TIME Video Games

8 Things Bungie’s Destiny Could Have Done Better

Bungie

I’ve just finished watching the credits roll after sewing up Destiny‘s story-related finale. The credits are optional, just an icon that lights up in the lower righthand corner of the game’s map screen. You can ignore it, and no one would blame you for doing so–I have no idea who 99.8% of those people are either–but I like to give credits sequences their due.

They’re a humbling reminder that a ridiculous number of people probably devoted an insane amount of time to build something unfathomably complex. As someone on Twitter put it after I called Activision’s $500 million early sales windfall surreal: “The whole enormous enterprise of video game production is surreal.” Indeed.

So before you wade into this “cons” list, know there’s a “pros” one in the offing and that I like Destiny more than I don’t.

It’s Bungie doing what Bungie still does better than just about anyone else. It’s a slicker, no-frills version of Halo, sure, only by way of more recent online exemplars like Guild Wars 2 and Diablo 3.

Some of the game’s vistas are gobsmacking, and the way Bungie dynamically folds other players into or out of your particular game instance while keeping areas from overcrowding verges on ingenious.

I’m thoroughly impressed with that stuff, and I’ve only scratched the surface of competitive multiplayer, which I’m pretty sure Bungie views as Destiny‘s heart and soul.

But the game has several unmissable problems. Here are eight that come to mind.

The writing’s pretty terrible…

I’m sorry, Bungie’s team of crack creative writers. I’m sure you lingered over every plot point and sentence and punctuation mark, but as someone who was surprised and inspired by your grand-ol-science-fiction trailer (up to about the 1:00 mark, anyway) wrapped across a gazillion Brobdingnagian screens at Sony’s E3 presser, I was expecting a story more on par with Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312.

Instead, Destiny feels like a paean to fictive mediocrity glommed onto shooting galleries wrapped in locales with meaningless gothic refrigerator-magnet names like “Shrine of Oryx” and “Temple of Crota” and “Rubicon Wastes.” It’s all visual sumptuousness backloaded with a boilerplate story so forgettable I probably couldn’t tell you what happened or why from memory with a gun to my head.

Halo was more ambitious (far from literary, but narratively bolder). The Library level alone was terrific. The series even inspired Hugo/Nebula-winning writer Greg Bear to write a bunch of books that play out in the Halo sandbox.

Destiny‘s story, by comparison, feels like something you get from the worst of the sorts of books you find shelved at the end of a bookstore’s sci-fi/fantasy section, the poorly written ones churned out every few months to placate franchise devotees.

Is that snobbery? Maybe, but it’s honesty from a guy still waiting for gaming’s Alan Moore or Gene Wolfe (that, and I’d argue Destiny‘s buildup promised more).

…as is the voice acting

Poor Peter Dinklage. The guy’s fantastic in Game of Thrones, no argument from me, but here he sounds like someone distractedly reading a bedtime story to a child while texting on his smartphone. My guess — knowing nothing about voice acting, mind you — is that since he plays a sentient robot-thingy, Bungie asked for a more neutral delivery, then forgot to apply the vocoder effect before shipping.

If Dinklage sounded less like bored-Dinklage and more like the computer in Wargames, we might not be having this conversation about wizards, moons and practically studied disinterest.

Carmina Burana wants its musical tropes back

Raise your hand if you’re as tired as I am of composers (in games or films) ripping off Carmina Burana‘s “O Fortuna” anytime they want to establish gravitas.

Some of the game’s music taken by itself is wonderful (I love the choral dissonances of the background music that plays while you’re in orbit, for instance), but marrying arcane-sounding lyrics and ethereal chanting/singing to climactic events for the umpteenth time is now the enemy. (As is not letting you turn the music down or off.)

It feels an awful lot like Halo

The way your health meter replenishes (and the sound it makes as it does), the fast-beeping klaxon that triggers when you’re down to a single health bar, the floating power jumps, the constant chatter of an A.I. companion you have to “deploy” to hack alien computers, the wave upon wave of enemies that storm from drop ships — Halo‘s fingerprints are all over this thing.

What’s wrong with a no-frills Halo and even better-finessed cooperative play? Nothing. Unless you’re burned out on Halo, because Destiny is strictly Bungie furiously tweaking and polishing a 13-year-old template, not subverting the genre, and certainly not tapping into whatever John Romero means (assuming he has the faintest idea what he’s talking about) when he says first-person shooters have “barely scratched the surface.”

