Microsoft Corp. today announced the extension of the Xbox LIVE® games and entertainment network to the Windows® platform, bringing together the most popular online console game service with the most popular games platform in the world. Debuting on May 8, 2007, with the launch of the Windows Vista™ version of the Xbox® blockbuster “Halo® 2,” Games for Windows — LIVE will connect Windows gamers to over six million gamers already in the Xbox LIVE community. Then, launching in June, “Shadowrun™” will for the first time connect Windows gamers with Xbox 360™ players in cross-platform matches using a single service. “UNO®,” releasing later in 2007, will also support cross-platform play between Windows and Xbox 360.
The launch of Games for Windows — LIVE marks a major expansion of the Xbox LIVE service across multiple platforms, uniting gamers with a single identity, a single gamertag, a single friends list and a single list of achievements attainable on the Xbox 360 and a Windows-based PC. Games for Windows — LIVE gamers will be able to easily find and play supported titles online with their friends across a Windows computer or an Xbox 360. As a unified service with Xbox LIVE, Games for Windows — LIVE will be available in every country and region supported today by Xbox LIVE.
Members of Xbox LIVE automatically receive the functionality of Games for Windows — LIVE, using the same gamertag and friends list at no additional cost. For a single, unified service, the pricing of the LIVE services across both Xbox and Games for Windows is identical. In addition, Games for Windows — LIVE introduces the best of Xbox LIVE functionality to please PC gamers, such as in-game voice chat, integrated achievements and dedicated servers. The offering of both Silver and Gold memberships will remain in place for gamers on the Xbox 360 and Windows PC. There is no cost associated with signing up for a Silver membership. Gold memberships will deliver the premium online network experience for $49.95 (U.S.) per year. Current Xbox LIVE Gold members will automatically have access to Gold features on Games for Windows — LIVE titles.
The full press release and the Games for Windows -LIVE FAQ have more details on the difference between the Silver and Gold levels, but the big one is no cross-platform play without a Gold subscription. Unlike Xbox LIVE, Silver level players are allowed multiplayer games, but only with other PC players.
The release materials are also a trifle cagey about what the system requirements are for PC gamers to play, although the three touted titles seem to be Vista only. Benjamin J. Romano clears that up in a Seattle Times interview with Aaron Greenberg, Microsoft’s group product manager for Xbox Live and the new service:
Microsoft plans to have three titles available for the PC online gaming platform in 2007, and they’re all designed to run on its new Windows Vista operating system.
Microsoft sees this as a potential spur to Windows Vista sales. Multimedia improvements in the operating system such as the Direct X 10 graphics engine will entice video-game enthusiasts to the new operating system, Greenberg said.
But the Games for Windows Live experience will not be limited to Vista, he added.
“We’re definitely keeping our options open around bringing this to other versions of Windows as well,” Greenberg said.
Sounds like Real Soon Now to me. Christopher Grant at Joystiq has a little fun with the Vista requirement and the unwillingness of the the editors of the official Games for Windows magazine to upgrade.
Finally, because there are few things more continuously amusing than Microsoft’s Live branding, what’s with the capitalized LIVE? Xbox Live wasn’t capitalized as recently as January in press releases (e.g. here), but apparently some critical branding transition took place starting in March. In any case, it certainly seems less than smooth as does the hyphenated name, “Games for Windows — LIVE.” Of, course, if they left out the hyphen think of the branding crisis that would have resulted from “Games for Windows LIVE.” Then of course there is always MSN Games with its own separate identity and achievement system, but I digress.
CNET UK’s Crave blog sums up Bill Gate’s keynote at the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show quite nicely:
The Gates soft-shoe shuffle at CES kicks off the gadget show each year with the same forlorn regularity as a Windows blue screen of death. It’s comforting to watch Bill climb up to the stage, but prepare yourselves, people: this can’t go on for ever. Gates began his remarks by saying that next year’s keynote may well be his last.
This year’s keynote didn’t hold many too many surprises. There was the usual self-satisfied purring about what a long way we’ve all come, baby, in what Gates is now calling “the digital decade”. There was also some quite staggeringly unhip video showing what were supposed to be hip and cool consumers using Microsoft products to have connected experiences.
