Why Xbox Live Craps On Other Gaming Networks
With Microsoft set to bring cloud-based features to Xbox Live and a number of third-parties launching streaming games services in the UK before the end of the year, is the cloud threatening to make gaming hardware obsolete?
Microsoft’s 2011 E3 offerings may not have set the world on fire, but there was one nugget of information which hinted at the future of Xbox Live and could potentially help shape the platform. Conspicuously absent from Microsoft’s conference and later quietly confirmed in a press release was a feature as seemingly simple as it could be radical: later this year, gamers will be able to store game saves online along with their Live profile for quick, easy and remote retrieval.
The new feature will also enable players to access their Microsoft points – and spend them – as well as access Achievements and friends lists. “Cloud storage will allow you to enjoy the same great Xbox Live gaming experience even when you’re not in your own living room by giving you the option to store your game saves securely in the Xbox Live cloud,” explains the matter-of-fact announcement. “Gone are the days of ‘gamertag recovery.’ Now all you need to do is sign in, no matter where you are.” It’s being billed as a virtual home away from home, but its most interesting applications undoubtedly lie ahead.
These are not new features by any stretch; PC games have offered cloud saves, most notably via Steam, for years and even Sony got in on the act when it launched its premium PlayStation Plus service on the PSN a year ago. But for Microsoft to offer such flexibility to users on what has, in recent years, become regarded as the most insular of the three major online gaming networks is something of a surprise. The platform holder cites customer feedback as a reason for the sudden introduction of cloud features, but there’s no denying that Microsoft has, in a small number of areas, lagged behind its rivals in the way it operates Xbox Live.
When Valve looked to expand Steam onto consoles in some small way with the release of Portal 2, it ended up doing so via the PlayStation Network due to what Gabe Newell described as the ‘openness’ of Sony’s platform, integrating console synchronisation of Steam features such as cloud saves, friends lists and cross-platform gaming. While Xbox gamers have had to learn to live without out these, relatively minor, extras, they offer more proof that the cloud is beginning to make the transition from techie buzzword to practical concept.
Whether or not Portal 2 was the catalyst remains to be seen, but in embracing the cloud Microsoft has proved it isn’t afraid to move with the times. Should Xbox Live be friendlier to developers, the 360 could see a number of gameplay types that have been missing from the console. Arguably the most significant would be the arrival of an MMO, a genre still yet to be properly represented on the platform, at least in the West. The PS3 has MMOs such as the first-party DC Universe Online, and all evidence suggests that third-party developers are keen to bring them to 360 too should the opportunity arise.
Don’t expect Microsoft to abandon its certification process for new content any time soon. The days of free maps or weapons suddenly appearing in a game without notice are probably a way off yet, but that’s not to say such PC-like aspirations aren’t realistic. Recent speculative reports have linked Microsoft to the free-to-play model, itself synonymous with a new wave of MMOs reliant on micro-transactions to make money. Many publishers have enjoyed greater success after switching to free-to-play, and although there’s nothing stopping Microsoft from giving away an online game via Xbox Live Marketplace at the moment, an online-only project and the development of an in-game micro-transaction system would potentially be significant in bringing new gaming experiences to Microsoft’s platform.
You certainly won’t hear the last of cloud-gaming as Microsoft looks to build Xbox Live’s entertainment offerings in tandem with its Games For Windows Live and Windows Phone 7 platforms. Anything stored online can potentially be redistributed across all platforms – and devices – and that goes for games too. For the types of basic games that you might find on mobiles as well as XBLA, it’s early days, but cloud gaming could ultimately accelerate the notion of games as a service, taking hardware platforms out of the next-generation equation to prove the old adage ‘content is king’.
US service OnLive launched just over a year ago, enabling subscribers to play games from over 50 top publishers either on a PC or big screen TV, and does so without the need for any significant gaming hardware; instead OnLive streams the games visuals and audio from the high-end PC in its data centre, while sending controller inputs the other way, effectively doing away with the need for a capable PC, or indeed a console. Think of it as watching a streaming video, but one that can be manipulated. In partnership with BT, OnLive is set to launch in the UK later this year and although latency may remain an issue, its arrival will mark a significant step in the evolution of how we consume games.
While we still know nothing about Microsoft’s plans for future hardware, embracing cloud and server-side technology for its gaming platforms (no matter how small the gesture at this stage) represents an important step forward for the computing giant in a market constantly looking to the power of the internet in the distribution and consumption of content – and that can only be a good thing for the Xbox brand and its followers.