Officials Speak Out Against Xbox One’s Always-On Kinect

The new Xbox One, launching later this year, will require the included Kinect sensor to be connected for the system to function. You can also turn your new system on with voice commands like “Xbox On”, which implies that the system will always be watching and listening for your commands.

Always listening. Always watching.

This doesn’t sit well with Tim Vines, director at Civil Liberties Australia, who spoke to GamesFIX about the possible breach of privacy the new device may cause:

“People should have the ability to turn off the camera or microphone, even if it limits the functionality of the machine,” he said. Vines believes privacy is “all about control”.

“Of course, if Microsoft doesn’t allow that (control), then people should vote with their wallets and skip the next Xbox.”

Vines says Microsoft should be upfront about what it does with data collected by Xbox One.

“Microsoft’s new Xbox meets the definition of a surveillance device under some Australian laws, so they need to be upfront and tell customers whether anyone else can intercept their information or remotely access their device,” Vines said.

The piece also includes a quote from Berlin’s federal data protection commissioner, who feels that the ability for Microsoft to spy on him constitutes a “twisted nightmare.”

Now, Orwellian conspiracy theories aside, the fact that the Kinect sensor has to be connected alongside an online connection does pose a potential risk. That being said, the amount of flack Microsoft would catch if a single intrepid soul discovered any nefarious doings completely outweighs the benefits of watching people play Dance Central naked. It’s all conjecture at this point, but as far as civil liberties go, I think we’re safe for now.

How Microsoft Plans to Control Xbox One Used Game Sales

While the new system was only announced days ago, Microsoft has apparently wasted no time in getting retailers on board with its new system to regulate and control used game sales.

The scenario Microsoft is briefing retailers on, from MCV:

A gamer walks into a retailer and hands over the game they wish to sell. This will only be possible at retailers who have agreed to Microsoft’s T&Cs and more importantly integrated Microsoft’s cloud-based Azure pre-owned system into its own.

The game is then registered as having been traded-in on Microsoft’s system. The consumer who handed it over will subsequently see the game wiped from their account – hence the until now ambiguous claim from Phil Harrison that the Xbox One would have to ‘check in’ to Microsoft’s servers every 24 hours.

The retailer can then sell the pre-owned game at whatever price they like, although as part of the system the publisher of the title in question will automatically receive a percentage cut of the sale. As will Microsoft. The retailer will pocket the rest.

This further lends itself to the theory that games will be individually numbered somehow, most likely through a digital key included in the game code. Otherwise, how would retailers like GameStop be able to de-license games that are missing a physical code?

The idea that Microsoft is securing a portion of the sale for both itself and the publisher is similarly interesting. What happens if a mom-and-pop store starts taking in used games without Microsoft’s blessing? Are we entering a world of underground, black market used game sales? Maybe nothing quite as extreme, but the regulation proposed here definitely points to retailers becoming the submissive member of the publisher/retailer relationship. In the past, console developers and game publishers relied on retailers to carry their games and make them available to the public. Now, they’re being handed heavy stipulations and caveats just for the privilege of carrying said product.

Egotistical, or insanely brilliant? We won’t know for sure until sales numbers start leaking out in the months following the Xbox One’s release.

Xbox One: all or nothing?

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CVG:

Microsoft unveiled the Xbox One at a press reveal event in Redmond yesterday to a mixed critical reaction, their tentative first step into the eighth console generation and a surprisingly loaded portent of how they plan to establish themselves in today’s economic current. The console entitles its user to a variety of simultaneous activities such that he can play a game while watching live television, throwing on a movie, or chatting with friends on Skype, all processes that can be controlled through voice command. Much of the press release focused on the One’s intended goal of supplanting all entertainment-related functions, with more specific games coverage likely being reserved for an event that generates more gamer hype (read: E3). Microsoft’s desired first impression based on the positioning of their product is clear: this is a machine designed for the majority of their consumer base, a set of casual gamers who will idle in front of any given AAA release until they get a video call or Monday Night Football rolls around.

