Death in Dark Souls is its own reward

The Soulsborne games (Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls I & II, and Bloodborne) have a pretty fearsome reputation for being difficult. It is a rather well earned reputation at that: ‘Prepare to die’ reads the tagline for Dark Souls, a game that was very much sold off the back of it’s difficulty but burrowed into our hearts proving that it was much more than a few tricky boss fights. Soulsborne games are popular for more than just their difficulty. They take place in beautiful, twisted worlds that play havoc on your mind. A Soulsborne game isn’t just hard like Ninja Gaiden 2; it’s a marvelous feat of game design that never fails to impress. It offers satisfaction and frustration in well balanced portions and every mechanic is finely tuned almost to perfection.

From the very outset of development, From Software have in mind that you will die again, and again, and again. You will fall into the inky blackness of Blighttown and shatter your bones against the scaffolding on your way down; your defences will crumple under the fierce blows of Old King Allant; you will definitely get ripped to pieces by Vicar Amelia. It sounds cruel and brutal, and in many ways it is, but it is far more forgiving of deaths than most games, and certainly more forgiving than it would appear on the surface.

Taking Demon’s Souls as our first example: following the tutorial you have your maximum health reduced by 50%. Initially, this seems like an utterly insurmountable barrier to be presented with but you quickly realise that this is all about learning. The death mechanic is central to the game and so the developers waste no time making sure you understand it and, as ever with Soulsborne, the only way you’ll learn anything is to die first.

As Josh Bycer wrote in his article about difficulty curves, Soulsborne games use a Darwinian curve. From the very beginning players are introduced to more or less every mechanic and tool the game has on offer. In games like this ‘The player is not going to find an item or power-up that completely changes how the game is played halfway through,’ writes Bycer. Instead, a Darwinian curve ‘forces the player to learn all the tools in their arsenal’ from the offset.

As a result, the difficulty curve of Soulsborne games are more likely to resemble a very gradual decline in challenge for most players. It feels somewhat odd that this series of games, renowned for their extreme difficulty, can be considered to get progressively easier rather than harder. But it’s built into the very mechanics of the game. It rewards players for failure more than it does for success but that’s not a bad thing.

In Soulsborne, players will fail. They will fail dramatically and often but each failure presents an opportunity for great gain in a way which more traditional games don’t. Let’s take a traditional modern shooter as an example. Let’s say your objective is to clear the area, disarm several explosives, and then proceed to extraction. If you eat a grenade at any point throughout that operation and splatter the nearby walls with chunky pieces of marine meat, you are sent back to the last checkpoint and have to repeat the process from scratch. You’ve lost time and gained nothing except for some basic knowledge of the map and its hazards.

However, in a Soulsborne game, you could kill the first two enemies and then fall off a cliff but still have more to show for it than any dead marine that nearly made it to the helicopter. Soulsborne‘s infamous reputation is part in thanks to the souls mechanic whereby players get souls for killing enemies but lose them if they die. If a player can make it back to the spot where they died, they can recover the souls and spend them on weapon upgrades, spells, and levels. Of course, if they die on the way to recovering their souls, the loot becomes lost forever and they can now only retrieve what they were carrying when they died the second time.

On the surface, such a system sounds almost barbaric. Souls are an absolutely necessary resource for the average player and losing a large amount can feel like a catastrophe. In reality though, it’s a golden opportunity that can level the playing field for players who may be struggling.

When a player dies halfway between checkpoints, they have reached one of the many walls which will appear in a Darwinian curve. Once the player finally overcomes the challenge, they are very likely to have far more souls to spend than a player which breezed through the area with nary a backwards glance, the steel of their sword glinting in the sunshine; a brilliance matched only by the magnificent teeth which still remain in their head from not having died six times.

The player which has been repeatedly eviscerated by the savage blows of some lowly undead solider will be a higher level, have better items, more spells, a limo, a pile of cocaine and probably even a thoroughbred racehorse. The more successful player, however, will press on, impoverished but adept until they too hit the next natural wall and soon find themselves raking in stacks of souls as they hoover up souls, each death providing a new source of wealth in the form of respawning enemies. Even if a player only has to repeat a section once, they could have twice as many souls as if they had done it first time. Most importantly though, this boon wasn’t the result of needless farming, but instead the result of progression.

