Friday, October 25, 2013

Me, Myself and Microsoft

With the release of Windows 8.1 and the rapidly approaching Xbox One launch, I have been thinking more and more about moving completely into the Microsoft environment for all of my computing and entertainment needs. The idea of having one ecosystem that I can go to for movies, music, games and productivity has been a dream that has been formulating in the past few years as I have moved into what many may call my “grown-up” years. Sure, I am still rampaging through the streets of satirically created video game worlds and watching movies where scientific fumblings make food fall from the sky but many aspects of my life fall into the “grown-up” category. As I’ve moved into this life, technology has moved with me and I’ve identified three things that I need it to be; frictionless, platform agnostic and unified. I’ve dipped my feet into pretty much every ecosystem out there, spending money in each but I am drawn to the potential I see in Microsoft. The problem is the potential isn’t being realized as I would hope. I’m ready to make a commitment and I hope that, by taking the correct steps, Microsoft is soon up for the task.

That being said, here is what I feel Microsoft needs to accomplish for me to jump in head first. If you’re only interested in the key points, here’s a summary:

1.       Make everything accessible everywhere

2.       Make everything talk to other devices

3.       Join RT with Windows Phone

4.       Build app ecosystem

5.       Embrace and expand the Surface brand

Music, Movies and Television

Anything purchased from a Microsoft store front must be accessible on any of their platforms and their competitors’ platforms. Microsoft is actually taking steps in this direction. Xbox Music initially launched on Windows Phone, Windows 8 and Xbox and has recently expanded to Android and iOS as well. Where they fall short is in the execution. The Android and iOS apps are a good start but aren’t feature complete. There are still features, namely offline listening, that have been left on the to do list. They have also been slowly moving their Xbox brand to other platforms by means of achievements linked to your gamertag.

Xbox video has no presence on Windows Phone platform, let alone other mobile OS’s. When it comes to services, being platform agnostic is essential to gaining and maintaining a customer base. If I subscribe to Xbox music, I want the complete experience on any device I pick up. The same applies to purchased movies and television shows.

Consumption on every screen

When Apple introduced Airplay and developers started building it into their apps, local media streaming became a key part of home entertainment. It has grown over the years to support screen mirroring and just about anything sporting an Apple logo. What is truly amazing is the lack of competition. There are other options but they feel fragmented and more of an one-off option rather than aiming for a standard. Microsoft is in an amazing position to make substantial strides in this area.

Just as nearly every screen you look at could be running an Apple OS, the same could be said of Microsoft. It has been confirmed that Miracast is going to be baked into the Xbox One and is already a part of Windows 8.1. The addition of Miracast to Windows Phone 8.1 (or whatever the next version may be) could make for a truly new way to use all of these devices together. Imagine plugging your Windows Phone in to charge, “casting” the screen to a snapped window on your Xbox One or Windows 8 device and being able to answer calls, respond to texts and everything else you can do on your phone. Samsung is already doing something similar to this between their Galaxy and ATIV laptop product lines. The real promise comes in when you fully explore the possibilities. Starting a movie on your Xbox and moving it to your phone, streaming audio from your Windows Phone to your Xbox One and most exciting to me, extremely low latency streaming from PC to TV for gaming. If Valve can master it, Microsoft can too. This all comes with one catch; it must be reliable and it must be simple and clear and most importantly, every Microsoft device must support it. No exceptions.


It’s difficult to talk about any new electronic without mentioning “the cloud”. Microsoft calls theirs Skydrive in the US and has been increasingly pushing the benefit of it. I agree with them. If you live in Microsoft-land, it’s extremely useful but there is so much more that could be done. The next step for Skydrive is to unify. Any data going to a Microsoft cloud should be going to same place. To my knowledge, this is currently the case with the exception of Xbox game saves. I may not be able to use them on a PC or my phone, but I’d like to know what’s there and have the ability to manage it from anywhere. This may seem like a trivial issue but consistency is key.

