Is Microsoft Trying to Beat the Competition by Buying Them Out?

Microsoft has recently been on a bit of a buying spree, like a stereotypical teenage girl at a shopping centre who buys every cute top they see on sale. Xbox Game Studios has increased their roster by adding smaller studios such as Compulsion Games (We Happy Few) and Obsidien Entertainment (The Outer Worlds). Presumably, this is to allow themselves to have much more exclusives for the launch of the new console generation.

However, their latest purchase is not a smaller studio, but rather the parent company for a number of big AAA studios. Microsoft’s purchase of Zenimax media was not a small move, costing them $7.5 Billion, almost double the amount that Disney paid for Lucasfilm, and means that Bethesda Softworks (Fallout/Elder Scrolls), Zenimax Online Studios (Elder Scrolls Online), Tango Gameworks (The Evil Within), Machine Games (Wolfenstein), Arkane Studios (Dishonored) and ID Software (Doom) are now a part of the Xbox Game Studio’s family.

This is a huge blow to Sony, as while Zenimax is liable to their agreements over Playstation exclusives such as Deathloop and Ghostwire: Tokyo, beyond these agreements anything goes. If Microsoft wants every new game published by Bethesda to be an xbox exclusive, then thats what it will be.

While this is obviously good for Microsoft, buying up big competitors is potentially harmful to the industry as a whole. Prior to Microsoft purchasing Zenimax, Sony purchased Insomniac Games for $229 Million to try and combat Microsoft’s buying up of smaller studios, and in a recent corporate report they expressed their interest in “invest[ing] in, or acquir[ing], firms with abundant creativity and cutting-edge technologies to build up Worldwide Studios, an association of first-party title production studios”. Now that Microsoft has bought Zenimax, will Sony go after Devolver, Konami or Take Two?

This trend will only end up hurting the consumer. With lots of exclusives on both consoles, consumers will be compelled to purchase both, effectively doubling the price they would have spent on one console.

However, there is a ray of hope for the industry’s future. The industry has also found itself on another trend of releasing its exclusives on other consoles. Microsoft’s exclusive Cuphead was re-released on the Nintendo Switch and Playstation 4, and Xbox’s own flagship franchise Halo has been made available on Steam, with the new Halo Infinite also coming to PC at launch. Sony has started to follow this trend too, with Horizon: Zero Dawn and Death Stranding both making their way to PC through Steam. It’s a generally known fact that consoles are sold either at a loss or very little profit, so perhaps we may start seeing more and more exclusive making their way to new platforms in the future.

It’s also important to talk about the potential of game streaming in the future. While it might still be a ways off being fully functional (especially with Australia’s notorious internet speeds), it’s entirely possible that the industry as a whole will move away from consoles and more to services such as Xbox Game Pass. This would drastically reduce the entry price to access exclusive games, after all, most people dont just settle for Netflix.

However, it’s entirely possible that this buying spree isn’t yet over, and with the release of the new generation of consoles around the corner, both Microsoft and Sony will likely be looking for that console selling exclusive.

Super Mario 3D All-Stars Review: Super Mario 64

No you didn’t read that wrong. In the year of our lord 2020 I am reviewing the 1996 classic platformer, Super Mario 64. More specifically I am reviewing the re-release of it in the Super Mario 3D All-Stars bundle for the Nintendo Switch.

For those of you who don’t know, Super Mario 64 was a launch title for the Nintendo 64 back in 1996, created and directed by Shigeru Miyamoto and was universally praised for its gameplay and innovation. The game features you taking control of Mario, exploring Princess Peach’s castle and collecting stars in various levels to unlock new parts of the castle which lead to new levels. Each level contains a pseudo-open world environment, with multiple paths and areas leading to different stars.

If you’ve played other 3D platformers like Spyro, Banjo-Kazooie or later 3D Mario games such as Galaxy and Odyssey, it’ll be pretty familiar. However, it’s important to note that this game predates every 3D platformer you know. It was revolutionary and defined a new genre that was impossible on previous hardware.

Everyone already knows it was good in 1996, but it’s not 1996, its 2020, and we need to know if it’s still worth getting for someone who’s never played it before.

Picking up the game for the first time on my switch was pretty intuitive, and the game required almost no tutorial apart from a quick explanation on which buttons do what. I never thought that Mario Galaxy or Odyssey were every really too challenging and the first few levels of 64 weren’t really either. But then I unlocked the basement, and things started to change. Enemies got tougher, platforms got smaller and level got harder, this game was not the walk in the park I thought it would be. And stars aren’t just lying around everywhere like they are in Odyssey or just found at the end of a pretty linear path like in Galaxy, they are either hidden away in the last place you’d expect or are pretty difficult to get to. This game really challenged me.

