This week, press from around the world journey to San Francisco to spend a day immersed in much of what will shape the Xbox 360 in 2012. They'll have a chance to see and play a cross-section of the games that will hit Microsoft's console over the next 12 months.
Traditional titles like Halo 4, Darksiders II and Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City will share space with the Kinect-powered experiences ofSteel Battalion: Heavy Armor and Kinect Star Wars. Xbox Live Arcade's growing influence will also be obvious, with nearly a dozen downloadable titles on hand including Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Bloodforge and Diabolical Pitch.
As the Xbox 360 approaches its seventh anniversary this November, rumblings about its inevitable replacement are increasingly hard to ignore. Earlier this week, a Crytek developer seemingly confirmed rumors of that replacement, code-named Durango, with a single tweet.
But Microsoft remains resolute that 2012 isn't the apex of their Xbox 360, just one more "biggest year" for a console that still has plenty of life left in it. Its present and future, they say will be driven by the power of Kinect, a continuing evolution of Xbox Live Arcade's downloadable fare and of course a steady stream of games made both in-house and by third-party developers.
Kinect’s evolution from cute pets to lumbering robots
It looks a little bit like something created by Pixar, maybe a robot's head. Shiny and black, a curved rectangle stuffed with cameras and microphones, the relatively unassuming Kinect peripheral wasn't designed to be just another way to play; it was designed to deliver a new coat of paint for the aging Xbox 360.
"Kinect for Xbox 360 was the fastest-selling consumer electronics device in history, selling eight million units in its first 60 days and 18 million since launch," said Steve Beinner, director of marketing, Microsoft Studios Core Games. "It's introduced more people to an entirely new way to enjoy entertainment and games. We've already seen how Kinect can change the way people enjoy entertainment and search for content on Xbox 360, and we've seen the first wave of games really resonate with a broader audience."
The tiny add-on attracted an enormous amount of mainstream attention when it hit in the fall of 2010, propelling the controller-free controller and its newer, slimmer Xbox 360 counter-part to The Oprah Winfrey Show and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. But it didn't bring with it the sorts of core games that fans of the Xbox 360 had come to expect from the console.
A new sort of gaming arrived for Kinect and the Xbox 360 in 2011. Titles like Fruit Ninja andThe Gunstringer seemed designed around the motion-tracking peripheral, instead of the motion tracking seeming to be added on as an afterthought.
This year that evolution continues with a slew of Kinect-enabled games coming to the console that will add new facets to traditionally hardcore experiences. Capcom returns to their fabled Steel Battalion mech series, known as much for its incredibly complex two-stick, 40-button controller as for the game itself. In Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor, developers are relying on the Kinect and gesture controls to replace that massive control array.
THAT'S... A LOT OF BUTTONS.
"WE WANTED TO DO THIS IN A WAY THAT WOULDN’T ... CHANGE THE CORE EXPERIENCE"
While Mass Effect 3, due out later this month, doesn't go quite as far with its use of Kinect, the developers at BioWare say it's an important addition.
"We kinda wanted to do something like this for a long time," said Michael Gamble, Mass Effect 3 associate producer. "We saw a lot of value for Kinect in both its voice and motion controls."
So a team went through what Gamble calls an "exploratory process," trying out a variety of ways to use Kinect with the still-in-production Mass Effect 3.
The team experimented with using the Kinect to control the camera, using motion tracking to let players control Commander Shepard's aim. But they quickly decided that motion controls weren't a good fit for the game. "We didn't want to change the core experience," Gamble explained. "We wanted to use Kinect in a way that extended the play."
What they settled on was allowing players to order Shepard and his team around with voice commands. The Kinect can also be used by a player to talk their way through the game's many conversations.
A special team was formed to work on the voice control project in tandem with the main game's development.
A lot of the work centered on an unusual form of localization. Instead of translating the text and conversation of the game, the team had to work on creating a special library for Kinect so the game could understand other languages spoken to it. The end-result was a perfect fit, Gamble said.
"It's kind of unnerving to speak to someone in the game that you haven't been able to speak to before and have them respond," Gamble said.
While the team is happy with how their Kinect development went, Gamble says that they wouldn't have wanted to add any other Kinect experiences to Mass Effect 3. They didn't even consider it.
"We wanted to do this in a way that wouldn't interrupt or change the core experience," he said.
While Gamble says that the team isn't opposed to using Kinect in the future, they're very wary of changing the Mass Effect experience too much. Even adding motion controls to something like the way you look at the game's galaxy map would be too much, he said.
"For some games (adding Kinect motion controls) would absolutely work," he said. "ForMass Effect we had already established the systems and the fan base. When we integrated Kinect we had to make sure we didn't redesign the game around the peripheral. If we started from scratch and wanted to build around Kinect, I think that's possible."