App ecosystem

Anyone who has used a Windows Phone will most likely tell you they enjoy using the phone but the app selection is in dire need of attention. Having used a HTC Windows Phone 8x for some time, I can say that there are third-party solutions for most of the missing or subpar first-party apps but more often than not, they are paid. I think it’s great that developers are taking the time to make these apps and getting paid but not every service has an API or if they do, it may be limited so you’re not getting a full experience. Microsoft needs to address this issue rapidly and with some serious momentum. They need to pursue the creators of great iOS and Android apps and encourage them to develop on Windows Phone. I don’t know if that means subsidizing development costs or guaranteeing income but something needs to be done and done now.

Surface-ify mobile

The introduction of the Surface was a big deal. Microsoft decided they weren’t seeing the innovation they wanted and decided to do it themselves. This rubbed a lot of hardware partners the wrong way and the success of their venture is arguable. However, they introduced a hardware spec that was under their control, something their mobile platform could benefit from greatly. The Surface brand is something Microsoft isn’t shying away from and with the purchase of Nokia, makes perfect sense for the smaller form factor of phones.

The lack of interest from third-party phone manufacturers has also produced some less than inspired Windows Phones so removing those from the marketplace can only improve the platforms’ standing. Leveraging Nokia’s disturbing force in design and camera innovation with the financial muscle of Microsoft, could make a yearly Surface phone huge. Windows Phone would stop being the new feature phone OS and the Windows Phone build team could focus on optimizing for one hardware configuration. That focus would allow them to build in all of the other features to make living in Microsoft’s ecosystem really appealing.

Ditch RT

Last but not least, Microsoft should admit their misstep and do away with Windows RT. It’s confusing to the average PC user and quite honestly should not be compared to full Windows 8. Here is what I propose: remove the traditional desktop from RT and join it with Windows Phone under one name, Surface OS. This would do a few things for Microsoft. First, it would remove any confusion between what it is and what Windows 8 is. Third-party PC manufactures could continue making Windows 8 machines as they have been, as many have discontinued RT based devices already. Second, with an admittedly large amount of work, the Windows Store would be unified across platforms. Buy an app on your Surface phone and it works on your main PC and Surface tablet. If you are invested at all in the iOS ecosystem, this should sound pretty familiar. Lastly, advertise, advertise, advertise. People don’t need to know why the change happened but they do need to know that something did change and it’s for the better.

Microsoft has gone through a significant transformation in the past few years and will continue changing as CEO Steve Ballmer fades away and a new face of the company steps in. There is a new company focus, emphasizing one Microsoft and I think that’s a good thing. I’ve been a fairly loyal supporter of Microsoft for over a decade but realizing the short comings of your chosen tech is the difference between fan and fanboy. The steps I’ve listed are what I believe to be some crucial stepping stones for Microsoft to gain market share in mobile, improve their standing as a services company and most importantly, offer the best package under one umbrella as possible. For now, I’m stuck in limbo between multiple ecosystems but remain ready to commit if things start to come together.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

making next-gen work for everyone (almost)

I woke up this morning, powered up my PC and with a much needed late-night Skyrim recovery coffee, settled in for my daily gaming news update. The first thing I saw: Microsoft backs down on DRM requirements; Xbox One does not require always on connection. This came as quite a surprise to me and honestly, bummed me out a bit. I am no fan of restrictive or unnecessary DRM policies but I was excited about the advantages of having an always connected console. This news and the feeling it spawned in me led me to a pretty thought provoking question: What would gaming be/look like if I had the power to mold it? I have come up with a few things that I think would be beneficial to everyone involved in the gaming world. My thoughts were mainly rooted in software rather than hardware, as this console generation has less to do with specs and more to do with features and policies.

Here we go:

The issue of used games is a very complicated one and, depending upon which perspective you view it, can have very different goals in mind. The key items I am focusing on are price, portability (trading), return on “investment” and sustainability. All games would have the recommended price-tag of $29.99 for hard copies and $24.99 for digital copies. The final decision on price would be left up to the developer of course. The reason for bringing game prices down is to encourage people to buy new over used, thus paying the people who work so hard on the things that we love. It would be a huge chance to take but if done properly, I believe it could make a big impact. If you have any numbers to support/oppose this, let me know! I’m interested!

