Just the other night, I watched the fifth-season finale of Lost, in anticipation of next week’s final-season premiere. As I re-watched pivotal scenes pregnant with all kinds of possibilities inherent to the true nature of the island, I came to a quick realization. I have a good idea what’s going down now, but my theories are completely contrary to what I thought was doing way back when.
Using this as a springboard, I then turned my powers of prognostication to the gaming frontier in hopes that some fears I currently harbor will eventually be countered. That said, where Lost is an entertainment obsession that is free to rewrite its own rules as the story dictates, my real-world concerns are less malleable. Especially when tackling a rock-solid monolith like Microsoft and some recent, troubling developments in their online space.
There’s no denying that, of the three console players, Microsoft owns the castle and surrounding countryside of the online space. The seeds sown during the last generation have borne a vast garden stocked full of unbelievably nourishing fruit. The Xbox Live Arcade and Marketplace is like a Turkish bazaar, full of awesome sights and enchantments. However, they’ve gone one better by making it effortlessly easy to communicate in and navigate those bustling streets.
The same extends to their full online component; a truly sublime experience. The PS3 resides in a smaller village on the outskirts of Microsoft’s castle, just striving to get by with sporadic dispatches from the homeland and the occasional spark of fire, and the Nintendo Wii stumbles about in the Dark Ages. Where they sit, Y2K still appears a few decades away.
So, I applaud Microsoft and the XBL experience. It’s truly a pleasure that I have no qualms forking over $50 a year to experience. The ease of use alone is worth the price.
That being said, I have major misgivings about recent movements Microsoft has made to squeeze some more hard-earned cash from our coffers.
For starters, Games on Demand. When this service first launched – timed with the release of larger hard drives – it featured a number of original Xbox titles that new adopters to the MS way of life might have missed a generation ago. As the Xbox 360 is a bit dodgy in the backwards-compatibility front, this service made sense. Sure, you can troop down to your local Gamestop and search through their piles of old games, but finding a mint copy can prove difficult, and some of these games have faded into obscurity. While it would be cool to see forgotten classics such as Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath or Beyond Good and Evil in the catalog, there are enough golden oldies available to justify a purchase. At $15, they’re priced just right, although the inclusion of achievements to the code (even a healthy 200-point, one-shot deal for finishing the game) would make them even better.
My major issue is with the Xbox 360 games that are available. Again, I have no problem with their availability, despite their abundance in game stores. It’s the pricing scheme. They’re just too expensive for a service that has effectively cut retail out of the equation. Especially when you consider the fact that you can’t make a few bones back on the purchase by trading it in should you dislike the game or tire of it.
To that end, these games should be sold at a discounted rate. I’d say $5 off standard retail. So, if Lost Planet is currently going for $20, offer it for $15. That savings might prove incentive enough to skip the trip to the store. And for this service to really start making sense, how about making new games available on the day and date of the retail release? I know that would cut into the pre-orders at Gamestop, but there are always going to be those who want to own a physical copy of a game until that is no longer an option. But I think there is a market for scoring something like Mass Effect 2 on opening day. And maybe as an incentive, you could pair it with some DLC or the original Mass Effect at a slightly discounted rate in a bundle pack.
I assume these games are making money, so I think it’s incumbent upon gamers to vote with their dollars. Until the service starts to make sense because of the savings passed on to the consumer, just skip On Demand and take a trip to the store; help support your local economy.
My biggest complaint is reserved for the recently announced Game Room. I’ll be honest; I just don’t get the allure. Not one iota. And this is coming from a 37-year old bastard who grew up hanging in game rooms. Granted, I was just looking to score chicks and could’ve cared less about my Rampage tally. I’m sure the chicks hanging in the Game Room are all gonna be living in Mom’s basement and will be named Steve.
Now, the idea behind Game Room – a service that will simply occupy real estate on the current Xbox Live interface – is that gamers can deck out a customized room filled with their classic gaming favorites. From a list of arcade and console titles (30 at launch, with hundreds more promised), players can pay $5 to score a game that can play on both the Xbox 360 and the PC, $3 for one location or $.50 for one play of any game. If you’ve already purchased something (say, Pac-Man), you are required to repurchase it for play in the Game Room, as these offerings are pure emulations, with no techno-wizardry performed to bring them up to today’s standards, aside from HD support.
For lack of a better phrase – what’s the friggin’ point?
I know this is partly born from the meteoric rise of social networking and the nostalgic itch that sometimes afflicts gamers, but the majority of current Xbox players are the proverbial “hardcore” players. It’s gonna be tough to pry them away from Modern Warfare 2 for a blistering bout of Millipede. And while I can see some people firing up Space Invaders on a lark to best their high score, I just don’t see the allure of purchasing virtual replicas of archaic games simply so they can be played while surrounded by friendly avatars.
After all, Game Room’s pre-release notes state that there is no online play supported. Players can watch you play and attempt to beat your high scores, which will then be posted above your machine. But the same can already be done on the XBLA leaderboards, which every single XBLA title already supports. So that doesn’t seem like a huge selling point.
Then there’s the social aspect. The avatars can walk around in the same space while you communicate via headset. Well, XBL already offers the party chat system, meaning I can talk to my buddies no matter where I am, be it in the midst of a heated Firefight battle, while trying to best my Cloning Clyde score, or while catching up on 30 Rock through the Netflix streaming service. I can be a chatty Cathy anywhere I damn well please; I don’t need to “get a room” just to dish.
The biggest affront is the pricing scheme. For starters, with the $50 we already pay, Game Room might have been a nice freebie for the service, especially now that ads are prevalent and have created a very lucrative revenue stream for Microsoft. But, if they absolutely must charge, then maybe a one-time flat fee would have covered this. Say, $50 (the discounted retail rate) for unlimited use of any and all classic games. But $3 to $5 a pop for these musty relics of the past seems ludicrous. Not when you can arguably chase down entire collections of classic games for budget rates (i.e. releases for Intellivision, Sega Genesis, etc.).
I just don’t see where the market is for this. It really feels like a double dip. We’re getting the chance to fork over cash for games and services that are already available and utilized by Xbox gamers. The sole difference is that now the games are in one convenient spot. Have you spent any time in Sony’s Home? It’s the last place I want to be.
Have we really become so lazy that, not only do we not want to get off the couch to swap the Mass Effect 2 disk, but also we’ll be damned if we’re going to exit a game and press Select to get into a new one.
I fear that the lessons learned from Wall-E could be right, only it’s not Buy n’ Large that’s gonna do us in. It’s Microsoft.