The lights are on
Power Member - Level 7
Since Sony introduced PlayStation's latest installment, gaming communities have been salivating over what may be another explosive console war. Sony and Microsoft loyalists may trade disparaging comments with each other, but beyond that noise, the hardcore gaming elite is eagerly awaiting the first official words on the next-generation Xbox. Swirling rumors suggest an announcement this April, and after Sony's impressive opening move, Microsoft has many factors to consider in planning its counterstrike.
While little is known about how Microsoft will introduce its entry in the next-gen race, the company has a unique opportunity to evaluate its competitor's performance and identify how it can deliver a better conference. I'm no industry analyst, but these are the areas where I can see Microsoft finding room for improvement.
1) Show us the goods
As grandiose as Sony's presentation was at times, the company exercised some restraint in deciding not to reveal the system's hardware. While this did not necessarily come as a surprise, it is not a tactic that suits the next Xbox introduction. As Nintendo plays graphical catch-up with the Wii U, many regarded Sony's announcement as the first true next-generation unveiling. After Microsoft beat the company to the punch eight years ago, Sony was determined not to go second again. Because the PS4 announcement took place as early as February, Sony needed to save some cards to play later.
If Microsoft waits two months before playing its first hand, the company won't be burdened by maintaining consumer interest over an extended period of time. E3 will be right around the corner (a time by which we will almost certainly see the PS4 hardware), and while Sony will likely dedicate much of its conference covering the hardware specs, Microsoft will have more time to do what Sony did well in February, which is to celebrate the games themselves. That gives Microsoft the edge in providing a more entertaining and engaging E3 experience as well as the opportunity to beat Sony in detailing a crucial aspect of a console reveal: the console itself.
2) Don't forget why we play
As I mentioned earlier, Sony pulled off a successful conference thanks to its heavy focus on games. The company's announcement stretched to over two hours in length as developer after developer unveiled gorgeous, enticing and truly promising titles, many of which would be exclusive to the PS4. These disclosures assured viewers that the PS4 will be an essential part of their gaming arsenals, even if they are not sure what the system looks like.
Historically, Sony has had a better track record of delivering high-quality, exclusive titles. Games such as Mass Effect, which were originally available only on the Xbox 360, are now fully playable on PS3s, whereas many critically-acclaimed PS3-only games cannot be acquired on Xbox (Uncharted, Heavy Rain, Journey, etc). This is not to say Microsoft does not have a great collection of its own exclusives (you won't find Gears of War or Halo in a PlayStation library anytime soon), but PlayStation's list is easily more impressive and extensive.
Microsoft should dedicate much of its conference to announcing the exclusives coming to its next system and arguing what makes its next console the ideal choice for non-exclusive titles (an argument which may be made easier if we get a good glimpse of the console). It's no secret by now that the next Xbox is expected to contain some sort of built-in Kinect functionality, which hopefully will be a major improvement from the current Kinect iteration. Sony told us that its sensor bar will improve our gaming experiences, but few left that conference understanding how. Microsoft has the opportunity to prove to us why its version is the best for gameplay and should actually show us.
3) Drop the number, keep the Xbox
Few were shocked that the PlayStation 4 was called the PlayStation 4. Sony's fourth console installment was given the codename Orbis, but not many expected Sony to deviate from its tried-and-true approach to naming its hardware. Giving the next system an incremented number prevented any chance that a consumer would think the product is anything but the next entry in a line of highly successful consoles.
Xbox does not have to play by the same rules. This will be Microsoft's third console and it is not using the "Xbox" name for any product other than its home console and games (whereas we see PlayStation in the name of Sony's handheld Vita). So long as Microsoft retains the "Xbox" name, there should be little confusion regarding how Microsoft is branding this.
That said, we enter some tacky territory when considering a name of Xbox 720. Adding "360" to its current name is cute and has been a great way for fans to speculate on the next iteration, but does nothing to improve upon the brand. Xbox 360 gives the consumer the sense that the console is a complete turn-around for the company. Xbox 720 tells me that Microsoft just likes spinning in circles, and that thought makes me nauseous and dizzy. However, taking a play out of the Apple book and labeling it "the new Xbox" is not sufficient either. That approach makes sense for Apple, which releases new iterations of its iPads more than once annually. We will not see a ninth-generation console for many years, so calling it "the new Xbox" will sound ridiculous several years into console launch.
In terms of what it will actually be named, I haven't the slightest guess, but I expect to see something in the formula of "Xbox ____." I do not think a number will be in the name, but rather a single word that encapsulates the vision that Microsoft wants to pursue. While Durango is being used as the system's codename, I hope to see something shorter, modern and like the Wii, completely made-up. The Wii was well-branded and can be referred to as the "Wii" without any confusion that it belongs to Nintendo. Xbox should choose a name that does not require people to say "Xbox" for the average Joe to get the reference.
4) Be bold in controller design
Many DualShock fans breathed a sigh of relief as Sony unveiled the PS4 controller as largely unchanged. Sure, many aesthetic enhancements were implemented, such as concave joysticks and improved trigger design, but the controller does not look very different from what we already have in our living rooms. The touchpad will be an intriguing addition and we still need to see how often we will use the "Share" button, but as far as controller design goes, this was a fairly safe installment.
Controllers are an indication of how we play games, and Sony answered by essentially saying "not much differently than we play now." That's an answer that I think will appeal to most of the gaming population, but Microsoft has an option to amend that to "not much differently than we play now, but with..." Some possible endings to that answer? How about a third row of triggers or bumpers that forces gamers to warm-up their ring fingers? How about a "Save" button that will automatically save any game you're currently playing? How about a "Service" switch that will summon a butler with a tray full of pancakes? The possibilities are varied, but I think if Microsoft can add just one element that truly provides a further gameplay challenge, the company will easily beat Sony in the controller category.
5) Excite and assure your audience
If Sony did anything wrong with its presentation, it was letting it run for too long. As hungry as I was for PS4 information at the opening of the conference, I was overwhelmed 90 minutes in with several presenters to go. Microsoft should look at giving a few top developers their appropriate keynote time, but let's try picking up the pace by doing less telling and more showing. Mr. Drive Club sure spent a lot of time talking about how long his development team wanted to make this racing game, and did we really need a demonstration of how realistic it would be buckling up for the first time? Microsoft should cut the filler and avoid sharing information that is anything less than exciting.
Also, the company's spokespeople need to be ready to give direct answers to just about any follow-up questions that the media are bound to ask. Unless the answer promises us that we will know more at a later point in time, there is no need for Microsoft to be wishy-washy. Sony gave a vague answer in response to whether used games would be permitted on its new system and did not actually offer a definitive "Yes" or "No." The debate on this topic can be saved for another blog, but it is my belief that Microsoft can guarantee Sony won't pursue this if it vows to welcome used games on its console. Sony is almost certainly waiting to see what Microsoft will do and make its decision from there. If Sony announced it was blocking used games back in February, Microsoft would likely take the opposite approach, which may have forced Sony to back off on its original decision. My guess is that we will not have final answers on this until at least E3, but Microsoft could win consumer favorability by promising out-of-the-gate that used games will not be ostracized, not to mention the loyal gamers that frequently buy used.
What approaches do you think Microsoft should take to steal Sony's limelight? Do you agree or disagree with some of my assessments? Feel free to share in the comments!