The company has approached this one-black-box-fits-all attitude carelessly, implementing policies that will alienate devoted gamers and limit appeal to less informed audiences. The former didn’t necessarily stop the Wii, which was subject to dwindling third-party support and loss of interest from many longtime Nintendo fans but still claimed victory in every notable market. However, Microsoft is not enjoying the same reputation that Nintendo did when they stepped into the seventh generation – gamers are a wary lot now, and one might look to the currently dismal performance of the Wii U as a cautionary tale about willingly displacing one demographic to accommodate another. A glance at any given forum or comment thread suggests widespread dissatisfaction with certain elements of the One, such as Microsoft’s draconian DRM enforcement. Here is a system that claims to be a video gamer’s new best friend, and yet it won’t even let you loan your games to your real friends without forcing them to pay a console licensing fee? (This is, in diplomatic parlance, “a potential scenario.”) A required Internet connection once every 24 hours? No backwards compatibility? No importing your old downloaded games? The latter two are particularly galling because they constitute a transparent bid at stifling the obsolescence of the Xbox 360, but the devaluation of gaming technology is inevitable, especially when it’s so poorly constructed. If Microsoft expects gamers to bounce back and forth between their uber-machine and their old RROD factory just to have full access to all of their titles, then they’d better continue to furnish free maintenance for their old systems, which seems like an unwieldy expenditure for a consumer landscape that they project to be inundated with these wonderful Ones. “Fundamental architecture differences” my ass.

To address the system’s potential difficulty with reaching a casual audience, we can return to the Nintendo parallel. Much of the Wii’s success came from its celebration of family gaming and the shared living space, prioritizing software that was accessible and fun for players of all ages and skill levels. There were some fluffy features like the Weather Channel that granted it more flexibility than a dedicated gaming machine, but the intent behind the platform was always clear. Far less so with the Xbox One, which is in the precarious position of acting as a unifier of common entertainment services where there hasn’t yet been a proven need for one. Anyone with the means or desire to buy an One likely has all of the gadgetry they need to perform each of its vaunted tasks – a laptop, smart phone, and their previous-generation game console for television and movies if they don’t already own a cable box, or a Roku, or the million other similar peripherals. There is something wrongheaded AND disturbingly cynical about Microsoft’s assumption that, if given the chance, people will toss to the side all of these other electronic devices for the chance to sink into the couch and fulfill all of their digital needs through one system alone. At a less intimidating cost, the One may be able to acquit itself at least partially, but this seems unlikely given that a) the processing power is reportedly “eight times greater” than that of the Xbox 360, b) Microsoft claims that there will be over 300,000 servers to host the console’s need for, at least, that mandatory once-a-day connection, and c) a low price point for this system would probably force Microsoft to sell the console at a loss, which is a huge risk in this market. This is a multi-billion dollar industry operating in a culture of excess, where “doing less” has never been the answer the public is looking for even as it struggles to make ends meet.

With all this said, the question of the Xbox One’s library hangs in the balance, and the titles announced at this event are more or less what you’d expect from a Microsoft press conference. Lots of emphasis on their sports content, a Forza title, a new IP from Remedy and, naturally, another installment in the Call of Duty franchise. Quantum Break might be interesting, but everything else we’re seeing here looks like so much of the risk-averse chaff that gamers are growing increasingly dissatisfied with. If these games are your thing, more power to you, but  a gradually more conservative collection of titles, combined with roundly derided copy protection measures and a lot of redundant functionality, all align to make Microsoft’s next move feel a lot less important to watch than it was seven years ago. To me, this reveal reads as the scared baby steps of a company struggling to assert itself for a fractured set of demographics. (You can bet Sony’s keeping an eye on them, though, what with that 9% stock increase after the conference.)

Drew Byrd-Smith – drewbyrd.blogspot.com

Xbox One Clarifications Add More Confusion

Does the Xbox One always have to be online? According to Microsoft, no. However, it does require an Internet connection.

What does that mean? The Verge seeks to clarify:

The statement, while accurate, isn’t forthcoming with the information that gamers want to know. How long can I play offline, and is the connection required for single-player games? Kotaku attempted to clarify in a question to Microsoft’s Phil Harrison, asking if you’d need to connect as regularly as once per hour or over a period of weeks. “I believe it’s 24 hours,” said Harrison, before confirming you’d have to connect online once every day. However, Microsoft spokespeople later dismissed the exact timing. “There have been reports of a specific time period — those were discussions of potential scenarios, but we have not confirmed any details today, nor will we be,” Microsoft said in a statement to Polygon.

Basically, Microsoft hasn’t worked out the specifics of its new hardware, and as such, probably shouldn’t have said anything in order to avoid confusion. Also, what happens if we don’t connect every 24 hours? Does the system stop functioning? Do my saves roll back? Does the cotton candy machine stop working?

Further exacerbating the issue is the controversy surrounding game ownership and licenses.

