Well Microsoft have finally announced that there is, in fact, a next Xbox. Anyone with even a vague interest in gaming knew that it had to be coming, but the nature of these things means that Microsoft can’t confirm anything until they’re ready to announce – not if they don’t want Xbox 360 sales to drop off a cliff, anyway.
The question, of course, is what can we expect on May 21st when the curtain is pulled away and the the last of the big three new consoles is announced. Obviously we don’t have any concrete data yet, but there are several persistent rumours around the console, as well as some things that can be easily inferred from other events.
The biggest, most persistent, and potentially most damaging rumour is the ‘Always Online’ proposition. We’ve seen this time and time again, perhaps most prominently during Adam Orth’s series of ill advised tweets. The problem is that it seems many gamers don’t want to “deal with it”, seeming, at best, hesitant to back a constantly connected console, particularly one that may well have a camera attached to it.
Beyond the basic privacy issues that a constantly connected console may well bring with it, debacles like the recent SimCity launch and last year’s Diablo III issues are fresh in consumer’s minds. The server based problems that these games had when they first arrived on store shelves were bad enough, no one wants to see similar problems denying you access to every game on Microsoft’s next platform, least of all Microsoft themselves.
However, if the console is actually ‘Always Online’ it may be indicative of another shift from Microsoft. It’s been known for a long time that Microsoft have treated the Xbox as their foothold in your front room, an area that’s typically been a weak point for the company. With the Xbox 360 they’ve been pushing media streaming services for several years now, partnering up with just about anyone who streams music or video over the internet.
Current rumours suggest that they’re pushing this approach even further, with rumblings that they’ll be partnering with cable companies in the US to have the next Xbox act as a cable box, or at least as part of the process of watching cable TV. The permanent internet connection would then provide access to things like TV listings and what channels your package has access to.
How this will play out outside the US is hard to say, although Microsoft already have a strong partnership with a number of TV providers globally, including Sky. Regardless, the US is an important enough market for Microsoft to provide additional features there, even if they don’t make the jump to other parts of the world.
If the next Xbox does become an add on of sorts for cable boxes then we can expect a fairly heavy look into media partnerships during the reveal, although even if that doesn’t come to pass we can still expect to see Microsoft spend some time on their media partners. However, even with Microsoft looking to make Xbox an all encompassing media brand, something backed by the rebranding of Zune to Xbox Music and Video, it does seem like we can expect them to spend a lot of time on the gaming aspects of the console.
Chief among these is probably the console itself, the physical hardware. While it’s certainly not clear exactly what hardware the machine will use, there are rumours linking it to an AMD x86 CPU, moving away from the PowerPC architecture that sits at the core of the Xbox 360. While that does suggest a convergence between the PS4 and Xbox platforms in terms of underlying architecture, it almost certainly won’t see the disappearance of platform fragmentation. The way that each platform handles various graphics and memory functions is still going to be different, and still potentially lead to similar headaches for developers; it’s not as if they’ll be sharing the same operating system.
Whatever is actually in the box, the question is whether or not they’ll take the time to reveal the physical set up itself? After the backlash that Sony received for not showing the PlayStation 4 at its reveal event Microsoft will certainly be considering the question very carefully, but I’ve got to imagine that they won’t do it. While it would be very tempting, especially after Larry ‘Major Nelson’ Hryb was sarcastically critical of Sony’s conference not showing the box, there’s a good chance that the machine’s physical look isn’t final. Components and airflow may still be getting minor tweaks, making it hard for them to pull the veil off that particular secret just yet.
However, it’s worth considering another quote from Larry ‘Major Nelson’ Hryb, who has confirmed at E3 they’ll be showcasing their “full lineup of blockbuster games”, while the May 21st event will focus on “our vision for Xbox”. While this certainly doesn’t mean that the physical console will make an appearance on May 21st, it does make the possibility seem more realistic.
It would, of course, be silly to suggest that there won’t be any games at all at the Xbox reveal event, but it does seem like they’re not going to be the whole focus. I expect a few announcements with short gameplay videos, while the majority of the event focuses on the hardware, services and partnerships.
The one element I’ve missed though is Kinect, and expect whatever the next iteration of Microsoft’s camera to get a very thorough workout on stage. While the original Kinect may have been the “fastest selling consumer electronics device” in history, there aren’t many who are willing to back it as a roaring success in terms of functionality. Whatever the next version of Kinect is, it can only improve on what’s already there really. Hopefully they’ll offload the processing into hardware on the camera, much like the intention of the original Kinect.
The bigger change comes with the rumours that the camera’s going to be more closely integrated with the console itself. Perhaps it will actually be built in, although a bundled peripheral makes a lot more sense in reality.
Also worthy of note are the rumours that you’ll need to have the Kinect connected (say that five times fast) for the system to run. These are along the same lines of the ‘Always Online’ rumours, and do seem… worrying. I really don’t like the idea of a camera knocking about my front room the whole time, particularly one that’s always connected to the internet; I can see it spending a lot of time with a tea towel over it.
As we approach May 21st we can probably expect more details to leak out, both intentionally and unintentionally. However, for my money the main things to expect from the announcement are a look at the hardware, a heavy focus on media partnerships, some time spent on games (with much more to come at E3 just three weeks later) and a good chunk of time spent looking at the next generation of Kinect. The media partnerships and Kinect seem like they may well be key for the next Xbox, so I’d really prepare for a lot of time spent on those.