E3 2013: Fighting the Console Wars One More Time

E3 is technically a trade show closed to the general public, but E3 apparently grants industry status to anyone who has ever worked at a Gamestop or Target (Target sells videogames, right?). As such, the show is more like Comicon than CES. Some attendees dress as their favorite video game characters, there are enormous props (World of Tanks had an actual tank parked in front of the convention center), and there are longer lines for free t-shirts than to try new game systems.

Oddly, E3 also does not evenly represent the world of electronic gaming. Exhibitors didn’t highlight the highest revenue platforms and genres or the biggest areas of growth. Instead, they skewed their exhibits towards a very specific audience: 25 year-old U.S. male console gamers. Fighting and role-playing genres were everywhere, while strategy, sports, dance, and puzzle games were not – even though more people play the latter category overall. E3 focuses more on living room consoles than PCs, even though PC gaming brings in more revenue, especially outside the U.S. PopCap was heavily promoting a new iteration of Plants vs. Zombies, but other than that, casual PC and web games were not well represented. A greater emphasis on consoles is to be expected in a year when a new generation of them is launching, but this pattern has held for several years, and the enormous growth in mobile gaming was almost entirely ignored. Last year, several major mobile game vendors from Asia had booths; this year they stayed home.

Finally, there was barely any mention of other forms of electronic entertainment at E3 beyond video games, despite the name of the conference (Electronic Entertainment Expo) and the fact that Microsoft reported consumers spend more time watching streaming media on their Xbox than they do playing games.

Sony and Microsoft both preempted E3 with previews of their next-generation game consoles. Sony held a large press conference in New York back in February, and Microsoft hosted a much smaller event on its Redmond campus in May. Just ahead of E3, Microsoft clarified its incredibly complicated policies on connectivity and used games, which allow consumers to play their games on friends’ Xbox One systems from the cloud, but restrict how games can be transferred. That left a lot less to talk about at E3 beyond pricing and extensive game demos.

The Main Event (Microsoft v. Sony: Fight!)

Sony’s decision to price the PS4 at $399 drew cheers, but mainly in comparison to Microsoft’s $499 Xbox One. Drawing even more positive feedback, Sony lampooned Microsoft’s move to DRM and connectivity mandate. Microsoft’s policies are definitely not consumer friendly – or easily understood – but are likely to be more significant to E3 attendees than average gamers. The E3 crowd was disdainful of the entertainment and motion gaming capabilities that Microsoft highlighted at its preview, and both Sony and Microsoft focused on traditional console gaming genres in their press conferences. Today’s motion games tend to focus on dance, fitness, and sports. However, the technology included in the Xbox One’s Kinect is truly astonishing, and the fact that every Xbox One will come with Kinect could lead to must-have game titles in the future.

The new Kinect is dramatically more sophisticated than the original. It works in low light and is not affected by concentrated light sources (like halogen lamps). It works in smaller rooms, enables a larger number of gamers, detects an incredible amount of detail – including gamers’ heart rates based on skin coloration! – and its microphones are more sensitive for voice commands. Sony does have a new PlayStation Camera (replacing the PlayStation Eye) for the PlayStation 4, but it is a $59 add-on, and Sony discounted its importance at E3. There were apparently Camera-equipped PS4 systems somewhere at the show, but I couldn’t find them. When I asked Sony about this, they were fairly dismissive about the importance of motion gaming. One rep noted, “you can buy the [PlayStation] Camera, and the new controller can be used with that if you want that type of game.” This could prove to be a big mistake over time as the Xbox One price comes down and developers design software that incorporate voice and gestures alongside the controller – even in traditional game genres. Sony is also behind Microsoft in cloud services; Microsoft has more Xbox Live subscribers than Sony has PlayStation Network accounts, and Microsoft is scaling up its servers further in anticipation of moving more gaming information to the cloud.

Console game sales are down ahead of the new hardware from Microsoft and Sony, but it isn’t clear that consumers are clamoring for new boxes that cost $400 – $500 before factoring in software costs and mandatory subscription fees for online play. I played a lot of games at E3, and the graphics on the next-generation consoles are better, but on many titles, that didn’t appreciably affect gameplay. There will be a lot devices fighting over limited consumer budgets this fall. Tablet and smartphone sales are exploding, and gaming titles for iOS and Android are either free-to-play or cost at most a few dollars a game. Some of these games are coming directly to the television. Ouya’s $99 Android game system was funded in record time at Kickstarter, and Apple is rumored to be opening its $99 Apple TV box to developers in the future as well.

