Generation 8.5

When the PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X were first rumoured I was relatively negative as to their existence. As a then mostly PC player with occasional console use the introduction of these machines felt like a way for the manufacturers to increase profitability rather than meet a specific consumer driven need. However as the two year anniversary of purchasing a PlayStation 4 Pro has passed (over a year with the Xbox One X) I thought I would write down my musings on the new ‘enhanced’ consoles and my experiences with them.

I’ve written this a few times now, but PC gaming is getting more expensive. Rising prices on many components including Graphics Cards, CPUs and monitors amongst others have really dampened my enthusiasm for gaming on PC. Made worst in the UK as the value of sterling has decreased (something PC components seem very sensitive too). This meant that last year I transitioned away from buying games on PC and buying or rebuying them on consoles instead. I even downsized to a gaming laptop.

I have a pretty even spread of titles across both the Microsoft and Sony ecosystems. So obviously now more of my gaming time has been spent on console versions of games which has been reflected in this blog. And surprisingly what I’ve found is a much better experience than I thought. As primarily a Xbox 360 gamer last generation, I moved towards PC again around 2012 and had limited experience of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in their early days. It was Destiny that really made me play the new consoles but I think like many I preferred the better visuals, framerates and cheaper prices of games on PC.

The new consoles in my mind are more the machines we should have had at their release in 2013. What I mean is that the more powerful internals go some way to addressing the underpowered base consoles. And indeed on the hardware side it isn’t difficult not to admire the Xbox One X specifically. Smaller than the PlayStation 4 Pro yet very quiet and overall feeling like a more premium piece of hardware.

From a software point of view whilst the PlayStation 4’s dashboard remains relatively similar to its original version, the Xbox One X came with a changed and improved user experience. Unshackled from the Kinect the UI is faster, cleaner and nicer to use. Albeit still weaker than the Sony offering. Microsoft announced this week that it has stopped all Xbox One backwards compatibility work to focus on the new hardware. However Microsoft’s backwards compatibility is a massive strength and a great feature. Even recently I’ve been enjoying Mass Effect 3 and knowing games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic have been enhanced for the Xbox One X is a massive selling point. I love Microsoft’s efforts with backwards compatibility.

Often PC fans will joke about the lower framerates, resolution or graphics of consoles. However even as someone who has spent lots of time on certain PC games I can’t really say playing a game on the Xbox One or PlayStation 4 bothers me that much. Take Doom (2016) for example. It might look slightly better on my PC and run at a higher framerate however it still looks great on my 4K TV particularly with the Xbox One X patch. I certainly don’t feel that the experience is in anyway worse. Right now it is hard to argue with the value offering of Sony’s and Microsoft’s consoles versus a PC. That isn’t to say that a console is the best solution for everyone however moving away from expensive PC hardware feels liberating.

And indeed even though many console games remain at 30fps there are an increasing number of PlayStation and Xbox One games at higher framerates now. Particularly eSports or multiplayer games. However there are some games which even allow a choice between higher framerate or resolution, such as the Xbox One X version of Rise of the Tomb Raider. With much better AMD Zen 2 CPUs next generation this will likely be something that only increases further.

Whether either enhanced console is worth it, is a subjective opinion. Some games don’t necessarily make the full use of their extra power and arguably the base experience is fine. However for me particularly in this era of 4K UHD and HDR the newer PlayStation and Xbox One consoles have come into their own and they have been a nice plus. Whilst I will always be a multiformat gamer I don’t regret buying these two machines. Although perhaps not without irony, as I begrudge the perpetual PC upgrade cycle, we might still see enhanced versions of the next PlayStation and Xbox in the future.

My thoughts on E3 2019

So another year and another set of E3 live streams passes by. Often I tend to keep up with E3 more by accident rather than passionately following events. However this year I’ve managed to see quite a bit and I thought I would write down my thoughts. Obviously the way things are presented to those of us not at E3 is probably a very different experience to those actually there. Particularly as we miss out on the show floor and playable games. That said I can only talk about what I saw and so outline my thoughts based on the conference schedule.

Google

Hard to criticise the Stadia showing. They have an impressive list of publishers, games and some influential people at the helm. The initial founders pack due in November this year seems to be good value (£119 in the UK). And the two types of account; Base (free) and Pro (£8.99 per month) make a lot of sense. Also they might just beat Microsoft to market. Like all these things success may depend on the service being good enough and latency deemed acceptable. But there are billions of Chrome and Android users out there.