This process ensures that players don’t advance too far before becoming entirely under-leveled and under-equipped. It’s a simple but elegant system that isn’t nearly as harsh as it would initially seem. From Software want players to be challenged but ultimately to overcome. The developers aren’t looking to unfairly block players from progression or mercilessly punish them. The ethos of the Soulsborne design is to help the player finish the game, but it’s very much a stick before the carrot method.

A player will either naturally progress through improved skill, hammer their way through with a wealth of souls related upgrades, or a mixture of both. Soulsborne games give the players everything they need to progress and more but it’s done in such a delightful way that leaves players constantly challenged, or at least under the illusion. It’s unrelenting and but feels more punishing and cruel than it really is.

Once a player has mastered the mechanics, and has overcome the need to evolve or die as part of the Darwinian curve, they will not need to farm or grind out levels to succeed. A player that has been less able to master the fundamentals is held back until they do or until they become powerful enough to proceed despite their lacking grace with a weapon. ‘Adapt or die’ is less of an ultimatum, and more of a choice. In essence, both are valid ways of finishing a Soulsborne game.

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Nasty, brutish, and short shorts: the wonderful, woeful world of Lisa: The Painful RPG

I’ve lost count of all the wastelands I’ve wandered through. I’ve poked through shattered cities, zombie-riddled farms, and war-torn towns, filling my pockets and transforming myself into a one-man wasteland superpower. The charred backdrop of societal collapse provides the perfect canvas for a traditional video game power fantasy. Swathes of bandits, mutants, and marauders are yours to tear through with little consequence, until the once bitter world is squashed beneath your thumb. Such wastelands are often designed for the player to feel strong, but with LISA, I felt weak, very, very weak.

LISA bills itself on Steam as ‘the miserable journey of a broken man.’ It’s a peculiar marketing ploy but you have to admire the brutal honesty. From the onset it’s clear that LISA’s world is cruel and uncaring, and the only way to survive is to mirror its barbarity.

If you imagine the bastard love-child of Mad Max and Children of Men squashed into a two dimensional sidescroller it would look on awful lot like LISA. A vague apocalyptic event wiped out the world’s women and with the gradual depletion of resources, the world has descended into a base wasteland fuelled on testosterone, sweat, and man muscles.

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The story follows Brad, a troubled former karate instructor, who happens upon a baby girl abandoned in the Wastes. Having experienced first-hand the savagery of the world, Brad shelters his adopted daughter, hiding her away from those who would use and abuse her. Flash forward a few years and ‘Buddy’ (the name given to the child) is kidnapped and whisked off into the Wasteland, setting Brad off on an ill-fated rescue. What unfolds is an Earthbound-esque adventure, addressing the dicey topics of addiction, abuse, and torture. Its chapters are bookended with agonising choices that highlight the throwaway nature of morality mechanics, dressing the results with a dark permanence that haunts you to the credit roll.

Such choices have a real impact, both narratively and mechanically. One of the earliest sees Brad surrounded by a gang of thugs led by a moustachioed sadist riding about on a small deer. With no hope of escape and unable to mount a fight, Brad is offered a choice: to lose his left arm or sacrifice the life of a random party member; loss of the arm severely impacts Brad’s combat abilities while losing a levelled companion could spell total disaster. The choice is grim, unavoidable, and irreversible. Where some games offer an illusion of choice, LISA revels in its consequences. A potential disaster lurks around each corner, showcasing the bleak inevitability of living in a dangerous world full of dangerous people.

Despite the worlds looming horrors and its dangerous dwellers it feels thoroughly lived in by a population shaped by their surroundings. It’s inhabitants seek entertainment as base as the world around them. Wrestling, Russian roulette, prostitution, booze, and drugs are all commonplace and paid for with the game’s currency: porn mags. It’s a world with no place for the traditional hero as the majority of traditional values have been chipped away, leaving little but depravity. Even Brad is no stranger to the degeneracy, creeping deeper into a vortex of drugs, drink, and violence as the story progresses.