Despite the limitations at the time, every level, with the exception of a few, looks and feels unique and different. Tiny Huge Island is one of the later levels in the game and feature a lot of the same textures found in Bob-Bomb Battlefield and has a similar layout to Tall Tall Mountain. Because of this, it would have been easy for it to feel similar to these levels, but the gimmick of making Mario grow and shrink as well as the rather tricky placement of the stars makes this level really stand out and feel unique.

Unfortunately, this game does have one glaring flaw that is pretty hard to overlook, and that’s the fact that it was made in 1996. Every level is a mess of polygons and poorly rendered textures, with the landscapes of most levels feeling a bit flat and dull. And while the camera was considered revolutionary at the time, and controls in a very similar way to Mario Galaxy, I walked off an edge or into an enemy because the camera was at the worst possible angle. It’s definitely not as polished as some of the newer games and at certain points made me just want to play Odyssey instead.

But while the game isn’t the most graphically impressive and the camera really tried my patience, Super Mario 64 is a challenging and rewarding game with tons of visually interesting levels and engaging gameplay moments that I would say holds up to a lot better in 2020 than I expected. I believe that this game will go down like the original Doom, outdated but with enough charm and fun to be a timeless classic. If you have enjoyed Super Mario Odyssey and you’re willing to plough through a game that is a bit outdated, you really can’t go wrong with Super Mario 64.

Will Microsoft’s ‘Project XCloud’ Fail Like Stadia?

By Daniel Waterman

There’s been a lot of talk over the past few years about gaming following in the footsteps of video and music and game streaming services will be the future. Microsoft has recently announced that their streaming service, Project XCloud, will be coming to their Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription service. With this announcement, I believe it is important to look back at the predecessor to this service, Google Stadia, and see whether it looks like Microsoft can avoid the same mistakes.

Stadia was announced back in March 2019 at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco. At the conference, Google outlined their vision for what google stadia would look like, with grand promises of streaming high-quality games at 4K in 60 fps on phones, laptops and other devices that would normally not be capable of this, but the big selling point, was its accessibility. Google CEO, Sundar Pichai (2019), promised “A game platform for everyone”, and that Google Stadia will “eliminate that barrier to entry, [and] make it simple and easy for people who want to try stadia for the first time”.

Google is trying to capture the market of people who want to get into gaming but are intimidated by the expensive price point for consoles and PCs. The only audience that would seem to fit this group would be kids whose parents either can’t afford or simply won’t spend $400-$500 AUD on a console. However, their focus on the graphical capabilities and the fact that they announced ID Software’s Doom: Eternal would be coming to the service, a game rated R18+ for “High impact violence, blood and gore” (Australian Classifications Board, 2020), presents the ideal audience for them as the more mainstream gaming audience, who likely already own a gaming console or PC. Right from the get-go, Google has targeted the audience who will judge their product the harshest and will be underwhelmed at its performance.

Google Stadia GDC 2019, Offical GDC, lisenced under CC by 2.0

Following the announcement, there was understandably a lot of scepticism around how well the service would actually function. When I play games, I use a wired mouse to avoid the extremely slim chance that there might be less than a milliseconds of latency when using a wireless one, so I can’t even imagine what the latency would be like to stream a game from the other side of the world, especially with Australia’s notorious internet speeds. There’s also another issue which comes with Google’s reputation for failing products. The website “killedbygoogle.com” by Cody Ogden is a very long list of projects that Google has axed over the years after they performed under their expectations. The fear people have with stadia is that if they invest in the service and it underperforms, Google will axe the project fairly quickly.

For these reasons it was even more important that reviews of the service are favourable. Fortunately, reviews presented that the service was functionally sound. In TechRadar’s review of stadia, they tested the service on a smartphone with a 15 mbps wi-fi connection and stated that “most of the time we saw no noticeable issues” (Pino, N 2020) and that the slowdown they did face “wasn’t so awful that it made us want to outright quit” (Pino, N 2020). Considering the average internet speed in Australia is 25 mbps, it reasonable to assume that the service would function to an acceptable quality. All seems to be going well for a successful launch for Google’s new gaming service, right?

Unfortunately, Google seemed to completely botch the launch. On November 19th 2019, Google stadia officially launched in 14 countries (which does not include Australia), but only to those who had purchased the $130 USD Stadia Premier or Founders editions which included a controller, Chromecast and 3 months of Stadia Pro. While it’s definitely a lot cheaper than a console, this price point really didn’t help to target their cheaper market and ensured the only ones who would buy the service at launch would be the early adopters who were curious about the tech.

