Microsoft Hints At a Very Different Future For Xbox Gaming. Plus: What Are EA and Activision Up To? [UPDATE]

Editor's Note: If people in the gaming industry really wanted to hide stuff, they're going to have to do better. The one and only Superannuation keeps digging stuff up that just has to be shared with Kotaku readers. Today, we're looking to the future... a very weird future that has Microsoft, EA and Activision making games you probably weren't expecting.

In recent weeks, Microsoft has posted dozens of job openings for its Interactive Entertainment Business onto the company's career portal site, including a handful that provide some interesting insights into future ambitions for its Xbox division as it prepares to ramp up activity for the launch of the new Xbox.

Among the copy in a Lionhead business strategy and analytics manager opening that went up last Wednesday is a line under the "Key Success Criteria" for the role that states the employee will hopefully be a "Key participant in the transformation of Lionhead from a retail focused game developer into a provider of Entertainment as a Service." Those last four words are, of course, a variation on "games as a service," a popular buzzword among industry prognosticators referring to the evolution of gaming beyond the traditional retail model to something more consistently monetizable. That transformation does kind of mesh with rumblings about Lionhead's next title, and the listing seems to give a fairly explicit indication of Microsoft's long-term roadmap for the Fable developer.

Last month, Microsoft announced it was opening a fourth UK studio with a purview of delivering "Entertainment as a Service" products (i.e., "free to play, online and casual experiences") for Windows 8 tablet devices. Additionally, Rare has begun recruiting for a "Windows 8 development team" that will create games for both mobile and tablet devices. The software giant is also looking for a a producer with "Deep Experience Shipping Free-To-Play Games/Services" to work on "a gaming service based on a AAA game for core gamers that both keeps them enthusiastically engaged while also driving financial success" at its Redmond HQ.

Despite this new focus on free-to-play experiences, the formidable moneymaker that is Microsoft's Xbox Live subscription business is unlikely to be diminished anytime soon. Several weeks ago, Microsoft put up a posting for a Director of Value Proposition and Subscription Strategy whose task is to "Evolve [Microsoft's] entertainment subscription offerings across multiple screens" to "drive exponential growth in [the company's] subscriptions business." Five days after that posting went up, Microsoft confirmed the hiring of a Hollywood executive to focus on developing original entertainment content for Xbox, suggesting that the future of Xbox Live's value proposition will encompass much more than games.

A producer job posting for Microsoft's gaming division from earlier this month reveals a seemingly unannounced incubation initiative called "Studios University." According to the posting, the Studios University group "is partnering with top university game design programs [and Accelerator startups] in the US, Canada, and Europe to help build the IP asset portfolio for the future of entertainment." Microsoft seems to be taking a page from the likes of Sony and Valve, who respectively hired student teams from USC and Digipen to create outside-the-box experiences such as The Unfinished Swan and Portal. Could this pave the way to Microsoft embracing lateral-minded downloadable offerings as Sony has in recent years?

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Electronic Arts appears keen to build on the momentum from a possible Team Fortress 2-inspired Plants vs. Zombies console multiplayer shooter, and delve further into the emerging cognitive dissonance market with other puzzling combinations.

According to a job posting from last week, EA Mythic is building on its wealth of RPG experience to put "strong IPs on mobile in new and exciting ways" and "transform the Scrabble service across digital platforms." The listing also suggests EA Mythic's Scrabble will be some sort of freemium game with social elements that utilize Facebook's API.

Yes, the studio behind the fantasy MMORPGs Dark Age of Camelot and Warhammer Online is working on a mobile Scrabble game. EA already has a free-to-play mobile Scrabble title and a bunch of social and casual studios who could develop a Scrabble game, so it seems reasonable to guess that Mythic will bring something different to the Scrabble experience. Perhaps Mythic could do for Scrabble what Puzzle Quest did for the puzzle game?

UPDATE: Well, maybe not on this one. EA Mythic general manager Paul Barnett tells Kotaku in an email that the studio is not working on any sort of Scrabble title and the job postings that list such information are in error.

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A couple of trademark registrations may point to future plans of Activision's new freemium-focused UK studio The Blast Furnace, whose first game was a recently released Pitfall-branded infinite runner and whose mission is to reinvent classic Activision IP for the contemporary mobile market.

In mid-September, Activision filed a new trademark registration for "Laser Blast" for use with mobile phone game software. Laser Blast was an Atari 2600 title that was sort of an inversion of the Space Invaders concept, with players taking the role of UFOs trying to take out mobile land bases. Given the loose adherence of the recent Pitfall game to that game's original concept, it does not seem absurd to imagine that Laser Blast could become some sort of freemium tower defense game.

Back in June, Activision filed a similar mobile-oriented trademark registration for "Freeway," which was a Frogger-esque Atari 2600 game based on the joke about the chicken crossing the road. In terms of freemium gaming trends, perhaps Freeway could lend itself to some sort of physics-based puzzle game?

Also of note: with the previous registration about to expire due to a lack of use in the market within three years, Activision applied for a new trademark registration for "Sing Hero" several weeks ago. One of a bevy of Hero-related trademark registrations from the latter half of the last decade, the first "Sing Hero" registration seems to have been related to a title that was in development at now-defunct Bay Area Activision studio Shaba Games prior to their closure in late 2009. Another Activision subsidiary, DJ Hero creators FreeStyleGames, is presently working on the Wii U launch title Sing Party for Nintendo—could this mark be related to that?

superannuation is a self-described "internet extraordinaire" residing somewhere in the Pacific Time Zone. He tweets, and can be reached at heyheymayday AT gmail DOT com.

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