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Early on LISA establishes Brad’s former addiction to ‘Joy’, little blue pills that help to wash away the pains of his past, present, and future. The temptation to slip Brad back into old habits is incessant and pervasive. When craving ‘Joy’ Brad’s combat efficiency slows to a crawl but pop a pill and each he’ll hit with extra potency. Suddenly those tricky bosses could be taken down in a pinch but only if you succumb to the pull of a total relapse. The ‘Joy’ withdrawals stalk Brad throughout his journey. Hallucinations slowly leak into Brad’s life and it’s difficult to separate the reality from the phantoms of psychosis.

At the best of times LISA’s wasteland is a vague place. It’s dark thematic notes and it’s eager portrayal of blood-splashed violence provide a jarring contrast to it’s surreal humour. Very quickly LISA earned a place among the sparse pantheon of games that have teased out genuine laughs, with one segment proving so funny I had to stop playing briefly just to recover. It’s moments like this where LISA’s wasteland shines. Brad, quite literally, bulldozes through the stories of others, and the characters he meets along the way bring the long dead world to life.

LISA’s world is a roller-coaster. It slithers under your skin and revels in disgust one moment and draws out belly laughs the next. Where most wastelands act to empower, LISA’s does the opposite. By the end of Brad’s quest he felt withered; a husk of a man brought low by the horrors surrounding him. The choices offered add up to a bloody whole that weighs heavily on the mind. Brad has to do awful things to achieve his ends and, no matter how hard you try, you can’t be any better than the world around you. The more you try the more the game kicks back, inevitably wearing you down to its depraved level. You can’t escape it’s miserable journey. All you can do is watch as the grim scene plays out, with its bleak and surreal wasteland providing a fitting backdrop.

The abusive and uneasy marriage between the publishers and the press

Fairly recently I wrote a short news article about Microsoft’s inability to tap the Japanese market with the Xbox One. Interestingly enough, the article was rejected on that grounds that, ‘This article, if read by the wrong people, could permanently damage our relationship [with Microsoft].’ I’ve since gussied it up a bit and published it here because you don’t need to worry about being blacklisted when you’re a nobody.

Naturally, I don’t blame the website in question. They have their own interests to protect and wouldn’t want to jeopardize a perfectly good working relationship for a 200 word piece about the Xbox One’s sad Japanese birthday. However, it points to something dangerous lurking beneath the surface of videogame journalism and how the industry operates as a whole.

Despite Microsoft’s lackluster performance this generation, they are far from doomed. Public relations can be the key to survival when everything else goes tits up and Microsoft have some of the best there is working their case. Edelman is, apparently, the largest independent PR firm in the world and they’re responsible for trying to make sure Microsoft doesn’t look stupid all of the time. They’re a twisted and wretched bunch, but they’re generally quite good at what they do. One small part of what makes them so good is ensuring that media outlets simply don’t publish the negative news.

It’s a fairly common practice and similar tactics are employed throughout the industry but, as you might expect, such goings on are often swept under the rug. That said, who could possibly forget the Gamespot incident whereby Jeff Gerstmann, former reviews editor for Gamespot, was fired for his review of Kayne and Lynch which rated it 6/10. Personally, I think a 6 is probably a little generous but the big-wigs at Gamespot were running a very lucrative advertising deal with the game’s publishers and the score did not sit right with either of them.

It’s very difficult for websites that rely on the advertising revenue or  the good will of a third party to help keep their operation afloat. These sites need money to cover their overheads, they need early access to games in order to publish a timely review, they need the resource and media packs put together by PR agencies in order to properly cover the latest big news. Without all of that, what are they really? The great divider between the mighty and the small in this industry is connections. If you don’t play ball with a publisher, or a multi-limbed eldritch horror of the industry like Microsoft or Sony, all you’re doing is putting yourself at a disadvantage. Everyone else is doing it, so why shouldn’t you?

But does that mean news and review sites should let themselves be held to ransom? I would struggle to cast blame at any website that does, but I would also say that these outlets need to stop cowering in fear.