EA Tiburon had the same concerns when Microsoft first approached them about adding Kinect controls into their latestPGA title.
Ultimately, EA decided they wouldn't have enough time to explore the relatively new technology to make it work the way they wanted in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters. So they decided instead to start working on how they would incorporate Kinect into this year's PGA title.
"Motion control for golf games has been a very successful marriage from the Wii to the PlayStation Move," said Brent Nielsen, executive producer for Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13. "But with Kinect we saw this awesome opportunity for a different form of motion control."
The ability to capture a gamer's entire body movement during a golf swing was what excited the team. That was something no other gaming platform could do.
"Nintendo and Sony's motion control stuff was great because it allowed us to get what it was like to swing a golf club," Nielsen said. "But now with Kinect we could recognize the entire body. We saw this as a chance to implement the full golf swing."
Despite the natural connection between sports and motion,PGA Tour 13 will be the first full sports simulation to include Kinect support, Nielsen knew that what they did would likely influence future EA Sports games.
Their approach, which included capturing Woods' recently evolved golf swing, was methodical, aiming to deliver a solid experience but not over shooting this first approach.
"WE CAPTURED ALL TYPES OF SWINGS FROM... (AGES) 5 TO 60..."<
The team focused on voice recognition, being able to navigate the menus with just your hand and the golf swing.
Microsoft engineers met with the development team multiple times over the year. On one trip they brought the team new "machine learning technology" that allowed them to capture a myriad of different golf swings. The goal was to teach the game to recognize a good swing from a bad one.
"We captured all types of swings from as many people as possible from (ages) 5 to 60, all sizes and shapes, everything you could imagine," Nielsen said.
The more they captured the better the software became at recognizing the special movements that, when combined, form a golf swing.
"It's a huge advancement for the series," he said.
And that advancement won't stop with this year's PGA game, not with the investment the developers made in building up the technology.
"In year one we didn't want to go golf simulation, golf analyzer," he said. "But the ultimate goal is to offer the $60,000 simulation experience for $60 in your living room.
"The golf simulators that are out there, these $75,000 to $100,000 pieces of equipment, the fidelity you can get on these things are incredible. That is the holy grail down the road as we and Microsoft make advancements."
While EA won't talk specifics, they have said that PGA Tour is the first of four new sports titles that will use the Kinect technology.
The Birth, Life and Inevitable Death of Xbox Live Arcade
Xbox Live Arcade will one day be the victim of its own success. That's fact. Michael Wolf, global marketing manager for XBLA Microsoft Studios, doesn't really want to be the one to say it, but he agrees Xbox Live Arcade's death is coming.
It's the tail end of a phone interview when he addresses the inevitable.
The games of Xbox Live Arcade distinguish themselves by being downloadable games that are typically smaller, less expensive experiences than what you might find in a box, in a store, on a shelf. But over the years that downloadable experience has kept growing. (The price has inched up a bit as well.) When XBLA launched on the original Xbox it came on a disc and included a free copy of Ms. Pac-Man. The games back then were small, app-like experiences. Today an Xbox Live Arcade game encompasses everything from indie titles, to arcade-like games to full blown games like Alan Wake's American Nightmare. At the same time, publishers of full-blown retail games once found only on disc are starting to explore download options.
"[MICHAEL] DOESN'T REALLY WANT TO BE THE ONE TO SAY IT, BUT HE AGREES XBOX LIVE ARCADE'S DEATH IS COMING"
Wolf walks through all of this and then we discuss when that line between a downloadable Xbox Live Arcade game and a downloadable retail boxed game is going to lose its meaning. Eventually the Xbox Live Arcade is going to go away, right?
"Personally, I'd say absolutely, yes," Wolf says. "I think digital distribution has to be like that. I don't think XBLA will be leaving soon. It is an incredible platform. We have XBLA fans, I don't think it's going to be announced anytime soon. One thing Microsoft has proven is that we continue to try and adapt and innovate in experiences."
When it happens, when downloadable retail games, indie games, XBLA games all just become games, it won't be because the Xbox Live Arcade program failed, but because it forecasted the future and then delivered it.
"When you think about where we started before the 360 and Arcade was delivered on discs for the original console, we've come a long way," Wolf says.
Because the Xbox 360's Xbox Live Arcade has always been a downloadable games platform it's also been a constantly evolving product. When it launched on the Xbox 360 in 2005, every Arcade title had 200 Achievement points and couldn't be larger than 50MB. Over the years that cap has jumped up three times, finally settling at 2GB, a cap that isn't likely to change because of technical limitations. The games themselves have changed as well.
"Look at some of the depth and detail of some of the games coming out," Wolf said. "Look at Alan Wake, this is a very deep and immersive game. It was Remedy's decision to focus in and deliver it to Xbox Live Arcade."
