Xbox squared

Microsoft's game-box revolution takes the path of mediocrity, while Sony's Playstation seizes the creative high ground.

Published November 15, 2001 5:38PM (EST)

I should have known it was all over for the Xbox when Steve Ballmer hit the stage. I could have guessed it then, a few months before the Nov. 15 release of Microsoft's much-anticipated video game console.

"WHOOO! Give it up for me!" What follows was almost too horrific to contemplate. (Though that didn't keep the "Dance Monkeyboy" video clip from becoming last summer's viral hit.) Microsoft CEO Ballmer barrels onstage to Gloria Estefan, cantering and screeching while the Microsoft employees gathered beneath him applaud. "WHO SAID SIT DOWN?" he roars, when their dutiful enthusiasm begins to flag.

At the time, some analysts argued (and I'd agree) that this wasn't some bizarre unleashing of Ballmer's personal demons but a rare view straight into Microsoft's soul. Soaked armpits and all, Monkeyboy was emblematic of the company's invincibility and sheer force of will.

But while this kind of big-thigh bravado no doubt does wonders, say, when it comes to leading a company through 15 bruising rounds of an antitrust brawl, it's not exactly the sort of panache you associate with console gaming. For the longest time, that market's been the province of the Japanese, represented by the likes of unflappable Sony Entertainment CEO Ken Kutaragi or revered Nintendo developer Shigeru Miyamoto -- elegantly groomed, unassuming men who modestly offer their wares with only a hint of boyish twinkle, as if they were toymakers to the emperor's children.

That profound culture clash didn't seem to matter, bolstered as Xbox was by Microsoft's willingness to spend a half-billion dollars to promote it, and lose a billion more, by some estimates, before breaking even.

No one doubts that they'll take a significant cut of the market this Christmas; with all that money and commitment, they're at least insured some traction, even as they launch their new console just days before the debut of the GameCube, Nintendo's next-generation system, and a phalanx of new titles for the Sony Playstation 2, last year's returning champion. With an established audience that skews decidedly younger, Nintendo's GameCube is not really a direct competitor; and many gamers who've long owned the Playstation 2 will probably be more than ready to try out a new system, too. Purely on momentum, then, the "console wars" for this year, as much as the mainstream media would like to sustain them, are more or less over. Microsoft will move plenty of boxes.

But the war of ideas is over, too -- and on that front, the one that really counts, Microsoft has lost, almost utterly lost. Gone is the bold promise to innovate and revolutionize gaming -- the chance to create a brand so daring and unique, it would finally seize gamers' attention away from Japan. The spirit of Monkeyboy has trickled down to the Xbox team, and almost fully possessed it.

With two possible exceptions, the Xbox and its premiere list of games are undistinguished, undifferentiated and inoffensive -- and consciously tooled to be exactly all those things. The Xbox is, in effect, the Internet Explorer of game consoles.

Which is not to say it's bad, but something worse: a Me Too production financed by a company with the resources to accomplish and afford so much more. But where Internet Explorer captured the browser market by being, well, free, the chances in this game-box war aren't so solid for Microsoft, competing on a truly level playing field for the first time in over 15 years.

Compared to the Xbox, Nintendo's new console offers almost as much computing power, but at a lower price, with an unimpeachable brand and the heft of a game design genius. And looming even larger, Sony has quietly spent the interval since its 2000 debut to take real chances, fostering a palette for artistry and innovation on the Playstation 2. Xbox now competes against a massive library ambitious enough to accommodate a game based on Dante's "Inferno" and wide enough to slip in a game that lets you solicit sex acts from streetwalkers.

In opposition, all Microsoft really has is a horde of mediocre titles -- and $500 million to spend on a megaphone loud enough to bellow "Give it up for me!" into a quickly emptying auditorium.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The Xbox was going to boast the power of a PC, and leverage the skills of PC game developers, who'd bring a new degree of sophistication to the pizza-and-beer paradigm of the console -- but on a uniform, stable platform free from the tyranny of CTRL-ALT-DEL. And now with its first true crossover audience, interactive entertainment would finally, fully enter the mainstream. It would be a revolution in gaming.

