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?

Assassin’s Grind Odyssey?

A number of prominent Youtubers such as Worth A Buy, SkillUp, Jim Sterling, along with websites like Polygon have all noted that the recently released Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is much more ‘grindy’ than previous entries in the series. Indeed a few have mentioned that it isn’t possible to play the main story questline without having to complete a large amounts of side content beforehand. Indeed Jim Sterling went even further suggesting that the game’s progression is much more enjoyable once the permanent XP booster has been purchased (about £10).

Predictably this has stirred quite a debate on forums such as ResetEra and Reddit. With a usual range of reactions, from the ‘it doesn’t impact the game’, to those who are angry with Ubisoft for even implementing microtransactions. Many have claimed that Assassin’s Creed Origins had the same progression and microtransaction model. Although I can’t find any similar criticisms from that game’s launch a year ago.

To be clear I haven’t played the latest Assassin’s Creed game. So I don’t want to fully wade in to the debate. However where microtransactions are concerned there seems to be lots of misunderstanding circulating. I thought it might be worth delving into some of the key points being raised about this game.

1. It doesn’t impact the gameplay and you can ignore them

Not really true. All business models will have some impact on a game’s design. Usually a buy-once model will have the least impact because the developer or publisher isn’t pressured to monetise the game’s design. Just because you might enjoy the grind or not be inclined to spent any extra money probably means you weren’t the target audience for the microtransactions. Indeed Ubisoft is probably looking at those more casual players that only play a bit of games and don’t frequent videogames forums.

2. Just play more side quests

Misses the point entirelySkillUp mentioned in his review that even after 45 hours he hadn’t been able to ‘beeline’ the main campaign. Side quests should arguably be stuff that extends the game or grant additional rewards. With Odyssey it seems to be that the side content has become mandatory in order just to complete the main story questline.

Just being able to earn something in the game is irrelevant if it takes hundreds of hours to do so. That is where the example of ‘it takes 40 hours to unlock Darth Vader’ was so illuminating. It provided an undebatable fact to illustrate clearly the scale of the problem.

3. Just don’t buy the game or don’t buy microtransactions

Won’t make a difference. Neither of these options will likely register as a complaint against microtransactions. If you buy the game but never buy from the in-game store, Ubisoft can measure this and simply increase or change their business model to be more successful next time. And if you don’t buy the game, then it’s a lost sale that Ubisoft can’t measure in any meaningful way. But at worst may simply result in no sequels if the game sales are that bad.

Creating bad PR and being a noisy consumer is the best strategy to registering complaints with publishers. As we have seen with Star Wars Battlefront 2’s Lootbox fiasco or Sony’s stance on PS4 Fortnite cross-play, bad PR can force companies to change.

4. Microtransactions shouldn’t exist in premium £50-£90+ games

Maybe. Personally I think you have to judge each game on an individual basis. Arguably f2p games have a better argument for in-game transactions, but many publishers now use multiple business models to extract the maximum profit from their games. For example; preorder bonuses, multiple tiered editions, promotional tie ups, platform exclusive content, microtransactions and season pass models (sometimes yearly season passes). Assassin’s Creed Odyssey uses all of the these tactics.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is a premium single-player game. It is not an online, multiplayer experience having to support thousands of connected players. Major upcoming content is being paid for by the season pass. So why are there in-game microtransactions? Wouldn’t it be better if all of that stuff was in the game and rewards for completing side quests and collectables. It is hard to argue against this viewpoint.

5. Games are more expensive to make and need microtransactions

Are they? First of all without real budget and sales figures from the publishers it is very difficult to validate this statement. Marketing spend is increasing but large western studios are tending to make less games which are profitable for far, far longer. This means there is less unpredictability about revenue, compared to say 5 or 10 years ago. And none of this accounts for the cheaper costs of digital distribution. There is evidence to suggest in real terms the costs of making games are actually decreasing.

It is very likely true that a game like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey would be profitable even if it just sold for a fixed price without any other monetisation.

The large western publishers are currently making record profits. They have become very good at monetising their games to increase revenue. They have more big data and experts than ever to help improve how they monetise their games. They don’t NEED to do it.


Information is good

Still whatever your view on Assassin’s Creed Odyssey it’s good to see the criticisms being raised are in the public domain. More information can mean being able to make a more informed purchasing decision. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve thought ‘but why didn’t the reviews pick up on this‘ when the latest post-launch problem comes to light.

As Jim Sterling himself admitted for a long time in traditional games media there was a genuine reluctance about raising any criticism of a game’s business model for fear of being blacklisted by a publisher. Now with increased social media and review channels there is genuine critique which publishers and developers can’t escape. And that is a good thing.

Cross-play coming Fortnite (at last)

So the news broke yesterday that Sony has at last caved in and will be allowing cross-play between Fortnite players on PlayStation 4 and the ‘blocked off’ Xbox One and Nintendo Switch. However even better Sony is enabling everything that cross-play means, so matchmaking, progression and purchases.

Quite why this took 4 months to announce this U-turn is anyone’s guess. Although it is likely that the bad PR was simply too overwhelming for Sony to ignore. And like last year’s Star Wars: Battlefront 2 fiasco another great example of the consumer’s power to pressurise big businesses to back down. The communication up until yesterday had been incompetent. Epic and Sony simply choose to ignore this problem which is not a good strategy when their customers have spent money on their game and platforms. What was missing from yesterday’s announcement was an apology. Either from Sony or Epic. Locking of Epic accounts was simply disgusting.

