Category Archives: gaming

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Fixing the Xbox 360

Microsoft says it will give a retrospective 3 year warranty to all owners of Xbox 360 consoles. Here’s a snippet from the press release:

As a result of what Microsoft views as an unacceptable number of repairs to Xbox 360 consoles, the company conducted extensive investigations into potential sources of general hardware failures.  Having identified a number of factors which can cause general hardware failures indicated by three red flashing lights on the console, Microsoft has made improvements to the console and is enhancing its Xbox 360 warranty policy for existing and new customers.

While the whole world knows that the 360 is unreliable, this perhaps Microsoft’s first public confession. An extended warranty is good; but prospective purchasers may be even more interested in the “improvements to the console” mentioned above. Has Microsoft really found a fix to the design fault(s) which cause the problem?

Another unanswered question concerns the DRM which causes problems for users who return consoles for repair and get back a refurbished unit that used to belong to someone else. This is a common practice in the IT industry, and normally it makes good sense, because you get a replacement quicker. Unfortunately it is a flawed plan with respect to the 360, because purchased downloads are tied to the machine on which they were downloaded. See this thread for the gory details, lots of unhappy customers, and Microsoft’s inconsistent response.

You would think that someone at Microsoft would have realised even before the launch that this was a likely scenario. Of course it is made worse by the high number of returned machines. Surely Microsoft can work out some way to allow customers to re-download the games they own, fully unlocked, to a new machine. Currently the mechanism seems to be: argue with customer service until you get your Microsoft Points refunded, then re-purchase the games. That is a disappointingly crude mechanism. 

Here’s another thing that puzzles me. Let’s presume that the Xbox 360 has a design fault, to do with overheating, that makes premature failure likely. Reasonable, I think. So how long ago was this fact apparent to Microsoft? I’d have thought it would be well over a year ago. I recall users complaining about repeated red light incidents in early 2006. Why then did Microsoft continue turning the handle and manufacturing machines with the same flaw for so long?

Still, users will be grateful that Microsoft has had the decency and the resources to admit to the problem and fix at least the hardware side of it for free.

How many XBox 360s have failed?

Simple question. In the early days Microsoft stuck to its story about 3-5%, muttering about “industry average”. More recently Peter Moore, in an interview with Mercury News, ducked the question, saying:

I can’t comment on failure rates, because it’s just not something  – it’s a moving target. What this consumer should worry about is the way that we’ve treated him. Y’know, things break, and if we’ve treated him well and fixed his problem, that’s something that we’re focused on right now. I’m not going to comment on individual failure rates because I’m shipping in 36 countries and it’s a complex business.

In the absence of official figures, there is anecdotal evidence. It’s the folk with broken consoles who make a noise, so it can’t be trusted. Yet a notable feature of surveys like this one in 360 gamer is the number of users with multiple failures – 3, 4, 5, even more.

Another intriguing aspect is that users with broken 360s report significant success rate with a crude repair technique – deliberate overheating. There are several variations. In one you remove the motherboard and apply a heat gun or even a hairdryer. In another you wrap the XBox in towels and turn it on. It suggests that that the most common problem with the 360 is that soldered joints fail. Overheating causes components to expand and if you are lucky remakes the connections. It’s not a good repair and the XBox will likely fail again soon. In particular, the towel trick is silly – apart from the obvious fire risk, overheating in general is bad for electronic components and likely to shorten their life.

The evidence suggests an inherent manufacturing or design problem with the XBox 360. I think 3-5% is wildly optimistic; it would not surprise me if the true figure is 30% or higher. Multiple failures suggests that, at a minimum, entire batches of faulty machines were produced. And because Microsoft is tight-lipped we still do not know when or whether the problem has been fixed. Is it still present in new 360s today? What about the forthcoming Elite?

There is another long-standing irritation connected with the 360’s DRM. A 360 supports muliple profiles, so that family members can maintain their own game progress, high scores, XBox Live accounts and so on. If you download and purchase a Live Arcade game, it is available to all the profiles on that machine. However, if you replace the machine the rules change. The games can be re-downloaded by the original purchaser for free, but on the new machine they are only unlocked for that player’s profile, not for the others which share the machine. In other words, if your 360 breaks and is replaced, you have something not quite as good as what you had before.

Microsoft’s standard policy on receiving a broken 360 is to send out a refurbished model immediately. This means you never get your original machine back, so you always suffer this problem. Third-party repairers are likely to be better in this respect, though you will have to pay, of course, and hope that they use a more effective technique than towels or hairdryers.

Nothing can be done about the number of faulty 360’s now out there, but Microsoft could do a couple of things to improve the situation. First, come clean about the problem and tell us how many are affected and what has been done to fix it. Second, figure out how to restore unlocked Arcade games properly on replacement machines.

Perhaps you guessed: my own (December 2005) 360 failed this weekend, three red lights, code 0020. Another particle of anecdotal evidence.

 

Wii a one-trick console, but it’s a great trick

I’ve recently been trying Nintendo’s Wii console (I know I’m a bit late on this). A few comments.

First, the motion-sensitive controller is stunning, really well done. It is genuinely a new dimension in gaming. Even people who wouldn’t normally play on a console will pick up the Wii controller and have a go.

Second. the only game I’ve seen so far that really shows off the Wii is the one that comes bundled – Wii Sports. The bowling, tennis and golf are fantastic, though perhaps a tad too easy.

When you try games that don’t take much advantage from the motion-sensitive controller – Zelda Twilight Princess, for example – the Wii becomes poor and dated in comparison to the XBox 360 or even the original XBox; I’m sure the PS3 will easily outshine it as well.

The Wii remains in high demand, but there seem to be few games worth getting. No doubt the games companies have taken note and we will see some more sports simulations or other innovations that use the controller properly.

I still see XBox 360 and PS3 as more in competition with each other than with the Wii. Hardcore gamers will not be satisfied with Nintendo’s console. The Wii is physically so small that many families will pick up both the Wii and one of the other this-gen consoles.

Incidentally, sites like Amazon.co.uk  are still reporting PS3 consoles available for launch day (March 23, just 12 days away). Either Sony has promised delivery of an extraordinarily large number, or (more likely) demand is a little muted. These things are relative, it is still Amazon’s No. 1 seller. The Wii on the other hand still seems to be permanently out of stock and apparently still commands a premium of £100 over its full retail price, at least that’s what the third-parties are asking.

 

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Hey, Microsoft! What happened to XBox 360 backwards compatibility?

Christmas is coming and thoughts turn to games. A year after the release of XBox 360, can you retire the old black XBox and play your XBox games on the new console? Unlikely. Here’s the list of compatible games, which looks impressive, until you consider that only around half of the games released for XBox are covered. In other words, the list of games NOT compatible is just as long. Notable ones include:

  • Blinx and Blinx 2
  • Burnout and Burnout 2
  • Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball
  • Disney’s Extreme Skate Adventure
  • FIFA Soccer 2005
  • Galleon
  • Jet Set Radio Future
  • Midtown Madness 3
  • Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee
  • Outrun 2
  • Panzer Dragoon ORTA
  • Pirates
  • Rallisport Challenge 2
  • Rayman 3
  • Rollercoaster Tycoon
  • SSX Tricky
  • The Chronicles of Riddick
  • The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind
  • Top Spin
  • Wallace and Gromit
  • Worms 3D

 I realize that any backward compatibility on the 360 is a technical miracle; but even so, this is disappointing on the year-old 360 and raises doubts that these games will ever be supported.

 

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