August 24, 2005

Bundles of Whining

by psu

The Xbox 360 pricing and various bundles have been in the news a lot over the last week. The general mood among the fanboys appears to be a mixture of anger and betrayal. As usual, my feeling is that most of the traffic on this subject shows a startling lack of intelligence.

Whining about the 360 system pricing seems to take one of three attack vectors.

1. Microsoft promised a hard disk based console for $300. Microsoft are dirty liars!

2. Having more than one "SKU" (it's amazing how many people suddenly know what this means) will "confuse the market". Microsoft are stupid!

3. The split tier will keep the hard disk from being well used in games. Microsoft are crippling my pony!

I think it's easy to refute each of these attacks. The first is, pure and simple, the result of wishful thinking colliding with harsh reality. Nothing in the hype running up to the pricing announcements indicated that there was any guarantee at all that Microsoft would be selling a $300 console with a disk in it. In fact, for reasons I will get to later, it was pretty clear that Microsoft was backing away from putting the disk into the console at all.

The second argument is just FUD. The market will not be "confused" by having two choices. The market will choose the one it wants and move on. I think most people are pretty sure already which one of these bundles makes sense for them. In addition, if they have a pulse, it's pretty clear that the $400 one is their choice. But, others have said this better than me.

The third whine, about the hard disk being underutilized, is the one that comes closest to having some justification in reality. In fact, it would be a pretty compelling argument except for one little problem. Think back into the annals of Xbox gaming history and count up the number of games that actually use the disk. Then subtract the ones that only use the disk to store game saves. Now subtract the ones that only provide custom soundtracks. Finally, subtract the ones that only use it to store content downloads that could just as well be delivered in some other way.

If my memory is correct, then there are two games left in the pile, and they are both called Halo. Pete says that Blinx also used the disk, and there may be a few others that no one remembers at all. What this says to me is that even if the disk is in every console shipped, game developers won't use it anyway. Therefore, I think the disk is in the 360 purely for the functionality unrelated or tangentially related to games (music, downloads, etc) and to provide backward compatibility. People who opine for some candy-colored land of instant level loads or gigantic transparently cached game-worlds should keep in mind that most games on the PC don't even do that stuff. In fact, the one game I've played that comes close to the transparent barely noticeable level loads that Halo and Halo 2 have was God of War on the PS2, which, as well all know, has no disk. What all this means to me is that as far as games are concerned the disk is a mostly non-issue.

I guess it's not surprising that people should be looking for something to complain about. This, after all, is what the fanboy gamer does. The arguments don't need to be rational or even peripherally based in fact. Almost any semi-coherent barely formed chest thumping will do if what you want to do is post on some 733t gaming forum. This leads to a general level of discourse which is probably below the median intelligence level of the average consumer. However, as misguided as all of this chest-beating is, it is nothing compared to how stupid Gamestop and EB think we are. An $800 launch day pre-order bundle? Who exactly do they think is that desperate? Just walk into Target. The hardware will be there.

Notes

Don't let something like this happen to you. Just go to Target.

Posted by psu at August 24, 2005 09:35 PM | Bookmark This
Comments

So, what is the other way to store downloadable content without having a storage medium? Snarkiness aside, your point about the hard drive seems to boil down to: Disregarding the ways in which the hard drive is useful, how is it useful?

But, doesn't it just seem out of left field on Microsoft's part? At their various "reveals" I heard as much about Live Marketplace, and micropayments, and user created contents, and being a media hub as I did about the games. Now, they're releasing a "core" system that doesn't seem like it's built to do any of that.

Posted by hanke at August 25, 2005 12:17 PM

My hard drive point is simply that its precense or absense doesn't really have an effect on how games or gameplay is designed. After all, the hard disk is in EVERY current xbox, and is barely used.

Downloadable content is easily packaged as an expansion pack on DVD that requires the original game to play.

Posted by psu at August 25, 2005 12:34 PM

I think the larger point about the hard drive is Microsoft only included it because developers swore up, down, left, and right, that if ONLY the Xbox had a HARD DRIVE, they would be able to make the most innovative, daring games that couldn't be done on any console without a hard drive. Honest, Microsoft. We swear!

So Microsoft put a hard drive in the console, driving up the per-unit cost and lowering the MTBF. And then the developers proceeded to make the exact same junk, didn't use the hard drive in any way that they weren't already using memory cards, and basically didn't live up to their word.

If MS knew in advance that developers were going to effectively ignore the hard drive, they would never have put it in the unit. At this point, they're just putting it in the "deluxe" model because the market expects them to. At least, that's my take on it.

I also think psu is wrong: I predict that the entry-level Xbox will sell far better than the dee-luxe one. But then, I've been wrong before.

Posted by peterb at August 25, 2005 02:10 PM

I totally agree that the actual gameplay of Xbox titles hasn't really been affected by having a hard drive. Maybe I have lower expectations, but I never thought it would. PC games have always had access to hard drive space and we don't have different genres because of it.