Wolf says that his team spends a lot of time talking to developers about whether they want their games to show up on XBLA as an "Arcade" title or if they are looking for a publisher to take the title to store shelves. The winning argument for XBLA is usually that in many ways Microsoft's digital platform gives developers a lot more flexibility.
That flexibility will likely extend to the way people pay for those games as well.
Already Microsoft is testing the waters for "freemium" games, titles that you get for free but pay extra to extend the experience. Crimson Alliance, which was released last September, offered to unlock playable characters for between 800 and 1,200 Microsoft Points, or $10 to $15.
"We are looking at things that leverage new business models as well," Wolf said. "The baseline of course is that we are going to look at what we can deliver through [Xbox Live] Marketplace. There are things and opportunities we want to investigate.
"I can't confirm we're going to bring free-to-play to Xbox Live Arcade, but we will if we have content that makes sense for that."
The same holds true for where Microsoft finds the games that they bring to the service. They routinely look at the Xbox's own Indie Games channel and now Microsoft is starting to pick through all of the entries for the annual Indie Game Festival. This year that meant looking at several hundreds games and picking one that they plan to bring to XBLA and promote. They'll be announcing that title at this year's Indie Games Festival award show next week.
"There aren't specific metrics we're looking for," Wolf said. "It's more about, is it a game that we love, that we think is great and that we want to get the developer to spend a bit more time on so the gamer benefits from it when it comes out."
This year, Wolf promises, you're going to see a lot more deep games like Alan Wake's American Nightmare, or like Trials Evolution.
"Looking at the titles we have coming out in 2012 they are deeper, more immersive. They have better graphics," Wolf said.
Some of the heavy hitters for 2012 downloadable games include Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Bloodforge and Grasshopper Manufacture's Diabolical Pitch.
"When I look at the line up for the next 6 to 12 months there is some really, really cool stuff," he said. "I've been playing an early build of Bloodforge and having a blast."
Wolf says that Diabolical Pitch is an unusual game, but really fun. In it players control a baseball pitcher whose career ends when he injures his arm beyond repair. But the pitcher finds and buys a cursed mechanical arm that allows him to throw "diabolical pitches." The game has players using Kinect and those diabolical pitches to defeat enemies.
"The whole premise is intriguing from a base level," he said.
It's also evidence of just how eclectic Xbox Live Arcade's 2012 lineup is and how the distinction between what is a downloadable game and what is a boxed game is changing.
"We all know what those definitions mean," Wolf said. "We know what an XBLA game is, what on demand is, what a retail disc is. But I don't think most people care. They don't care how they're getting their games, they just want good games.
"They hear that Fruit Ninja is freaking awesome and they'll just go get it."
That's because people in general seem to becoming more comfortable with digital downloads. You can thank Xbox Live for that, the PlayStation Network, iTunes, Android Marketplace.
"We have become so much more of a digital society in some ways," Wolf said.
Eventually that distinction between an Xbox Live Arcade game and an Xbox 360 game, between a game you buy online and one you buy in a store, will simply vanish. And with it, most likely, the need to call something an XBLA title. Instead, the Xbox 360 will simply just have games.
It’s about the games
Kinect may have extended the Xbox 360's life, Xbox Live Arcade titles may forecast its future, but as always it is the games that remains the console's lifeblood. And no series is more easily identifiable with the Xbox and the Xbox 360 thanHalo.
"I think that Halo has been at the heart of both platforms, and will continue to be," said Frank O'Connor, Halo franchise development director at 343 Industries Studios. "The delicate difference is that in the case of Halo 3 and Xbox 360, it wasn't a launch title. That's an accident of chronology and production, but again, when Halo 3 arrived soon after the launch of the Xbox 360, it arrived with really interesting and compelling new ways to play and share content socially. Really it was about converting this giant sci-fi world into a clean, well-lighted space that even new players could navigate and enjoy."
When Halo first arrived on the Xbox it delivered innovation through the minutia of dual-stick control, solidified the conventions of multiplayer and gave gamers a big, explorable environment.
"These weren't radical inventions," O'Connor said, "they were cleanly evolved, logical extensions of systems and experiences people had played for years on PCs and consoles."
Halo 2 brought with it a push into online gaming and an evolution of gameplay. Halo 3, the first on the Xbox 360, increased the fidelity of the imagined worlds of the Halo universe and gave gamers new ways to share their own take on Halo gaming.
Halo 4 and its Reclaimer storyline, O'Connor promises, will continue to evolve the series.