Electronics Arts

Unless you were in to an existing EA game, the series of lengthy live streams wasn’t particularly notable apart from the unveiling of Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. I am genuinely not sure what to think of this one although it was nice to see a fairly lengthy demonstration of the gameplay.

Microsoft

Microsoft have been praised over the last few years for their E3 shows. Even though they often are filled with CGI trailers, multiplatform games with very little new IP. Microsoft’s show format was the same this year although a few notable exceptions. Cyberpunk 2077 surprised with a release date and Keanu Reeves. It felt like the big standout from this show was just how impressive Xbox Game Pass has become. The new PC service has been well received and Microsoft were keen to remind us many games would be ‘day one’ on the service. Forza Horizon 4’s LEGO Speed Champions DLC looked brilliantly light-hearted and fun.

There was very little time spent on either xCloud or the announcement of new hardware. The Project Scarlet announcement seemed to mirror 2016’s Xbox One X acknowledgment. The hardcore fans probably understand the specifications Microsoft name dropped but the announcement lacked the impact of Sony’s recent instant loading demo.

Bethesda

Yeeeeaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!!!! Bethesda’s show used the lure of The Elder Scrolls Online freebies for those watching. Which is great although with short notice and a US friendly schedule perhaps there can a better way of accommodating non-US players in future (1.30am BST in the UK!). Last year Bethesda’s show was probably one of the more memorable. However this year most content shown was for existing games. In more ways than one Ghostwire: Tokyo stole this show. A great concept in the CGI trailer. Beyond this a lot of time spent on mobile games which I didn’t personally find interesting.

PC Games Show

Loads of interesting games shown, but I did like the look of Valfaris (2d retro style platform shooter like Contra), Griftlands, Cris Tales (just looks uniquely beautiful) and Songs of Conquest. Although there has been criticism of the Epic sponsorship this year, the format of this show does work really well. Particularly the presenters. I really enjoyed Larian Studios talking about how they’ve tried for a few years to get the Baldur’s Gate 3 licence.

Ubisoft

Ubisoft opened strongly with Watch Dogs: Legion gameplay. And then unless you are particularly invested in one of their existing games not much afterwards. Mirroring a larger trend with E3 this year. Personally disappointed if Rainbow Six Quarantine is just Co-Op PVE. As a solo player I would love a Rainbow Six game to play. Gods and Monsters might be interesting though we didn’t see anything of it.

Square Enix

Square Enix got off to a good start and had one of the better shows. Seeing Final Fantasy VII Remake in action and hearing the developers passionately talk about the game was excellent. Also loads of other games; Dragon Quest Builders 2, Dragon Quest XI (Switch), Kingdom Hearts 3 DLC, Final Fantasy XIV Shadowbringers, Dying Light 2, Outriders and Final Fantasy VIII Remastered. I liked the look of their overhead racing game: Circuit Superstars.

The only let down was ironically the Marvel Avengers unveiling. A poor trailer which probably lacked impact in part as it isn’t related in anyway to the iconic Marvel Cinematic Universe. It also didn’t help that Square Enix talked about lootboxes, business model, exclusive PlayStation 4 content and roadmaps before we’ve even seen the game.

Nintendo

A short and snappy Nintendo Direct where Luigi’s Mansion 3 opened the show and looked great. The anticipated The Witcher 3 and Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 also impressed. More was seen of Pokémon and Animal Crossing, although the latter is delayed until 2020. However perhaps the real measure of the success of the Switch is the flood of multiplatform games from third-party; Dragon Quest Builders 2, Alien Isolation, Minecraft Dungeons, Dauntless and Wolfenstein Youngblood etc. An impressive mix of old and new games sometimes releasing alongside other formats. And finally Nintendo confirmed a direct sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. A very good showing.

Overall

A quiet E3 which reminded me of the show in 2012 as games like Watch Dogs were shown before the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One became reality. From a trends point of view this years E3 Live Streams included; lots of CGI trailers, a lack of games probably due to the impending new consoles and number of existing Live Services games. Although there were a few games which I am interested in but perhaps the fact there isn’t much more provides a little relief for those of us that need to spend the next 12-18 months catching up with our backlogs.

A few next generation hopes

Recently Digital Foundry released a wonderful video suggesting six relatively realistic upgrades they would like to see on any future Nintendo Switch hardware revision. Which got me thinking what is it I would love to see on the next generation Xbox and PlayStation. Particularly changes that are realistic and within the realms of possible.