This is what Microsoft wanted, too, wasn't it? Bill Gates himself said as much, recently telling Nikkei Electronics Online, "The initial buying group will be very heavy in men from 14 to 30 ... [but the] power of Xbox isn't just for the popular racing and boxing games. Its possibilities are wide open. There will be games that women like, while there will be others that capture the hearts of the elderly."

And I was overjoyed when J. Allard, Microsoft's general manager for the Xbox, seemed to confirm my sense of what was to come, and what should come. "I think that our approach, as compared to some of the other console manufacturers," the peroxide-haired Allard told Gamespot last year, "is to invite creative independence to come to the platform and really do some magic. To steal from film industry examples, I want 'Run Lola Run' . . . [and] 'The Blair Witch Project.' I want those types of zany things that don't really fit into the mold to find their way into Xbox."

So for the first time, I actually dared to entertain warm thoughts toward Microsoft. Maybe J. Allard would become the Lorenzo di Bonaventura of the game industry -- and like the production head at Warner Brothers, who regularly uses AOL/Time Warner's cash reserves to fund provocative, offbeat films like "The Matrix" and "Three Kings." Allard would steward a handful of eccentric games to the Xbox. Sure, there'd always be the wrestling and the snowboarding titles, but in among those frat house staples, you'd regularly come across crossover games of genuine daring and artistry, the likes of which you'd never quite seen before. (And this wouldn't just be a P.R. sop for pretentious game critics -- it would reflect a savvy business sense, an acknowledgement that many acclaimed games, like Myst or the Sims, began as unclassifiably odd projects that were at first rejected by many but ended up redefining the industry.)

So on a warm November Saturday, along San Francisco's Embarcadero, I did go searching for the video-game equivalent of "Run Lola Run," at the (sparsely attended) Xbox Odyssey, a big touring tent for Microsoft to show off its lead games.

In that regard, Bungie Software's Halo and Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee from Oddworld Inhabitants -- both titles produced by studios within Microsoft's games division -- are the only plausible contenders on the console's premiere list. Yet, admirable as they are in their own right, neither quite reaches the status of a "killer app" -- a game so good as to justify the purchase of the hardware it runs on.

To be sure, Halo is an excellent, squad-based first-person shooter, set in a sprawling game world (a lush, artificial planet shaped like a ring), with an epic sci-fi story about humanity's last desperate stand against an alien coalition, fought on land, in underground bases and in aerial skirmishes above the surface. While it shares much from previous PC shooters -- including the strong narrative of Half-Life, the outdoor multiplayer combat of Tribes and the squad-based sci-fi action of Elite Forces -- it's the first to synthesize so many different elements seamlessly together in a console title.

It's already drawn the interest of PC gamers, who often dismiss console games as brainless kiddy fodder. At the Odyssey tent, one self-described PC loyalist was hardwired to a Halo demo, emptying clip after clip into hordes of dwarlike aliens. He'd already cleared his schedule for its debut, he told me. "I'm taking three days off work to play it, dude!" he said. But what other Xbox title is he interested in? His expression blanked a moment. "Dead or Alive III, I guess," he said, without much conviction, referring to Xbox's visually arresting (but conceptually undistinguished) fight title.

This ambivalence, equal parts enthusiasm and total indifference, is a recurring theme among the hardest of the hardcore gamers. "At the moment, nothing interests me enough to plop down $400 for an Xbox and games," says Jason "loonyboi" Bergman, news editor and console expert at Shacknews, a popular gamer site. "Especially not with all the bundles retailers are forcing people to get. Halo is going to be great ... But the rest of the lineup doesn't really interest me."

And while PC gamers are already predisposed toward Halo -- coming as it does from Bungie Software, one of the most respected (and oldest) computer game developers for Mac and Windows -- it's not clear the Bungie name will draw in console players. Especially considering its "hero," known only as the Master Chief -- a nameless ultracommando in a bulky power suit.