And I really don't want to seem like a dick, but I just don't understand how it's easy to add extra content after the fact without a fixed disc. With, say the Halo 2 Map Pack, you'd put in the expansion, load everything into RAM, swap back to the game code disc and hope you had the memory management tight enough to fit ten unused maps while you were playing an eleventh? But, Microsoft was presenting more complicated things than that. Velocity Girl is going to be designing virtual T-shirts and distributing them worldwide (you remember that somewhat silly part of the E3 presentation, don't you).

Here's a quote from the Microsoft press release just after the 360 unveiling - "and access Xbox Live Marketplace to download demos and trailers along with new game levels, maps, weapons, vehicles, skins, classic arcade and card and board games, community-created content, and more to the detachable Xbox 360 hard drive all right out of the box at no extra cost." Which is true for this box over here, not that less expensive box over there, I guess.

As much as the consumer part of my brain sometimes wants to tell companies where they can stick their micropayments, there probably is a new revenue stream there. That Halo 2 Map Pack has sold 200K copies at retail. That's 4 million bucks. To throw some completely made-up numbers out, I'd say that much again in paid downloads of those maps is possible. That's a lot of dough from people that already bought the game.

As for sales, I say at launch, the deluxe bundle wins hands down. Over the console lifetime, the core wins 4-to-1. I'm sure Microsoft's projections show the unit sales from being able to market a $299 price outweigh the market from extra content. But, it still feels like a constriction of the possibility space, of the potential. I'm used to being disappointed like that after these things come out, not before.

Posted by hanke at August 26, 2005 01:14 AM

OK - I suggest you re-check the fact on #3. Lots of games used the HD *behind the scenes*.

I know for a fact of at least one game that moved audio content to HD and then streamed from there - because otherwise the audio content wasn't doable. (And yes, it was important from a game point of view, and it was a very well selling game)

All that streaming is not going to happen. Result - longer load times. And unless it's *evident* that 95% of the gamers have a HD, nobody will bother building the streaming in.

Posted by Robert 'Groby' Blum at August 26, 2005 02:03 AM

You could load the maps to the memory card...

The expansion pack could have a copy of the game on it, maybe with all the maps available for loading...

The game could ask the user to put the expansion pack DVD into the drive when it needed to load a new map...

Admittedly, having the disk is more convenient than these scenarios, but the point is that the disk is not a *requirement*.

Lots of PS2 titles stream *all* game assets, not just audio off of the DVD while you play (God of War does this). Again, my point was not that no games used the hard disk in this way, just that games that use the disk like this seem to me to be very rare.

Posted by psu at August 26, 2005 07:01 AM

Are you sure none of the Microsoft people said the $300 version would come with a hard drive? Because I'm pretty sure at least one of them did. As for the general lack of hard drive use in the current generation, I tend to agree - but this is a console war we're talking about. Microsoft should be seeking advantages, and a hard drive has a lot of great potential uses. If the developers are looking at their budgets and the install base, and deciding not to use some interesting hard drive functionality (which, make no mistake, some most certainly WILL), then that's a lost opportunity for Microsoft to deliver a superior product.

Posted by Adam at August 26, 2005 07:41 PM

Regards the hard drive, and speaking as an Xbox and Xbox 360 developer: it was very handy on Xbox for streaming things quickly. Notably audio, as someone said above, but also levels.

Audio is compressed to about 8 times smaller than on Xbox using XMA, and we have 8 times as much memory to play with so we have room to load levels into memory in the background, instead of onto the hard disk. So, from a gameplay point of view, not being able to rely on a hard drive is a loss... but not a big one, in fact, it just means we can't be lazy.

The purpose of the hard drive is mainly to enable those who want a media centre, online, multi-download, music playing BEAST (ie. probably everybody reading this page) to have one. But if you just want to dabble in this strange thing called "gaming" you hard your nephew talking about, do you really need all that? I'd contend not. Sure - it's hard to understand why anyone would buy the "core" system at launch. Give it a year, with the core system half the price (without a hard drive it gets cheaper quicker) and it'd look more like a bargain.

Posted by Andy P at August 30, 2005 01:34 PM

The price isn't really a big issue to me...if I'm to believe all those reports, the median age of a gamer is now 30. By that age one should have a job and disposable income. A few hundred dollars for some home electronics shouldn't be that big a deal, ESPECIALLY if they're truly gung ho about going after the HD market.

However, I finally did realize a good gamer's justification of the two systems: cheaper LAN parties. I wouldn't do this, but I'm sure there are going to be people setting up Halo 3 networks int their house or dorm, and now they can have cheaper nodes.

Or, if I get another system with a DVD drive that dies immediately after the warranty expires, this time I can just get a replacement system without all the extra crap, and use my old hard drive with no fuming or fussing about lost KOTOR saves...

Posted by Adam Rixey at August 30, 2005 07:16 PM

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