It doesn’t take a genius to realise that videogame websites are ostensibly just a tool in the box for PR firms and the companies they serve. From the largest websites worth millions of dollars, to the smallest bedroom blogger writing enthusiastically but inelegantly about Metal Gear Solid V. Coverage is the name of the game with these companies, and good coverage is something they’ll do almost anything for. The same goes for what they’ll do to avoid negative news.

Companies like Microsoft will threaten to pull the plug on websites that don’t toe the line. Microsoft doesn’t want to draw attention to the fact that its Magnum Opus is selling more like herpes infused lip salve in Japan. Without wanting to sound too melodramatic, this relationship amounts to corporate censorship and there is no reason we should tolerate it.

These mega-corps need receptive and obedient journalists more than journalists need a benevolent mega-corp. That is, of course, an idealistic way of looking at things and certainly less profitable. Would a mass revolt against these hard truths change anything within the industry though? I think not.

The extent to which videogame journalism is just a marketing tool is far beyond any other medium. Things which qualify as news in this sphere would be considered advertisements anywhere else. A perfect example of this is the massive sale held by Sony to celebrate the 20th anniversary of PayStation in North America. News outlets ran rampant, giving widespread and free coverage to Sony and the sale. If B&Q wanted to let the world know about how it had 50% off all decking, it would have to pay hundreds of thousands in TV advertisements.

Of course, that’s just the nature of things in this industry. Videogames are a consumer product and so coverage will always reflect that. Everyone is trying to sell us something and we are happy to buy it because we want to. I know I do. But, that said, such a relationship does not entitle Microsoft, or anyone else for that matter, to a free pass. If a website waves your flag when everything is going well, it has every right to let the people know when the wheels have come off. To paraphrase one of oldest tenets of journalism: News is something that somebody, somewhere doesn’t want you to print. The rest is just advertising.

Building Beyond Balls – An experiment in Mario Making

Custom levels and I have never really gotten along. It’s not that I think them superfluous or unenjoyable; it’s just that there’s a dearth of creativity in my very soul, and not even a blank canvass in a map maker can coax it into life. Infinite possibilities and limited potential do not excite me or stoke the fires of creativity; it frightens me.

I’ve always had a respect for these modes, and their inclusion in so many games, and I wonder why I’ve never felt able to make something of them. Perhaps it’s because recreating is easy, but creating is far less so. It’s simple enough to crack open a map editor in a 2D platformer and blast out a hatchet job World 1-1. Easier still is it to sodomise the developers regard for human imagination with a cock ‘n’ balls built out of bricks. All this requires is a passing familiarity with the mechanics of using the editor. Using an editor effectively – to create, and not just mimic – requires you to first understand the intricacies of the game you’re playing. Why a ramp there? Why a coin floating invitingly over a chasm?

Mario Maker was a curious buy for me then. A map editor made whole game. A game just for making your own stuff, with some of the most recognisable assets and graphics there are. Never a higher pedigree for levels that are just fun. Surely if I can figure out what makes a Mario level – and can create one myself – I’ll have graduated this pretend designer school I’ve unwittingly enrolled myself in.

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Good sense dictates I should start with the featured courses. Good sense, though, obviously just wants me to see the cock ‘n’ balls of Mario Maker – the gimmicks and one trick ponies. As of writing, the number one featured course is a full on sensory assault of a level. Just hold right and sprint for the entire stage, and watch in awe (and then disgust) as Mario bounces effortlessly, easily through a convoluted mess of spikes, springs, and enemies. All to a background of explosions and strobes. It’s all much more Sonic than Mario – more self-indulgent spectacle than a level you play. Other top offerings don’t fare much better. A Mario Kart level. A level that plays music as you run past note blocks. A level that pits me against a never ending gambit of Mario’s worst enemies because look mum I can put a goomba on top of a Koopa-Troopa and NOW IT’S ON FIRE AS WELL.

A positive demonstration of all the cool stuff that Mario Maker lets you do, sure, but no new Mario levels.

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So I set out to crack the curse, and use an editor to make something unique. A basic level at first because we’re still using the training wheels here. It helps tremendously that the game bars the number of tools and toys you can access, meaning you have to have messed around with what little you begin with before you’re allowed at the more complex stuff. If before I was terrified by the huge range of options that map editors usually give the player, then Mario Maker soothes that, by demanding you master the basics first.

