Friday, June 29, 2012

No more Gamescom beyond 2012, newspaper speculates

This year's gamescom may be the last, according to an article in Germany's biggest newspaper, the tabloid Bild.

The Gamescom, the world's biggest computer and videogame expo by visitor count, has been incurring losses in excess of half a million Euro and is under review, the article claims, which goes on to conclude that the event "failed" and has "flopped". The Gamescom has replaced the Games Convention, which was held in Leipzig, and the article was published in the paper's local Leipzig section. So a degree of exaggeration must be factored in. Also, the newspaper itself - perhaps comparable to USA Today or The Sun - is the subject of some controversy. Here is a translation of the article.

Cologne fails with stolen games fair

Leipzig - In 2009, the computergame fair "Games Convention" moved to Cologne with much fanfare but against the wishes of many exhibitors. Since then, it is known as the "Gamescom" - and has been incurring high losses. Now the stolen expo may even be scrapped altogether.

The reason is an internal review which describes the expo as a "debt-incurring venture." The paper notes a minus of 565.000 Euro for the fair - and advises "to review the strategic necessity of the loss-making event." Even if fair spokesman Franko Fischer says: "The 'Gamescom' exceeds our expectations with positive gross margins."

That may be. But in Cologne, every event is offset against the high rent, which the fair has to pay for its halls. And here, the "Gamescom" has run up a minus of more than half a million Euro.

And Cologne has further problems: Off-the-record, exhibitors are complaining about the high costs (rental fees, accomodation). Also, the industry giants Microsoft, Nintendo, Sega and THQ have already withdrawn from "Gamescom" 2012...

I was able to bring you the exclusive news of Microsoft being a no-show this year, alongside Nintendo, Sega and THQ who cancelled earlier. Also, Sony threatened to cancel and may have received a significant discount to commit to the show after all. Bear in mind that each of the concerned publishers is one of only thirteen members of the German industry association, which made the decision to move to Cologne in the first place. So, it could well be that the association is going to officially withdraw their support for the gamescom after 2012.

As unfortunate as this development is for the industry at large, the Gamescom is indeed facing a potentially fatal crisis.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Dissecting the Xbox720 leak

A document has surfaced that may be a detailed feature overview for the next Xbox as well as a road map for future updates. On 56 pages, the document – marked “confidential – for discussion purposes only” – details the next generation of Kinect, as well as AR goggles that allow the game to take place all around the living room.

The information first appeared on Nukezilla pretty much without anyone noticing it and the entire document has now surfaced on
Scribd. It appears that the document dates back to 2010. It has since been removed from the website, apparently at the request of a law firm working for Microsoft.

The next Xbox, according to the document, would ship with a Blu-ray drive and a new version of Kinect. The latter would be only a marginal evolution of the current technology. The console would launch in 2013 for $299. Key hardware features would be “licensable architecture (both for incoming and outgoing licensing)” and “support for alternate form factors / devices with different total system feature set”, which might mean that other hardware manufacturers like Dell or Samsung may build their own Xbox compatible console or include the hardware in other devices like television sets, much like the 3DO back in the day.

Another feature noted is this: “split application/system resources: allows title compatibility through cost reductions and different device types.” This might suggest that the console can stream content to mobile and other devices: “Take your entertainment everywhere. Start on one screen but instantly pause and play it again from any other device makes it best way to enjoy your TV, movies and music when you’re on the go.”

Streaming content might refer not just to games but a “TV App” as well as an “XTV Pay TV Service” which are said to launch already on the Xbox360 in 2011 and 2012, respectively. For the next Xbox, more content would be synchronized across various devices: “Use your phone, slate or PC to enhance primary game play or learn more about what you’re watching on TV. Start watching on any screen - pause - resume on another.”

Yet another feature would be a “modular design to facilitate SKU updates later in lifecycle”. Such a console could be expanded in the same way the N64 had an expansion slot for more memory. In fact, the document describes the idea that such a modular design, coupled with the launch of a cloud solution in 2015, would make successor consoles obsolete. You would “never need to upgrade hardware again.” Confusing in this context are remarks about a proposed 10 year life cycle for the console.