Underdeveloped protagonists are a recurring flaw in Bungie's games -- its strategy classics Myth and Myth II, for example, are masterpieces of real-time combat in a vividly realized world, but they're coupled to a generic fantasy story, recounted by an anonymous narrator. This lack of an appealing character never really hurt the popularity of the Myth games; however, they were cult hits confined to the much smaller market of computer games. In the console space, where the potential audience is in the tens of millions, the field is dominated by instantly identifiable, engaging personalities, intrinsically linked to their parent console. Nintendo has Mario; Sega, at the peak of its console dominance, had Sonic the Hedgehog. And for its own billion-dollar system, Microsoft leads off with ... a guy in a boxy outfit with a title for a name, his humanity masked off by a faceplate of tinted glass.

Come to think of it, for a Microsoft product, this is the perfect figurehead. It's also branding suicide.

Which leaves Oddworld, the adventures of Munch and Abe, vaguely humanoid, popeyed heroes trying to make it in a surreal, alien land. Beautifully rendered with eerie whimsy, Oddworld even includes witty touches of social satire -- much of your game time is spent freeing Fuzzles, tiny furballs condemned by their corporate masters to toil away for them, while literally caged to their workstations. After a few hours of play, though, a sheen of familiarity begins to creep in: Weirdness aside, much of the game involves scooping up power-ups and demands a lot of twitch-driven jumping; it feels a lot like Shigeru Miyamoto's Super Mario games, but with internal organs for heroes.

And that's it for the Xbox premiere list. Otherwise, it's the usual sports, racing and fight titles, rendered with slightly better graphics than the PS2, but really notable only for their slavish imitation to all the console games that have come before them.

Against this dearth of Xbox excitement, Nintendo is fielding a new title from Miyamoto himself. Early indications are that Pikmin, his strategy game, exclusive for the GameCube, will create as much new ground as he's already pioneered. Adhering to the Miyamoto aesthetic, it's a fusion of intuitive gameplay and dreamy, childlike imagery. The player controls a grounded space traveler who's struggling to repair his wrecked craft, assisted by the planet's tribes of sentient plants. The level of creative problem-solving required to accomplish this should attract a wider demographic than Miyamoto's previous games, and Pikmin may well be the GameCube's killer app.

Meanwhile, another GameCube-only title boasts the killer app of franchises. Star Wars Rogue Leader: Rogue Squadron II puts you in a picture-perfect re-creation of the aerial and space action scenes from the Lucas films, with a verisimilitude that makes them almost indistinguishable from the actual films. (In the Hoth level, you even get to entangle AT-ATs with your snowspeeder's tow cable.) Unfortunately, the missions are broken up in jarring, discontinuous chunks; you feel as if you're being hustled along a kind of "Star Wars" stations of the cross.

"As is typical with Nintendo, the software offerings will be quite limited for the holidays," says Geoff Keighley, editor in chief of Gameslice. "But still, let's keep the price in mind: $100 less for the GameCube is a lot of money in today's economy." If a recent Nintendo projection is to be believed, of the $55- to $60 million next-generation consoles expected to sell over the next half-decade, GameCube will take over three-quarters of that share, partially driven by its $199 list price -- which is about $100 less than the base rate for either the Xbox or the PS2. And Shacknews' Bergman believes that Nintendo's appallingly successful Gameboy Advance will also drive Gamecube sales: You can link the portable game system to the console, and use it as an extra controller.

Nintendo is also aiming to capture some of the older market dominated by Playstation 2 with games like the gothic horror adventure Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, set for early next year.

But there's no question which game will dominates this winter, and it's on the PS2.

"Metal Gear Solid 2 is by far the biggest game this holiday season," says Keighley, who recently returned from the Ebisu district of Tokyo, in preparation for his upcoming GameSpot profile on the development of MGS2.

The triumphant return of Solid Snake, the ultralethal stealth commando at the center of Konami's popular Metal Gear Solid, has been anticipated by gamers for several years. "I don't think it's a coincidence that the game is available at retail the same week as Xbox and GameCube go on sale," Keighley says.

The first Metal Gear Solid became a phenomenon largely on its cinematic strength; as directed by Hideo Kojima, it had the dazzling swish pans and quick cutting of an action movie. Those operatic, anime-influenced flourishes are retained in the sequel, and according to Keighley, are so bravura, they belie the PS2's relatively modest graphics power.

