At the launch of the Xbox One, backlash against the original plan to launch with mandatory license checks was still raging online after Microsoft had reversed course. The idea that games would be so pervasively tied to digital licenses, paid subscription programs and require an online connection (even periodically) was anathema to a vocal part of the gaming community.
A few years later, Xbox has returned to much of its original vision with a combination of Games With Gold (free games every month for Gold members), EA Access (early access, 10% off digital purchases & a digital vault) and aggressively marketing digital pre-orders for upcoming games. The controlled rollout of Xbox Play Anywhere with console + PC availability for selected digital games further commits Microsoft to the games as a service approach to Netflix has popularized with video and Spotify with music.
Their latest foray in the Xbox Game Pass is another complementary service that provides a rotating library of Xbox One and 360 games (all backwards compatible) for a monthly fee, starting with a heavy emphasis on first party games but with the promise of expanding to additional publishers over time. We’re starting to see that already with the arrival of Resident Evil 6 in the last title update, a promising sign that recent AAA games will be an important part of the Game Pass.
Games are added to your system quickly, a setup process that mirrors Games With Gold and continues the focus of local installation in sharp contrast to Sony’s streaming service in PlayStation Now. They play exactly as regularly purchased games do with no restrictions on earning achievements or connecting online. The benefit isn’t limited to trying new or library games; existing installs of games purchased on disc will seamlessly recognize the digital entitlement and load upon request. Games that have faded in online player base over time may also experience a small uptick in available players, adding a shot in the arm to previously dormant multiplayer games.
Xbox Game Pass matters because it offers a large library of games at a small fixed price, offering value as either a standalone service or as a complement to Games With Gold, EA Access and the assortment of free to play titles on Xbox One. For about $25 per month, gamers can access a library of over 100 games with regular additions on a nearly weekly basis. It’s a paradigm shift in how we acquire and experience interactive entertainment, one that I’m excited about as a gamer who appreciates both value and the preservation of communities on lesser known titles.
Big game reveals (and media announcements in general) have undergone a radical shift in the modern era as social media and live streaming have become prevalent. The cost/benefit analysis for attending a major event in person compared to an HD live stream in the comfort of your own home is hard to argue, especially when gaining access at all for events such as PAX is nearly impossible due to extreme demand. Combined with major publishers such as Electronic Arts and Nintendo moving to separate events and a pre-recorded presentation respectively, the importance of a big stage event such as E3 is increasingly challenged.
That said, I strongly believe that major events like E3 still matter for gamers and the entertainment industry overall. Holding an event equivalent to the industry’s Super Bowl attracts significant attention to new and exciting developments such as virtual & augmented reality, new console hardware, 4K gaming and AAA games that energizes gamers and industry professionals alike.
E3’s tradition of major press briefings also brings an intense focus on participating developers & publishers that motivate them to bring hardware, software and services to their presentations that live up to the expectations of the annual event. Reveals such as Xbox 360 backwards compatibility on the Xbox One would have been big news under any circumstance, but unveiling it as the hammer for Microsoft’s E3 2015 briefing brought a huge amount of attention and public interest to the announcement.
Twitch, Mixer, Twitter, YouTube and other online services will continue to grow in importance in breaking and sharing news about the video game industry, but the sheer spectacle of E3 and other events such as PAX and The Game Awards will continue to serve as yearly industry milestones that take full advantage of the big stage for the largest possible audience.
At a time when mobile games based on major franchises are increasingly free to play revenue generators or basic collectible games with online service links, it has been refreshing to play the Go series by Square Enix Montreal. Translating their big franchises in Hitman, Lara Croft (Tomb Raider) and Deus Ex into portable titles that take design elements from each series and distills them down into a turn based, square or diagonal point grid to eliminate enemies in increasingly elaborate puzzles is both surprisingly addictive and savvy in approach.
Porting the games to the PlayStation 4 has been a big win, introducing many console gamers that missed out on the initial mobile launches. The combination of a current console release version, trophies, sale prices and a big screen presentation drove me to try the Lara Croft version followed by Hitman before diving into the iOS versions to play through them again. While Deus Ex Go is currently mobile only, it is expected to follow its Go brethren to Sony’s console and should translate as well onto television screens.
Hitman Go is the most abstract in its interpretation as a board game, rendering Agent 47 and the array of enemies as figures on a grid that knock pieces off with each kill. It has a steep difficulty curve in later levels that relies extensively on complicated pattern shifting that can be frustrating, but the mix of abstract design and clever scenarios make it worthwhile.
Lara Croft Go keeps more of the core adventure style with more focus on navigation and the environment while translating parts of Hitman like the chasing enemies over. It has a wider range of colour palettes and enemy variety to go with treasure hunting side quests layered into each level, making it closer to its inspiration in both aesthetic and action. This is my personal favourite!
Deus Ex Go switches to a triangular grid but keeps many of the other mechanics from the previous Go games. It feels more constrained by the format, in part due to the slower speed and smaller screen of its mobile version.
Overall, Square Enix has a winning formula with this series. The translation of obvious franchises like Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts or dark horse candidates (Life is Strange?) are opportunities that I hope they explore.