Every mission is the same mission

Drop onto a planet’s surface, run down linear overland paths or underground corridors while taking out popup bad guys, deploy your tagalong robot at stations while fending off waves of more popup bad guys, then battle a boss. I’m not exaggerating: that’s every story mission in Destiny.

I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy the execution, given how well-rounded everything else feels, but know that Destiny basically has one story-based mission that it trots out ad nauseam.

Where’s random matchmaking for story missions?

Every story mission in Destiny is hypothetically cooperative, but only the Strikes (abnormally difficult boss-surrounded-by-battalions takedown missions) grab other players at random. If you want to play story missions cooperatively, you can, but you have to manually invite friends or pull up your friends list and bother nearby strangers.

It’s sometimes hard to play tactically in first-person scrums

Destiny‘s environments are busy environments. They look terrific, but they’re also overflowing with nuanced geometry in the way of irregular crevices and protrusions, especially underground. It’s easy in cramped confines crosscut by one-shot-kill energy bolts to get stuck on objects, because there’s no depth awareness when everything’s squashed into a hybrid 3D-over-2D plane.

That’s an any-first-person-shooter conundrum, to be fair, but I noticed it more than I usually do in Destiny. That may also be because Bungie employs a third-person view whenever you visit the Tower (Destiny‘s social hub where you can buy stuff, decrypt found items, pick up bounties and collect rewards).

Would a third-person view outside the Tower area break the game? If not, I’d love to see it as optional (speaking as a guy who played the game as the profession designed to lay back and snipe from cover).

Boy, do I miss Legendary mode

I’m that guy who’ll fire up a Halo on Legendary and inch along, dying just to see how each tactical scenario re-rolls: in the Halo games, the tactical permutations are endless.

In Destiny, by contrast, I’m pretty sure my knife-to-the-face/bullet-to-the-head ratio’s been about 60/40 or 70/30. With rare exception, I’m able to sprint right up to throngs of stupid-slow enemies and do the deed without recourse to cover. Playing story missions at either Bungie’s recommended character levels or the optional ones (“normal” or “hard”), Destiny‘s enemies are tenpins, even when the game thinks its compensating by spawning waves in the dozens.

Halo gave you difficulty options to make that sort of tank-rush tactic punitive and often impossible. Destiny, in Bungie’s naked attempt to lubricate your journey toward its multiplayer-angled endgame, just winds up feeling tediously breezy as you roll through the story to hit the game’s level cap over its first dozen-plus hours.

TIME Video Games

Activision Claims Destiny ‘Most Successful New Video Game Franchise Launch of All Time’

Bungie's first-person shooter is selling well to retailers out the door, exactly as expected.

Destiny, Bungie’s attempt to one-up the latter’s Halo franchise by a country mile, has sold a whopping $500 million worth of copies so far, says publisher Activision. But hold up: that’s sold-in, not through, which means the company’s really reporting a record-breaking relationship with retailers, not customers.

That relationship must have existed prior to the game going on sale at its midnight launch. How much of that $500 million–shipped to stores in the form of retail and digital standard and limited editions as well as physical copies bundled with game consoles–is walking out the door with customers, buying it for PlayStation and Xbox platforms, remains a question mark.

Activision rolled that eye-catching figure out in a press release that also states the game launched at more than 11,000 midnight openings in over 178 countries worldwide. Among other things, the company claims Bungie’s hybrid single-player/multiplayer first-person shooter is the “highest-selling day one digital console release in history,” and that it’s “on track to become Activision’s next billion dollar franchise.” (“Next,” referring to its two other billion-dollar franchises: Call of Duty and Skylanders.)

As one of my colleagues put it this morning: “Great, I was beginning to worry that Activision wasn’t going to make enough money this year.”

TIME Video Games

Some Pretty Tough News About the Xbox One’s Japan Launch Sales

No one's surprised that Microsoft's latest game console isn't doing so hot in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Tell me you weren’t expecting something like this: Xbox One sales in Japan, where the console just launched on September 4, are bad. Make that really bad.