"Have one look at the tanker scene in MGS2," says Keighley, "with the rain falling, the puddles splashing and the wind gushing, all at 60 frames per second. That scene by itself is more cinematic and more realistic than anything I've seen on the other consoles ... Microsoft keeps telling us that Xbox is more powerful than the PS2," says Keighley, "but at least at this point MGS2 is just as impressive looking as anything I've seen on the Xbox. It just goes to show that graphic horsepower and processing speed isn't always what matters -- creativity and artistry can go a long way to making a console successful."

More than that, MGS2 comes with a compelling, intelligent story. "It's actually surprisingly well-written ... filled with thought-provoking dialogue and cinematic sequences," Keighley says. "The basic message has to do with realizing that there is more to life than just digital information. What can't be copied -- our memories, thoughts, emotions and feelings -- are still incredibly important things to preserve."

"I don't think there's any doubt in my mind that the Playstation 2 will be the market leader at the end of this year," says Bergman of Shacknews. "They've had over a year to build up an audience and the inevitable supply shortage on the other two systems will only help Sony."

This sense is validated by a recent survey of consumers in the market this Christmas for a console; overwhelmingly (as in 62 percent) they preferred the Playstation 2, and primarily on the strength of its brand and wide variety of games.

"Even the top-tier titles for the other platforms don't get me as excited as [Sony Playstation 2's] Grand Theft Auto 3 or Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3," says Bergman. "It all comes down to who has the best games, and this year, it's Sony."

Indeed, after MGS2, Sony's real killer app may be a covert one that never quite shows up on the mainstream radar. Grand Theft Auto III, from Rockstar Games/Take 2 Interactive -- in which you play a low-level wiseguy who carjacks his way to the top of Liberty City's underworld -- has been the rage of gamers since it hit shelves in October.

"This is a game that is unabashedly violent, offensive to just about everybody with a conscience and, unlike other equally offensive titles," says Bergman, a fan, "is actually a great deal of fun."

How offensive? It's not simply a matter of being able to barrel stolen cars over innocent pedestrians and cops at will, which was already a feature of the previous games. Here's what happens when you pull up to a working girl in the red light district of Liberty City: She leans into your window, and after some dickering, climbs into the passenger seat. Here's what happens when you drive her to a secluded area and pull over to the side: The car goes up, and down, and up again.

"Eventually the hooker will finish up (the rocking will speed up really fast and then stop suddenly) ..." an anonymous poster enthuses on hardcore gamer site Fatbabies. During the transaction, your health meter climbs, while your cash meter is depleted at a rate of $1 per second. "It's really no big deal though," the poster explains, "since you can just hop out of the car when she's done and beat your money right back out of her. ;)"

To be sure, this tacky Easter egg suggests that the developers at Rockstar games have, to put it nicely, Issues With Women. But unsurprisingly, GTA III has topped the video game sales and rental bestseller charts since its debut. For the console audience's core demographic, the 18-34 male, the Maxim reader, the "American Pie" DVD owner, Grand Theft Auto III must seem like digital cocaine.

"We have delivered titles that maintain more mature content," acknowledges Darren Horwitz, a spokesman for Sony Computer Entertainment America Inc. (SCEA), while professing no knowledge of Grand Theft Auto III's hookers 'n' cars feature. "But that is not the major factor in our development of games. It is about delivering the most realistic game experience ... while reaching the broadest demographic possible, child, teen, adult, grandparent, etc."

For now, Grand Theft Auto III is available only for the PS2. And while a port to the XBox is supposedly in the works, there's no word from Microsoft as to when it'll appear on its own console -- and with so much scrutiny on the XBox, it's hard to believe that Microsoft would add such a controversy magnet to its library anytime soon. (Microsoft officials contacted for this article were unavailable despite persistent efforts to obtain comment.)

