the entertainment and gaming side of Microsoft's business entities, and report on it.

The annual Xbox Media Briefing is something of a rite-of-passage for the new games journo - because getting an invite to this invitation-only event held each year just before the showroom floor officially opens at each E3 - can be reasonably interpreted as a mark that the games journo was now being accepted by the industry that their beat covers.

It is important to understand that ALL of the games journos present at the Briefing each had a pretty good idea of what information was about to be passed on.  None of them was anticipating the sort of industry-changing major innovation events like, for example, what they were about to be hit with.

In another era this sort of surprise might be interpreted as a hostile act by the subject being reported on.  The idea being that by keeping this innovation secret, and preventing the games journalists from preparing advanced coverage of that event, they essentially showed contempt for the media.

I honestly do not believe that the surprise announcement was intended as either a covert or overt hostile act on the part of Microsoft.  More likely it simply illustrates the environment of paranoia and distrust that now serves as the operative standard by which information is handled in this brave new world.  On other words it truly was information security and not information hostility that was the operative factor in play.

An Xbox Bombing Run

So when Xbox's Phil Spencer dropped what amounted to be a major bomb -- complete with what we can only interpret as high-explosive potential -- by announcing the word that, despite literally years of denial and the position that the Xbox One was not practically or physically capable of functioning as an emulator for the complicated collection of hardware and CPU of the Xbox 360, it was more a case of the creator being almost as surprised as the people who are paid to report on them.

Make no mistake, the reason that the previous position on the matter was so readily embraced by the games journalism community was largely due to the fact that among the games journalists there were plenty of writers who also happened to have tech knowledge sufficient to permit them to grok WHY that was so.

In the barest of terms, the design and the construction of the Xbox 360 was a major departure from that of the console that it replaced - the original Xbox, which was an X86 motherboard design that used a Pentium III CPU and used an Nvidia Graphics Card.  Consider the following very basic tech specs to understand its reality:
  • CPU = Triple-Core 64-bit PowerPC-based Xenon design.
  • GPU = ATI R500 Xenos.
  • RAM = 512 MB of GDDR3 RAM @ 700 MHz.
  • Optical = 12x DVD drive.
  • Magnetic = 20GB External.
  • NIC = USB Wi-Fi 802.11n and 802.11g and 100bT. 
 Now compare that to the basic hardware specs of the Xbox One:
  • CPU = 8 Core AMD custom CPU @ 1.75 GHz.
  • GPU = ATI @ 853 MHz.
  • RAM = 8GB DDR3 @ 2133 MHz + 8GB Flash Memory.
  • Optical = Blu-Ray/DVD.
  • Magnetic = 500 GB @ 5400 rpm internal hdd + Cloud Storage.
  • NIC = Gigabit Ethernet and WiFi (A/B/G/N dual-band at 2.4ghz and 5ghz).

My Xbox 360 Game Library

Since the announcement at E3 (in June 2015) the LIVE side at Microsoft's Gaming Section has been very busy porting and releasing as many games from the X360 platform over to the Xbox One  platform as it could, as rapidly as it could, in order to have a gratifyingly sufficient library of games available when the official "enabled-by" date - which was the Holidays 2015 -- was reached.

The simple reasoning behind this was, well, simple reasoning: they told their fans that the Xbox One would, contrary to everything that they had announced previously, actually and truly be able to both emulate and support the Xbox 360 games, but they had stopped short of explaining that this capability had more to do with the unique OS scheme used by the Xbox line of games consoles than any other reason. 

On the one hand you have this situation where the new version of the console can literally do things and have capabilites that the crew respobsible for marketing it never even suspected it could manage, while on the other hand you have this army of fans who were switching over to the new platform a lot more slowly than that same team of promoters had hoped - and predicted - they would.

The obvious reason for this had nothing to so with the fact that the Xbox One still had only a handful of system-exclusive titles available for it - rather it was the plain fact that so many new titles were being released with support for BOTH platforms that in the short-term, spending $500 to upgrade to the new platform did not make much sense to gamers when they realized that they could play the same games on their existing hardware.

The thing about that is that Microsoft NEEDED to hit specific percentage marks in terms of existing customers upgrading to the new platform - not because it was the new platform mind you, but rather because the massive collection of video game development studios - and their publishers - were simply NOT going to build exclusive to the new platform until Microsoft could demonstrate that a sufficient percentage of their customer base (read that as Xbox 360 owners) had ALREADY made the jump to the new platform!