According to Japanese game mag Famitsu, Microsoft’s games console sold just 23,562 units during its first four days on the market, September 4-7. Contrast with the Japanese Xbox 360 launch back in December 2005, which sold 62,135 units in half as many days, or the original Xbox in February 2002, selling 123,929 during its launch weekend.

Sony and Nintendo game systems have historically sold better in Japan, so it’s no surprise that figures for their respective launch windows are much higher: Sony’s PlayStation 4 sold 322,083 units during its first two days on the market (in November 2013) and the Wii U moved 308,570 units during its initial two days of availability (in November 2012). In Japan, that makes the Xbox One one of the most poorly launched mainstream game consoles on the books (the best remains the PlayStation 2, which hit 630,552 units sold during its preliminary weekend).

Microsoft’s original Xbox sold fewer than half a million units in Japan over the course of its life, and the Xbox 360’s only fared slightly better: presently somewhere north of 1.6 million units sold in the country. Nintendo’s Wii U–no trailblazer itself sales-wise–just crept past Microsoft’s nine-year-old system in units-sold last February.

Titanfall topped the charts with 22,416 units (nearly as many sold as systems moved, in other words), followed by Kinect Sports Rivals (14,191 units) and Dead Rising 3 (7,330 units).

By contrast, the Xbox One, while presumably behind Sony’s PlayStation 4 in worldwide sales given Microsoft’s reluctance to publicly lock horns with Sony sales-figure-wise, has sold in record numbers (relative to prior Xbox systems) in the U.S. At last check, back in April, the Xbox One had sold 5 million units across the globe, and it’s launching in 29 new markets this month. None of them immediate game changers, but it’s a significant shoring up of the availability gap between the Xbox One and the more broadly available PlayStation 4.

On September 4, Microsoft’s Aaron Greenberg weighed in on the company’s reluctance to publish worldwide sales figures:

He’s talking in part about Halo: The Master Chief Collection (strictly rehash, but all four Halo core games fully remastered and immaculately packaged) and racer Forza Horizon 2. Microsoft’s been hyping Sunset Overdrive, an irreverent third-person shooter by former Sony-exclusive studio Insomniac Games (the Ratchet & Clank and Resistance games), so there’s that, and maybe Ori and the Blind Forest, a platformer that’s arguably the most interesting of the bunch, but it’s not yet a lock for 2014.

TIME Video Games

Microsoft is Trying to Buy Minecraft for $2 Billion, Reports Say

Microsoft wants to ride the fantastic success of the block-building video game

Microsoft is in talks to buy the maker of the block-building game Minecraft for more than $2 billion, according to reports, a deal that would make the fantastically popular game available on Microsoft devices.

The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, citing unnamed sources, report that Microsoft opened talks with Mojang about three months ago and has already made an initial offer. Mojang and Microsoft could reach a deal by the end of the month.

Minecraft’s blocky graphics haven’t prevented it from being a huge hit among gamers, who build imaginative structures and recreate worlds using lego-like pieces. The game’s privately-held Swedish creator, Mojang, saw $115 million in profits last year, the Journal reports, off revenue of $291 million.

Minecraft isn’t currently available on Windows phones, and hasn’t been adapted to use the graphical interface of Windows 8, Microsoft’s newest operating system. Microsoft’s move to nab Minecraft would secure the popular gaming fad for its key platforms.

[NYT]

TIME Viral Videos

Teens React to the Nintendo Entertainment System in Hilarious Video

Starring Game of Thrones' Maisie Williams

Grab your controllers, because the latest installment of The Fine Bros. web series, “Teens React” introduces the raised-on-Wii kids of today what the past generation had to use to play Legend of Zelda.

The games themselves stumped some of the new players. While the tech-savvy teens had all heard of Super Mario Bros., thanks to the fact that it had been released for the Nintendo DS, Dragon Warrior 3 elicited confusion across the board, from “No, but it sounds rad!” to “No, I don’t LARP.”

The players were left to their own devices to figure out how to insert the seemingly giant cartridge into the console, but when trouble struck, the film makers instructed them on the fine art of blowing on the game cartridge. The teens were then allowed to play the first round of Super Mario Bros. and they all struggled to use the controller (“This is the least comfortable controller ever!”) while trying to collect coins and being chased by evil mushrooms (“I literally died the first time”) and gawking at the old-school graphics (“I feel like I’m in Wreck-It Ralph!”)