What was surprising is that beginning to make a level came intuitively. A trio of coins here baits the player towards a prize box, guarded by this goomba. Hop on the angry-eyed mushroom fella, and claim your mushroomy prize.  It’s straightforward, and draws the player in right away.

Money lust. Mushroom hatred. Motivation.

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Doin’ some Mario is now so ingrained in most player’s conscience, that it’s too hard not to crush a mushroom-man under your dinky plumber boots. Likewise for taking a short hop into a cluster of coins, or hammering Mario’s head against a mystery block for that sweet chime, and a chance at that even sweeter powerup.

Happy with demonstrating level design de jour. I move on to the next section of the level. Here, it’s important to note that Mario Maker levels are just that – individual levels that you upload for applause or apathy by the games community. This means you don’t get to develop or iterate on an idea quite like you would in a normal game. Your level must be a snapshot you can wave in front of an audience to provoke a positive reaction. And I know that I’m far more likely to complete a stage if the challenges introduced scale gradually.

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So not content with my simple opener, I plan to steadily ramp up the level difficulty over the duration of the course; difficulty curve, not a cliff.

In the next section it’s the high road or the low road; the ups and the downs; the leisurely hop across bridges paved with gold, or a slog through alleys flagged with turtle shit and blokes who look at you funny. This has got to be a staple game design tactic. Time your jumps and hop across the platforms and you’re rewarded with a cool powerup, but if you get hasty and tumble down, you’ve got a nasty gamut of monsters to struggle through.

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The entire level, comes to a nail-biting conclusion with this ensemble. A treasure trove of coins twinkling above item blocks that could be anything. A pair of Lakitu chasing the player while they try to reach their prize. Blocks above the player give some respite from Spinies raining down, but to get the goodies, players have to time it right.

It’s not a Super Meat Boy knock-off. It’s not a triple stack of Koopa Troopa’s marching on a player who has just had to manoeuvre a bullet-hell of fireballs, preceding a boss fight. It’s a little bit Mario, though, and after just one level iterating, and one evening observing the myriad creations of others, I can’t help but feel I’ve learnt a few things about design in the process. So here’s to my next level in Mario Maker, and the one after that as well.

Super Mario 64 – or – The art of translating 2D design to 3D without it being a messy pile of poo

Playing through Super Mario 64 it’s easy to forget colossal pressure that must have loomed over its creators. A decade prior, Super Mario Brothers took the festering corpse of an industry and zapped it with enough juice to convince the world that there might be a bit of potential left in this weird electro-zombie of a medium. As a result of Super Mario Bros. success, it effectively taught a generation to navigate a two-dimensional plane solely through effective design choices.

Flash-forward to the nineties and the creators of Mario 64 found themselves lumped with transferring that same wizardry into three dimensions, but a wider range of movement translated into a wider range of potential errors. Gone were the days of plonking down your player with only one direction they could feasibly move. It’s no coincidence that you start Mario 64 staring wide-eyed at a castle draped with a gaudy mural of Mario’s one motivation. Perhaps a 50ft “YOU NEED TO GO IN HERE YOU GIBBERING FUCKWAD” sign was considered a bit too overt.

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The genius of two-dimensional Mario is how the player responds to the intricate placement of everything within a level. After several attempts these intricacies become familiar and you find yourself flying through in a satisfying dash to the finish. Perhaps by accident, or perhaps in an attempt to liven things up, you’ll branch off the obvious path and stumble upon a tucked away secret. From then on, exploration becomes an intriguing element of play and the way in which you approach a level drastically changes.

Three-dimensional Mario reverses this process. With sprawling, open levels (dotted with several stars to find) exploration becomes the primary focus. Learning the finer points of everything placed in a world is undoubtedly important, but it’s nowhere near as pressing as rifling through all the nooks and crannies searching out hidden stars and coins. This shift in focus, although totally mixing up the style of play, is a masterful means of linking elements of classic side-scrolling Mario to a three-dimensional control scheme.

