Xbox revealed: Experts on Microsoft's next games console

By Leo Kelion
Technology reporter

image captionMicrosoft promised to unveil its vision "for the future of entertainment" at the event

Microsoft is the last of the big three console makers to reveal details of its next-generation games console, but the wait has arguably only added to anticipation for the Xbox expose.

The US firm has kept its cards close to its chest ahead of the big unveil, refusing to disclose the machine's name or address rampant rumours: Will it really need an always-on internet connection? Can it possibly block second-hand games? Will it be offered at a rock bottom price if users commit to bolt-on subscription services?

Of course, Microsoft is unlikely to give away all its hardware secrets. Sony notably refused to even show off the shape of the PlayStation 4 at its event in February. Both firms want to keep something back for the E3 games convention next month.

There's more at stake than just dominating the games market though. Whoever comes out on top can lay claim to the living room TV at a time when consumers are boosting their spend on services streamed to it.

image captionPlatform exclusives, such as the Halo series, have helped support Xbox sales in the past

Microsoft will want to beat the performance of its Xbox 360 which was first to market but lowest on the global sales leaderboard.

About 76 million Xbox 360s had been shipped by the end of March, according to research firm IDC. By contrast Nintendo's Wii had shipped 99.4 million units and the PS3 78 million.

However, the figures mask regional variations. Sony outsold Microsoft in Japan and continental Europe, but the Xbox proved more popular in the US and UK. It is also worth bearing in mind that demand for the Xbox 360 massively outstripped that for the original Xbox, so Microsoft can claim to have the most momentum.

Certainly, this time round Nintendo has got off to a shaky start. Its Wii U missed the firm's sales targets - something the Japanese firm blamed on software delays. A reminder that hardware specs alone are unlikely to win the console war.

"The games catalogue will be first and foremost the most important thing to get right this generation," said IDC's Lewis Ward.

Ahead of Microsoft's event, the BBC asked five industry experts to detail their hopes and fears for the third Xbox.

Peter Molyneux, 22cans

2013 is proving to be the year of the console hardware refresh. Although it's exciting, it's not nearly as exciting as when the Xbox 360 exploded onto the gaming scene just over seven years ago.

Back then, the 360 represented a huge leap forward in gaming, with a tangible increase in performance and fantastic multiplayer support. Gamers and game-makers were justifiably super-excited.

Now it is that time again, but the world has changed.

Tablet, mobile PC and smartphone makers are refreshing their hardware on what feels like almost a weekly basis. And on the horizon looms Valve with its PC-based Steam Box.

Thereby hangs the problem for Microsoft: how to justify its new console, how to get us all excited.

Its competition is no longer Sony and Nintendo, but rather Apple, Google and Samsung.

Rightfully, Microsoft can claim it won the last console generation. However, it has always targeted the living room as the big prize.

That's why it packed the 360 with an array of "living room" features to try to persuade us that the machine could be a mix of set-top box, internet music streamer and Facebook browser.

When I used to work at Microsoft the key phrase that I used to hear bandied around was the next Xbox should be "input one" on people's living room screen.

Nowadays I'm an independent designer and I just want the next Xbox to be a great gaming machine.

It should have great connectivity, so I can play spectacular games with my friends and be sold at a reasonable price, perhaps around $300 (£200).

That should be Microsoft's goal rather than persisting in trying to make it a box for everyone.

James McQuivey, Forrester Research

Get ready, Xbox fans, for the end of gaming.

Not that people are going to stop gaming, quite the opposite. More people will play more games for more minutes on more devices than ever before.

But the only way that will happen is if games follow their media brethren - music, news, and video - by becoming mere features of a bigger, more encompassing experience.

That means the "Nextbox" that Microsoft announces will make a very decided play for more attention from its users by ultimately promising them much more than gaming.

Microsoft already admits that for its Xbox Live Gold members the majority of the time spent on the console is not spent on gaming but on video.

Next, to really win in the living room, the firm must expand into every type of content possible, from any content partner available.

It may even be time to retire the "game console" moniker as whatever Microsoft announces next should downplay the game as well as the console, using the box as a way to engage viewers in any content experience, paired with any other device the user happens to have, from iOS phone to Android tablet.