After getting versed in the history of the NES, the teens did take a moment to offer their respect to the classic console, thanking the little gray box for introducing the world at large to the joys of at-home gaming.

While the teens may have found the exercise slightly humiliating, the more insightful ones knew that it was pure karma. “I always make fun of my dad for not knowing how to use stuff,” noted one dejected teen. “Now he’s going to be watching this.”

MORE: Little By Little, Violent Video Games Make Us More Aggressive

MORE: Watch Kids React in Utter Bemusement at the Sight of an Old Computer

TIME Video Games

Destiny’s Game Servers Are Now Live

The launch servers are go -- a day before the game's formal launch date, as promised.

There’s no embargo on telling you this: Destiny‘s game servers are accessible right now. It happened just a few minutes ago, a trifle earlier than the anticipated 8am ET launch threshold by perhaps five minutes. I’m looking at the “Choose Your Class” profession screen with Titan, Hunter and Warlock emblems as I type this.

Playing Destiny today may prove a little trickier. I only have a copy because Activision sent one over last week (where it lay in a drawer untouched until this morning because the servers were offline). The game technically isn’t available until tomorrow, September 9.

If you bought the digital-only version and preloaded it, Sony and Microsoft have said they won’t unlock access until 3:01am ET tomorrow morning. The only way to play until then is to lay hands on a physical copy, something Bungie’s said it’s leaving up to retailers, who may or may not have copies in hand now.

I’ll be back soon with something to say about the game itself. Activision’s given us permission to say whatever we like, starting now, but Destiny is presumably a prodigious thing, and its worlds won’t really start to sing until tomorrow.

While you’re waiting, if you’re waiting, here’s our 16 Facts to Get You Ready for the Game launch guide, and the official launch trailer.

TIME Video Games

Sexism, Lies and Video Games: The Culture War Nobody Is Winning

Sergio Pecanha color illustration of Sony Playstation vs Nintendo Wii, set up as paddles in a game of Pong.
Dallas Morning News/MCT Graphics/Getty Images

Video games and the way we write and talk about them are growing up. Their old-school fans are kicking and screaming.

The 21st century’s defining medium—video games—is experiencing sharp growing pains. Over the last few weeks, identity tensions have divided fans online in strange, ugly episodes rooted in how writers discuss games and who is allowed to participate. At the root of all this is a fascinating question: Are games technology product, or cultural experience?

In the 1980s, video games were classy distractions: the condition of being installed at an arcade cabinet, chasing a high score, seemed to fit the era’s naive ideas of capitalism-as-culture. In the 1990s, games took on the decade’s rebellious, “edgy” tone, grasping toward the definitions of maturity set by MTV, action flicks and whatever else it took to sell high-end hardware to young men.

By the turn of the millennium, the medium had become America’s favorite scapegoat for moral panic — Luddites worried about games’ increasing realism and the fact that ‘shoot’ seemed to the favored verb of the most popular titles. To hear Fox News tell it, “gamers” were all anti-social escapists living in Mom’s basement, sticky with Mountain Dew, murder fantasies and hyper-realistic sex simulators stripped right off the shelves from in front of children.

Sadly, the broader public image of video games has been slow to improve, thanks largely to the iron fist marketers have maintained over their narrative. The games that have historically enjoyed the biggest budgets and the highest returns are Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Halo and their ilk. Aimed largely at that young male demographic, your average person on the street probably still imagines that the act of play in the digital world still mostly involves staring down the barrel of a gun.

While as a pastime those projects are slightly juvenile, so are summer superhero blockbusters featuring talking raccoons, and few would begrudge fans those, nor hand-wring about their supposed “effect”. Games’ poor public image has long been a source of discouragement to everyone who creates and plays within a rapidly maturing, surprisingly diverse medium.

The advent of the smartphone means that your average consumer now has access to a platform to play games on. Many of these, like Capy’s Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery, Vlambeer’s Ridiculous Fishing or Adam Atomic’s Canabalt, combine simple, friendly mechanics with lovely modern art and stylish music. Tablets and e-readers present enormous opportunities for rich, touchable experiences: Inkle’s 80Days is a lush pop-art interactive experience based on Jules Verne’s world travelers, and Devine Lu Linvega’s dark comic toy Ledoliel lets players enjoy oddly intimate interactions with alien diplomats.