Whilst I love gaming on PC, I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m fed up with high-end PC pricing. Sure you don’t have to have the best components, and I often don’t, but even low and mid-range parts have increased in price. And if you’re buying less powerful parts then the advantages over consoles when gaming become less. Over the last 12-months I’ve spent more time on my Xbox One X and PlayStation 4 Pro as I’ve moved away from gaming as much on my PC.

Whilst hardware is definitely going to be more powerful in the next Xbox and PlayStation I’ve realised that it isn’t just hardware that I would like to see improve when new machines arrive in the next 1 to 2 years. Actually software and services are just as important. Therefore I’m not going to list improvements like a faster CPU or more RAM as realistically these things improving are a given, particularly as we know AMD Zen CPU and Navi GPU components are extremely likely to be in these new machines. Anyway here is my small wishlist for each machine and manufacturer:

Microsoft Xbox

More exclusives. Microsoft announced at E3 a load of studios that it had acquired. And whilst some of these are likely to be working on their new cloud streaming services and content, there is hopefully a chance they are also working on new IP for Microsoft machines. Microsoft has fallen well short of the mark when it has come to new games this generation and is in the shadow of Sony’s incredible first party studios content since 2013.

Xbox Game Pass merged with Xbox Live Gold as a single premium subscription. Probably unlikely but I did see someone on ResetEra thinking along the same lines. The consumer charges for online multiplayer are ‘snake oil’. The cost that the consumer pays a platform holder in the 30% fees they charge are enough for server maintenance for first-party games. If Microsoft got rid of fees for multiplayer and built around their Game Pass initiative they would give Sony a real problem and offer something unique. It becomes less about charging something the consumer resents paying and making the consumer more positively see the service so they want to subscribe.

Support for USB DACs, AMPs and Microphones. One of the great things about the PlayStation 4 is being able to use USB audio devices like the Fiio E10K or Creative SoundBlaster X7. Microsoft’s proprietary audio chip and solution isn’t just a barrier to great audio on Xbox but a real pain for those of us with more than one format.

Completely redesign the dashboard operating system. Even though the Xbox dash has improved in recent years it still pales in comparison to Sony’s clear and simple OS design. Like Microsoft’s convoluted vision for the Xbox One, the operating system was clearly designed around Metro, Kinect and selling services. Metro and Kinect were failures and adverts on dashboards aren’t consumer friendly. Although Sony’s design is far from perfect you are never more than one click away from your games.

Sony PlayStation

Better acoustic profile. Even though my PlayStation 4 Pro is generally silent or quiet with PS4 games, once any enhanced game is loaded the whole thing becomes very loud. The original launch PS4 was too loud when compared with the original Xbox One as well.

Backwards compatibility with PS1 and PS2 games. Microsoft has been more innovative on the services and software front in many ways. Game Pass, Backwards Compatibility and Xbox One X enhanced 4K Xbox 360 and Xbox games are things Sony simply has little response to. However there should be no reason for why Sony can’t offer PS1 or PS2 emulation on its new hardware. Maybe even bundling up some of its old library as a PlayStation Plus freebies rather than trying to sell as ROMS. Either way Sony needs a way to allow its consumers to access old content that is more compelling than the expensive PS Now service. Talking of which…

Make PS Now cheaper. £12.99 feels too much per month for what the service is, but worse still compares very badly with Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass which is nearly 40% cheaper per month and includes brand new releases. Whilst PS Now has around 750 games available (most streaming only) there are barely any PS2 games on the service and there are no new day and date releases as per Xbox Game Pass.

Greater cross-play support. Again this isn’t dependant on new hardware, but new Live Services need to think about the consumer over their potentially long lifetime. And almost in the same way Xbox One and PlayStation 4 heralded a new age of console free-to-play games, by the time new machines arrive we should be able to play with friends and access our accounts and purchases irrespective of format. Although given the confusion recently it’s clear the scale of the challenge facing developers and publishers working with Sony.

Summary

So there we go, eight things I would personally like to see these new Sony and Microsoft console incorporate. There is arguably a policy change that Sony should and could make sooner with regards to cross-play, although this is also on Publishers as well. However these all feel like solid suggestions that could improve the new consoles from each manufacturer.

What would you like to see implemented or change with new consoles?