The opportunity is there, as long as Microsoft is ready to confidently look beyond the hardcore gamers Sony seems stuck on, tossing them enough bones to keep them munching away happily at whatever comes next in the world of Halo, while boldly calling to residents of the living room who wouldn't ever think of themselves as owners of a "game" console.

Rob Crossley, Computer and Video Games magazine

Microsoft still believes in the potential of motion control - even if the concept has never really proved popular with the hardcore gamers most likely to be early adopters of its new console.

Its first attempt was Kinect - a relatively advanced 3D camera that could detect people standing in front of the TV and determine what they were doing. This led to popular games such as Dance Central, in which Kinect would judge the player's dancing ability - or lack thereof - by recording their moves.

The problem for most Kinect games was that the camera sometimes didn't pick up all the details, and was fairly unreliable, which limited the variety of games that could be created for it.

Industry whispers suggest that Kinect on the next generation Xbox is so sophisticated that it can even detect where the player is looking. Whether that's true or not, it's likely that the tech will have undergone a noticeable upgrade, which will allow developers to be more creative with the camera technology.

But there's something else up Microsoft's sleeve.

The company recently showcased a mystifying new device called Illumiroom, which combines a Kinect with a projector that sits on a coffee table and throws a huge image across the wall that the TV is standing against.

This means that the player will be able to watch high definition game-play on the television, as well as related footage in their peripheral vision.

So, on a game like Call of Duty, the colours surrounding the TV will turn a marshy green when the player is crawling through the grass. Or, if the player is driving a Lamborghini at 140mph through Tokyo at night, the blur lines could spread out from the TV and into the wall.

Illumiroom is still in its infancy, but if it makes it to market the next Xbox could bring about a revolution in the way that we watch games, and the way they watch us.

Barry Meade, Fireproof Studios

The founders of Fireproof first met at Criterion Games in 2004 where we spent five years working on the Burnout racing games for the PS3 and Xbox 360.

We left to start our own company just before the economic crash of 2008 and hoped to make our own PS3/360 game funded by our contract work. Realistically though it was way beyond our means.

Console games are superior experiences to mobile games but the huge costs involved make it a very tough place for teams our size to do business.

Fast forward to 2012 and we set our sights smaller. We made a 3D puzzle game for iOS & Android called The Room, which went on to become a number one bestseller in 65 countries, Apple's Game Of The Year 2012 and Bafta's pick as 2013's best British Game.

So we had to wonder - sitting in Guildford, a tiny team like us are gadflies to the UK console industry.

The total money we spent making The Room would barely cover a team's set-up costs to develop for Sony and Microsoft platforms.

The reality is that it is far, far easier to make games on mobile, even if it is arguably more competitive than the console space.

Frankly, many game developers are rightly wondering why on earth they would go back to Sony and Microsoft platforms to embrace once again a plodding pace of change, interminable bureaucracy, exorbitant fees and, let's be honest, frequent head-in-the-sand arrogance from the giants of gaming hardware.

Sony and Microsoft have to become a lot more developer-friendly - otherwise devs like us will never go back.

Mary Hamilton, Guardian Australia/Serious Business

The debut of the new Xbox console isn't just an opportunity for new games, better graphics and new engines. It's also an opportunity for new approaches to the culture of online gaming.

Microsoft recently revealed that 38% of Xbox users are women, and Entertainment Software Association figures indicate that women aged 18 and over are one of the fastest growing demographics for games.

But Xbox Online still has a horrendous reputation for abusive behaviour towards anyone female on voice chat, and Microsoft's own standards for online behaviour are rarely and inefficiently enforced.

The new Xbox is an opportunity to change that. A less tolerant approach towards reports of abuse, coupled with privacy and mute settings that would let people avoid much of the worst abuse if they wished, could help set a high standard of behaviour and help women feel more comfortable in the online community.

Microsoft should also continue to diversify its games if it wants to attract a committed female crowd.

Both men and women have broader tastes than shooters and sports simulations. Creative games as well as games with strong and diverse characters will help to keep a maturing gaming community with Microsoft.

Xbox Live Arcade's indie games already do a great deal to round out the big budget "AAA" fare available on Xbox - it will be crucial for Microsoft to keep working with that community of developers to bring diverse and unusual perspectives to their system.

Women don't need pink games in order to flock to the Xbox - that's clear from the existing demographics.

Instead, Microsoft should be encouraging diverse and interesting games, and creating an online environment that welcomes rather than pushes women away.

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