Producing a winning living room game console is still a huge prize, but Sony and Microsoft seem focused exclusively on the living room, when gaming is clearly following computing into mobility. Sony execs were understandably proud of their performance at E3. However, Sony did not provide any more details on how the PlayStation will deliver on the larger vision of consumer-centric, location and device -independent gaming that it described back in New York. Microsoft is not doing much better in this regard. While a Halo game was finally announced for the Windows Phone, it will be an arcade-style top-down shooter, making it Halo in name only. The heavily promoted cross-platform game Spark impressed us by allowing consumers to design their own games on an Xbox One controller, an Xbox 360 controller, or a Windows 8 touchscreen, but it also lacks a Windows Phone version.


Microsoft clearly felt the heat from Sony – and gamers – on the Xbox One’s DRM and connectivity policies. A week after the show, Microsoft reversed nearly all of them: the console will not require connectivity to play standalone games, games will not need to “check in” every 24 hours to remain playable, and it will be possible to share or resell Xbox One discs without restrictions. While some damage was done, the updated policies were received well by the online gaming community. Microsoft was forced to change due to its downright consumer unfriendly DRM, incredibly confusing rules for sharing or reselling games, and the fact that Sony didn’t follow Microsoft into cloud gaming. (Sony gleefully turned the knife in Microsoft with YouTube ads ridiculing Microsoft instead.) However, Microsoft’s original plans offered consumer benefits, too. Microsoft failed to articulate them, but the connectivity and DRM enabled sharing games among family members, and playing games locally or remotely without requiring a disc in the drive. Faced with a consumer backlash, Microsoft had to make changes. Microsoft could have made disc-based purchases work DRM-free, and downloaded purchases work with DRM restrictions but with all the cloud benefits. However, this would have been a more difficult message to deliver. Instead, Microsoft simply went back to the old way of doing things, and consumers will lose out.

How Windows RT could Thrive

Microsoft’s decision to create a Windows 8 version for use on ARM processors called Windows RT has become a bit of an enigma in the industry. Windows RT based tablets were launched with much fan fare yet sales of RT based devices has fallen way short of predictions.

In fact, Microsoft is selling their Surface RT to schools now for $100, something that suggests that the Windows Surface RT experiment is pretty much dead. Microsoft has its own self to blame for this. Their decision to include Office minus Outlook was a serious blow for these early models. While newly created Windows 8 apps worked on RT, the fact that it was not backward compatible with existing Windows Apps really added to its lack of allure for most customers

Also their TV ads didn’t help either. Instead of showing people the virtues of Surface they decided to show hip young people dancing and jiving holding RT Surface tablets, something that makes no sense to anyone who wanted to know what Surface really was and why they should even consider buying it. These ads were a waste of money and a big mistake in my book.

Our research suggests that Windows RT in 10-inch tablets and laptops probably will never take off. Mostly because of lack of backward compatibility with current Windows apps, which to a lot of people is still a big issue. While it is true that Windows 8 apps work on RT devices, the lack of Windows 8 apps, especially those long tail apps, will continue to hurt it in these types of models too.

However, there is one device, or area, where RT could be quite welcomed. One of the things you may have noticed is that 7” or 8” tablet prices have come down in price. Over the weekend I saw a 9” tablet for $99.00 at Fry’s. Sure it was a no-name brand but it had Android Ice Cream Sandwich on it and was more than serviceable as a basic tablet. What we are seeing is a race to the bottom with smaller screen tablets and it is becoming harder and harder for any tablet players to compete when prices get this low and they are all pretty much alike.

Gaming and Media

What is needed in the small tablet space is differentiation. Just using a mainstream processor will not cut it if the goal is to be heard above the crowd. It is true that being tied to a rich ecosystem like Amazon and Apple have for their smaller tablets helps them differentiate but for others, especially those betting on Windows 8 for tablets, they have no edge against this onslaught of race to the bottom low-end tablet space.

While CPUs in smaller tablets are important for delivering long battery life, the need for an upscale processor is somewhat minimal. However, one area of content that is important–even in small tablets–is games and video. For games, the GPU will become an important part of differentiating these smaller tablets. Especially since the use case for many of these smaller tablets will lean toward media and entertainment.

This is where RT could be on somewhat equal footing. In smaller tablets, backward compatibility with existing Windows apps is not important. Rather, it just needs to run Windows 8 apps and do them extremely well. But games and video built for Windows 8 could have an advantage when running an ARM processor like Nvidia’s Tegra or Qualcomm’s Snapdragon. Both processors which, for the time being, are likely to have a graphics advantage over their lower cost x86 counterparts. ((We can debate all we want the degree of which “good enough” experiences exist, but graphics is still an area where we will continue to observe clearly better visual experiences))

Nvidia has made the GPU a key part of their mobile processor known as Tegra and to date, Nvidia has had some pretty big wins in tablets because of the robustness of Tegra’s CPU and GPU. Qualcomm, with Adreno, and Intel as well, both realize that the GPU is becoming much more important in mobile and they too have been working hard on developing more powerful graphics processors for use with their mobile SoCs.

