CES Quikie: XBox Preview



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this quikie written for KoreanZ.com

Bill Gates opened the CES show floor on Friday morning with the second

keynote of the show. Bill brushed over the evolution of the computer and

his vision of “extreme entertainment.” During the speech, a pedestal with

a mysterious object atop was cloaked in black cloth. At the end of the

speech, Bill whipped back the cloth to reveal publicly for the first time

the Xbox’s actual design..

Those into gaming will know that the style of the box has no importance

relative to the quality of the hardware inside. So one of the Microsoft

presenters walked the crowd through two games in progress on a prototype

development kit. The first, “Munch’s Oddysee” was originally scheduled to

be part of the Playstation2 launch but was paid off by Microsoft to

release the game exclusively on Xbox. The demonstration was truly

impressive, showing extremely high quality animated figures in fully

textured, antialiased environments. Actions were smooth and believable.

The second demo, whose title and publisher are not recalling themselves

to me, showed a little girl a few inches tall that wielded a giant hammer as big as

herself in an environment full of giant insects. The gamer has a number

of very creative ways to use the hammer to squash, wipe, and mutilate the

bugs. This demo was equally impressive for its high quality realtime

rendering: the most impressive part of the demo was the ending bit, where

a giant robot comes to life that mimics the girl’s actions. The demoer

made the robot jump too high and consequently the robot’s head went

crashing through the ceiling with a resounding clang, leaving the robots

legs dangling helplessly below.

While I wouldn’t say that the graphics are at the point where they are

realistic – that is to say where screenshots could be mistaken for real

life photos, they are approaching broadcast-quality animation. The phrase

Bill used was “Toy Story-like quality” which really is pretty apt. I

figure in another five years, we’ll have movies with computer /

digitized actors that are mistakeable for humans, and another three years

after that will see realtime, interactive “reality,” at which point the

video game industry will be able to reach whole new audiences by creating

completely believable simulations and scenarios.

The Xbox will be coming out this Fall, pretty much at the same time as

Nintendo’s successor to the Nintendo 64, the Game Cube. Nintendo barely

had a showing at all at CES and has been keeping the hype meter pretty

low on their upcoming box, previously codenamed “Dolphin,” whereas

Microsoft has been running their press engine full steam. While it looks

on paper like the Xbox is far superior to the Game Cube, Microsoft has

been posting numbers that are aggressively optimistic theoretical

maximums (not really representative of in-game performance) whereas

Nintendo has been publishing guaranteed in-game minimums. The real

performance figures are rather close, according to sources at IGN and


Both boxes are considerably faster than the Playstation2 and sport more

features, but that’s to be expected from a platform that will have had

over a year extra to develop. The PS2 has gained itself a reputation for

being devilishly difficult to program efficiently – this may steer

developers towards platforms that are easier to exploit but it also means

that the current set of PS2 games are nowhere near using the PS2’s full

capacity; much more powerful games may be coming out before long. Even if

Sony isn’t good at making the hardware trivial to code for, it does have

a positive reputation in terms of developer support, so we should see PS2

games being cranked out at an increasing rate. One of the aspects of the

PS2 that makes it so interesting is its ability to play games designed

for the original Playstation as well as DVDs and CDs. Consequently, it

can today already engage thousands of games, which is impressive for a

newly-released platform.

Christmas 2001 will see an interesting, aggressive console market come to

maturation: the Xbox and Dolphin will be newly out, the Playstation2 will

have a full repertoire of games to play on, and the Dreamcast may also

remain a contender.

All four will offer some form of Internet connectivity with multiplayer

gaming, email, and web browsing. The PS2 will have acquired a hard drive

peripheral, and the Xbox will ship with one inside. It’s hard to say

where things will go from there or who will win the wars, but it’s

certain that Microsoft’s Xbox is to be taken very seriously – its

widespread support among game developers, Windows-based API, and

high-speed graphics architecture (courtesy Nvidia Corporation) will offer

a compelling array of games and services. Nintendo’s Dolphin, if it is to

succeed, must be able to match Microsoft’s hype with a fully loaded

system shipping with a large array of compelling games. PS2, in the

interim, will take the lead as the home entertainment system of choice.