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Xbox One – the glory of being first past the post

Ahead of the worldwide release of Xbox One this week, Stace Harman speaks to the developers of an array of the console’s exclusive titles to find out what it means to be there from the very start of the next-gen party.

Xbox One arrives on Friday and with it comes a number of exclusive titles that vary in scope, impact, approach and design. Irrespective of how they’re received, each one will automatically earn a place in video game history as an Xbox One launch title, to be celebrated or derided throughout this generation and those that follow.

Evidently, it’s an honour that’s worth fighting for, which is why a number of developers have waded through hell and high-water to be there when the klaxon sounds to herald the start of Microsoft’s next-gen campaign. It’s not been an easy ride, by all accounts, but for this handful of developers it’s been an important one.

Now, as they stand on the cusp of release, they can take a measure of satisfaction from the fact that they’ve made it. Here, a handful of developers reflect on why it’s important to be first and ponder the highs that the Xbox One thoroughbred has allowed them to reach that the 360 workhorse just didn’t have the legs for.

There’s perhaps no better place to start than with Ryse: Son of Rome developer, Crytek. Ryse has come a long way since the days in which it was to be a first-person, gesture-controlled 360 Kinect title and it now stands at the vanguard of the Xbox One charge. Certainly, it’s been much maligned and seems unlikely to win too many plaudits from the critics but as I’ve previously contested, I think it will still win over a certain breed of early adopter who’s looking for loud, flashy action at which to point to as an example of next-gen high-spectacle, regardless of how it scores upon review.

Speaking with Ryse design director, PJ Esteves, it’s apparent that aesthetic considerations have certainly been a stronger focus for the team since Ryse became an Xbox One launch title.
“It has to be sexy, right? Because you want to sit around with your mates, drink beer and say 'Hey, check this out on my big flat screen TV with surround sound,'” says Esteves.

“A lot of people say that graphics don't make game play and obviously that's true but that component has so much more ability to get you immersed in the game. When you see a high level of performance capture, you can actually see the actor's performance level coming through. Brass tacks, for us next-gen has always been about performance; facial performance, facial capture, getting more emotion out of the game.”

“Just to be clear, this is the line in the sand and you’re either looking next-gen or you're not. I think Ryse is definitely the benchmark for that.”

While Ryse may be intent on gouging out your eyes by way of sword or shiny visuals, another of Xbox One’s high-profile exclusives is taking a different approach to pushing polygons. Capcom’s Dead Rising 3 doesn’t match Ryse in terms of visual fidelity but it does have numbers on its side: it features a ludicrous number of zombies on screen to be mutilated with customised weapons while wearing silly costumes.

“A lot of people say that graphics don’t make game play and obviously that’s true but that component has so much more ability to get you immersed in the game." - Ryse design director, PJ Esteves

Sure, if you stop and look closely at the character models you’re going to be able to find more than one current-gen title that can match or even exceed it visually. However, by cramming the streets full of undead, Capcom has ensured that Xbox One’s extra power has been pressed into service to benefit game play in a manner that’s appropriate and relevant to its series as a whole.

“Originally, we were going to do [Dead Rising 3] for 360 and there's just no way we could have done this,” exclaims animator turned designer, Austin Kwan, as he gestures to the screen and a long street packed with shuffling corpses.

For Kwan, though, it’s the additional features offered by SmartGlass and Kinect that have him most excited and, noticing my sceptical expression, he elaborates.

“Honestly, I wasn't a big fan of those two [devices], but on doing a demo in conjunction with the SmartGlass it's actually been useful. We noticed for something like the boss battles where you can use it to locate certain weapons on the map or where you’re flipping the controller when you get grappled; you're using Kinect in that instance. It's been great to integrate those peripherals in a meaningful way, right from the outset of Xbox One.”

In truth, “meaningful integration” of Xbox One’s peripherals won’t really have been achieved until we’re using them without thinking anything of it. However, it’s apparent that Capcom feels that the very beginning of a new generation is a good place to try to start to make that happen.

Day one or bust

For some, the very act of being present from day one has shaped both game design and the business model that’s been laid atop it. While Rare’s Kinect Sports Rivals has spawned its Pre-season platform, ahead of the full game launching next year, it’s one of Rare’s former IPs that has been most heavily influenced by its day one target. Cue Killer Instinct, by California-based Double Helix Games, which has raised eyebrows with its rotating roster of one-character-for-free and the developer’s insistence that it’s not free to play but is instead “the world’s most generous demo”.

Killer Instinct’s solid 60fps should avail eagle-eyed fighting fans with ample opportunity to build extensive 80+ hit combos by capitalising on fluid frame transitions, before they decide whether to invest any money to expand the character roster. Killer Instinct could also win a place in the hearts of casual fighting fans on account of it producing a pleasing degree of spectacle for even the most haphazard of button-mashing. This, in conjunction with being something for nothing, is part of the plan to draw in seasoned pros and the mildly curious alike.

“Xbox One has enabled us to implement a whole new physics system that separates out the variables and gives us a greater degree of control.” - Dan Greenawalt, Turn 10 Studios

“It's really important to get as many players into the game as possible and so having something that you can just download on day one and jump into and online play is important,” insists Microsoft Studios’ Dan Fornace.

“Getting it to be a launch title has been a tonne of work, as you can imagine, it also kind of impacts the way the game's releasing, with 6 characters initially and 2 more to follow. We hope to grow the game from there with more modes and by expanding the roster and we’ll be able to do that if the community is engaged.

“This is why being a launch title is important to us because it gives us the opportunity to grow the Killer Instinct platform.”

So, as well offering a resurrection of a potential new contender on the fighting scene, Killer Instinct will also serve as an interesting experiment in game design and could inform fighting game roster sizes going forward.

This notion of bigger not necessarily being better also sums up the mentality of Turn 10 with its approach to Forza Motorsport 5’s reduced complement of cars and tracks compared to its current-gen predecessor. Forza creative director Dan Greenawalt has previously stated that Turn 10’s focus is on delivering “next-generation quality”, rather than squeezing in as much content as possible. While detractors of Forza 5’s $50 season pass will feel aggrieved, Greenawalt reiterates that being a day one launch title has not led to a compromise in the team’s design vision.

“Xbox One has enabled us to implement a whole new physics system that separates out the variables and gives us a greater degree of control,” explains the creative director. “That required a new modelling system, extensive discussion with Calspan and processing power that we just haven’t had access to previously.”

The developers here represent just a handful of the total number of Xbox One exclusive titles but they offer insight to an interesting variety of approaches and priorities at the start of the next generation.

Nobody knows how long this generation might last and as time marches on we will look back and marvel at the wisdom of some and the folly of others. Nonetheless, each and every one will be able to proudly proclaim that they were there when it all began and know that, to some small degree, they helped set the expectation for the eighth console generation and played a part in influencing the shape of what came next.

Xbox One launches worldwide from November 22

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