Don’t Pass on Game Pass

A while ago I wrote a piece stating that I was thinking about not renewing Xbox Game Pass. Apart from being annoyed at not having received a free month as part of an offer (something that Microsoft’s Customer Services never resolved), I was also not fully convinced of the benefits of the £7.99 a month service given I had played only a few games in my time with the service.

Since I got my second Xbox One earlier this year I had managed to use the free months included with the console along with offers and renewal offers to stack six months of Game Pass for less than £15. It had made the decision a no-brainer to try out the service and I enjoyed playing and complete a few games. However I was never 100% convinced the service was for me.

That said I often change my thoughts on things and this Christmas I think Microsoft have hit it out of the park with their subscription service. Ashen, Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden and Below are brand new releases that have debuted on Game Pass at the same time as being release on Xbox One and other formats. Indeed Ashen is exclusive to the new Epic PC Store. This is on top of other games like Life is Strange 1 & 2 and Ori and the Blind Forest all recently being added to the service. Whilst Game Pass has had day one first party titles on there, seeing independent games like Ashen and Mutant Year Zero launching day one is a very encouraging precedent.

Either way as noted in my December update the above along with some cheap prices on 12 and 6-month subscriptions was enough to convince me to stock up on my Game Pass subscription. As mentioned before there are still issues with the service, such as games leaving too soon (i.e. Fallout 4) and the lack of DLC. And whilst Game Pass is still likely to be the bane of my backlog having the opportunity to play a game like Ashen far earlier than I might have otherwise is enough to convince me that Game Pass might just become as mandatory as other services like Netflix or Spotify in the future.

Indeed Game Pass reminds me of the good vibe PlayStation Plus first launched to on the PlayStation 3 with it’s ‘Instant Game Collection’ in 2010. PlayStation Plus arguably changed the game when it came to adding value to mandatory online subscriptions which meant Microsoft had to adapt and offer free games as well. And whilst I don’t necessarily want individual publisher subscriptions (i.e. EA Access) Game Pass is a massive advantage for Microsoft right now.

Pass on Game Pass

UPDATE 12th December 2018

Basically I did a complete 360 (excuse the pun) on the below thoughts and took up an offer for £18.97 to extend Xbox Game Pass for 6 months. The reason being: Ashen, Ori and the Blind Forest and a couple of other games still being on the service that I want to play. Ashen is only a few days old and £33.49 just to buy, so I figured given as I may not enjoy it is worth a punt for more Game Pass time instead.

Even with this U-turn I still think my thoughts from a few weeks ago are relevant. Game Pass isn’t for everyone and ideally with my backlog I shouldn’t be looking at more games!

Original Post

Microsoft Xbox Game Pass seems like an easy sell. Over 100 games at your fingertips for only £7.99 a month. Or even less if you take up one of the current offers, particularly in the current Black Friday sales. So what’s there not to like?

To be honest; not a lot. It’s a great service and adds an another option for playing games. Since getting my Xbox One X earlier this year I’ve used Game Pass offers to catch up on a few old games and complete Halo 5 and (hopefully) Rage (Xbox 360).

Microsoft haven’t delivered my free month of Game Pass from their recent PayPal offer (and they have done nothing even after raising with their CS). This has meant I’ve had to decide whether to continue subscribing. And it has made me realise there are obvious scenarios where Game Pass just doesn’t work as well, including:

  • Already have a large backlog
  • Limited amount of spare time to play games
  • Have multiple gaming platforms, or Xbox isn’t your main console
  • Spend a lot of time in particular games

Add to this you never own the games, so if they disappear off the service then you can’t play them anymore. And the games are always minus DLC or expansions being base versions to encourage you to spend more money on extra content for those games.

Even with all of that said Game Pass is still a fantastic way to play a huge number of games for a reasonable sum of money. And if you only game on Xbox it’s almost a no-brainer. Indeed it’s a shame Microsoft can’t do away with mandatory fees for multiplayer and merge Gold and Game Pass into one unique premium service. That would be a game changer in the battle against Sony.

However I’ve come to realise Game Pass is just not for me. I have struggled to play more games despite there being a number on the service I would like to experience. Simply due to a lack of time and a large number of other games competing for my attention. As with any subscription you almost feel under pressure to use it. The risk is that you end up paying more money to Microsoft whilst still buying other games you want to play. And realistically even for the small amount I have played I could have purchased the games I ended up playing. Indeed this is what I’ve done this month. £9 (80% off) during the current sale for Rise of The Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration. Which includes everything that came with the game when I want to play it.

