or all the criticism I level against them, I'm anything but a Sony hater — despite a games catalog which lags behind the competition and an online portal which nicely illustrates the definition of "vaporware," that shiny black box is one of the sexiest and most powerful pieces of consumer tech to ever be unleashed upon the masses. As a sign of good will, I'm going to take a break from yelling at our friends in Tokyo. That's right Redmond — today, it's your turn.
For over two years, hardcore gamers have been scratching their heads when presented with the Xbox 360's technical specifications. Overheating and blinking red lights aside, nothing handicaps the platform more than the non-standard nature of its hard drive. Although a multi-SKU pricing strategy might be dubbed a success by Microsoft's management, its effects on the platform's long-term viability are now beginning to become apparent.
Case in point: the Live Arcade. I've enjoyed downloading titles as much as the next guy, and I now have close to forty games gracing my system's hard drive. As news begins to circulate about developers hitting the size cap for Live Arcade titles (the once 50MB limit was raised to 150MB late last year), one can't help but wonder if we'll start to see developers leaving the Arcade for other less restrictive distribution outlets. On April 28th, 1up.com ran an eye-opening story detailing Valve's attempts to distribute Portal as an Arcade download. Here, size was the determining factor in that game's rejection by Microsoft. The grumbles of Capcom's developers have also been overheard — one of the biggest challenges in producing the high-definition remake of Street Fighter for Xbox 360 has been fitting textures and animations into that small 150MB package.
Perhaps even more troubling is the way in which an "optional" hard drive has visibly affected hardware performance. There's no denying that Mass Effect is a great game, but there's also no denying that it demonstrates the Xbox 360's limitations more than any other title — its frame rate stutters at an alarming rate as media is streamed at insufficient speeds from the system's optical drive. If Bioware's programmers had been guaranteed one or two gigabytes of storage to use for buffering environments, these hiccups would never have materialized. Instead, gamers have to endure unnecessary technical imperfections in otherwise outstanding products just so that retailers can claim the existence of a $280 Xbox.
I sympathize with Microsoft's desire to appeal to a broad market — I'm sure that statistics illustrate the importance of a sub-$300 price point, otherwise the Core platform wouldn't exist. I wonder, though, how many Core users even use their systems online — the paltry storage space available on the included memory card is barely enough for game saves and updates, let alone downloaded titles and other media. The longer Microsoft waits to mandate the hard drive's presence for media downloads and cutting-edge software, the easier it will be for the PlayStation 3 to surpass the Xbox 360 as the power user's console of choice. It's a hard move, Redmond, but it's one you'll have to make.