In 2012, a “new haptic controller” is set to launch for Xbox360 so users can “control your TV experiences via gesture, voice and touch.” But for the next Xbox, Microsoft seems to have a real controller revolution in store. The document describes augmented reality glasses, dubbed “Kinect Glasses” or “Fortaleza” after a Microsoft Innovation Center near that location in Brazil. These glasses would probably be comparable to Google’s Project Glass and launch in 2014, one year after the new console. These glasses would not be a mere Xbox peripheral but a device in its own right that would feature Xbox compatibility.

Baffling is the reference to “9/24” in both the file name (“XBox-720-9-24-Checkpoint-Draft-1”) and a headline (“9/24 Agenda”). It is a fair assumption that it refers to the date September 24th. But it is not clear which year is meant, nor what event would have taken place at that date or, indeed, will.

So much for the details. Let us now consider the authenticity of the document. There are a number of options here. Firstly, the document may constitute Microsoft’s genuine plan for its next console in every detail. In this case, the ideas detailed here would all still be valid and could be expected. Then again, it might be a complete fake, rendering all the information useless. There are a number of options in between, though. As a cynic, the leak might have been deliberate to steal Nintendo's Wii U thunder. This is not likely, but still a possibility to consider. Alternatively, the document might have been only one of a larger number of papers with ideas for the next Xbox that were meant for nothing more than a brainstorming session. As such, they might contain some authentic information, but would consist largely of one of many engineers’ ideas of where a new Microsoft console might go. The disclaimer found on the document (“for discussion purposes only”), as well as the somewhat sketchy drawings may support this theory. Also, the document begins by mapping out a methodology, whereby a tentpole idea such as “Kinect, cloud rendering, glasses” leads to various signature experiences on behalf of the user, each requiring hardware, content and an adequate platform. Outlining such a methodology suggests a more academic and perhaps more hypothetical approach.

As far as the actual content is concerned, there is nothing I find totally unrealistic. The Kinect glasses are a very ambitious project and I am unsure whether such a product (by Google, Microsoft or anyone else) would be ready within the next few years. Also, I doubt that Microsoft will be able to launch a new console in 2013. The regular cycle was to introduce a home console in one year and launch it in the year after. But these are marginal disagreements.

Altogether, the sheer volume of 56 pages would make this a very elaborate fake, if it were one. The images and overall layout appear to me too good for a fake but not good enough for a final presentation. The document is a draft, after all, as the file name suggests. So I do believe the document is real but I am sure it was used in only one of a number of presentations that were largely hypothetical. So we should not treat its details as something Microsoft is actually planning to bring to market but rather as something that was considered at one point but might never make it to store shelves.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The end of E3

E3 has just ended but are we witnessing the end of E3? This post would have been about all the exciting news from the world’s most important industry trade show. But there is not much to write about. In fact, we are left with a feeling that the E3 did not live up to our expectations, right? The press briefings of the big three certainly contained no major announcements, it is fair to say. Nintendo revealed Pikmin 3, but this was expected. There were no huge surprises as far as Wii U software was concerned. Most titles like Darksiders II or Assassin’s Creed III had been announced previously. And, most blatantly, Nintendo managed to keep both launch date and price of the console to itself. Also, no new hardware iteration of the 3DS was officially announced, although we know that one is coming. It is obvious that Nintendo plans to make those announcements in its own time, in the form of a “proprietary” briefing, if you will.

In fact, it was Nintendo’s deliberate strategy to distract from the E3 press briefing and add other communication channels. A video showing Nintendo president Iwata go into some detail of the Wii U was released only two days ahead of the E3 press briefing. And at that briefing, NOA president Fils-Aime said that there simply was not enough time for all the information Nintendo wanted to convey.