"We'll have lots of cool stuff to share aboutHalo 4 in the coming weeks and months," he said, "and we hope that people can see that we've managed to strike a careful balance between honoring what makes Halo great to begin with, and innovating incrementally and radically to expand and improve the experiences people have come to know and love, but welcoming new players with open arms and sharing an incredible world and an incredible adventure with fans old and new."
While Halo 4 promises to provide a deeper story and more exploration, O'Connor says it will remain a shooter.
"Certainly there will be huge emphasis on sandbox, exploration and renewed and enhanced emphasis on storytelling, but the addictive heart of Halo is still there - moment-to-moment combat that's going to be just as challenging against real-life opponents as fictional sci-fi ones," he said.
The game will also continue to expand upon Halo Waypoint, the free service that allows fans of the game to track their in-game experiences outside the world of Halo. And, O'Connor says, there are no plans to follow in the footsteps of Call of Duty Elite's premium content and start charging for that service.
"Halo 4 will feature deeper integration with Waypoint than any previous Halo game, and we have long-term plans to continue growing and evolving the experience in new and innovative ways. That said, we have no plans to charge players to use Waypoint beyond the standard Xbox Live Gold subscription needed to access the service."
Any planned evolution of Waypoint to include more ways to connect and share with friends, perhaps with other online services like Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, are purely speculative, and O'Connor said they aren't quite ready to talk about that. "But we're excited to reveal more soon," he added.
Halo 4 will be Microsoft's biggest Halo to date, said Steve Beinner, director of marketing for Microsoft Studios Core Games.
"I'm confident Halo 4 will remind everyone why that is one of the most iconic and enduring game franchises," he said.
SOME OF THE GAMES OF SHOWCASE 2012
Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor
Fable: The Journey
Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City
Kіnect Rush: A Disney·Pixar Adventure
Tiger Woods PGA TOUR 13
Kinect Star Wars
Microsoft Flight (PC)
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive
Joe Danger: The Movie
South Park: Tenorman's Revenge
Tony Hawk HD
"WE’LL BE SHARING DETAILS ON HOW XBOX 360 AND WINDOWS 8 WILL WORK TOGETHER SOON"
Halo 4 will be the crown jewel of the Xbox 360's 2012 line-up, a year that Beinner says will be the biggest in the history of the console. And not just because of the games, but because of the breadth of ways people can play on and be entertained by the console.
"In 2012 we're showcasing a breadth of entertainment you can't access on any other technology platform," he said. "Whether it's the biggest, exclusive blockbuster games like Halo 4, titles for the whole family like Kinect Rush: A Disney Pixar Adventure or the best in TV and movies from the likes of Comcast or HBO. It will be tough to match the breadth and depth of content we will offer whether you are a core gamer or just someone who loves entertainment. Of course, we have a few surprises down the line we aren't talking about, as well."
While 2011 was a banner year for Xbox Live, with the latest evolution of ESPN and the unveiling of UFC on the Xbox 360, Beinner says he wouldn't call last year the console's peak in terms of broader entertainment coming to the game console.
"We are happy with our progress, but still see a lot of room to grow to offer more and do it in a way that is easy to experience for everyone," he said.
That means Microsoft plans to expand their television offerings by partnering with more entertainment services globally.
"We believe it is time for everyone to expect more from their television and that we are uniquely positioned to make those new experiences possible," he said.
Microsoft is also preparing for the future launch of their next Windows operating system, an OS that has already influenced the Xbox 360's look and will likely continue to do so.
"We brought a lot of the design principles to Xbox with the dashboard update last fall," Beinner said. "We believe it's essential that we have a consistent design language and interface across the phone, with Windows and the console. We'll be sharing details on how Xbox 360 and Windows 8 will work together soon."
What Beinner wouldn't talk about directly were the rumors that a new Xbox 360, code- named Durango, is in the works, with some early units already in developers' hands.
"As innovators we're always thinking about what's next and how we can push the boundaries of technology like we did with Kinect," he said. "The key to extending the lifespan of Xbox 360 isn't just about the hardware, but about the games and entertainment experiences being delivered to consumers. Beyond that we don't comment on rumors or speculation."
Beinner says that the Xbox 360, which already has a library of about 900 games, will certainly be around to pass the 1,000 game mark.
"There's no question we'll reach and exceed that number," he said. "The Xbox 360 will arguably be a target for developers for years to come. Our development teams at Microsoft Studios and our amazing third party partners keep pushing the bar higher and higher in terms of the games we're seeing on Xbox 360. Throw Kinect into the mix and we anticipate seeing many more games on the console before it's all said and done."
Gamers, Beinner added, still have a lot to look forward to on the Xbox 360 this year and beyond.
"There are a lot of great experiences ahead for Xbox 360," he said. "By continually updating the dashboard, working with the best partners to bring new content and by adding capabilities with Kinect we've proven that the best is still yet to come with this console."