It used to be that to make video games you needed some kind of computer degree and a career track at the sort of game production mega-corporation that would go on to fame for their brutal working practices and high turnover. But even game creation tools are becoming more accessible, welcoming an entirely new community of creators, voices and formats to the fan community.

Amid rising costs and economic constraints, traditional blockbusters and shiny new home consoles face more profitability challenges than they once did — but new digital business models help game companies endure, with the happy side effect that they can build longer-term relationships with fans.

There’s something for everyone in the modern gaming landscape, and the way games journalists parse all this for their readers is beginning to change, too. You’d think this would make people happy, but recently this culture shift would appear to have broken out into full-on culture war online.

Prominent feminist critique — present in every other relevant medium, but new to games — has elicited massive backlash and threats to women working in the field. A female developer who created a text game about depression has been in the midst of weeks of online attacks over a salacious blog post published by a jilted ex who alleges she slept with a game journalist in exchange for a favorable review.

Despite the fact the journalist in question did not ‘review’ the game and wasn’t found to have allocated it any particular special treatment, the misogynistic “scandal” — and fans’ fear of women “censoring” their medium by seeking more positive and diverse portrayals — has launched an ‘ethical inquiry’ by fans campaigning to unearth evidence of corruption and collusion among people who they feel are too close to the games and developers they write about.

Their inquiry, passed around Twitter under the deeply sincere hashtag “#GamerGate”, alleges that writing op-eds about colleagues and peers is unethical, that a list of people who attended an academic conference together is proof of a conspiracy, and that any critic who pursues creators and projects that interest them is cynically promoting their friends. Some of them admit they’re afraid that “social justice warriors” will ruin video games.

Others still seem alarmed to see the games writing community so defensive about the inquest — unaware that writers on games have endured the frustration of labor within a product-driven system for years, and that subjectivity is their solution, something L. Rhodes aimed to explain to petitioners who don’t seem to realize that the “standards” they expect are somewhat at odds with the actual environment they wish for.

To the outside world it must look silly. Surely these campaigners understand that no meaningful reporting on anything takes place without the trust—and often friendship—of people on the inside. Stranger still is that beyond the fact this all looks suspiciously like an excuse to hound women’s voices out of the growing game industry, fans are calling for a wholly “objective”, product-oriented approach to a medium that’s clearly shifted into the domain of meaningful, subjective experiences and as such requires the addition of cultural critique, not solely “reporting” as the tech industry understands it.

Previous modes of writing on games generally involved “scoring” them, applying a supposedly neutral quality rating. Often these scores were handed down by magazines who’d received ad revenue from the very companies whose products they claimed to be neutrally evaluating, and those companies could (and did) threaten to pull advertising, or access to press events and review materials, if they didn’t like the score they got.

Happily, modern games have far fewer barriers. Independent writers frequently publish personal pieces about the indie games that have inspired them—there’s very little money to be made in either writing about or creating these things, which is liberating for people who’ve always wanted to approach games as objects of human, rather than corporate interest. Dialogue about games is more frequently considered by mainstream publications, and all this accessibility and diversity allows curators of game culture far more latitude to shape conversation about an exciting medium that’s finally blowing off the must and dust of a prior age.

It’s odd to see how firmly internet fans resist this, how infuriated they are that they may no longer be a defined “demographic” who must be catered to explicitly, that they are participants in a variegated culture instead of strictly delineated recipients of a “product or service.” Their response is to feel their very identity is under threat (and to levy Martin Luther King quotes, even).

The bizarre conspiracy theories circulating online (I occasionally consult on game designs and disclose those relationships, but there is an image circulating which inaccurately claims that I run a ‘PR firm’ where people pay me to cover things) feel something like a video game in and of itself. The GamerGate crusaders leap to employ legal terminology like fancy weapons they are clearly confused about how to wield. To them, this revolution of new voices, new platforms and new players appears to feel like the same sort of persecution games once experienced at the hands of Fox News and anti-violent game crusaders — it’s unfortunate their behavior has been so often in-step with those negative stereotypes of late.

