Microsoft Losing Grip

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With the announcement of “Mass Effect 2′s” departure for the PS3, there can be no doubt that Microsoft is losing its hold on the market. Every single key developer who was making Xbox exclusive titles has now officially deserted. Every single one. Bungie is cutting loose after “Halo: Reach” to develop a new, cross platform intellectual property; same for Epic, whose latest testosterone-heavy action piece will release on both systems simultaneously. Valve has also jumped ship, although more in a symbolic way that anything else. Sony would like you to think “Portal 2″ on the PS3 is some massive coup, but seeing as the original was available on the system already, it was a pretty dull thud. What stung more was Gabe Newell admitting the PS3 version would be the best version, and who could disagree? Fully integrated Steamworks on a console? Why didn’t Microsoft think of that?

They probably did, because Valve was probably begging them to do it for years. They of course refused, just like they refuse to do anything with DLC that doesn’t involve 1200 MS points. I don’t know how the guys at Redmond got a stick wedged that far up their sphincter, but it’s in there good now, and no one can pull it out. They treat downloadable content like some kind of foreign plague they’re trying to mitigate through controlled dosage, and their paranoia is beginning to cost them. Sony may be incompetent—in fact I’m certain they are—but they understand how to spoil developers, and the “tough love” act Redmond has been putting on their people is beginning to wear.

What is happening to the Xbox 360? Actually, nothing. Microsoft is not unlike a Shakespearian tragic hero: the same qualities that brought them to where they are, also cause their downfall. They are absolutely still the same company that launched this buggy but brilliant system a few years back, but time has taken its toll, and now their merciless profit-hunting is beginning to turn on them. Sure, the life cycle of this generation is coming to a close, and sure, any victory at this point may seem trivial. But the loss of talent is, in my opinion, the most devastating blow you can suffer in the creative world. You seriously do not want Bungie out there in the world, making games for your enemy. You don’t want that. You don’t want Valve unsure of which console it wants to commit to, and you don’t want Cliffy B getting wined and dined by Sony. Microsoft has an eye for talent, it’s a big part of what made the original Xbox work even when the odds were stacked against it, but they also have a rigorous bottom-line. These guys turn profits like an addiction, they squeeze every penny just because they can, and while it makes them powerful, it also makes them stupid. Every single major loss they have suffered from their core creative team is their fault.

Don’t believe me? Let’s take a stroll down memory lane.


Bungie. This one is obvious: “ODST.” I know you remember that when that game was first announced, Bungie emphatically proclaimed it would not be full sticker-price. I was skeptical about that from the beginning, wondering how a Microsoft shareholder would feel about not milking the “Halo” cow for every penny humanly possible. Still, Bungie seemed to believe it was all good in the hood, and chugged away at a game I’m certain they expected to charge thirty to forty dollars for. And then, right before release, Microsoft bait-and-switched us all. Sixty dollars, please.

Not long after, Bungie was gone. They packed off “Halo: Reach” and announced they’d be making something new, something…gasp…cross-platform. Microsoft will tell you that Bungie was sick of “Halo” and had plans to leave long before, and while that’s probably true, “ODST” put the nail in the coffin. I also wonder about the ridiculous pace that Microsoft forced Bungie to endure these past years. Did they have a hand in making the studio sick of its own IP by pushing them too hard for too long? I think so. Microsoft could stand to learn from the wisdom of Warner Bros, who conspicuously let Christopher Nolan make an unrelated movie in between each Bat-flick. It’s called nurturing your talent, guys. My guess is, Microsoft worked them into the ground, and then flipped the final middle finger at them by releasing “ODST” full price.

 

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There is no reason Bungie needed to leave Microsoft’s tent. They were already making more money than any game studio in recent memory, and it’s not like the PS3 is the best-selling system ever. Whatever the financial aspects of their decision to leave, there was a personal one there too, and the latter makes the former.

Valve. Again, obvious. Valve came out in support of the 360 quite vocally from the beginning, and I’m sure they expected some reciprocation from Redmond in response. Nope. Want to give your “Left 4 Dead” fan base some free updates? Too damned bad. Over and over again, Valve tried to find a way around Microsoft’s ultra-stingy DLC attitude: no DLC, and no user created content. One of Valve’s core values is free updates, it’s something they believe in down to their bones, and no matter how much better they like the architecture of the Xbox, they weren’t standing for that. There are no immediate repercussions from the “Portal 2″ switch yet, but you can bet that the symbolic meaning of Gabe Newell standing on Sony’s stage at E3 isn’t lost on anyone. The next time Valve unleashes a new IP (“Defense of the Ancients,” anyone?), Microsoft may be left out in the cold.

 

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Epic. This one is trickier because even though “Gears of War” is a flagship 360 title, Cliffy B and company have never really been Microsoft loyalists. Still, do you remember how long it took the Xbox to get ahold of “Unreal Tournament 3″? Seems kind of odd that the go-to shooter system would be late to the party on one of the quintessential shooter franchises, right? So why the delay? The answer is simple: user created content. UT3 just happened to support mods, and Epic was so pleased with that development that they took the extra time to beg Redmond to play along. The public was assured that negotiations were in progress, and we all felt confident that UT3 was coming to the 360, mods and all Months and months passed, and they got nowhere, not even a concession. Eventually the game shuffled into stores and quietly took a seat, already past its prime.

Now take a look at “Bullet Storm,” the new IP Epic is guiding along with developer People Can Fly. Does this look like an Xbox exclusive to you? It certainly does to me. And it probably could have been, if Redmond had demonstrated even the slightest regard for which side of their bread is getting buttered. You get stingy about DLC for something like “N+” and I understand, but Epic Games? The guys who delivered you your flagship 360 title? Really? No love at all?

Bioware. Again, not that they were ever exclusive to the 360, but it sure was a sweet ride to have the “Mass Effect” franchise only available for us. Looks like that’s over, because what this announcement really means is that “Mass Effect 3″ will be cross-platform as well. Why, you ask? There are two reasons: first, herd instinct. Everyone is leaving Microsoft, so Bioware follows suit. Second, and more importantly, future plans. Bioware has begun wholesale embracing DLC, much the same way Valve has for years. The dirge of downloadable content they’ve released for ME2 is proof that they’re flirting with new ideas about digital distribution. My guess is, they have big plans for ME3, and those big plans probably do not line up with Microsoft’s hard-lined. Arizona-immigration style “pay to play” nonsense. While over in the other corner, Sony is going to allow Valve to integrate Steamworks onto their console, and that must look mighty tempting to a developer that wants to expand its distribution models. I promise you this: not only is “Mass Effect 3″ coming to the PS3, it’s going to be better on the PS3.

And what does Microsoft have to say about losing one of their most precious IPs to the enemy? Very little. It was so embarrassing watching them respond that I almost couldn’t look. With straight faces, they actually clung to the notion that the original “Mass Effect” remaining an exclusive was some kind of victory. What is going on over there, Redmond? Are you aware that every talented developer who used to work exclusively or somewhat exclusively for you has jumped ship? Do you care? Are you so blinded by the desire to shove “Kinectamals” down the throats of eight year olds that you don’t see the foundations of your house crumbling?

Get your act together, guys, or God help you.