The confusion doesn’t end there. A Wired report on the controversial online requirement introduced the notion of a fee for second-hand games, noting that a disc could be used with a second account, but that the owner of the new account would need to pay a fee and install the game from the disc. The result would mean the new account then owns the game, after the fee is paid, and can play without the disc. Microsoft was quick to note, once again, that this is a “potential scenario.” In a blog post from Larry Hryb, Xbox Live’s Major Nelson, the company attempts to clarify the confusion. “We have only confirmed that we designed Xbox One to enable our customers to trade in and resell games at retail,” says Hryb.

While PC gamers are used to buying a Steam license for a game and downloading it for use on their own account, asking console gamers to pony up the same fee when they have a physical copy of the game in front of them is a bit odd. And how will the system know that the game has been installed under another account? Unique serial numbers identifiers contained in the code of each copy of a game would be my guess, and the system will register that code under that account when connected online.

This is all guesswork at this point, as no real details are known. Not just by the press, but apparently by Microsoft as well. While I would like to say this reveal was handled poorly, I worked at retail during the N-Gage launch, so I can’t really complain.

The PS4 will be 33 percent faster than the Xbox One

AnandTech:

On the graphics side it’s once again obvious that Microsoft and Sony are shopping at the same store as the Xbox One’s SoC integrates an AMD GCN based GPU. Here’s where things start to get a bit controversial. Sony opted for an 18 Compute Unit GCN configuration, totaling 1152 shader processors/cores/ALUs. Microsoft went for a far smaller configuration: 768 (12 CUs).

Microsoft can’t make up the difference in clock speed alone (AMD’s GCN seems to top out around 1GHz on 28nm), and based on current leaks it looks like both MS and Sony are running their GPUs at the same 800MHz clock. The result is a 33% reduction in compute power, from 1.84 TFLOPs in the PS4 to 1.23 TFLOPs in the Xbox One. We’re still talking about over 5x the peak theoretical shader performance of the Xbox 360, likely even more given increases in efficiency thanks to AMD’s scalar GCN architecture (MS quotes up to 8x better GPU performance) – but there’s no escaping the fact that Microsoft has given the Xbox One less GPU hardware than Sony gave the PlayStation 4. Note that unlike the Xbox 360 vs. PS3 era, Sony’s hardware advantage here won’t need any clever developer work to extract – the architectures are near identical, Sony just has more resources available to use.

This isn’t an advantage that will show up four years down the road when developers have figured out how to program for the PS4. Their architectures are nearly identical – Sony just went with faster parts. 

Xbox One Coming This Year

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The wait is finally over. Microsoft has announced the successor to the Xbox 360, the Xbox One, this morning at a live briefing in Redmond, Washington. The new system will act as a home media solution, with both HDMI in and out ports, 8GB of RAM, WiFi capabilities, a Blu-Ray drive (which is apparently super quiet), Kinect functionality built in, and 64-bit architecture.

All that’s missing is a cotton candy machine. And backwards compatibility. Gamespot reports via The Verge that since the new system boasts x64 processor, and not the PowerPC processor that the 360 used, any Xbox Live Arcade games and disc-based titles will not function on the new system.

Personally, I’m not too heartbroken over the lack of backwards compatibility in the Xbox One. Now, the Xbox 360 will retain some of its value, and we won’t see piles of systems clogging the shelves of our local used game stores. Keeping the two platforms separate and focusing on the future also gives Microsoft the chance to completely rework the Live Marketplace and organize things more intelligently. The marketplace is currently a nightmare to navigate, and going into a new system launch with 1000’s of items already available would make browsing it a total debacle.

Besides, look at the issues we had with the 360 due to backwards compatibility with the original Xbox, friend list caps being chief among them. Starting fresh might be just what the doctor ordered. Never fear, though: all of your achievements will carry over with your Gamertag to the new Xbox Live. At least your legacy of online domination will remain intact.

It’s insensitive to folks who want to retain their libraries all in one place, but I think ushering in the new and focusing on the future is the best thing Microsoft can do right now to refocus the brand in the new direction they’ve envisioned. Whether that’s the correct direction for their business remains to be seen, but you have to go big or go home, and the robust specs of this hardware clearly lean towards big.

Metal Gear Rising Revengeance Coming to PC

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It looks like my personal favorite game of the year so far, Metal Gear Rising Revengeance, is coming to PC.

Via Joystiq:

Series creator Hideo Kojima announced Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is coming to the PC. Speaking on his HideRadio podcast, Kojima revealed the upcoming port. The news was then confirmed by Platinum Games creative producer Jean Pierre Kellams.

In itself, this isn’t terribly amazing news. Revengeance did alright in terms of sales, but it’s hard to argue whether or not a Steam version of the game will reach a new audience that the console versions failed to tap into. Financially, this may just be about Platinum Games getting the most out of its development dollars.

