Has Microsoft Lost Touch With The Hardcore?

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In 2011, Microsoft’s exclusives for hardcore gamers have hit an all time low. Just two significant titles stand out, Forza Motorsport 4, and Gears of War 3. Compare that to the PlayStation 3’s line-up, with Motorstorm 3, LittleBigPlanet 2, Killzone 3, MLB 11: The Show, Yakuza 4, SOCOM 4, Infamous 2 (all already out), Resistance 3 and Uncharted 3, and it appears Microsoft are falling behind. A few years ago, it would have certainly been the other way round.

When the Xbox 360 was released, Microsoft’s first party studios included Bungie, Ensemble Studios, FASA Studios, Lionhead Studio, Turn 10 and Rare. Alongside those, there were third party/console exclusive relationships with Epic Games, Bizarre Creations, Remedy Entertainment, BioWare, and Valve. All highly talented development studios, I’m sure you’ll agree.

As an Xbox 360 owner, I was attracted to their console by high quality, hardcore exclusive games, and for a while Microsoft delivered. Rare and Bizarre Creations, with Kameo, Perfect Dark Zero, and Project Gotham Racing 3, produced three important launch titles. A year later, Gears of War hailed a true start of the ‘next-gen’ with stellar graphics and innovative gameplay. Following that, a year later, Bungie released the third installment of the Halo franchise. Turn 10 managed to release both Forza Motorsport 2 and 3 to entice racing fans, whilst Polyphony Digital delayed and delayed the PS3’s alternative, Gran Turismo 5. Lionhead developed two more games in the Fable franchise, and BioWare produced Mass Effect on both the 360 and PC. These games were the reasons to buy the Xbox 360, and to them you can add many more, including Halo ODST, Halo Reach, Halo Wars, Gears of War 2, Alan Wake, Crackdown 1 & 2, Condemned, Prey, Left 4 Dead 1 & 2, Banjo Kazooie Nuts & Bolts, Viva Piñata, Dead Rising, Saints Row, Ninja Gaiden 2, and Shadowrun (some are also on PC).

These days that range and depth is long gone. Some studios have left, and others have been closed. The third party relationships have all but faded too. The first party studios which remain have been pushed to develop more and more casual games. Some new studios have sprung up, but they are unproven, and so far there is little indication that they will replace the gaps in the core line-up. So what happened?

Bungie’s Story

Bungie’s Halo games have always been the jewels in Microsoft’s crown. Halo’s launch on the Xbox was one of its saving graces, and ‘Combat Evolved’ is still thought of as a truly groundbreaking console shooter. You would imagine that Microsoft would have done everything and anything to keep Bungie in their stable, but you’d be wrong. Shortly after Halo 3 released, Bungie separated from Microsoft and became an independent studio. They continued to make games exclusively for Microsoft, releasing a spin-off, Halo 3: ODST, and a prequel, Halo: Reach, before leaving the Halo franchise entirely. Before Reach’s release, it was announced that Bungie would be moving under Activision’s roof.

It’s difficult to know why Bungie moved away from the publisher under which it became one of the world’s best known and popular developers. To date the Halo franchise represents over 40 million sales for Microsoft, and while one could argue that none of the sequels made the same impact as the first did, nor quite recaptured the quality of the campaign (even that Reach was a game which felt a bit out of new ideas), what we do know is that in losing Bungie, Microsoft lost one of their greatest assets.

The Halo franchise has now been turned over to the new ‘343 Industries’. It will be interesting to see whether they can keep this great franchise running with a second trilogy of Halo, picking up where Halo 3 left off. It’s increasingly common these days to see publishers not taking risk and playing it safe, preferring to produce endless sequels than anything new. I wonder how many people really want to see the sixth, seventh, and eighth Halo FPS titles, not to mention a remake of the first. These games look likely to become the main attraction for the ‘core’ in the next few years in Microsoft’s lineup, but is another Halo game what people really want? It certainly wasn’t what I was expecting to be playing six years after I ‘jumped in’.

The Age of Ensemble Studios

While Bungie is no longer part of Microsoft, Ensemble Studios no longer exist. Ensemble Studios were the developers of some of the most popular strategy games of all time with the Age of Empires series. While not reaching Starcraft’s level of popularity, these games sold impressively (prior to Age of Empires III, the series had sold over 15 million copies) and reached great critical acclaim.

Whilst it was clear that Ensemble had plans for other Age of Empires games, the last game they ever produced was a Halo game, Halo Wars, an RTS game for the 360. Given what must have been a difficult game to make (console RTSs are notoriously hard to get right) Ensemble did a pretty good job. Halo Wars is by far the best selling console RTS and, whilst it did cut a lot of the depth of strategy that the Age of Empires games had, it was still a perfectly playable and enjoyable game. Unfortunately, before Halo Wars was even released, it was announced that Ensemble were going to be closed. Some of the leaked information which has come out since then reveals that Ensemble had a multitude of other games in the works, including a Halo MMO, an RTS, an RPG and a platformer. This was a studio bursting at the seams with new ideas for core gaming experiences.

Out of Ensemble’s ashes formed a number of new studios, most of which haven’t really shown their hands yet. The one which has, Robot Entertainment, was then requisitioned by Microsoft to build freemium Age of Empires Online, as well as to develop an XBLA game, Orcs Must Die! Playing the beta of former revealed a game which had lost much of the quality of the original game. The game attempts to cross MMO into RTS territories, but the result feels like Farmville with a skeletal Age of Empires tacked on.

