Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Editorial: XBox One vs. Atari 5200

Edit 23 June 2013:  As of the 19th, Microsoft has officially announced that their plans for the XBox One to limit the running of used games, as well as require an online connection once every 24 hours, will not be implemented in the final product.  Thus, vast chunks of my article below have been rendered null and void.  Still, I'll keep it up for posterity's sake.  And now for the main event.  ...But first, a prologue!

Previously on the SDP, I reviewed 007 Legends, a video game which received a port for the Wii U, the first combatant in the eight-generation console war.  More recently, news has been rolling in about its future competitors -- and in the case of the XBox One, it hasn't been so good.  So much that I can't help but to connect it to the past...  But before we get to that, I have an announcement to make.  As an effort to prop up the sagging view count of my video reviews, I have decided to embed said videos into my articles on this very blog!  Look for the "video" tag on my new and existing posts, or better yet, click this link to search for them right away.  And seeing as how my most-viewed article yet, "The Top 10 Worst Pitbull Lyrics", got its own episode back in my first season, there should be great potential in this endeavour.  Good, now that that's covered, on with the show!

Left: The XBox One.  Right: The Atari 5200.
Colour-coded for your convenience!
Ladies and gentlemen, our beloved video game industry is at a crossroads that will make or break its future.  The transition to the eighth console generation is upon us, with Nintendo's Wii U already on shelves, to be followed later this year by the PlayStation 4 by Sony and the XBox One by Microsoft.  I'm going to jump the gun and say that I have no immediate plans to purchase any of these three devices.  Having only recently stepped up to a PS3, I'm just now acclimating to the full potential of the current console generation, and I have to say it's doing something right.  But how much of this will pass over to the next generation, and whether or not any bad aspects will eclipse the good, remains to be seen.  In fact, the future has me so scared, that I'm willing to draw conclusions to the landscape thirty years ago which led to the Video Game Crash of 1983 -- and willing to dissect my own points in the hopes of disproving them.  Specifically, here are some reasons why the XBox One will be the second coming of the infamous Atari 5200, followed by some reasons why it won't.
  • It's big.  Not sure if that'll make or break either, but let's get the small stuff out of the way first.
  • It makes you go through hoops to connect the durn thing.  The Atari 5200 "innovated" with its hookups; instead of having separate power and signal outputs on the console itself, it had one port which led to an automatic switch box, to and from which you would hook up the TV connection and power cord.  Whilst in some ways an improvement over the RF switches that came before it (you get a brownie if you remember what an RF switch is), it bulked up and complicated the hookup situation -- something that was already bulked up and complicated enough.
    I realise this isn't the same thing, but I am drawing a slight connection to the XBox One's online-only rumours that have flown off and on our collective radar.  As it stands, it can only run games -- even offline, single-player games -- within 24 hours of connecting to the internet.  It's no secret that the Internet has been, on the whole, a great boon to gamers, enabling soloists to experience multiplayer offerings and the convenience of digital distribution.  But let's face it: not everyone can afford a decent Internet connection, especially in this economy (if we're still allowed to make that excuse).  Or maybe people like to travel with their consoles and hook them up in places where they can't get an Internet connection.  So you can by now you can see the problem with a console that refuses to play even hard-copy games without being suitably plugged into the interwebs.  Yes, you giant software conglomerates, I do recognise your opinion that moves like this could hinder piracy, but is it really worth alienating the 99.9999999999 (I could go on) percent of consumers who abide by the law?  And besides, don't you have enough money already?
  • TV integration.  While I've just maligned the 5200's connector box, it was designed to automatically switch from displaying TV signals to the 5200's output when it was switched on.  The XBox One, in being touted as an all-in-one entertainment centre, rather infamously had touted its abilities to play subscription-based video servies like HBO, in addition to making Skype video calls at the same time.  That's nice and all, but why not use separate machines we may already own to do the same?
  • The controller.  The 5200's controller was panned for its numeric keypad and its analog joystick (admittedly, an innovation in 1982) which didn't re-center.  Certainly the traditional controller sold with the XBox One should be just fine.  I mean, they fixed the D-Pad!  No, I'm talking about the Kinect camera.  I've never tried its 360 counterpart, but if my past experiences with the PlayStation 2's EyeToy is anything to go by, I expect the Kinect to fail in all but the simplest of motion-tracking tasks.  And now I'm hearing the XBox One requires the Kinect to run, just to entice us with all those juicy voice commands?  No, I'm sure Microsoft won't use this as a clever ploy to spy on us, with malicious intent or otherwise, (Right?  ...Right???) but it still presents its own problems, like if the Kinect were to, say, break.  Oh, and the one thing the 5200 and XBox One have in common?  No backwards compatibility with their predecessor's controllers, despite the fact that those controllers could work in all manner of other machines.
  • Speaking of which, no backwards compatibility with older games is another shared drawback of the 5200 and XBox One.  Microsoft has stated that the XBox One's hardware and software architecture has been revamped in such a manner as to render 360 emulation impractical if not impossible.  And I can understand that... doesn't mean I like it.
  • Finally, the price.  The Atari 5200 sold for US$299 at its launch in November 1982.  At the time, the 5-year-old 2600 was selling for half as much.  The XBox One will start at US$499 upon its release in November 2013.  Meanwhile, the Wii U and PS4 cost / will cost upwards of $300 and $400 respectively.
And now for some differences that will allay fears of history repeating -- or create new fears where none existed previously.
  • Peoples' concept of video games has changed drastically over the past thirty years.  Our hobby has achieved more understanding amongst the non-gaming public, save the odd lunatic to "preach" against virtual violence, and in some ways, has become more mainstream.  Case in point: over its subsequent releases, the subsequent Call of Duty titles have garnered the greatest opening-weekend profit for any piece of entertainment across all media -- more than movies, more than music, more than books.
  • Used game lockouts.  I don't know if there was a burgeoning used-game market in the time of the Atari 5200, but one thing's for sure: we have one now.  And now the XBox One is going to limit their proliferations through means currently unclarified.  So far I understand that there will be a fee for installing a game on more than one console, and there are rules beyond that which have totally lost me.  Now, I haven't always seen eye-to-eye with the major game retail chains -- more like chain, singular, as I haven't seen a stand-alone EB Games store in years.  Personally, I blame their refusal to stock anything from the 20th century -- in fact, I know a GameStop location that, as I'm writing this, is clearing out their stock PlayStation 2 games.  Yeah, turns out that some people still like retro gaming.  Speaking of which, if you live in the Philadelphia area and are tired of suckling off of the EB-GameStop teat, might I suggest a visit to:

    Classic Game Junkie
    111 South Easton Road
    Glenside, PA 19038

    Yes, product placement.  Happens to the best of us.  Back on point, I've taken issue with that and the overly-promoted rip-off that is trading in games.  But without people selling their software to the stores, we wouldn't have their delightful array of used games.  So my point is, some people will giveth, and some will taketh away.
  • Last but most importantly, GAMES.  The 5200 only managed 69 games in its library.  Whilst the XBox One doesn't yet have its own library of games, technically speaking, we already have 44 titles announced at the time of writing -- and that's only retail titles!  One thing I've noticed over the current generation is the divergence of the market into two tiers: the full-budget, triple-A titles on the one hand, and the smaller-scale downloadable titles on the other.  I have to say, I admire this development at least in theory.  Independent developers now have the opportunity to get their video games onto consoles without being hindered by a huge operating cost or the counter-productive whims of marketing execs.  At the same time, the big retail titles are still able to push the technical and graphical boundaries further and further.  Besides, I'll admit to Call of Duty being a guilty pleasure of mine, if only for its online multiplayer model.
Come to think of it, this precarious dichotomy serves as a model for the video game industry in macrocosm.  In short, our hobby is becoming more corporatised.  In long, not only are triple-A titles converging into a giant grey blob of sameyness, but still manage to rake in millions upon millions of currency units (not to mention coverage on the lame-stream media outlets).  And just as the software is fast falling prey to what the know-nothing marketing execs think will sell, the hardware (more so the XBox One) is playing to the paranoid whims of the boys from accounting.  So all that being the case, it is my hope, if not prediction, that the XBox One will be a total washout.  But more importantly, it shows that if the video game market implodes, it won't implode in the same ways it did in the early 80s.  We'll still have the spirit of originality which only independent developers will provide.   Either that or we can have the Japanese bail us out again.

And when the buck are we going to get Mega Man Legends 3!?

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