The logic behind that is simple enough to follow really...  Publisher X wants to sell 100,000 units of their new game on its release day and, since the current platform numbers suggest that is not likely to happen just now, restricting the title to the new consoles does not make much sense to them in terms of sales.

Ironically having the publishers restrict their new titles TO the new platform is just the sort of conditions that are likely to cause the current gamers on the X360 platform to upgrade to the new X1 platform, so what you have here is the classic Catch-22 Situation.

By the way, if you have never read the book Catch-22: 50th Anniversary Edition (Author: Joseph Heller / 1961 Simon & Schuster / ISBN: 0-684-83339-5 / Amazon Paperback)

If we only consider the Xbox 360 video games that I actually own and have in my game library, that is still a pretty impressive number of games that have been ported to the Xbox One.  For example at the time that I write this, the following Xbox 360 games are present and playable on my primary Xbox One games console (with links if you want to get them for your library):
Note that these are not just games I could play if I wanted to - they are games I actually play...  Would their availability and the promised availability of added titles for the Xbox 360 games library in any way shape my decision to purchase an Xbox One if I did not already have one?  Heck yeah it would!

If you are still sitting on the bench waiting - and from what I have heard there are plenty of you out there - now would be a good time to make the upgrade...

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Playing a New Xbox Game

Back in the day - and that day was about ten years ago - when the brand-spanking-new Xbox 360 was finally released, a lot of gamers rejoiced at the prospect.  Here was the realization of years of suggestions and speculation and desires.

I will be the first to admit that the Xbox 360 shocked and surprised me - and it was not just its rush to create what amounts to an online gaming social network - which it did.  It somehow managed to take the lowly old video game disc and turn it into a breathing entity thanks in no small part to its stock hard drive and the ability to install the game disc to it.

Now you could not actually PLAY the game you installed without ALSO inserting its disc in the optical drive because why?  Because DRM that's why.  But still - installing the disc to your hard drive had two very desirable effects - it made load times a lot faster, and in the case of multiple disc games, it made changing discs a thing of the past.

So cool that, all the way around!

Now the Xbox One has arrived - and its internal drive storage is even more important - and not just because you HAVE to install the contents on the discs for every new game you get mind you - but because a LOT of games are now being sold online as digital rather than disc copies.

What that means is that the game resides entirely on the hard drive in your Xbox One and you DO play it without needing to insert a disc as its DRM is managed via registration keys attacked to your Gamertag Account.

We are definitely Okay with that.  What we are slightly NOT okay with tho is the fact that you no longer have a choice about installing a game to your system.

Let Me Put That Another Way
When Microsoft originally announced the Xbox One one of the aspects that it did mention was that games would be played from the hard drive, by default.
When we initially read that I distinctly recall turning to the other games journos in the bullpen at work and commenting - "they better be selling those babies with monster hard drives in them then."

Sadly that was not to be the case.  The standard hard drive was just a 500GB model.  When you do the math for a typical AAA game title like GTA5 or Fallout 4 you are looking at a game that will, eventually, when all of the extra content is factored in, weigh in at a massive 30GB plus of required drive strorage.

That works out to - conservatively - only 16 or so major titles before you are SOL and out of hard drive space mates.

So what was the fix?  Microsoft announced that it would support external drives/storage via USB3.0 and there you have it, problem solved.  Well, not so much really.

You see later it was discovered that some titles do not play nice with external storage, and what is worse, the different models of external drive casing do not necessarily perform in a similar fashion.

When we got our original Xbox One we lucked out and the external drive we chose - a Western Digital MyBook device - and it holds 2TB and it works flawlessly with the Xbox One.  So yeah, all was well for a while.  But then we started hitting peak on the internal drive with AAA titles that had to be installed on it and we ran out of room.

Just before that happened, we were hit with the BSoD and had to send the original X1 in for replacement or repair - and because we could not NOT have an Xbox One (work you know) we had to go out and buy a new one.

If we were going to be doing that anyway, logic argued that we should go with a 1TB model.  And if we were going to do THAT, logic argued we should get the best deal available - which at the time was the Forza 6 version of the Xbox One - so that is what we bought.

Now perspective aside, we have delayed the crisis point for new games by half simply going with the 1TB drive model.  But it is also clear that we are going to have to add a second external My Book drive unit soon because THAT is filling up as well.  

The moral of this story?  Well, it seems that digital content was not the magic answer that Microsoft thought it would be.  In fact it creates problems because it deducts the flexibility of removable media completely!

I don't know what the future of console gaming will be or is - but what I do know is that it will not be a disc-free future.  Not yet anyway.

So how was your Monday?