Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Future of Microsoft Gaming -- Project Spark, Valve and Disney Infinty

First of all, disclaimers in place: I hold absolutely zero "insider" information when it comes to any of the following predictions.  I'm completely retired from the industry, and while I am beta on a lot of hardware and software, none of it is in the gaming arena.

That said, it's clear to me what Microsoft's ultimate strategy is for cross-platform gaming -- the handwriting is on the wall and it doesn't take an ex-genius to figure it out.  I'm only dotting the i's and crossing the t's here for the benefit of those of you who don't have the same experience I do in putting the puzzle together.

All of this came about because one op-ed piece I read was curious about why Microsoft made no mention of gaming when it rolled out the Surface Pro 2 announcement.  They did (briefly) mention a game when talking about the new Surface RT, but for the particular piece of "tablet" hardware they have that can run PC games they remained completely silent.  He went on to speculate that this was due to not wanting to awaken the sleeping dragon that is Valve, but noted that MS has hired a Valve guy to work on Windows gaming and has the XBox One coming out that has a PC like architecture and then said " Microsoft could have its own plans for cross-platform gaming ('We Believe in Windows PC/Gaming and have long-term plans to grow our support', Microsoft told IGN last month)."

So that writer was close -- very close -- to putting it all together but missed the most important piece (IMHO) of all.  Project Spark, the ultimate "create your own game" project MS has devoted over two years and a not insubstantial amount of money towards developing.

Looking at PS I see not only the future of games but MS's involvement (and profit) in cross-platform gaming.  It's positioned to run on the PC/XBox One and XBox 360 -- all the platforms MS has a vested interest in.  On the PC side, it will ONLY run on Windows 8 -- again, the only OS MS wants anyone to be using.  And this spectacular gaming system, at least the beta, is totally free.

Ah, but there is no such thing as a free lunch, as Heinlein famously observed, and even if MS ends up charging a small fee for the software, or even a subscription fee to play (we are told you can play offline but there is no promise this will remain the case.  At the very least there will be in-game purchases available) clearly the idea is to get all or nearly all the gamers in the world to lust after this amazingly desirable piece of software that can take on the form of nearly any current game you can imagine (and a lot more even current game designers can't imagine).

This, then, is MS's endgame, if you'll forgive the slight pun.  By placing something so incredibly powerful it could rival any game ever made or that ever will be made onto the platforms that they control, they can cut off such rivals as Valve (not to mention Sony and Nintendo) at the knees.  Forget Halo -- this is like the most exclusive of exclusives, assuming you're sitting on the other side of the console (or even OS) fence.

In a way this is like what Disney did with it's gaming division.  Disney Interactive, while still producing some niche titles like Fantasia: Music Involved, essentially ceded all of its other games (titles tied to movies, such as "Toy Story" and those just involving Disney characters, like "Kingdom Hearts") not to mention the other Disney software properties (they closed down all their "Star Wars" games, for example) and decided to put all their eggs into one basket -- Disney Infinity.  DI itself is a game but also, more importantly, an somewhat open-ended system in which future games will fit.

Disney, which doesn't control any consoles or OS, didn't take the route MS is taking, and is trying to support nearly every thing there is out there (all consoles but even including iPads and PCs) but it's also got a "Toy Box" mode that is very similar (although EXTREMELY limited) to what the whole Project Spark project is about.  I don't think this is any coincidence.

I think the life cycle of video games as we know them is coming to an end.  Folks nowadays want more control over what they do with their spare time.  Just like three network television channels showing what THEY want to show (and controlling the entire viewing experience, including what time and days things are shown) would not be acceptable to anyone nowadays, so, too, is the idea that any one game would satisfy the majority of gamers out there.  Folks want to be able to tailor what they see, what they hear, and what they play, to a degree that even a decade ago would seem impossible.

Not everyone wants to program their own game, to be sure, but not everyone wants to write and produce their own TV show.  What they do want is to be able to easily and as cheaply as possible get exactly what they want out of that content consuming experience.  And there are millions of folks who DO want to produce their own videos (hence YouTube) and will also want to edit and create their own gaming environments to share with those who are tired with the limited choices of the past.  I think this confluence will change the face of computers and gaming for decades to come.

All this might be wishful thinking, to be sure.  I'm one of those who would love to tailor my own game, both for my own amusement as well as other folks out there who would improve and enhance it.  But I'm also aware that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, and while Project Spark looks tremendous right now in all the demos, there are some real areas of concern for me they are not addressing, particularly in how they handle sound (so far none of the dozens of demos have shown even the slightest ability to program sound effects or music into the game, although this is a major part of any gaming experience.  You can add voices, but only through XBox One Kinect and even then it doesn't seem all that easy to put them anywhere you want except for characters -- how a narrator would work isn't immediately clear.  And all questions about sound are ignored).

I've already been burned by Disney -- Disney Infinity is anything but, and the Toy Box there is for 8 year olds (and to be fair, that's what Disney has always said was their target audience).  I really hope I'm not disappointed when Project Spark opens up their beta at the end of next month.  But only time will tell.

(For those of you who are interested, Project Spark is still open for signup --

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