A few weeks later, Stadia was available to the public, but only if you had a subscription to Stadia Pro, which allows players to play games at 4k for a monthly fee of $10 USD. However, as most people found out, most games on stadia do not run at 4k and are simply upscaled, and on top of the fee you have to buy every game except Destiny 2, which is available for free on all other platforms. Essentially, you got to pay $10 a month to play a graphically inferior version of Destiny. The Verge summed it up best in their review, summing up the entire service as “still just a beta” (Hollister, S 2019), effectively emphasising how Google simply felt like they had to release the service as soon as possible to get ahead of their competitors.

Now a rough launch isn’t the end of the world, and services like stadia have bounced back to become extremely successful. The initial beta testing for Steam saw the client and website both crash, and when Valve announced that Half-Life 2 would only be available on Steam, there was outrage. Virtual Reality (VR) was going to be the future of gaming a few years ago, VR was where every franchise was looking, but the barrier to entry for a system was much greater than any other platform as it required a pretty good PC on top of the $600 AUD headset just to be able to run. These services could have failed but were both saved by the same thing, Half-Life. While they weren’t thrilled about it, thousands of people downloaded Steam to be able to play Half-Life 2, which helped to make Steam the essential service it is today, and when Half-Life Alyx released for VR platforms, Valve, Oculus and HTC sold out of all their stock of VR headsets for the next few months.

Xbox Press Conference, by Constantin Wiedemann, lisenced under CC 2.0

Google has clearly made some mistakes when it comes to their Stadia service. But now the question is whether or not Microsoft will make learn from them or follow in their footsteps. Project XCloud launched on September 15th 2020 in 22 countries as a part of their Xbox Game Pass subscription service and has received similar reviews to Stadia. Tech Radar’s review of XCloud was virtually the same as their review of Stadia, stating similar issues with the service that need to be ironed out. The big technical difference with Stadia is that while Stadia felt like it was still a beta, XCloud actually is a beta. Microsoft are not selling you a fully realised service because it isn’t one and they are letting you know that up front rather than releasing it and marketing it as a perfect service with no bugs.

While XCloud might be still in beta and not quite ready for its official release, it doesn’t matter because it is only one feature of Microsoft’s Game Pass service. Xbox Game Pass is a subscription service which give you access to a number of games for a monthly fee of $10 AUD. The service has a rotating library which contains over 200 games and includes AAA games like Dishonored, Final Fantasy and Hitman, as well as popular indie titles like Hollow Knight, Minit and Human Fall Flat, and new games from Xbox Games Studios like Halo, Gears of War and Ori are available the day of release on the service. Essentially, Game Pass is the Netflix of games that everyone was hoping Stadia would be, even though it hasn’t had streaming capabilities until now. Unlike Google, Microsoft is treating game streaming as a feature not the main selling point, you buy Game Pass for the games. This also means that regions that don’t have a great internet connection still have a good reason to get Game Pass, so while XCloud might not be available in Australia, there is still great value in Game Pass that it is easily worth the price.

Microsoft have been in this industry a lot longer than Google and know what the audience is looking for when they buy into a service. Features and cool tech are important, but a good library, a reasonable price and the ability to download games as well as stream them is what is going to sell your service to this market.

Additional Resources

Australian Classifications Board 2020, Latest Classification Decisions, viewed 10 Sept 2020, <https://www.classification.gov.au/classification-ratings/latest-classification-decisions?f%5B0%5D=latest-decision-category%3AC>

Hollister, S 2019, Google Stadia Review: The Best of Cloud Gaming is Still Just a Beta, 18th Nov 2019, viewed 16 Sept 2020, <https://www.theverge.com/2019/11/18/20970297/google-stadia-review-gaming-streaming-cloud-price-specs-features-chrome-pixel>

Hood, V 2020, Hands on: Project xCloud review, 5th May 2020, viewed 17th Sept 2020. <https://www.techradar.com/au/reviews/project-xcloud>

Google 2019, Stadia GDC 2019 Gaming Announcement, 19 Mar 2019, viewed 10 Sept 2020, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nUih5C5rOrA>

Ogden, C 2020, Killed By Google, viewed 24/9/2020, <https://killedbygoogle.com/>

Pino, N 2020, Google Stadia review, 30 May 2020, viewed 14 Sept 2020, <https://www.techradar.com/au/reviews/google-stadia>