This focal shift shines through in Mario 64’s water levels. Cast your mind back to the water levels of side-scrolling Mario: the pace slows down and the entirety of the challenge comes down to avoiding enemies that swarm towards you; easily the low point of the whole experience. But in Mario 64 the water levels are a paragon of exploratory level design. Hidden coves hide away secret treasures, deep-sea creatures bob along the seabed, while sunken ships and a sinister submarine just wait to be poked through. The slower pace works within this context, as it creates a subtle ambiance akin to gently gliding along underwater.

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Beneath the water’s surface it can feel as though you’re entirely cut off from the world above; like you’ve plunged head-first into a space with rules and an atmosphere all of it’s own, explorable only for a few seconds before you’re forced back up to the world you came from. Mario 64 expertly captures the joys of swimming underwater and works in it’s own design elements to create a fantastic sense of both literal and atmospheric depth.

Combine this with the wonderfully thought-out sound direction and you begin to notice how far the smallest of touches can go. The main theme that plays while Mario is underwater is a slow and melodic tune with notes reminiscent of popping bubbles. The slow pace of the music accentuates the slower pace of the gameplay and drives home the message that you’ve entered a world with rules distinct from what Mario experiences on dry land. It’s true design elegance at work.

You really have to admire the team behind Mario 64. With the buzz of new technology, many a hack developer was hastily knocking up 3D horror shows hoping to ride the wave of consumer excitement right to the bank. But with Mario 64 you can tell that one question was defining the project’s development: what is fun about three-dimensional play? Mario 64’s answer laid the foundation for the early years of 3D gaming, and although rough around the edges at times, it became definitive proof that a previously two-dimensional series could work in the realms of 3D.

Even if it did have this guy, and fuck that guy.

Xbox One has a sad Japanese birthday

Let’s talk about the Xbox One, shall we? It was just over 12 months ago that it flopped unceremoniously into the Japanese market and continued the profoundly dismal sales of its predecessors. The success of Xbox over the last 14 years has in many ways been overshadowed by the lackluster performance of its various console releases in Japan. Microsoft’s repeated failures have become a blemish on the otherwise triumphant record of Xbox as a global brand.

The Xbox One officially launched in Japan on September 4, 2014 and has managed to rack up a meager 54,813 sales since then, with 23,562 of those being in the first four days.

For context, lifetime sales for the PS4 and the Wii U in Japan are 1.43 million and 2.29 million respectively. In fact, let’s really drive the nail in and draw attention to the fact that the PS4 had sold 620,000 units in Japan and was already considered to be doing somewhat poorly before Microsoft had even launched the Xbox One there. Sony had set the bar for failure pretty low in Japan and left it wide open for Microsoft to swoop in and clean things up. They didn’t, of course, or I wouldn’t be writing this.

Takuya Hirano, head of Microsoft Japan, told the world back in July that Xbox was not giving up on the Japanese market. With the Xbox One selling nearly 250,000 units less than the original Xbox’s lifetime sales (300,000), one cannot help but wonder if that will continue to be the case.

The Xbox Japan Twitter account, which has more followers than Japan has Xbox One’s, wished itself a happy birthday. There is something genuinely sad about the image as it gives off a degree of happiness and enthusiasm that can do little to mask the train wreck that is reality.

According to Dualshockers.com, it reads, “Today, it’s exactly one year since the launch of the Xbox One in Japan! Thank you for your future support!!”

I’m undecided if ‘Thank you for your future support’ is a lighthearted jab at the fact there was no past support, or a desperate cry for help. Microsoft is beset upon from all side as its dominant market share in all things tech has slowly dwindled over the years. It doesn’t have the hold over the industry that it used to, as people turn to Google and Apple for alternatives in it’s core markets.

By 2012, Microsoft’s shares had been loitering around the $30 mark for 10 years, whereas Apple’s share price grew by 2,000% in that same period. This stagnation hasn’t relented in more recent years either. By the end of April this year, Microsoft announced a 6% improvement on revenue, bringing it to $21.73 billion, but this was somewhat countered by a decline of 5% in operating income, and earnings per share declining by 10%.

By the time the Xbox One launched in November 2013, the Xbox 360 had shipped 80 million units. At it’s current rate of sales, the Xbox One is going to need nine more years (11 total) to hit those numbers. Good luck I suppose.