But Grand Theft Auto III isn't selling so well simply for the sex-with-hookers bit. Reviews for the game have been consistently stellar, praising the title's breadth of open-ended, nonlinear gameplay and engrossing story line -- elements usually associated with more ambitious PC games. Come next January, Rockstar plans to add another title to its genre of inventive, free-form sociopathy, also available only on the Playstation 2. State of Emergency is a gamepad-driven satire on the anti-globalization movement, sure to be a gadfly for people across the political spectrum. ("[T]he oppressive American Trade Organization . . . are clamping down on organized resistance," Rockstar's description reads. "It is up to you to smash up everything and everyone in order to destabilize the ATO. Use any item available to begin fighting, including pipes, bricks and benches -- even dismembered body parts.")

In terms of branding, these kinds of games have helped position the Playstation 2 as something like the HBO of video-game consoles-- full of graphic violence and sexual content, yes, but also displaying a high degree of sophistication and a willingness to take creative risks.

Also under this rubric would be truly unique titles like FreQuency, developed exclusively for the Sony console. A kind of mixmaster Tetris, in which you try to weave a geometric milange of beats and melodies into a pleasing audio shape, it includes cuts from avant garde electronica figures like DJ Q-Bert, Crystal Method and Meat Beat Manifesto. And the project was always intended for the PS2, from very early on in its development, according to Greg LoPiccolo, vice president of product development for Harmonix Music Systems.

"Sony had been pretty outspoken about its vision for PlayStation 2 as a platform not just for games, but also for fundamentally new kinds of interactive entertainment," he says. "FreQuency is an extremely innovative game and we knew that we were going to need an innovative publisher to 'get' our vision and to take the product to market properly. Sony is a company that has always been progressive in this regard."

FreQuency is the kind of game you can play with your girlfriend. In fact, it's the kind of game that makes your girlfriend and her girlfriends kick you out of the living room so they can play it. "FreQuency is positioned as a game for all ages," company spokesman Ryan Bowling tells me by e-mail, "both female and male, for the gamer and non-gamer."

"I don't know if Sony actively pursues these unique projects or not," Geoff Keighley says, "but I wouldn't be surprised if these games appearing on the PS2 is simply a result of developers knowing it has the largest installed base."

Which would partially explain the presence of the Lost, a literate, survival-horror title with role-playing elements that's on the PS2 release list. "It was clear to me that the PS2 would be the leading console when the Lost debuted," says Ken Levine, general manager/creative director of Irrational Games. A loose adaptation of Dante's "Inferno" (it even includes a Virgil figure, though in this version, the Roman poet looks more like a bipedal lizard), it's the story of a young single mother who must travel through the nine circles of hell to retrieve her dead child. In hell, Amanda is assisted by corporeal embodiments of her soul (for good and ill), and each ring of the underworld is actually a manifestation of modern evil -- violent sinners, for example, are condemned to a plain resembling a World War I battleground, and the greedy are confined to a perverse Las Vegas.

Levine says Sony was genuinely excited by his cerebral approach to the genre. "I think they were psyched that we were trying to do something different," Levine says. "I don't think it's any secret that the survival horror genre has gotten pretty stale . . . [and by] bringing role playing into the mix and basing the game on a modern-day retelling of Dante, their opinion was, 'Well, that's pretty different. Do you think you can pull it off?'"

Levine is one of the creators behind the PC classic System Shock II, and during his stint at Looking Glass Studios, collaborated on the design of another computer game masterpiece, Thief: The Dark Project.

This is a crucial point, because the Xbox was originally touted as the platform for PC developers who wanted to migrate to console titles with a minimum learning curve. "Clearly the Xbox has a lot of advantages for developers," acknowledges Levine. "That's no secret. GameCube is relatively easy to develop for ... PS2 is a bear to develop for, but can you say 'installed base' and 'backwards compatible' and 'zillions of AAA franchises'?"

Not only that, a wealth of PS2 ports of excellent PC titles, like Half-Life, Deus Ex and Baldur's Gate are already on the console's release schedule. There may even be a small stream of Linux applications for PS2 coming soon, with Sony releasing a development kit to Japanese Playstation users, and scouting out the interest in an American version.

In any event, the Xbox's reputation as being the ultimate developer-friendly console seems to be waning, even before its release. "I never quite understand why Lorne Lanning [of Oddworld Inhabitants] stands up at every conceivable opportunity and mentions how Munch's Oddysee could only have been realized on the Xbox," Geoff Keighley says.

