Microsoft Rewards Points

Today I want to talk about the meta-game I’ve been playing the longest: Microsoft Rewards Points (MRP). MRP are Microsoft’s way to try to incentivize you to use their products like Bing and Game Pass. You can learn about the program here.

I have three primary ways to earn MRP. The first is by visiting https://rewards.microsoft.com/ every morning while I have coffee. There I do the “Daily Set” which is some mix of clicking links and taking quizzes. A lot of these are ‘no-fail’ situations where you get points just by trying, but if you want to be sure you get max points you can check the MicrosoftRewards reddit. I find doing these Daily Sets kind of amusing just from the point of view of learning trivia-level facts and stuff.

The second way I earn MRP is via the Microsoft Rewards app on the Xbox. This is somewhat similar to the above system, and often asks you to “Check out this featured game” or something equally trivial. (Selecting these tasks takes you to the store, but you don’t have to buy the featured game in order to earn points. Just visiting the store page is enough.) Other times you’ll be tasked to do something like earn an Achievement in a specific game or selection of games. In fact there is a daily task for earning an Achievement that grants you 50 points. Overall this is another fairly mindless way to earn points.

The third and most interesting way I earn MRP is via Game Pass Quests. This is where things get fun. There are daily, weekly and monthly quests. The daily quests are boring and always that same: 1) log into the Game Pass app, and 2) play a Game Pass game. The weekly and monthly quests are more interesting. They task you with doing specific things in specific Game Pass games (at least some of them do). So “Drive 1 KM in Game X” or “Kill 10 enemies in Game Y” or “Play an online match in Game Z.” These are usually fairly quick to complete (though there are exceptions). What I enjoy about them is they prompt me to play games I usually wouldn’t play, and sometimes I find games I really enjoy. For instance this week one of the quests involved A Plague Tale: Innocence. I accomplished the quest objectives pretty quickly but by then I was hooked on the game. Now I’m going to finish it!

The point of all of this is to amass MRP so you can exchange them for various goodies. My preferred goodie is store credit. A $100 Xbox gift card can be redeemed for 91,000 MRP, which sounds like a huge number given some of the tasks reward 5 or 10 points, but they add up more quickly than you might expect (accumulation is helped by various “double points” events and other promotions). I’ve earned over 400,000 MRP since starting with the program. I don’t really track things but at least once a year I cash in for a $100 gift card.

It wouldn’t be worth it if earning the points was bothersome, but for me it has become a game in and of itself. I look forward to Tuesdays, which is when the weekly quests come out. What has made this even better/easier is Xcloud since a lot of the games can be played via streaming, meaning you don’t have to install them to complete the quest. The daily sets on the web are either inoffensive and quick, or they’re quizzes which are kind of fun for me to do because I enjoy trivia.

Anyone with a Microsoft account can sign up and start earning points, but it is when you’re a Game Pass member that the system gets really interesting. If you have Game Pass you might want to check it out!

Xbox at Gamescom 2021

Gamescom 2021 starts today but Microsoft got a jump on the show by having their event yesterday. I watched it and thought it was pretty good, though not at that “you gotta watch this!” level of hype-ometer-busting excitement.

If you missed the show and don’t need some sorry old man recapping it for you, here is the full presentation:

Too busy to devote an hour+ to watching? Great, that’s my cue!

OK Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. If you tuned in for game announcements, you had to be disappointed. The only non-indie (?) title they showed that I’d not heard of was Stray Blade, a 3rd person action-rpg featuring melee combat in a fantasy world. It’s coming in 2022. Here’s the presentation, snipped from the above video.

Stray Blade looks in my wheelhouse with lots of exploration and the kind of combat I enjoy but it’s early days. I’ll keep an eye on it though. Oh, the image at the top of this post is from Stray Blade, courtesy of Microsoft.

The other new game announced was Into The Pit, an indie rogue-like. I’m kind of over rogue-likes right now so I almost forgot about it, but here’s the trailer for that one.

Everything else that was showed was stuff we knew was coming (though some titles, like The Gunk, we haven’t heard much about). The show started with Dying Light 2 (out this December) and ended with Forza Horizon 5 (out in November). Both are looking great so far. Halo Infinite was nowhere to be seen, which seemed odd.

Some news items that caught my interest:

Xcloud, Microsoft’s game streaming service, is coming to Xbox consoles this holiday for Game Pass Ultimate members. This seems like a no-brainer and I wonder why it has taken so long, but now Xbox One owners will be able to play Xbox Series X|S games on their console (at 1080P) via Xcloud. Also, given the limited drive space on the Series X|S I can certainly envision uninstalling some games and just playing them via Xcloud inorder to save space, or ‘sampling’ GamePass titles via Xcloud before deciding to download them. What I’m really curious about is whether I can hook up a mouse and keyboard to my Series X and play PC Xcloud titles on the console.

And speaking of PC games on console, Crusader King 3 is coming to console. What?! They are calling it an “adaptation” rather than a port, so it’ll be interesting to see how much they have to simplify things to make the game playable with a controller. I mean I assume that’s the challenge. I’ve never gotten very far in CK3 on PC because it makes my brain hurt.

Really, that’s all the big news. A bunch of Humble Games are coming to Game Pass, and MS Flight Simulator, Wastelands 3, Sea of Thieves and State of Decay 2 all have expansions coming soon. (I don’t mean to sound dismissive about these expansions. Learning about them had me hankering to play both Wasteland 3 and State of Decay 2.) There was a segment on Age of Empires IV (out this fall for PC) and Psychonauts 2 (out today!).