This strategy is not new. Just remember how Nintendo first announced 3DS and Wii U. Both consoles were not revealed at E3, but in investors notes. Nintendo has also famously pulled out of this year’s gamescom in Cologne, Germany’s new industry trade show. And for years, they have not been an exhibitor at the Tokyo Game Show. Here is a company that has enough money to spend and has a major new product to market. Yet they do not deem gamescom or the TGS to be appropriate venues for this endeavour. The Tokyo Game Show has almost unanimously lost appeal. My esteemed colleague Memo produced a documentary (in German) about this very problem last year.

What about Microsoft and Sony? Were their E3 press conferences any more interesting? Hardly. As I had expected, no successors to Xbox360 and PlayStation3 were announced. But also no new software titles were shown that would have taken us by surprise. But are the two companies also pursuing Nintendo’s strategy of actively withholding important news from E3, in order to release them at a later date? Maybe not. Perhaps there simply are no more exciting news about these consoles at the end of their life cycles.

Yet at the very least, Sony is also reconsidering trade shows like the E3 as a venue for big announcements. In 2009, they announced the slim version of its PlayStation3 console at the first gamescom, instead of at E3, clearly experimenting with the time and place of such announcements. The PS Vita was first announced at Sony’s own event in January 2011. And, most importantly of all, Sony even considered cancelling this year’s showing at the gamescom. They reconsidered only days ago, at the last second, likely to due financial concessions made by the organisers. But it is clear that to Sony and Nintendo, E3 and other trade shows matter less and less.

EA booth at gamescom 2009, taken by Raimond Spekking, through Wikimedia

As far as the third console manufacturer is concerned, I have heard reliable rumours that there are indications of Microsoft also thinking about cancelling their appearance at the gamescom. Sony’s case shows that it is possible to not yet be fully committed to having a booth in just over two months. And, apparently, Microsoft has not yet confirmed their hotel bookings. A press release by the organisers today (in German) details all the companies that have a confirmed presence at the gamescom. Microsoft is not listed, nor are Activision, Square Enix or Warner. Previously, Sega and THQ had announced that they will not have booths at this year’s show because of financial constraints.

There was a time, when the E3 press conferences were the obvious venue for the three hardware manufacturers to make major announcements. This is no longer the case, it seems. In fact, we seem to be witnessing the beginning of the end of big industry trade shows at large. It appears that, at least to Nintendo and Sony, choosing both the time and setting of major announcements is a compelling factor. But there is another factor here. It is clear that companies like Nintendo are mimicking Apple, who, despite their iPhone being one of the most popular smartphones, have never appeared at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona and famously were a no-show at events like the MacWorld, even though it exclusively revolved around their products. Apple’s continued success certainly vindicates this strategy and videogame companies appear keen to emulate both.

Gamescom 2009, taken by D-Kuru, through Wikimedia.

So what will happen in the long run? For the next few years, the big videogame trade shows will continue to exist, but they are sure to diminish in size. They will no longer be the priority event, at which the hardware manufacturers and third party publishers announce their big news. And it will no longer be a matter of course to expect all important companies to exhibit at shows like the E3. In fact, I am willing to bet money on the fact that for E3 2013, a number of the top ten publishers will not be present.

EDIT My sources were right. Microsoft's Larry Hryb aka Major Nelson confirmed yesterday that the company will not attend gamescom 2012.

As you saw at E3, we have a solid line-up of games launching this holiday, along with other entertainment experiences. We’ve changed our approach a little, though. This year, Xbox will be focusing on smaller, more localized promotions and experiences for press, partners, retailers and customers around the world. Which means that as you might have seen on some of the news sites today, we won’t be taking part in gamescom or Tokyo Games Show this year.

Both are still important shows for the industry, and we do wish the organizers well.

The gamescom is organised by the German Trade Association of Interactive Entertainment Software (BIU) (and yes, that is me on the right there). The BIU consists of the thirteen biggest publishers, of which four will not attend gamescom 2012 so far. Two more members, Activision and Warner, have yet to confirm their presence. As sad as it is, the gamescom is in serious trouble.