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Microsoft Adds Sci-Fi Series to Xbox Originals

Microsoft added to its list of original programming for its Xbox gaming system Monday with the announcement of a new science fiction series called Humans.

Humans — based on the Swedish TV series Real Humans — is a cooperative effort of Xbox Entertainment Studios and UK broadcaster Channel 4. It is scheduled to air next year exclusively on the Xbox platform and Channel 4.

Eight one-hour episodes will be produced by Kudos and scripted by the team of Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley, writers of the popular UK TV series Spooks.

In Humans, human-like robots known as “synths” are the hottest gadgets around, but their human side can pose problems for their human masters.

Humans is entering an Xbox pipeline that includes a series based on the blockbuster game Halo, produced by Steven Spielberg; Every Street United, a reality series based on street soccer; a sketch comedy series by Sarah Silverman and Michael Cera’s JASH Comedy Network; and a stop-motion animated feature by Seth Green, who won an Emmy award for Robot Chicken.

Game of Eyeballs

In producing original content for online streaming, Microsoft is following the lead of Netflix and Amazon, but it plans to add some new wrinkles to its offerings. Humans, for instance, will allow viewers to follow development of characters outside the plotted episodes. In Every Street United, planned for release in time for the World Cup this summer, there’ll be ways to unlock extra scenes and play mini-games within scenes.

Microsoft also is looking into building social networking tools into the content, as well as rewards and in-show purchases. Another possibility is saving comments during live events so late viewers can see them.

With its commitment to original content, Microsoft is trying to add value to its Xbox gaming console, which hasn’t fared as well as Sony’s PlayStation 4.

“Everyone is trying to bring eyeballs to their portals,” Jonathan H. Hill, an associate dean at the Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems at Pace University, told TechNewsWorld.

“Xbox has been one of Microsoft’s few real winners over the last four or five years so this is a way to keep gamers in Xbox,” he said.

“Traditional gamers have been moving away from Xbox, so by trying to blend the two worlds — the entertainment world and the gaming world — it’s a way to stay current and keep eyeballs,” Hill reasoned.

Securing Living Room Share

Original content is also a way for Microsoft to attract subscribers to its premium Xbox Live offering.

“The paid Live service originally offered multiplayer gaming features which have been available free of charge on other platforms such as Sony’s PlayStation and Valve’s Steam service for PC gamers,” Rob Sanfilippo, an analyst with Directions On Microsoft, told TechNewsWorld.

“Microsoft later began offering music, movie and television applications through Xbox Live, but these applications have also been freely available through other platforms, such as standalone set-top boxes, and built into smart televisions,” he continued. “Thus, Microsoft is under some pressure to provide additional offerings to paid Xbox Live customers to justify the fee.”

Original content is also a way for Microsoft to maintain its competitive advantage in the battle for the living room.

“Microsoft is stronger than Apple and Google in the living room, so it wants to capitalize on that installed base,” Ross Rubin, a principal analyst with Reticle Research, told TechNewsWorld.

“These are tentative steps,” he said of Microsoft’s content offerings. “They’re building off properties they already have in the console business and building their audience off gamers, as opposed to being for a more general audience.”

Microsoft has said its original content isn’t for everyone but is directed squarely at the 18-34 male demographic — the meat-and-potatoes audience for console games.

Hedging Bets

Original content is also a way for Microsoft to avoid being entirely at the mercy of content providers.

“One of the challenges common to all the device-content-service ecosystems that operate outside of the current pay-TV world is being able to license compelling content,” Gartner Research Vice President Michael McGuire told TechNewsWorld.

“One way to hedge against the costs of licensing is to start developing unique content,” he continued. “HBO did that. Showtime did that and, now, Netflix, too, has done that. It makes sense for Microsoft’s Xbox team to follow suit.”

That path won’t be an easy one, though.

“This is like a lot of things Microsoft does; it’s two years too late,” Jim McGregor, founder and principal analyst at Tirias Research, told TechNewsWorld.

“Google has tried to get into this. Intel has tried to get into this. It’s hard to get in when you’re late to the party because solutions have already been established. It’s even harder because the entertainment companies are very cautious with whom they work with,” he pointed out.

“Amazon and Netflix didn’t just come out of the woodwork with original content. They spent years developing relationships. It’s not impossible for Microsoft, but it can be a struggle,” said McGregor. “Entertainment companies are asking themselves, is it really good to work on the Xbox? Especially since we’re looking at the eighth generation of game consoles that probably won’t outsell the seventh generation in overall units?”

John Mello is a freelance technology writer and contributor to Chief Security Officer magazine. You can connect with him on Google+.

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