Physical copies would have the ability to be traded in with one caveat; retailers engaging in used sales must remit 10% of the income generated, back to the developers when the game is resold. This 10% would go back to the developers on a quarterly basis. For example:

Brad goes on Amazon and purchases Red Dead Redemption: Guns Ablaze (BOOM! Exclusive announcement right here!) and pays the normal $29.99. After a few weeks, Brad feels he is done with the game and goes to Gamestop to trade it in. Gamestop gives him $X for his game, prices it to $19.99 and places it back on the shelf as a used item. Charles comes in ready to bang on some cowboy outlaws and decides to go for the used copy, because he’s such an economical dude. When he purchases the game, Gamestops system calculates the 10% and treats it similarly to how they do tax-withholdings. They can still conservatively earn interest on those funds (via overnight sweeps or traditional interest bearing accounts) until they are transferred to developers.

Now let’s say that Dave doesn’t really want the physical copy of a disc anymore because he’s a future-man and future-men DO NOT do disks. He logs into his Miles-Box and purchases the game digitally. Miles Corp., the manufacturer of the Miles-Box, has agreements with each game publisher allocating 1,000,000 digital licenses to their console. When Dave buys RDR:GA, a license is transferred to him and he becomes the license holder for that particular digital copy. This is managed by servers at Miles Corp. that will validate the game when it is launched. Remember: If you do not have a reliable internet connection, the physical copy is still available to you with no form of validation. After Dave takes over every saloon in the Wild West, he’s ready to move on to the next game. He then returns his license for that game to Miles Corp. and is credited X amount of dollars, which would be calculated based on a variety of factors (ex. Number of total licenses, proximity to release date, etc.). This credit can be used just like it would at Gamestop, but the benefit to developers would be that Miles Corp. wouldn’t differentiate between used and new licenses, so every “trade-in” would pay developers as if it were new. Yes, digital trade-ins would have to be less than physical copies but the initial price-tag is also less. And yes, this would require Miles Corp. to earn slightly less money on the digital copy. The key is that at a lower, uniform price, consumers would most likely purchase games more regularly. It is the job of Miles Corp. to calculate digital trade-in values responsibly in regards its consumer and shareholders.

This would provide a marketplace for those who prefer to save some money on used games and at the same time, pay the content creators.

Now, this would most definitely result in a hit to Gamestop’s bottom line but quite honestly, that is Gamestop’s concern and theirs alone. It is the responsibility of a corporation to adapt to a changing marketplace and if they are unable to do so, they go out of business. If Gamestop wishes to be the major game retailer going forward, they will have to be open to different business models. But that’s a different conversation.

Lastly, where does the cloud/connection requirement come in? This is where Microsoft’s internet connection flip flop comes into play. Miles Corp. supports many different kinds of gamers and offers solutions to their varying needs. There would be many key features of the system that would require an internet connection and if the consumer opts to not have their console connected or does not have the capability to do so, they will unfortunately miss out on some of these features. It is important to look forward and chances are, more and more people will have or gain the ability to have a broadband connection as time goes on. If there is a compelling offering that is complimentary to the current feature set, it will be viewed as a bonus rather than hindrance.

Most of what I was thinking about is related to the gaming side of the new consoles because that seems to be the most talked about topic this time around. Think of this as more of a rough draft than anything. Even as I reread my plan, I was thinking about different solutions so I may do an updated version as I think more about it.

This is just a possible solution to the current situation and if you find holes in it, let me know! I’m really interested in seeing how we can make gaming affordable, approachable and beneficial to everyone involved and if this method doesn’t do the job, let’s talk about what would.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Realization: I'm Poor

I don't know how this happened, but it did. My wonderful fiance recently graduated with a shiny new bachelors degree but after a few days she was feeling bewildered, defeated and plain old in the dumps. She was feeling like she wasn't pulling her weight when it came to the finances and when the student loan payments eventually kicked in, it would be that much worse. She thought she'd have a well paying job at graduation and we could start saving to reach some of our goals as we build our life together.

