Imagining Microsoft’s Next Generation of Games

01 Jul
July 1, 2012

A few days go I walked into the Starbucks by my house, hoping to find a nice seat in a corner and get some work done. When I stepped into the pleasantly fragrant lobby and looked up, however, my hopes were crushed.

The place was packed, every table and chair accounted for, minus a few tiny seats at a bar table too small to fit my laptop. As I walked over to get in line (begrudgingly stink-eyeing the people who occupied all three of my favorite spots) I noticed something peculiar:

A lot of folks had tablets.

In fact, there were only a few people in the entire lobby not using tablets. I observed lots of iPads, a good representation of Kindle Fires and other e-readers; as far as I could tell, everyone else at least had a smartphone. Walking through the lobby after ordering my drink, I peeked discretely at the screens I passed. Some folks were gaming, others reading Facebook; many had their earphones in, watching netflixhuloutube or whatever.

Interesting, I thought as I walked across the street to a different, less crowded Starbucks. The tablet craze is here to stay.

Are laptops doomed to be replaced by tablets and smartphones? That’s a pretty safe bet. Yet, I sense a bigger shift in the wind: a convergence that will define an entirely new generation of video games. It all comes down to Microsoft…

Microsoft revealed two enormous projects in the last month to complement the upcoming launch of Windows 8: SmartGlass and the Surface.

Microsoft SmartGlass

SmartGlass is an application that turns your favorite tablet/phone into a second screen, speaker, and/or controller for your Xbox. Demos at E3 showed a Madden player drawing new hot routes with his finger; a clip of a Halo fan reading extra information unlocked in Campaign mode, then accepting an online invite from his friend. While these demos were certainly cool (read about the rest of them here), they really only scratch the surface of potential applications. Microsoft hopes to launch SmartGlass on every major platform, and has already released its development kit to partners. If MS is successful in universal distribution, and the application doesn’t suck, we’re looking at every person with access to a smartphone (192.4 million in the US by 2016, source) or tablet as a potential user of our next-gen games.

Here are the biggest points that come to mind about SmartGlass potential:

Mobile control schemes (touch gestures, gyroscopic control, etc) can now be a part of our traditional console control schemes.

  • We can provide alternate touch controls for, say, the casual gamer mom who’s never touched a controller but plays consistently on her iPhone. Suddenly she can try out that adventure Xbox game with her son in a way that’s familiar to her.
  • We can create additive controls to add depth to our games.
    • Example: Puzzle elements that utilize touch gestures and gyroscopic rotation.
    • Touch gestures are perfect for customization. Why not let players finger-paint their car in Need For Speed?

Build on the strengths of mobile social networks.

  • Mobile frameworks for every important social platform already exist, and gamers love to share–user-created content, achievements, pictures and videos, smack talk, theory-crafting, etc. We need to provide easier ways for our players to share, and SmartGlass integration may prove to be a perfect solution.
    • You ranked first in that last match? Pick up your phone, tap the screenshot button in SmartGlass, tap and drag to crop it, click the “Share to Twitter” button that pops up, and make sure to mention your rival (@loudmouth_haloboy666) in the caption. Your tweet is on the way before the next round has even started.

Promoting social sharing will get more people talking about our games. For free.

We can provide a portal to participate from anywhere.

  • Blizzard has done this with World of Warcraft Remote. Players have free access to character & item searches, talent calculators, limited auction house browsing, and more. For a $2.99 subscription, they have premium access to guild chat, whispers/tells, and the fully functional auction house.
  • Even if SmartGlass is limited, such as only working through WiFi, we can still use it to promote/complement our mobile applications and drive discussion on official forums.
    • Your player dies three times on hardcore mode, and SmartGlass pops up with a link to a forum discussion about strategies for the challenging level.
    • What would Call of Duty Elite, Battlefield 3 BattleLog, Starcraft II stats & replays, etc. look like on mobile?
      • How much more would they be used as easy to access mobile services integrated into the official Microsoft platform?
      • Blizzard-style premium mobile subscriptions would sell astronomically well to the Xbox market, considering the overpriced products like the $49.99 CoD: Elite package.

SmartGlass could provide another (better?) platform for monetization.

  • It’s generally easier to tap that “BUY NOW” button than it is to scroll awkwardly through layers of menus and push the right button on a controller. Play to the intuitive nature of touch and instant gratification of digital content.
    • 66% of smartphone users shop on their device (source). Now is the perfect time to establish SmartGlass a go-to source for those users looking to research, discuss, and purchase our products.
    • What if SmartGlass incorporated an AppStore type of interface? Again, even in the most restricted circumstance, the application could still drive traffic to outside links like, say, a mobile page for purchasing down-loadable content.

Microsoft Surface

I might have found the replacement for my rather suddenly unappealing Laptop.

Enter the Surface, a tablet designed and manufactured by Microsoft that features a touch keyboard built into the cover, usb slots (which means we can use a mouse), and compatibility with all Windows 8 software (on the pro version of the device). If Microsoft plays their cards well, we’re looking at the Surface as being the first tablet with all the functionality of a laptop. Perhaps even right out of the box.

But here’s the fascinating question: What if Microsoft integrates SmartGlass functionality into the Surface? Suddenly, we’re dealing with a universal gaming controller, capable of playing touch based mobile-style games, traditional PC titles on Windows 8, along with everything SmartGlass brings from the Xbox.

If Microsoft pulls that off, we’ve got an exciting future ahead of us as developers, because the market for mobile, PC, and console games will begin to converge. We’ll have more ways to make our games accessible; more ways for our players to participate.

We’ll be heading towards a new platform perfect for every kind of gamer. This may seem like a long-shot, but there’s no denying the trend of inter-connectivity emerging in game technology, especially in Microsoft’s recent announcements.

By realizing the potential that products like SmartGlass and the Surface have to change the next generation of games, we’ll better seize the opportunities for truly innovative development that will inevitably present themselves.

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5 replies
  1. charliehelman says:

    Update: This post was featured on Gamasutra’s Member Blogs! Awesome stuff. A couple comments there worth reading, feel free to check it out:

  2. AdamBritten says:

    Definitely like your suggestion that if the game notices you die three times, it could route you to a forum. Another idea, it could connect you to a friend (via Facebook or some other application) that has passed that point in the game so you can get help that way. Welcome to Livefyre, Charlie. Please let us know if you ever have any questions or feedback. Looking forward to more blog posts!

  3. AgileWhisperer says:

    Very nice post.


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