With the recent announcement of XBL’s Play to Earn program, Marc Lynch wonders if Microsoft is reaching out just a little too late
The industry is a-changing. There’s no doubt about that. Nintendo is trying to recapture the ‘hardcore gamer’ crowd with the Wii U – albeit with mixed results. Sony is promising a surprisingly strong foundation of online connectivity and a platform that is easy to develop for with the PS4. And Microsoft? Well… we’re still not really sure, but it’s not actually looking good.
The recent unveiling of the Xbox Live Play to Earn program was a nice pat on the head for loyal Xbox supporters, but it also indicates a few things that Microsoft is not willing to address. And it may also hint that there is a bit of worry over Sony’s strong PS4 showing in February.
The rewards program centers on arcade titles such as Battleblock Theater, Minecraft, and Bastion. Buy $40 worth of MS points in arcade games? Here’s another 800 points! Play those games for 20 hours? Have an avatar item! Purchase four games of at least 400 MS points each? Go online with Xbox Live Gold and play the games with your friends!
They’re promoting the XBLA games in hopes of keeping indie devs around, rather than see them all throw their confidence behind the PS4 infrastructure. In the past when it came down to which console would get a new indie title first (assuming asynchronous release dates), more often than not it would hit Xbox Live first and then hop over to the PSN a bit later down the road. To reverse that in the next generation, with Microsoft’s latest financial report on the south side of profit, it could be a detriment to its new console going forward.
Beyond that, it’s all a pretty mask if Microsoft doesn’t create a more developer-friendly environment for digital updates and patches – something Sony is already implementing in its PS4. Former Epic designer director Cliff Bleszinski touched on this when speaking with GamesIndustry International, too. He said, “All that red tape needs to be stripped away in order to create an ecosystem to allow for a product like Minecraft to actually happen on a console.”
Sony has also been ramping up its PlayStation Plus service, offering free downloads of games such as Vanquish and Spec Ops: The Line. For roughly the same price that Microsoft charges its subscribers to play online. The Play to Earn rewards program is a step forward in giving back, but it was a reactive step. Sony may be getting in Microsoft’s head.
And Valve isn’t, apparently. Which could be another costly mistake. Valve has been stepping up its campaign to get into gamer’s living rooms with investments in the Xi3 Piston and Big Picture Mode. But Microsoft president of interactive entertainment business Don Mattrick didn’t sound concerned at Microsoft’s TechForum a month ago. He said, “The scale of products and things that are being brought to market are probably a little bit richer when I look at Sony, Nintendo, Apple, and Google.”
Tie this all to the fact that Microsoft seems to be pushing the Xbox experience towards an all-around entertainment hub, and it really looks like Microsoft is moving away from the audience they’ve built and nurtured over the past 10 years. With things such as Kinect 2.0 and the new Dashboard layout, Microsoft’s focus may be splitting just a little too much from the get-go. Or perhaps Microsoft wants to cultivate a more casual audience to drive console sales. After all, it worked for Nintendo with the Wii, though you likely won’t hear that from a lot of gamers out there.
Microsoft is well aware of the difficulty involved with launching a new product. Microsoft boss Phil Harrison said as much at CES 2013, “You need to have deep pockets. Hardware can be successful but it’s rare to get new hardware to scale. I’m talking tens or hundreds of millions. It’s about having a supply chain and a distribution model, it takes thousands of people to make a reality.” Luckily, Microsoft has those deep pockets and they may need to dig in a little if they don’t pick up the slack.
A new console can be a fresh start for a company. Nintendo and Sony are already heading in that direction. Microsoft seems to be as well, but maybe it’s not a direction that will have as much room for its current audience.
Follow Marc on Twitter: @MarcOnP2R