One has to wonder if this is down to game fans being systems thinkers, who see the world as an ecosystem of curiosities to discover and solve. Everyone wants to feel they’re part of something bigger, after all, that they might be a hero of an underground society that no one else knows about. And Twitter exposes us all to the vocabulary of extremes, an intense world where even minorities can feel very loud (a good thing for #Ferguson, not so for video games).

As video games unshackle from old constraints, traditional fans double down on keeping the treehouse sacrosanct. The tension between “games as product” and “games as culture” is visible within these online controversies as everyone invested in the industry watches to see which will “win”. Someone should tell the internet conspiracy theorists they can relax — we’ll absolutely, definitely have both.

Leigh Alexander writes about the art, business and culture of games. She is editor at large of industry site Gamasutra, a columnist at Vice UK, and has contributed to major specialist press outlets like Kotaku, Edge and Polygon. Her work has appeared at Boing Boing, Slate, The Atlantic, The New Statesman, the Guardian and the Columbia Journalism Review, and she is the author of two ebooks, Breathing Machine and Clipping Through, about technology and identity.

TIME Video Games

See How Kevin Spacey Helped Rewrite Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

Kevin Spacey was Sledgehammer Games' pick to play PMC autocrat Jonathan Irons, but the House of Cards actor helped the studio retool the character's story, too.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is Kevin Spacey’s first video game, though not the first time he’s played an imperious political-minded villain with designs on power that radically impact American democracy (as far as we can tell from the game’s trailers, anyway).

Spacey’s involvement with the game wasn’t an afterthought: Sledgehammer Games co-founders Glen Schofield and Michael Condrey had him in mind for the role of private military company lead Jonathan Irons before he’d so much as heard of the project.

In the game, Irons leads Atlas, the world’s most powerful PMC by the mid-21st-century. After a global terrorist attack cripples the world’s nations, Irons sours on the U.S.’s ability to promulgate democracy, and, Caesar-like, takes matters into his own hands. You play as Jack Mitchell, an ex-Marine working for Atlas, eventually (we’re assuming) having to grapple with the implications of Irons’ turn toward despotism.

In TIME’s video interview with Sledgehammers’ Schofield and Condrey (above), the studio heads explain how Spacey became much more than just their dream pick to play Irons, and how he helped them retool the character to “really [elevate] the story.”

TIME Video Games

Watch Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare’s Weapons Compared With Today’s

Sledgehammer Games' upcoming take on Activision's bestselling military-themed shooter franchise isn't science fiction, say its creators.

Swarms of insectile drones swirling like a black river through the sky. Soldiers who can leap dozens of feet in the air and thunder down unharmed. Lobbed grenades that pause at the apex of their arcs like giant hornets before diving to discharge their deadly payloads.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare looks like a blockbuster science fiction movie–Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers without the aliens–but its creators say the game’s pedigree is grounded decidedly in science fact.

Call it speculative fiction then, a semantic distinction that writers like Margaret Atwood find helpful to distinguish between improbable tales of galaxy-gallivanting starships or time-traveling police boxes, and other more speculative stories, parables or potboilers that deal with near-future scenarios extrapolated from existing cultural or technological developments.

That’s not Lost‘s smoke monster you’re seeing in one of the more arresting video touts for Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare; it’s weaponry “based on designs that we can see or know is going to happen very shortly,” says Sledgehammer Games’ CEO Glen Schofield.

TIME spoke with Schofield and studio co-founder Michael Condrey recently about the technology employed in the studio’s upcoming military-themed shooter. See for yourself in the video interview above just how close we are today to the sort of tricked-out weaponry you’ll get to play with when the game ships for PC, PlayStation and Xbox consoles on November 4.

TIME Video Games

Xbox One to Launch in 29 New Markets: Why It Matters

Until now, the Xbox One has been available in a fraction as many markets as Sony's PlayStation 4.

Today, Microsoft’s Xbox One lives in 13 markets worldwide, whereas you can officially buy Sony’s PlayStation 4 in 72.

That’s neither as vast a difference as simple subtraction makes it look, nor one as trivial as some seem to believe. It’s also a divide that’s about to get significantly smaller for the first time since the Xbox One debuted a little over nine months ago.

Xbox group honcho Phil Spencer said in an Xbox Wire brief that Microsoft will bring the Xbox One to 28 new countries (totaling 29 markets: Taiwan’s on the list) in September, with a 29th country — Argentina — in the offing near-term. When September goes, that’ll bring the Xbox One’s tally to 41 countries.