Either way for all Fortnite players light is the end of the tunnel and coming. And it is good news for all. Even those who don’t venture off the PS4 version. Hopefully more games can be made cross-play between all consoles now, and Sony doesn’t just stop with Fortnite.

So in light of this significant change, and now all platforms holders are not hopefully blocking cross-play the focus perhaps unsurprisingly shifts to publishers. And already people like Pete Hines at Bethesda Game Studios, are finding that out. It seems ironic that Bethesda was vocal in the criticism of Sony’s previous stance on cross-play given that we have now learnt that Fallout 76 doesn’t even support cross-play. I’ve said this is my earlier blog post, but ultimately I think people’s expectations have changed. People don’t want artificial barriers in their games. And publishers can expect much more criticism to come their way.

Is there any valid reason why more games shouldn’t support cross-matchmaking, progression and purchase. Games like The Elder Scrolls Online, Warframe, GTA Online, Madden, FIFA, Rocket League etc. No, of course not. To borrow this brilliant .gif from those geniuses over at ResetEra. The correct answer to which games need cross-play next is…

via GIPHY

Good & bad customer service

Thought I would write up a quick blog post after experiencing the good and bad of large companies over the past few days.

The bad

Amazon. Decided I wanted one of these new PlayStation 4 Pro 500 Million Limited Edition Consoles. And I knew they would be available for pre-order on Tuesday, 14th August in the UK. Amazon had them available from after 7am and I placed an order. Soon after 8.30am they were no longer available. Therefore I didn’t feel the need to order one from PC World/Currys, GAME, Smyths or Very. Unfortunately Amazon.co.uk had made a mistake and should have listed the item from 10am.

So they cancelled all orders and relisted the item for preorder at 10am the next day. Unfortunately it sold out in minutes (or seconds) – even when I knew of the ‘available from’ link.

They neither apologised directly or proactively contacted all those they let down. And whilst they reimbursed me a small amount after I complained it wasn’t reflective of the error. I still have had no apology or response to my complaint. Ultimately their mistake cost me a limited edition PS4 Pro. I might just shop elsewhere for pre-orders in future.

The good

Bethesda Game Studios. Accidently created a new Bethesda account on Xbox One Skyrim when I already have an account. Emailed their support, and was met with a response in under 30 minutes. They understood the problem, offered two solutions, explaining the consequences. And once I had selected the solution they left the ticket open to make sure I was happy. #textbookcustomerservice.

It bodes well for Fallout 76 players if the CS is that good. Thank you Bethesda.

What cross-play should mean

Update 27 September 2018:
Sony announced that cross-play is coming to Fortnite on PlayStation 4. I’ve written a new blog to reflect this news. So whilst some of the criticism below is outdated the thrust of the blog remains.

Original Blog Post:

During the recent criticism of Sony and Epic for locking-out Fortnite accounts on other systems, there seemed to be a lot of feedback that cross-play should be allowed. But that this wasn’t a new thing. However since Epic opened up their game with an update in March of this year I simply don’t recall an incident like this before. In other words a major release such as this that lets you play your game on any system.

Just to be clear cross-play matchmaking is the ability to play multiplayer with users of the same game on other platforms. This isn’t new. However Fortnite also allows for cross-play progression and purchasing. This is new. And also brilliant.

You see publishers and developers have loved transitioning from Games as a Product (GaaP) towards Games as a Services (GaaS) because of the greater earnings potential and the record revenue and profits being made. Online only games with potentially multi-layered business models (i.e. buy to play with season passes, DLC and microtransactions etc). But arguably part of offering a service rather than a product is being available to as many people as possible and on as wide a range of platforms as possible. All other entertainment industries have embraced allowing consumers to take their media with them. Even with restrictive Digital Rights Management (DRM) systems if you buy a movie from Google Play Store, or an eBook from Amazon Kindle, you can watch or read on your mobile phone, videogame console, computer, browser or numerous other devices. Same with all the streaming services, like Netflix or Spotify.

So why is it that games like Warframe, GTA V, The Elder Scrolls Online are separate entities on different formats. Why can’t I play my PC Elder Scrolls Online character on PS4 or Xbox versions even if I have to buy the game again? Given how some of the most expensive games to play are actually GaaS games, it arguably isn’t an unreasonable request for a consumer to have access to their purchased on more than one format. Certainly when games have a lifespan of over a 5 or 10 years then it’s also very conceivable formats will change over that time.

Of course it isn’t relevant for all games to offer cross-play. Many games are largely single-player, or small budget indie affairs and rely on buy-to-play business models. And here it would never make sense for cross-play to be offered.

In SkillUp’s recent Youtube video interview with Digital Extremes (the makers of Warframe) he asked if he can continue to use his existing Warframe account with the new Nintendo Switch version. The muted and slow response was both slightly predictable and disappointing. They talked about a possible one-time account transfer as they did offer for PC players who wanted to move to the new PS4 or Xbox One versions. But realistically a one-time transfer brings about its own risks and pitfalls that the customer is fully expected to accept and live with (i.e. what if the Switch version stops being supported).

For me the positive reasons for publishers and developers to embrace cross-play progression, play and purchases simply outweigh the negatives. I applaud Epic for making Cross-Matchmaking, Progression and Purchases a thing for consumers even if for now those who play on Sony’s systems can’t utilise this. And Sony and Epic do deserve massive criticism for their handling of Fortnite cross-play debacle. Denying access to consumers own accounts and purchases they have made is completely unacceptable and needs resolution, like yesterday.

Personally I think Fortnite has probably changed my view of what I should expect from GaaS or Live Services. If companies can’t or won’t bother offering cross-play. Then I’m not sure I can be bothered with their games.