I always get a laugh out of the “digital future” concept demos they put poor Mr Gates through. This year even he was laughing at the schtick where he, the world’s richest man, was reading interactive ads at a bus stop and checking out recipes projected on a kitchen counter after setting a forlorn bag of RFID tagged flour on it.
Also, someone please get Robbie Bach a public speaking coach – he seemed like a deer in the headlights. Of course, it is a trifle embarrassing to warmly endorse parental controls for gaming on Vista and then run a montage of games that mostly involved shooting other people.
The main event was news of a new home server as well as some cutesy Media Center PCs in quirky form factors (round and white anyone?). There was also the intriguing news that Microsoft will allow its Xbox 360 games console to act as a link to its Internet Television service, or IPTV.
And that’s about it in a nutshell. Some more details from the general press release and elsewhere:
Update: Paul Thurrott has more details on the Windows Home Server including that it is based on Windows Server 2003 R2 and that the operating system can be purchased without hardware.
Clarification: Ken Fisher at Ars Technica:
One challenge facing Windows Home Server (WHS for short) is that it is an OEM-only product, meaning that you won’t be able to head out and buy WHS at your local retail joint. And much like Media Center in the early days, we don’t expect specialty shops to carry an OEM version of the software anytime soon. This is disappointing news, because the early-adopter segment isn’t particularly interested in paying top dollar for OEM creations when do-it-yourself delivers a better experience. That said, I discussed this briefly with a Microsoft representative who said that Microsoft is aware that there’s a big enthusiast crowd out there, and a retail release of the OS isn’t out of the question.
Chris Remo at Shacknews has the buzz:
Shacknews has learned from reputable sources who wish to remain nameless that Microsoft plans to introduce what seems to be a Windows gaming service called “Panorama.” Apparently, Panorama will be a part of Windows Vista and will act essentially as Xbox Live Arcade for Windows. PC gamers will be able to not only play Live Arcade games, but will also be able to engage in multiplayer gaming versus gamers playing on the Xbox 360 version of the service.
There’s more by following the link including Microsoft merely confirming that something called Panorama exists (with no further details) and speculation that Microsoft might announce it next week at Gamefest. There’s also a pointer to the blog of Microsoft’s Andre Vrignaud where he says that Panorama is just a codename for the first stage of Microsoft’s Live Anywhere initiative which was introduced back in May and which is supposed to be more or less what is described.
Today’s the start of the E3 gaming conference and as long planned, the three big game console vendors held their pre-show press events earlier in the week.
Sony led off the festivities on Monday to less than stellar reviews. Troy Wolverton at TheStreet.com:
I should have sensed trouble when Kaz Hirai, president of Sony’s PlayStation division in the U.S., waited nearly two hours into the company’s Monday night presentation to give the details that everyone wanted to know — when the PlayStation 3 will be launched, how much it will cost and how many Sony will ship. Let me tell you, two hours has rarely passed so slowly in my life.
It wasn’t just that Hirai waited until the end to get to the point of the press event. It was that everything in between wasn’t terribly compelling. Most of the game footage Sony showed was from demos at best. Few of the games generated much excitement. And the company had little to show off in the way of certain blockbuster titles.
Well, at least Sony can claim the prize for most expensive:
The PS3 will come in two configurations: one version with a 60GB hard drive that will cost $599, and a second with a 20GB hard drive that will come in at $499, SCE President Kaz Hirai said.
Those prices are significantly higher than Microsoft’s Xbox 360, which has two versions, one with a 20GB hard drive that costs $399 and another with no hard drive that retails for $299.
In an interview with CNET News.com on Friday, SCE Executive Vice President and co-Chief Operating Officer Jack Tretton said, effectively, that the company believes consumers will pay whatever the next-generation console costs.
“People are going to perceive enough value” with the PS3, Tretton said, “that they’re not going to consider the price to be a barrier to entry.”
In addition to announcing pricing, Sony also said the PS3 will hit store shelves in North America on Nov. 17, six days after its Japanese launch on Nov. 11.
Hirai noted that Sony is committed to shipping 4 million PS3s by Dec. 31 and another 2 million by March 31, 2007. That means–if customers are not put off by the console’s high price–Sony could be in position to avoid the criticism Microsoft took for not being able to meet initial customer demand for the Xbox 360.