On the other hand, porting the game to PC means 1080p visuals, plus whatever goodies modders will come up with. Revengeance is open ended in the way you cut apart your opponents, but when you start including possibilities like custom skins and levels and upgraded enemies and whatever silliness people with too much time on their hands can cook up, fans will likely be able to squeeze quite a bit more enjoyment out of the experience.

Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- Announced

Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- Announcement Trailer

Arc System Works (Aksys) is in the business of making anime-style fighting games that favor high-speed, beautifully drawn sprites duking it out in a variety of crazy environments. Though known most recently for its BlazBlue series and Persona 4 Arena, Aksys’ first fighting game franchise was Guilty Gear, a similarly batshit insane fighter that favored both style and substance and pioneered many mechanics that are commonplace in today’s more complicated fighting games.

That’s why the announcement of Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- is so exciting. One look at the launch trailer reveals two things: first, that this is a “sprite based” (scare quotes intentional) fighting game that also uses the Unreal Engine, most notable for its ability to generate 3D visuals. Second, that the game has full rotation camera capabilities during key moments in a fight, as well as cinematic switches to aerial combat that have never been seen in a fighting game before.

What does this all mean? It points to Xrd being a 2D fighter, utilizing 3D graphics that mimic (or are textured with) sprite-based visuals to combine two different styles of animation and design into one unique aesthetic. That in itself is exciting because of what it means for fighting games as a whole. In this marketplace, even if your fighter has solid mechanics and an engrossing, well-executed combat system, it’s the flashy visuals and tricks that get new players interested in your game. You still need the former in the long run, but to make those hard impulse sales, you need the latter. Xrd seems poised to deliver on this sentiment in a unique way.

Oh, and the title? Not so weird, when you consider that the series contains a game called Guilty Gear X2 #Reloaded: The Midnight Carnival. Compared to that, Xrd -SIGN- is downright sensible.

 

RoboCop Statue Nears Completion

RoboCop

Remember that 10-foot tall statue of RoboCop that was supposed to be installed in Detroit? Well, it’s nearing completion, having just been cast in foam, and is ready for bronzing in the near future.

The Onion’s A.V. Club reports that the statue should be completed and ready to be placed sometime next summer. This is great news, not just for fans of RoboCop, but for all pop-culture aficionados seeking to prove just how deeply media can influence our daily lives. Now, we’ll have proof, in the form of a 10-foot shining bastion of justice and mechanized violence.

Coincidentally, the joke proposal to erect a 10-foot tall Wolverine statue in Edmonton, Alberta may happen as well. Welcome to the new Bronze Age. I hope every city gets its own metallic protector in due time. So long as Vancouver gets Batman, of course.

Nintendo Seizing Ad Revenue from YouTube Let’s Play Videos

Even in the year 2013, I’m still baffled by how content creators can make a living off of producing YouTube videos. And yet, several high-profile YouTubers are able to do just that by generating ad revenue of of their videos, even when those videos sometimes amount to simply playing someone else’s game and talking over it.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as art based on art is still art. However, Nintendo has decided to reap the fruits of its labors by collecting ad revenue off of Let’s Play videos that feature Nintendo content.

Via Destructoid:

Over on GameFront, a Nintendo rep explains that as part of its push into social media, the company registered copyrighted content in the YouTube database. “For most fan videos this will not result in any changes,” the rep explains, “however, for those videos featuring Nintendo-owned content, such as images or audio of a certain length, adverts will now appear at the beginning, next to or at the end of the clips.

“We continually want our fans to enjoy sharing Nintendo content on YouTube, and that is why, unlike other entertainment companies, we have chosen not to block people using our intellectual property.” See? You can still produce anything you like! Nintendo will just keep the money you ought to be earning for itself. That is unbelievably ballsy.

As the Destructoid piece points out, often, the real draw of these Let’s Play videos is the personality of the content creator, not necessarily the source content. This is especially true of channels like Game Grumps, who attract a large following due to their ability to consistently be hilarious and provide insight into the games they play.

For Nintendo to piggyback onto these personalities to earn revenue is a difficult situation to judge. Should people be able to earn money off of Nintendo products without cutting them in? Are Let’s Play videos so far removed from the original works that they shouldn’t be considered related at all? Is Nintendo really being benevolent by not simply blocking the content, and instead leaving it up to generate ad revenue?

It’s hard to say for sure, but at least we’ve entered an era where online videos are serious business, so much so that the money earned off of them is worth fighting for. This is a day I never thought would ever come.