Sony moved much faster than Microsoft off both consoles’ November 2013 launches, deploying PlayStation 4s across the planet starting in Canada and the U.S. on November 15, then sweeping through Europe, the U.K., Russia, Australia, New Zealand, Central America, South America, the Middle East, South Africa, several Asian countries and Japan by February 2014. Microsoft’s 13, by contrast, include the U.S. and Canada, the U.K., a smattering of European countries (Austria, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Spain), Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and Brazil.

The PlayStation 4 lays claim to over 10 million units sold worldwide, according to Sony. When last we heard from Microsoft way back in April, the Xbox One had shipped (as opposed to sold) 5 million units worldwide, the latter still a perfectly respectable figure: significantly higher than Xbox 360 sales for the same period, and contrasted against a runaway-popular system even Sony admits is selling way above its own wildest best-case estimates.

Since then, Microsoft has said Xbox One sales “doubled” off the console’s $100 price drop in early June, but we’re still in the dark on units shipped worldwide, suggesting Microsoft is unhappy enough with the Xbox One’s sales performance to play dumb (remember when it couldn’t help but brag monthly and precisely for years about Xbox 360 sales?), making direct sales comparisons impossible.

A word about unit sales comparisons, for those who find them tedious or silly: Console sales matter for the same reasons anything to do with volume matters in a market economy. Publishers and studios, indie to mega-corporate, are each and every one gambling with demographics each time they heap piles of cash into whatever company’s developmental framework. What we’re able to play and where thus depends heavily, if not exclusively, on publisher-studio projections about platform adoption and investment return.

The sales-crippled Wii U’s dearth of third-party games exemplifies what happens when you have a perfectly interesting and logistically competent piece of technology, but can’t secure publisher commitments to assure potential buyers they’ll be able to play multi-platform, mega-popular games like Tomb Raider, Borderlands 2, Grand Theft Auto V and the latest Battlefield or Call of Duty. Contrast with the inverse content deluge for the Wii during its halcyon years (and it had plenty of those before it fizzled), a system significantly less powerful than either the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360, putting the lie to arguments that these things boil down to raw calculative potential.

The Xbox One’s 29-market expansion stands to shore up at least some of Microsoft’s sales disparity with Sony, putting Microsoft’s console in two more South American countries, Chile and Columbia (September 2), Japan (September 4), a slew of European and Middle Eastern countries (September 5), Israel (September 15), several Asian countries, China and South Africa (September 23), and Russia (September 26). The console will still be short of Sony’s total by several dozen markets, but for the first time in its lifecycle, it’ll be in places the PlayStation 4 isn’t yet, specifically Israel and China.

Israel accounts for a fraction of global gaming revenue (crazily, the Xbox 360, which launched worldwide in 2005, debuted in Israel just two years ago). But China is a behemoth, currently on the verge of surpassing the U.S. as the greatest source of annual gaming revenue in the world, according to a report published by researcher Newzoo in early June.

Predicting precisely how much money one new market or another’s going to add to Microsoft’s coffers is a fool’s errand, of course. Unless you’re pouring buckets of cash into statistical models fueled by troves of sufficiently accurate longitudinal per-market data, you might as well pull out a bow and lob arrows at the moon. Even the public version of Newzoo’s report is problematically diffuse for predictive purposes: a macro-level aggregation of game revenue that pulls everything into all-encompassing figures, without differentiation between platforms.

Newzoo says its figures tap “consumer revenues generated by companies in the global games industry and excludes hardware sales, tax, business-to-business services and online gambling and betting revenues.” So at least we’re not muddying the waters with online gambling and betting, which by itself has been estimated to draw in the tens of billions revenue-wise annually. But Newzoo’s figures also exclude “hardware sales,” thus physical platforms — including video game consoles — are off the books. We’re left with a general sense of overall game activity in these countries.

Considering other sources narrows the focus slightly: According to this GameSummit infographic culled from a global gaming report by research firm IDATE, in 2013 console sales, North America accounted for about 10 million units; Europe, the Middle East and Africa accounted for between 8 and 9 million units; the Asia-Pacific region tallied between 4 and 5 million units; and Latin America was somewhere between 1 and 2 million units.