Trying for an apples to apples comparison pits the $499 PS3 against the $399 Xbox 360 and while the pricing is completely arbitrary, part of the difference is the Blu-ray high definition DVD drive included in the PS3:
More important, the Sony console comes with a high-definition Blu-ray DVD drive for playing movies. Standalone Blu-ray players are likely to cost close to $1,000 when they arrive later this year.
“The PlayStation 3 will look very inexpensive (compared) to the Blu-ray player,” said Van Baker, an analyst at research firm Gartner. “You’re paying 100 bucks for the privilege of having a Blu-ray player. It is a very aggressively priced movie player.”
But that raises another question: Will consumers consider the movie question when buying the consoles?
“It’s cheap for a Blu-ray drive and expensive for a game machine,” said Stephen Baker, an analyst at NPD Group.
As the rest of the article delineates, and we have discussed previously, the advisability of frying other other Sony fish while delivering a game console remains to be seen. One more point – the difference between the two PS3 variants isn’t just 40 GB of disk space – the cheaper $499 PS3 version is crippled in significant ways including no ability to watch those Blu-ray movies in high definition.
Asked why Nintendo didn’t release pricing and availability information for the Wii (the company said only that the product will be available in the fourth quarter of 2006), Reggie Fils-Aime, Nintendo executive vice president for sales and marketing, told CNET News.com that the company isn’t interested in diverting attention from the roster of 27 Wii games and the controller system it’s showing at the Electronic Entertainment Expo this week.
“We want (E3) to be about the gaming experience,” Fils-Aime said. “Price and availability information becomes a distraction from the playing experience.”
I sympathize with the point of view, but the lack of clarity about what is expected to be a lowball price left a lot of folks unimpressed and what they did show didn’t help that much. Troy Wolverton again:
Oh, sure, Nintendo announced there will be a new Zelda game that will be available at the launch of its Wii console. And unlike Sony, Nintendo showed off several real, playable games and promised that visitors to its booth at E3 would find 27 different games available to play on the Wii.
But as with Sony, even those highlights weren’t all that bright. Nintendo’s been promising — and failing to deliver — a new Zelda for several years now, so gamers will likely believe it only when they see it. And Fils-Aime declined to say how many of the games playable at E3 will actually be available on store shelves when the Wii launches sometime this fall.
Frankly expectations for the Wii are beginning to match the expected low price.
Lastly, Microsoft and Bill Gates got to revel in being considerably ahead of the competitors with the Xbox 360:
Surprise appearance by Microsoft company founder wows gamers with unified platform vision and first look at “Halo 3.”
Microsoft Corp. Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates today staked the claim that the Xbox 360™ system will have a 10 million-unit head start by the time the competition enters the market and more than 160 games by the end of the year. Gates went on to outline the company’s bold new vision to connect millions of Xbox 360 gamers with hundreds of millions of Microsoft® Windows®-based PC and mobile gamers from around the world through the Xbox Live® online entertainment network. Gates made the announcements at a press conference to open the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the largest annual confab for the interactive entertainment industry.
Dubbed “Live Anywhere,” the initiative puts gamers at the center of a ubiquitous always-on world where their digital identities, games, friends and digital entertainment are always accessible through the familiar Xbox Live interface, regardless of location or device. The plan also clears the way for groundbreaking cross-platform gameplay scenarios, with participants using Windows-based PCs, mobile phones and Xbox 360 consoles to play together simultaneously.
By this time next year, Microsoft expects more than 6 million gamers to be connected to the Xbox Live network. In addition, more than 25 million casual gamers are currently playing games on MSN® Messenger and MSN Games.
More on the cross platform gaming by following the link and here; and more on the Xbox 360 lineup here including the planned day one availability of Grand Theft Auto IV. Also Microsoft announced that they would have their own HD DVD high definition DVD player (price unspecified) available as an Xbox 360 add-on before Christmas and it likely won’t offer high definition movie playback either.
It’s too early to say how this will all fall out, but it looks to me like Microsoft has a fighting chance to make significant gains in the game console market. As for Sony and Microsoft both trying to have their game consoles gain widespread acceptance as home entertainment centers, I’m suspicious that neither will come to pass and that their gaming success will come in spite of those attempts.