X02 and the future of the Xbox
Seville and beyond for Microsoft's big hope.
X02 is the cunningly named sequel event to last year's Cannes X01 launch. It essentially gives Microsoft a competition free platform to make important announcements, introduce upcoming games and to spend prodigious amounts of money on industry journalists. This years event took place in Seville, and gave a fascinating glimpse into the direction Microsoft is heading. Boarding the plane at Gatwick, I soon found myself engaging in some interesting speculation about what the event would reveal, and precisely what the show needed to achieve from Microsoft's point of view. Things have not gone entirely to plan for the Xbox in Europe, and while there has been no Japan-style disaster, Microsoft has only just edged out Nintendo in a region that has become increasingly important to the industry as a whole. In Europe, the battle for second place is still wide open. The consensus opinion amongst the journalists on the flight was that Microsoft needed to impress at X02 - particularly in the short term. Sony have an almost certain record-selling title in GTA: Vice City, and analysts have always held the view that this Christmas period - the first in which all the consoles have been available in all regions - is far more important than the last one. Worryingly for Microsoft, a number of their key titles have slipped alarmingly, and despite having a reputation for patience on this front (confirmed by many of the developers I have spoken to) I think the situation is now becoming a concern. Games like Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance and Knights of the Old Republic would have been extremely welcome, but it seems we won't see either until next year. The event began, therefore, with an air of expectation amongst the assembled delegates. Knowing nothing of the venue, it was something of a shock when the numerous coaches pulled up outside an enormous theme park on the edge of the city. Festooned in green and black, and with a spectacular laser and water show, it was clear that Microsoft wanted something of a party atmosphere. This was primarily achieved through the free alcohol that was available, however, and it makes me tremendously proud to report that your British media representatives were foremost amongst the European nations in creating the necessary mood through alcohol consumption. It brought a tear to my eye, to see such dedication. Clearly wanting to take a grip on the situation before everyone became too drunk to care, Microsoft quickly convened the nights press conference. Acting as master of ceremonies was Sandy Duncan, VP of Xbox Europe. Also speaking from Microsoft were Jay Allard, general manager of Xbox, Ed Fries, VP of content for Xbox and Michael Cassius, the European Xbox director. Several developers and publishers also made speeches, including Jay Wilbur from Epic, Peter Molyneux from Lionhead, and Yves Guillemot from Ubisoft. The proceedings were laced with flashy music and special effects as you might expect, but most of the interest was of course generated by the announcements made. Some of these were pretty much expected, but overall there was a slight shift in tone from the company that may well prove to be significant. The initial announcements concerned various games planned for the platform, and included Project Gotham Racing 2, as well as other unheard of titles like Climax's Sudeki (which ultimately was considered one of the most promising games of the show - more later). The worst kept secret in gaming - MS's purchase of Rare - was also revealed, with a cool price tag of around $375 million. The Stamper brothers were present, but did not speak – probably too stunned by the fact that they're now stinking rich. One interesting point was the movie played after the announcement. There has been intense speculation over which franchises would be retained by Rare, and which would revert to Nintendo. This movie seemed to suggest Rare would retain Perfect Dark, the Conker franchise and Banjo-Kazooie, as it featured all these characters as well as the first game to be released for the Xbox - Kameo. Kameo is a fairy with the ability to morph into a variety of other creatures, and the game seemed to be some kind of action puzzler, with a similar play-style to other Rare games. Release date is as yet unknown, but we're not likely to see it for at least a year. The biggest announcements, however, and certainly those that MS was keen to promote the most, were those concerning the impending launch of Xbox Live. A lot of information was given here, and it will be covered in more detail in another article, but the pertinent points are the lauch date - March 14th in Europe - and the price, at around 59 Euros. This should translate to about £39. The promotion of Xbox Live was definitely the prevailing theme of the show, and indeed MS representatives constantly badgered people to go and try it out. My overall impression was that MS are very happy with the system they have designed, but are slightly worried about how to sell and promote it. To elaborate on this point, let me just explain that this type of show is not only attended by specialist gaming press. In fact we were probably in the minority, with many more journalists from more neutral publications like the BBC or mens magazines, as well as general press. This meant that not all the journalists present came from a gaming background, and MS representatives made specific requests several times during the event for people to try out the Xbox Live demonstrations. They were extremely keen to get the message across, and were perhaps worried that certain press elements in attendance were missing out on the experience. As said previously, there was a general consensus amongst the press that MS needed X02 to be a success to win over some critics. In this regard, the show was a success - but probably not an unqualified one. There are definite chinks in the armour, and perhaps the most significant is the real lack of stand out titles available in Europe in time for Christmas, and in particular titles with mainstream broad-based appeal. Of all the possible AAA titles demonstrated at the show, only one will definitely be released in time for the holiday season. Ubi Soft's Splinter Cell looks fantastic -essentially it's the Tom Clancy take on the stealth genre. It plays a little like Metal Gear Solid, but aims to be more realistic and less arcade-like. There is also less of an emphasis on interruptive story, and the gameplay is extremely compelling. It's scheduled for release in November, and there'll be more info on it and other titles in the X02 games round up. In the long term, however, things look decidedly rosy for Xbox. There are an enormous number of titles in development for the console as we speak - three hundred at the last count - and an amazing number of those look like they have real potential. Several games stood out as potential classics. I'll save the details for the games round up, but these included Sudeki, Kameo, Steel Battalion, MGS 2: Substance, Brute Force and Molyneux and co.'s offerings Fable (formerly Project Ego) and B.C. There are also titles designed with Xbox Live in mind, and having played both Unreal Champoinship and Mech Assault I can confirm that both are incredibly fun, with UC particularly being a grade A title. X02 was also significant for the tone of the rhetoric we heard from many of Microsoft's top people. Ed Fries admitted in one particular speech that "we learned the hard way about the mistakes we made", referring at the time to two things - the eventual realization that Xbox prices were far too high when it came to the market, and also to the decision to release the controller S in Europe on November 1st. This conciliatory tone was evident throughout the event - Xbox is clearly trying to avoid the kind of bad reputation that MS as a company has with certain audiences. There was also quite a bit of honesty from the Xbox team in that they often admitted that they did not have all the answers. During the developer unplugged session, Jay Allard was asked about potential difficulties of using a voice communicator with certain game genre's. He simply said that MS had no idea how people would act in-game with the communicator, and that some risk was involved in the effort to bring voice to gaming, but that he and his team were convinced that it was worth a try. The members of the Xbox staff present at the show were all as candid as Allard - it did give me the impression that the company is trying head off any accusations of being insensitive to consumers and the general public. As such, the event did go a long way towards convincing me of the viability of Xbox Live and of the continued success of Xbox in general. The particular thing to remember here is that Xbox will continue improve with age - it has only been in Europe for a matter of months. Encouragingly, there are a number of titles due that are almost guaranteed to be a success by any measure - games like Knights of the Old Republic, Halo 2, Fable and B.C., and Microsoft is clearly looking at long term prospects by buying companies of Rare's calibre. It seems that Microsoft's goal is now simply to grow its user base and make a success of Xbox Live. Playstation 2 has an unassailable lead in terms of numbers, so MS seems to be shedding it's myopia and looking to the future, and I'd contend that this is no bad thing. 2003 looks to be the definitive year in the history of the Xbox...