I graduated college in 2010 and have been working my current job for almost two years. In an attempt to show her that we had plenty of breathing room on one income, I drafted up a budget and populated it with our current months expenses. This was when it hit me; we are broke. Between wedding planning, settling into our new home and two new (new to us at least!) car payments, we were barely breaking even. Before this, in my admittedly skewed opinion of our finances, we were doing pretty good. Sure we have some credit card debt but who doesn't. Right?

Of course upon realizing this, we began to look for areas to cut back on. Video games was at the top of that list, and for good reason. I have a Steam library of over 150 games and at least 12-15 Xbox 360 games that I have yet to play, so why buy more? Herein lies the problem; gamers love buying more games. It doesn't matter how many you already have on the back burner, there's always the next big thing waiting to blow your mind. Factor into that the amazing sales that Steam offers on a daily bases and you've got yourself a perfect game-hoarding-rationalization storm.

I don't know if I really have a point to make here, other than it is easy to pick up these games because at 75-90% off, you'd be a dummy not to. In reality, you may be acting as the perfect consumer everyone is marketing towards with these sales. Maybe my point is, just because a game is on sale, doesn't mean you should  over stretch yourself financially to be a "smart shopper". I have a lot of great friends in the gaming world and this seems to be the single-most problematic trait that we all seem to share. So, I implore you gamers of the world, spend responsibly and play that copy of Dead Space you picked up for $5.00 last week before moving on to the next thing. You might value your precious game time more as a result.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

PC Game Design Rant

Over the last few weeks I’ve noticed a pattern in the type of games I play for long periods vs play for a few hours then discard. The harder a game design team makes it to alt-tab or move back and forth between multiple screens the less likely I am to play a game for long periods.

I don’t feel that it’s to much to ask for the ability to smoothly move from a game window to another program without long delays or complicated work arounds.

I don’t expect a game designer to create something that accounts for 100% of my attention span at all times, there will be moments when I want to check Twitter or adjust my music and need to tab out of the game. Don’t punish me as a player for needing to divide my attention to other programs.

Obviously this isn’t a large problem for console games the current generation of consoles aren’t able to multitask very well if at all but the ability to multitask is one of the major reasons I prefer gaming on a PC in the first place.

As the profit from games slides away from initial game purchase and more into DLC, expansions and serial games details like proper alt-tab support can be the difference between me being a long term valuable customer who spreads the message that your game title is worth playing or just a drive by single purchase customer.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Garland we meet again!

Over the weekend I took a trip to Boston and was looking for a game to play on my phone during the hours I spent on the train when I discovered Final Fantasy had been released for Windows Phone 7. It took my approximately no seconds to click the buy button on one of my all time favorite games. I’ve probably spent more hours playing FF1 than any other off-line RPG; Curse of the Azure Bonds for C64 is the only other contender for that record.

It made me think a little bit about why those old RPG’s could attract me for so much longer than newer titles. I used to spend days exploring every nook and cranny of those primitive games, and to be honest there wasn’t really much to find, but I kept playing them anyway. I would try beating them with different parties or with fewer characters just to keep them challenging. Current generation RPG’s haven’t encouraged me to replay them more than once and I’m not sure exactly why that is. Perhaps it’s the focus on plot and story over strategy and tactics.

When I play a game now no matter if it’s an RPG, MMO, RTS, FPS, or any other combination of letters I’m always focused on tactics, on doing the most with the least, that’s where I find my replay value in games. Does this make me unique? It definitely adds value to the games I buy since I can enjoy them for longer periods of time and it’s obviously encouraged me to buy more sequels, expansions, and DLC then I would have otherwise. I’ve purchased FF1 for four different systems over the years and I never regretted that.

While MMO’s are the best type of game I’ve found to encourage this type of replay experience I never stop looking for games in that classic style of RPG. High end graphics and seemly endless plots have ruled the RPG genre for many years and have given us some excellent game series like Elder Scrolls and the newer Final Fantasies, but I’ll have far more fun trying to beat the original with an three black mages and one white mage then I ever will one of the current generation of RPG’s.