Most of Nvidia’s tablet wins have been for use with Android but vendors wanting to do Windows 8 ARM based tablets need to look closely at the role a GPU will have in driving greater differentiation with these smaller tablets. From our research we are finding that smaller tablets are mostly used for content consumption and games and not productivity. Making these smaller tablets exceed consumer’s expectations, especially with games, could allow Windows RT to be taken seriously. An SoC with an emphasis on graphics added to deliver a great gaming experience could help deliver on this use case. And if the graphics and media experience is objectively clear, consumers will pay a premium for this if the tablet is to be used for HD games and video. ((Obviously there are many variables to this, including rich applications and games being developed for Windows RT))

It will be important to watch what happens at Microsoft’s Build conf in SF next week and see how much emphasis they make on creating games for Windows 8. If this is a major part of their strategy, then RT based small notebooks and tablets could thrive in this space even if they are not a bargain based prices.

Why Microsoft Should Make an XBOX Mobile Gaming Console

Yesterday I shared a column on why casual gaming, or even more immersive gaming on smart phones is not going to threaten dedicated mobile gaming consoles any time soon. To come to this conclusion I had been using the Sony PS Vita for a few weeks. Using that device also led me to the conclusion that Microsoft needs a device like the PS Vita for their gaming ecosystem. There are a number of good reasons for this.

Strategy for Windows and Windows Phone
Microsoft includes on their Windows Phone platform an XBOX Live hub. This is simply an application that lets you interact with your XBOX Live friends and view your own profile information and achievments. Given the success of the XBOX 360 it makes sense for Microsoft to branch the service out to mobile devices. They even have an iOS app for XBOX Live as well.

What would be interesting for Microsoft strategically would be if they built this device and had some of the main dashboard UI be much closer to the Metro UI they are orienting around. The new XBOX Live dashboard is getting closer but is not the fully Metro UI yet.

I would expect a device like this from Microsft to be quite successful given the passion of the XBOX 360 audience and the number of live users gaming online. If that were true then a large number of consumers who purchased the XBOX mobile device would get immersed in the Metro UI and become familiar with it. Thus making them partial, perhaps, to Windows 8 and Windows Phone products in the future. One could make a strong case a dedicated XBOX Live mobile gaming console could be more successful than Windows Phone in the short term.

Gaming as a Service
Another key element of strategic interest in this thinking is the role of the XBOX Live service as a part of such a device. I can imagine that if Microsoft demonstrated with such a device how groups could play Modern Warfare with their friends online from both the XBOX 360 and the mobile console, that it would generate quite a bit of excitement. The PS Vita and new software that will be rolling out will support this feature as well. However, XBOX Live is such a good gaming service for hard core gamers that a mobile device tied to XBOX Live gaming could be a big hit.

This would further the revenue model for XBOX and perhaps even generate more XBOX Live Gold customres. Gold is the package where you pay $50 a year for special online features. Perhaps using XBOX Live on the mobile platform could even cost slightly more as a package. Either way it makes for an interesting extension of a core servce Microsoft is invested in.

Game Software Developers
Lastly a move like this would attract game developers for the Windows Platform much more rapidly than I believe is currently happening. Games are a rapidly growing category on mobile devices and even casual games on notebook and desktop PCs are gaining steam.

Microsoft could include in many of the same development toolkits the ability to easily also make games for the mobile XBOX console on top of their other Windows products. The byproduct would be more key apps, and in this case games, for the Windows ecosystem. Something they desparately need.

Microsoft could make it easy to buy these games for the mobile device through their own digital store, similar on Windows phone and Windows 8, which in turn would bring more consumers to their stores doorstep.

There is actually quite a bit strategically I like about this idea for Microsoft. I know the push back on this concept is around how big the market would be for a device like this. Especially since a piece of hardware like this has a longer product cycle life of more than 2 years conservatively. But I will again default to this market being similar to the console market at large. A market where the value has never been in hardware but is always in software and services. Although the hardware may have a long life the annual revenue opportunities come from soft are and services.

The thought of being able to play a game like Modern Warfare, Battlefield, or Gears of War from a mobile console while I travel and my friends are playing as well from their consoles is just exciting.

The key in all of this thinking is the hardware touch points that Microsoft can use to get consumers into their ecosystem. XBOX has been one of those key peices of hardware. So naturally with the world going mobile and Microsoft wanting a peice of that pie, my opinion is that a dedicted XBOX mobile gaming console is a good business strategy for Microsoft. It is also a product I think they would sell very well.