My article on Monday about Respawn Entertainment's first post-Call of Duty game, a sci-fi multiplayer shooter, coming exclusively to the current and next-gen Xbox consoles, turned some heads. So did the part of the piece about Microsoft falling behind with their next-gen machine.
That latter bit has become a thing of its own, separate from the Respawn news, which I should remind you is not officially announced but comes from two unrelated, good industry sources (I have since heard from a third source, who said he'd heard rumors of that Microsoft exclusivity plan earlier this year).
Putting the Respawn thing aside for the moment, let's focus on the Microsoft next-gen woes bit. This is what I had written, emphasis added for your scanning convenience:
We've heard from other sources that Microsoft is not where they want to be at this point in the pre-launch development of Durango. A reliable source—one who was not part of our reporting about the Respawn game—tells us that Microsoft is as much as six months behind in producing content for the new console, despite an expected late-2013 launch. Another tells us that Microsoft recently cancelled several internal next-gen projects because they were not coming together as hoped. These sources have told us that, comparatively, Sony is in better shape and further along with hardware and software development for PlayStation 4.
We'd also heard from an industry insider that Microsoft was aggressively trying to sign exclusive games for Durango. Given the lack of internal development at Microsoft—their internal studios, while talented, are outnumbered by those of Sony and Nintendo—and given some of the apparent recent stumbles and slowdowns internally, signing an exclusive Respawn-EA game would suit the Durango quite well.
I don't have more news for you on that today. Sorry! But I wanted to expand on that a little.
First, bear in mind that we're at least six months—probably even a little bit longer—out from the release of the new Xbox, code-named Durango. We're not even going to be getting official word about it until May 21, most likely. We'd heard official word about the PS4 in February. Did that alone indicate that Sony was ahead? Not necessarily.
The impression my Kotaku colleagues and I have long had was that the next consoles from Microsoft and Sony are going down roughly parallel paths and have both been in the works for a while. We've been hearing specifics—not just vague plans but details shared between Microsoft and outsiders—about this new Xbox system since early 2012. We broke news of the codenames for the next Xbox (Durango) and PlayStation (Orbis) in February and March of that year, respectively. While the latter name actually appeared online the December before, the impression we've long had is that Durango and Orbis were aiming for the same part of the calendar. Microsoft and Sony both want you to be able to buy a new console as soon as this Christmas.
Over the past year, I've heard from industry sources who've been variously impressed with Sony and Microsoft's plans, though, of late, Sony gets the better buzz and Microsoft is deemed as somewhat scattered. Frankly, I'd be surprised if Sony wasn't scattered in its own way but, yes, lately, Microsoft is generating a little more head-shaking among my and my colleagues' industry sources. You can see some of that articulated in the chunk I lifted from my Monday article about Respawn.
With the Orbis and Durango on nearly parallel tracks, it's easy to make comparisons. PS4 controllers start popping up at development studios in February, but Durango ones show up in March/April? Easy comparison.
Microsoft seems less certain about how to proceed, sources tell us. They don't seem as ready for a launch as you'd expect them to be. It sort of makes sense, if you think of Microsoft riding high on the Kinect-fueled success of the Xbox 360 in recent years. Still, they did launch their last console, the 360, in 2005, a year before Sony and Nintendo's PS3 and Wii.
One reliable source compares Microsoft's current Durango moment to the situation with the Wii U, which launched without a key promised launch service and with a scant number of exclusive games. Remember the Wii U? Expect something kind of like that for the next Xbox, they say. At least in terms of how it's looking now. So much can change. And it's never easy to make a console. I'd expect all console launches to be like the Wii U's. Because they always are.
That's the thing to remember: these consoles never launch all that well. They always launch with a tiny number of games worth having and a great amount of ports and padded content to convince you that there are enough games out on day one to merit that day one purchase. This happened with the Xbox 360, with the PS3, with the Wii U. This is how it goes. The console makers' marketing team tries to play it cool, but these consoles come in hot. You wind up, as I did, with a brand-new Xbox 360 and the only game you want to play on it is a retro-arcade game called Geometry Wars. A year later, at last, the likes of Oblivion and Gears of War have blown you away. But they're not there at the start. Nor are many of the services, like Netflix, that the console is known for.
All that said, the "six month" thing I reported has stuck out. What's it mean? It means, as best I understand it, that we'll see Durango launch like the Wii U did. It means developers—internally and third-party—haven't had a ton of time with development hardware. It means that, as I've been told, the games aren't where they need to be and even the machine's operating system isn't up to snuff yet. (Update: To expand on this a bit since I noticed it grabbed some attention: in early April, a top source told me Durango devkits were running Windows RT and used the same APIs for opening files and creating threads as the OSes for Microsoft Surface and Windows Phone 8 do. Microsoft is an OS company, so assume they'll get that right. While this is only single-sourced to one top source who I trust, I'm mentioning it in this addendum to add a little more color. It's not that Microsoft doesn't have an OS in the works for Durango; it's that, as with most other things related to the system, they're still sorting out how to get it to do everything they'd like the system to do. This seems normal for at least some point in a console's development cycle; whether it's where they should be now is another story.)
Nintendo may have some problems unique to Nintendo, but if you thought Wii U's ungraceful launch was just a Nintendo thing, think again. (Christmas 2013 with a maturing Wii U and newborn PS4 and next-gen Xbox just might look a little different than Nintendo naysayers expected.)
On May 21, Microsoft will at least probably catch up to Sony in terms of publicly, officially-disclosed information. They may, by then, have a clear message that they can express about everything from online requirements to Xbox Live's new systems to the presence or lack of backwards compatibility for older games. Right now you can safely assume that things are a little confused and stressful on the Durango project. This doesn't mean Durango will suck. It doesn't mean PS4 will automatically be better. But it may affect what we're told by Microsoft, what kind of games will show up on launch day and whether the next-gen of gaming will be something you'll want to get involved with this year.
As we know more, we'll let you know. Please remember that console launches tend to be more hype than happiness. It's reasonable to keep your long-term expectations for the next Xbox or any other console high, if you'd like, but in a new-console year, you'd best set your short-term expectations low.