Long story short, Microsoft has lost an enormously talented studio from their first party, only to go back to them to help them produce more games. Hopefully, as a third party studio, Robot Entertainment will be used to produce the high quality games that studio is capable of, but in recent years, simply has not produced.

That Rare Quality

Whilst Bungie and Ensemble Studios have some great games to their names, Rare trumps them easily. Having produced well over 100 games since the early 1980’s, Rare are one of the true veterans of gaming. While there are a lot of games many will have never heard of, Donkey Kong County, Banjo Kazooie, Goldeneye, Battletoads, and Perfect Dark are just a few of the extremely famous titles they developed.

When Microsoft bought Rare, offering them the potential of the original Xbox and 360, you’d expect some stellar titles. Kameo and Perfect Dark Zero were two of the stronger titles in the 360’s launch lineup, and since then they’ve released a couple of Viva Piñata games, the third Banjo Kazooie, ‘Nuts & Bolts’, as well as some remakes of their older games. Nuts & Bolts, while solid, took the brilliant platforming franchise in a different direction, primarily becoming a game about building vehicles, with a little platforming on the side. Whilst it lost none of the humour of the earlier titles, it didn’t live up to them either – Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie have metacritic ratings in the 90’s, Nuts & Bolts’ is 77.

More recently Rare has been transformed quite rapidly into one of the many studios building titles to support the Kinect peripheral, and whilst there is nothing especially wrong with Kinect Sports (little more than a copy of Wii Sports), it’s a pretty sad state of affairs for the studio which created Goldeneye (arguably the ancestor of all FPS games) to now be creating shovelware for the Kinect.

The rise of Kinect

In fact, the move towards Kinect is probably the thing which is affecting Microsoft’s exclusives the most. The vast majority of the exclusives made for the 360 now involve some amount of Kinect features, some being tagged with the slightly spurious ‘Better with Kinect’, and others with ‘Only for Kinect’. Whilst the motion sensing device has sold extremely well, it has fallen into a pitfall similar to the Wii. It has started to foster a lot of shovelware – low budget, low quality games lacking innovation – like Joy Ride.

Joy Ride was a game initially going to be a free XBLA title, but was very quickly turned full priced Kinect launch title. At best, Joy Ride is a very casual-friendly racing game with no depth. At worst, it’s barely a game at all. The below video shows what happens when you just let Joy Ride play for you!

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KWbLOFGSEDo[/youtube]

Don’t get me wrong, Kinect is by no means useless, and for some games motion controls can work very well. Whilst I have absolutely no interest in Forza 4’s Kinect steering system, I am very excited by the possibility of headtracking (something which has been available for PC racing simulators for a while). The problem is that the hardcore gaming potential of Kinect is relatively limited. It’s no different to the other motion sensing controllers available. For most traditional gaming purposes they are inferior to the control pad or the keyboard and mouse. Headtracking, dance games, fitness games or golf games are the exception to the rule, and when more traditional concepts are applied to Kinect, it can be a disaster, as Fable: The Journey shows.

The Fable series of RPGs, by Lionhead Studios offered a new realm of choice to the genre, and the trilogy has been an important part of Microsoft’s line-up. Fable: The Journey is a Kinect-only game, and its showing at E3 was at once bemusing and depressing. Fable, a series all about choice, now seemed as on rails as Time Crisis. The biggest shock of all came when it was recently announced that Fable: The Journey, would feature just magic and no weapons at all! Every Fable game has heavily featured bows, guns, and swords. Molyneux has described how these type of weapons don’t work with Kinect because there is no tactile feedback. We will have to hope that Molyneux is wrong about that because Crytek’s Ryse, likely to become the core title for Kinect next year, is a sword fighting game.

Microsoft has a number of exclusive Kinect titles set to be released in the near future, the highlights being Dance Central 2 and Kinect Sports: Season Two, which will likely be solid titles, but absolutely no comfort for core gamers searching for depth in the Kinect line-up.

The pioneering efforts with Kinect may well pay off large dividends when motion sensing technology matures to the point where it’s no longer used for a game’s gimmick and actually used to improve the experience above and beyond what was previously possible. Right now, it feels like the focus on Kinect has taken away hugely from non-Kinect experiences, without making up for it with solid core ones.

In conclusion…

There are many great titles coming out this year, but few are exclusive to the Xbox 360 and fewer still are coming from Microsoft’s studios. Microsoft haven’t so far delivered on the promise of hardcore Kinect titles, and whilst there some scant reasons for hardcore gamers to pick up a Kinect, they are few and far between to justify an expensive purchase. Racing fans questioning the value of Forza 4’s head tracking would surely be better off investing in a racing wheel. Hardcore gamers desperate for new experiences would probably be better off putting the money towards a PlayStation 3, or several multi-platform titles due to be released this Autumn/Winter. Right now, Kinect is just not an enticing enough deal.

Whilst there is nothing wrong with Microsoft trying to capture the casual audience, but in doing this they have turned their back on their early adopters. What the hardcore want, what they have always wanted is high quality titles. Games with hours of content and clever gameplay mechanics that offer lots of opportunity. However, the amount of that is lower now than ever, and the hardcore are feeling more and more neglected because of it.

The next generation looms over us, mysterious but exciting, and it is then that Microsoft may reap what they have sown. The early moments in a generation are difficult, and traditionally this is when the hardcore are needed as early adopters. Hardcore gamers spend a lot more time, and money on games than their casual counterparts, and they invariably are the ones who pick up the console in the first years. To attract that type of gamer again in number, Microsoft will need to ramp up the quality and depth of their core line-up once again. History shows that they can, but time is running out for them to do it.

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