The XBox 180: Portable HD XBox Gaming

The XBox 180: Portable HD XBox Gaming

How Microsoft should enter the portable space and dominate its two successful rivals.

Originally Published at Kombo.com in May of 2008 as a guest editorial. The original was lost at least temporarily due to a site overhaul at Kombo.
Original Digg link: http://digg.com/news/gaming/How_Microsoft_Could_Do_It_Portable_HD_Xbox_Gaming
Original N4G link: http://n4g.com/news/142946/how-microsoft-could-do-it-portable-hd-xbox-gaming
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The 180 will not be a gaming platform, and games will not be developed for it. It will be capable of playing games with levels of technical prowess no other portable can even touch. How can both those things be true at the same time? It's called a dummy terminal.

The 180 is a full 360 controller couched around a beautiful HD resolution screen, with virtually no processing power or storage space, but Extremely powerful wireless communication protocols. The 180 won't have its own games because it doesn't even have its own hardware. It's simply a means of playing 360 games at a distance. Your 360 does all the legwork, and your 180 connects to Wifi, WiMax, and your cell phone's 3g connection via Bluetooth (and seamlessly switching between protocols as needed) to receive video and transmit controller input.

Rather than a gimped handheld with extremely limited power like the DS, or the awkward single analog control of the PSP, the 180 will be playing brand new console titles with present day dual analog controls. It will have the same access to Live! that you do when you're at home, and the same beautiful visual experience. And it will be cheaper than its counterparts while delivering far more game than either. Ultimately the 180 strengthens the core 360 experience, rather than dividing Microsoft's gaming division and efforts to support multiple platforms.

Microsoft has hesitated entering the saturated portable market. Sure, they could go the conventional route, out-power the PSP and offer retail disc-based games from the original xbox as well as new titles developed on that slightly gimped Xbox platform. But as an advantage to the 180 method, they don't have play around trying to draw the developer market share for a brand new platform (even one mostly similar to an old familiar one) convincing them to take a risk on something very risky. If they wanted to, they could. But this way, the portable is an automatic success, as who wouldn't want to take Halo 3, Bioshock, COD4, Oblivion and R6V on the road with them?

Of course there are downsides. Downside #1: No connection means no games. Microsoft must still make partnerships, because they aren't going to launch without providing gamers a generous coverage area for access to games. What they will do is partner with a wireless provider to provide 180 connection plans. No 180 will be released until WiMax has been rolled out and has a nice coverage area. 180 plans will allow access, not only to the carrier's WiMax network, but also to their premium Wifi hotspots anywhere they appear, and optional tethering to be added to your cell phone plan so you can use its 2.5g or 3g radio as a backup in a pinch. Phones can already seamlessly switch between connection types, and so will the 180.

An advantage of partnering with cellular carriers is carrier subsidies. Buyers willing to sign a multi-year contract could get the same sort hardware discount you get on your cell phone. Month to month contracts and prepaid plans would be available without the subsidy. A contract would just be an option that lowered the initial, already low, hardware cost.

Downside #2: When you're not home, you can't change whatever disc is in the system (short of calling someone and asking them to do it for you). You still have access to all downloaded content (from XBLA, Xbox Originals and multimedia), but only the one retail disc at a time. I predict that MS will be pursuing their DLC strategy even further than they already do, offering full retail titles for download in the future, making this disadvantage moot. That means bigger 360 hard drives are on the horizon. 120gb just won't cut it in that situation. Future 360 retail titles will be fully installable, and playable without the disc being present (DRM can still lock a disc's installation to one system via live). I doubt they would insist on the installation, so you could still play right of the disc as you do now, but 180 owners (and 360 owners not fond of switching discs all the time) would have the option.

Downside #3: Lag. Even playing games in single player there's going to be less responsiveness from miles away than there is from several feet away. It's inevitable. Once you send your 360 online by way of your 180, you have two different lags to deal with: lag couched inside of lag. Wireless connections are becoming more reliable, more prolific, and much faster, which is why I've tied this 180 strategy to WiMax. When your connection is interrupted, your 360 will automatically pause a game when it detects a problem. Interruptions won't be less annoying, but when your connection resumes, you won't have to start over. Lag will be present, but given the choice between teeny bad looking games with poor control systems and an incredible sophisticated game library and some lag sometimes, a lot of users are going to be attracted to the 180. No portable comes without some compromise (compared to living room console), but the 180 comes with less than any other portable.

Downside #4: No 360 Means No Games. MS can counteract this with 180 servers located centrally that take the place of your 360 and a 180 Live! subscription. Rather than getting your games from your a 360 at home, you'd be accessing Microsoft servers to get gaming content, choosing from all the downloadable content you can imagine, depending on the plan you've chosen. Some people might well pick up the 180 solo just for XBLA and Xbox originals, and these servers would be easier to equip with full retail games and likely have less lag than personal 360s.

Sony and Nintendo have talked about integration between their portables and consoles, and have on occasion even toyed with the concept, but MS is the king of online, and they've been dealing with connectivity in other departments for more than a decade. Microsoft's entire strategy should be integration. 360 developers would be willing to add extra perks to their games to increase how much the 180 was supported, such as allowing games being played in your living room (with the 180 as just a controller) to use the 180's screen as an extra display to present information on.

I believe this 180 strategy is right up MS's alley. It's not without its downsides, but as discussed, I believe MS is already on a road that addresses most of those pitfalls. Will they do it? Who knows. But they should.