Of all the Xbox One’s new markets, China’s is the most intriguing, mostly because it’s terra incognito, console-wise. China banned foreign console sales 14 years ago, claiming (ridiculously) that they were impacting the mental health of players (it lifted the ban in January). And so today, PC and mobile games are dominant in the country. Game consoles have been available through China’s gray market, but we don’t know what that slice of the pie amounts to, nor where demand for consoles versus PC games and mobile games is today, nor what impact the gray market may (or may not) have rolling forward with regard to demand for state-legitimized systems.

Price sounds like it’ll be a factor in the latter case, because what Microsoft’s asking for the Xbox One without Kinect in China sounds exorbitant: 3,699 yuan, or just over $600 (the Kinect-less Xbox One currently goes for $400 in the U.S.), though some of that’s down to China’s 17% tax on imported goods. But it stands to reason — given estimates that the average annual Chinese private-sector worker salary amounts to 28,752 yuan a year (about $4,682) — that a lot of would-be Chinese Xbox One buyers are going to balk, even with Microsoft’s pledge to sell games for less, from 99 yuan to 249 yuan ($16 to $41).

According to an online poll of more than 5,000 respondents conducted by Chinese news site Sina Tech (via Wall Street Journal) at the end of July, 59% said they wouldn’t buy a Chinese Xbox One, while just 22% indicated they would. If you’re making just 28,752 a yuan a year, would you spend roughly 13% of your annual take-home on a game system? If you could buy the same system for significantly less through back channels?

Sony plans to sell the PlayStation 4 in China as well, and announced a manufacturing partnership with a Shanghai-based company to do so back in May. But as of today, we have no idea when the console will launch, or where it’ll clock in price-wise.

The other market of interest is Japan, which has roughly one-third the population of the U.S., but relatively high per-capita console sales. Historically, Microsoft’s Xbox consoles have fared very poorly in Japan: a mere 1.6 million, compared with over 10 million PlayStation 3 units (and surpassed last February by Nintendo’s Wii U). The original Xbox, launched in 2001, couldn’t even muster half a million.

At least the Japan launch price for the Kinect-free Xbox One isn’t out of the ballpark: 39,980 yen, or about $381. That, and Sony’s had a tough time moving PS4s in Japan, totaling (as of mid-July) about 620,000 units since the console’s February launch. Sony chalks that up to poor Japanese developer support pre-launch (no one expected the PS4 to be so successful, says Sony, which actually sounds plausible given Sony’s own sales underestimates).

Assuming Sony’s claims are correct, the corollary, of course, is: Does Microsoft have Japanese developers lined up for the Xbox One? The company wants us to think so. In April it laid out 48 “regional” companies signed up to develop for the system (“regional” meaning a mix of native Japanese as well as Western developers with Japanese branches), then expanded that list by several dozen in June. But the 29 launch titles are decidedly Western-biased (Polygon has the full list here), and it’s hard to see any of those games — many of them already availably on the PS4 in the country — driving the system to stratospheric heights.

Microsoft’s greatest challenge selling Xbox Ones at this point is psychological. There’s the narrative about the Xbox One’s horsepower, given its inability early on to match the PS4’s output in multi-platform games pixel for pixel. There are presumptions about the console’s lackluster unit sales (fueled by Microsoft’s sudden reluctance to provide specifics). There’s the confusing Kinect-as-initially-pivotal-but-now-peripheral boondoggle, the system’s imposing physical footprint (it’s ginormous compared to the PS4, as big as an old-school desktop computer), and there’s the lingering miasma from a cavalcade of walked-back “features,” ranging from hypothetically intrusive Kinect-related activities to truly awkward, customer-unfriendly DRM policies.

At least two of those issues are behind the system at this point. The Xbox One has been at price parity with Sony’s PS4 since June, and the removal of Kinect ostensibly freed up horsepower to help developers wring a little more from the system. But the system’s biggest hurdle at this point is perceived momentum. And while the mainstream’s going to focus (not wrongly) on the system-sales-bolstering impact of exclusives like Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Forza Horizon 2 and maybe (make that an emphatic maybe) Sunset Overdrive in all the established markets this fall, it’ll be interesting to see the launch returns in the coming months.

Some of these new markets have enormous sales potential. The question is whether Microsoft in 2014 has the marketing savvy and catalog appeal to drive those sales home.

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