That seems a better deal to me at the moment.

Talk is cheap

Just over a week ago the maker of the popular Weak Auras addon posted a tweet about the current number of subscribers for World of Warcraft. The tweet was suggesting that after a new API had been made available, that it was possible to derive current subscribers to the game. Current subscribers for the game have dropped by around 2 million only two months after the release, for the western North American and Europe realms (servers).

Because the tweet was based on a soon to be deleted post elsewhere, there was no verification or way to validate the numbers. However this didn’t stop the news spreading and quickly people repeating it as fact. In addition many were quick to shut down conversations in their space (i.e. ResetEra or Reddit) because the claims couldn’t be substantiated. In addition Activision Blizzard responded to say the data was false.

So whilst there is nothing wrong with regarding the original leaked numbers as dubious i.e. anyone can claim anything on the internet. The response from Activision Blizzard should also be treated with cynicism. Many were quick to claim that Activision Blizzard wouldn’t lie because they have a legal responsibility not to mislead their shareholders. However the claim that the numbers are false can be made on so many levels, i.e. the number is only 99.99% accurate, or the data doesn’t include the Asia region subscribers etc. The fact is Activision Blizzard hasn’t published World of Warcraft subscribers numbers since 2015 when the game had 5.5 million subscribers.

Like many other companies Activision Blizzard has moved away from factual and meaningful data such as unit sales and subscribers to ‘player engagement’ and monthly active users (MAU) for the purposes of reporting financial information. However this is less useful data, very easy to hide behind and doesn’t really provide enough detail to analyse. Activision Blizzard MAU data is all players across all of its games and purchases grouped up into one big number. With free-to-play games included it is very difficult to see how World of Warcraft is performing. And since 2015 Activision Blizzard has only ever released ‘positive’ PR data- i.e. sold 3.4 million copies of Battle for Azeroth on day one. It will never release active subscribers unless it a. decided to, and b. the numbers were extremely healthy.

And it isn’t alone in this. Microsoft, for example, since 2015 has stopped reporting on the number of Xbox One units sold, or the number of Xbox Live Gold subscribers (i.e. paying). This is very likely as it was selling less Xbox Ones than Sony’s PlayStation 4 and the fact Gold subscribers was probably declining as a result. In fact we know from other data (i.e EA etc.) that Xbox One has sold less units that the Xbox 360 had at the same time in its lifetime. Microsoft is generating more revenue from digital sales but from less console players. We don’t even know what constitutes a Microsoft MAU. It could simply be someone logging into the Windows 10 Xbox App. In other words pretty garbage information.

However one thing was interesting and that is how people simply discounted that there might only be 3.2 million subscribers (in NA/EU, so excluding Asia servers). I’ve seen people state this couldn’t be true because why would anyone not buy gametime for an expansion they had already purchased (the 3.4m day one sales as noted earlier). Well I know this can be true because I was one of those players. Despite preordering the expansion for Allied Races during Legion I simply didn’t subscribe to World of Warcraft again until after the release of Battle for Azeroth. Also with the ability to buy gametime with in-game gold it’s quite possible the numbers for day one sales could have exceeded the subscribers at release.

In addition if we look at realm data, we can see there are around 5.9 million characters in EU and NA realms at level 111+. With alts and multiple characters it means it ‘could’ have been possible that there were somewhere in the region of 3.2 million subscribers for NA and EU regions at launch. As BellularGaming said in his YouTube video the lack of historic data makes this hard to look at previous trends. That said as with any MMO there is likely to be drop off in players after the release. Certainly there appears to more negativity around for Battle for Azeroth than the previous expansion at this point in its lifetime.

Either way the numbers are certainly not beyond the realms of possibility, and Blizzard quickly logging everyone out of the forums (possibly as a result of shutting down the API) may be an indicator that API had given out more data than ever intended. But unless there was more transparency from Activision Blizzard, we simply won’t know.

The more difficult to answer question might be, if the numbers are close to the truth, then what are the implications for World of Warcraft. Any MMO has a more defined ceiling when selling expansions but there might come a point when Activision Blizzard decides it can make more money from another business model. However it certainly isn’t going to increase any budget or resources for future releases and may explain why World of Warcraft Classic has taken so long to release.