All this doesn't speak much for Xbox's prospects for expanding from the relatively slender beachhead it will likely have after this Christmas. "My guess is that Microsoft can survive one less-than-spectacular holiday season," says Bergman. "Two would be a serious blow."

"Given the challenge they faced, I think Microsoft did a great job with the launch. They've got a lot to compete against," says Levine. "It's going to take time and money to overcome that. However, Microsoft has two things going for them: time and money."

The company is taking a substantial loss on every Xbox sale, apparently hoping that the superior hardware inside will be its best future asset. On that score, the future hope for Xbox may lie in its connectivity functions, featuring a 100 megabit Ethernet connection and the preloaded potential to create an audience for console-driven online games. "If Sony had managed to launch their online network this fall (as was originally planned)," says Shacknews' Bergman, "then they would have a decent lead on Microsoft and would be able to put up a good fight against the Xbox (which has a built-in network adapter)." Failing that, Microsoft may now have an opening: "Xbox is well positioned for online next year," says Keighley, "whereas both the GameCube and PS2 seem to be behind the pack. But if Microsoft wants to be a serious player it needs more exclusive Xbox content, a better marketing strategy and a really compelling value proposition for the machine's online gaming component."

"The problem is that Microsoft has done next to nothing to exploit this hardware and show its potential," continues Keighley. "Think about it: The Xbox has an 8 gig hard drive. That is revolutionary, yet Microsoft hardly ever talks about it." But emphasizing the hard drive would probably require a shift away from traditional console games toward titles with vast inner worlds and multimedia-rich features; toward adventure and role-playing games and other grandly conceived, story-driven genres, in other words, which more and more resemble PC games.

"In a year," says Irrational's Levine, "I predict the market will be segmented into the PS2 crowd and the Gamecube crowd with Xbox being much more of a niche machine. Past a year or two, all bets are off."

Or as Geoff Keighley puts it: "What Xbox game are you looking forward to playing that is due in 2002? It's a rhetorical question. There are virtually no Xbox games announced for 2002 . . . [B]ut gamers buy consoles based on future potential. I can't tell you how many gamers bought a PS2 simply because they know the next Final Fantasy game is coming out for PS2 next year."

And he's right. As thin as the 2001 Christmas list is, Xbox's '02 lineup seems even less substantial, with nothing even close to resembling anything as ambitious as FreQuency or the Lost; certainly nothing, as Gates would have it, to capture the hearts of women or the elderly. For my own part, the only announced Xbox title to attract more than mild interest is Project Ego, a role-playing game from Big Blue Box, a satellite of Peter Molyneux's Lionhead Studios. Molyneux will also help oversee design of this game -- in which players create an avatar that, over decades of game time, literally ages in front of you, in a world that tangibly alters according to the actions you make within it. But then, Project Ego isn't expected until Fall 2002 at best -- and considering the long delays for Molyneux's PC game Black & White, who knows when it will really arrive?

"We don't change the way we do business based on changes in the competitive landscape," says an unperturbed Darren Horwitz, speaking from the Northern California office of Sony's American computer entertainment division. "We are only competing with ourselves this holiday season to outdo the tremendous success of this year past."

But the Microsoft promotional crusade lumbers on anyway, occasionally bombarding the key TV demographics with a series of unimpressive teaser ads, hoping against hope that, willy-nilly, it can become a worthy rival to the Japanese. (The European teasers spots for Playstation 2's Christmas season, by contrast, were directed by David Lynch.)

For now, Microsoft is thrashing around for purchase in a market driven by cool -- led by a CEO who gets his groove on to old Gloria Estefan tracks, and a general manager who clamors for games as original as the best independent and foreign films but has no perceptible clue what such an undertaking demands. Meanwhile, the industry's iconoclasts have already gravitated to the corporate culture that does know what it takes to let them -- and the company -- thrive.

One wonders if J. Allard even knows that "Run Lola Run" was actually brought to us by Sony.

This story has been corrected.

By Wagner James Au

Wagner James Au is a frequent contributor to Salon, and also writes "Notes from a New World," an online journal for Second Life, an upcoming MMOG.

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