Summary: JCal goes over what Microsoft is bringing to the table in the coming weeks to counter Sony's and Nintendo's console launches.
With the Xbox 360’s first anniversary coming up on Nov. 22, and perhaps more importantly the launch of the PS3 and Nintendo Wii coming in the next 10 days, many people wondered what Microsoft would do to counter the launches. Today, we can reveal that beginning on Nov. 22, Microsoft intends to go much further in making the Xbox 360 more than just a gaming machine. On that they will begin offering high definition movies and TV show episodes for download with around 1,000 hours of programming available for download to the console before the end of the year. Last week FiringSquad spoke on the phone with Scott Henson, the director of platform strategy for Xbox Live, to find out more about their plans and other Xbox 360 news.
While our chat with Henson covered several topics, we will cut to the chase and report on what Henson told us about their high definition video download plans. Microsoft has contracted with a number of movie studios and TV networks to have some of their programming available for download. Pricing for the service had not been nailed down prior to our conversation with Henson last week but we were told that Xbox 360 owners will own the TV episodes they will download while the feature films will have a rental structure (the amount of rental time was not revealed in our conversation). Basically anyone with an Xbox Live membership (Gold or Silver) will be able to download high definition movies and TV shows onto an Xbox 360 hard drive. Since each purchase is tied into a person’s Gamertag, they can also sign on to their profile when they go to a friend’s Xbox 360 and download it to that hard drive and watch it there.
Now for the catches. As one might expect, these high definition movies and TV show can only be played on an Xbox 360 console. Henson told FiringSquad that they cannot be transferred to a PC, HD-DVD disk, flash drive or any other medium. Also there’s the rather small 20 GB hard drive that the console has (and only about 13 GB can actually be freed up) which will only allow for a handful of movies and TV episodes to be stored. As many have asked already, we inquired to Henson if there were any plans to introduce a larger hard drive for the console (rumors of 60 GB and 100 GB hard drives have been floating on the Internet in the last few weeks). While Henson said that there were no announcements they could make at this time, he did say that if they heard from Xbox 360 owners that they wanted a bigger hard drive to store more movies and TV shows they would consider it.
Perhaps the biggest buzz will be CBS’s offerings on Xbox Live where Microsoft will offer not only CSI and Survivor episodes for download, but also the newly remastered versions of episodes of the original Star Trek series. A couple of months ago there was quite a lot of attention given to these remastered episodes (currently running once a week on syndicated TV stations) because they not only featured better sound and images but also newly created CGI graphics that replaced the original’s special effects. We have confirmed with Microsoft following our chat with Henson that the Xbox Live episodes of Star Trek will indeed be the new versions with the new CGI effects (not the original versions that are currently running on G4 and TV Land)
The big question is will the millions of Xbox 360 owners (and presumably the millions more that Microsoft hopes will purchase the console this holiday season) jump in to use this new feature, especially with the limitations of the current size of the Xbox 360 hard drive? There’s also the question of hackers who will most likely try to crack Microsoft’s security over these new downloads. And while it’s unlikely that Nintendo will be offering a similar service for their Wii console, you can bet that Sony has similar plans for the PS3 (especially with all of their Sony branded TV shows and movies they have access to). We will soon see if Microsoft’s plans will come to fruition and take away some of the thunder from the PS3 and Wii launches later this month.
As we said earlier, FiringSquad also chatted with Henson on a number of other topics related to the Xbox 360 console and its Xbox Live service. Henson said that Microsoft is excited about the prospects for the launch this week of Gears of War, the long awaited third person action game from developer Epic Games. The other Microsoft first party game for the console this year is Viva Pinata, the kids action game from developer Rare that has already gotten a big boost thanks to the CGI Saturday morning cartoon show on Fox, which Henson said has scored very well in the ratings. In 2007 the Xbox 360 is scheduled to have a number of high profile exclusive and console exclusive titles such as Mass Effect, Crackdown, Forza Motorsport 2, the next Splinter Cell game, BioShock and a little-known shooter sequel called Halo 3 (EBGames and Gamestop stores are already taking pre-orders for three versions of the game one year before its scheduled release). Henson also told us that Microsoft has some secret plans to celebrate the original Halo’s fifth year anniversary on Nov. 15. There are also new hardware add-ons coming out later this year including the much hyped HD-DVD movie drive that’s scheduled to ship to stores this week for $199. On sale right now is a new wireless headset for the console and a new wireless racing wheel is due to be released in the near future.
Henson also talked to us about their Xbox Live Arcade, which has already seen a lot of success. Henson told us that the next Xbox Live Arcade game will be released this Wednesday and will be a port of the classic shooter Contra. Other games like Defender, Assault Heroes and Novadrome are scheduled to be released on Xbox Live Arcade before the end of the year. Henson told us that for 2007 there will be a more even mix of updated retro games (but with improved graphics, leader boards, achievements and more) and all new original titles for Xbox Live Arcade. And then there’s Microsoft’s push for the XNA Studio Express game development tool, which will see a final version in December and will allow people who sign onto Microsoft’s subscriber program to use it to not only create simple games for the PC, but also for Xbox 360.
We also asked Henson about the comparisons that are already being made between the Xbox 360 and the upcoming PS3 and Wii. Microsoft’s Xbox Live service offers a free Silver membership and a $49.99 a year Gold membership that among other things allows players access to multiplayer features in Xbox 360 and Xbox Live Arcade games. However, both Sony and Nintendo have already said they will offer free multiplayer features for their respective next-gen consoles. So will Microsoft break down and offer the Gold features for free at some point? Henson flat out said that he doesn’t see Microsoft turning away from their current plan mainly because Microsoft sees Xbox Live as having several features that neither competing console is currently slated to have. Henson made a point about how people playing online games on Sony’s PS3 network will have to have a separate friends list for each game along with their basic Sony Network ID, rather than the unified Gamertag that Microsoft offers for Xbox Live members.
What about other extra features for Xbox Live members? For example, both Sony and Nintendo will have Internet web browsers for the PS3 and Wii when they launch. We asked Henson if a future update for the Xbox 360 will include a similar feature. Henson said that the capacity to add such a browser would not be difficult but indicated to us that based on their focus groups and surveys of Xbox 360 members adding such a feature to the console would not be desirable.
With the introduction of high definition movie and TV episode downloads for the Xbox 360 it’s clear that while still concentrating on the video game features Microsoft sees the console as more than just a game machine. Will they be able to get a leg up on Sony who has a ready made list of movies, TV shows and even music to choose from if they decide to offer a similar download service? Will people get annoyed that the movie and TV downloads will be restricted only to the console and cannot be transferred to any other device? Will Microsoft’s line-up of games for this fall and for 2007 be enough to fight off the heavy hitters from Sony (Metal Gear Solid 4 and Final Fantasy XIII) and Nintendo (Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Galaxy)? Only one thing is for sure in this next-gen console war. Right now it’s truly anyone’s battle to win and even with Microsoft’s one year head start its clear the company isn’t taking their lead for granted.
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