As for me personally, I’m excited for Forza Horizon 5 and Dying Light 2, but I was excited for them anyway. And I haven’t played an Age of Empires game in forever so I’ll give Age IV a go, I’m sure.

There’s another event today, “Opening Night at Gamescom” or something like that. Its being hosted by Geoff Keighley of The Game Awards fame, so it’s not sponsored by any one company. Hopefully we’ll see some new games revealed at that event.

Console gamers: Microsoft’s Project Scorpio is not for you

Earlier this week Microsoft announced Project Scorpio, a new version of the Xbox One due out in the Fall of 2017. Microsoft made some bold promises: Scorpio will do 4K gaming and be fully VR ready. We’ve seen a variety of reactions from existing Xbox One users. Some (like me) are excited about Scorpio while others feel betrayed by the fact that Scorpio will render their existing Xbox One “obsolete.”

I have a theory: I don’t think Microsoft expects the majority of XB1 owners to upgrade, at least not right away. I think Scorpio is a machine for PC gamers. Here’s how my crackpot theory works.

First, price. Scorpio isn’t going to be a $300 console. In order to do real 4K gaming it’s going to have to be in the $500-$1000 range. Console gamers will clutch their chests in panic at that price but hardcore PC gamers who’re used to spending $400-$500 for a state of the art graphics card upgrade won’t be quite as shocked. My prediction is that, at launch, a base Scorpio will be $749 and a bundle with an Oculus Rift will be $999.

So price is a kind of tangential point. What’s more interesting is the fact that starting this fall many Microsoft-published games will be “Play Everywhere.” What that means is you buy the Xbox One version and you get the Windows 10 version for free. That’s how Microsoft is pitching this now, but of course it works the other way around, too. These games also support cross-platform play. Xbox One and Windows 10 users play on the same servers and your save games will work on both platforms as well.

Now Microsoft can start marketing titles like Gears of War 4 and Forza Horizon 3 to Windows 10 users. So here I am, Joe PC Master Race, and I buy Forza Horizon 3. Now I need an Xbox Live account, so I sign up for that. And I start playing online and starting building a Friends list as I meet interesting people. [Topic for another post: will Windows 10 players need a paid Xbox Live Gold sub to play online? Anyone know?]

And even though as a PC gamer I don’t really think about it, I’m also starting to build an Xbox One gaming library. As a PC gamer I have no interest in the Xbox One with its feeble innards. It struggles to do 1080P gaming at a decent frame rate! Not a machine for me!

But now here comes Project Scorpio, and now Microsoft is pitching it to me in almost the same way Valve has been pitching Steam Machines. Here’s a way to take your Windows 10 games and play them from the comfort of your couch, at the same framerates and resolutions you’re accustomed to. You already have a library of games you can play on it. You already have a community of friends to play with. All you really need is to buy the box.

Oh and as a bonus you can play 4K Blu-ray discs and the family can watch Netflix and Hulu on it too. And if you’ve always been kind of curious about all the fuss around Halo, you can run that too as long as you have the console anyway. And yes, Scorpio will support mouse and keyboard if you still hate controllers.

Over time of course Scorpio will drop in price and little by little the existing Xbox One audience will upgrade and soon enough, in Microsoft’s ideal scenario, the Xbox One gaming community and the Windows 10 gaming community will become one big happy family buying stuff through the Xbox Store.

So that, I think, is Microsoft’s long-term plan. And I do think it’s a long-term plan. “Play Everywhere” is the first step, Scorpio is the second, but it’s going to be a long-term play to get everyone in the same pool.

Disclaimer: I have no inside knowledge, this is all as much a ‘thought experiment’ as anything. I just don’t know how Microsoft will successfully market a $750 console to console gamers. (Though don’t get me wrong…I’m getting one!) I think PC gamers are their only viable market, at least during the launch window for Scorpio.

Microsoft Wireless Speed Wheel

Last week on the day Forza 4 came out, I was poking around in Best Buy (a favorite way to kill time on my lunch hour) and I saw this weird U-shaped contraption in the same ‘end cap’ display case as Forza: The Microsoft Wireless Speed Wheel [MWSW]. My first thought was that it was just a prop for Kinect, like the plastic Wii steering wheel that you snap the Wii Remote into. Then I saw it was $60 and figured it had to be more. I was vaguely intrigued and more so when Scott from Pumping Irony mentioned he had one pre-ordered.

This week I was back in Best Buy and now they had an Xbox station set up running the Forza 4 demo with the MWSW. I gave it a whirl and it actually felt pretty good. Much better than I thought it would. I was in need of a bit of retail therapy anyway, and the next thing you know (OK truth? I had to go to 3 stores to find it in stock. Target had it) I’m the owner of a copy of Forza 4 and the wheel.

Last night I spent a few hours driving with it, and I continue to be impressed, but let’s get the bad news out of the way first. There’re no bumper buttons and no jack for a headset. I don’t care about the latter but it was enough to cause Scott to cancel his pre-order. I do miss the buttons; they aren’t used while driving in Forza but they are used while navigating the interface. Also in other parts of the game where you’d use the right analog stick to move the camera around…you’re out of luck. The Wheel has no analog sticks.

This wouldn’t be a huge issue except that (unless I’m missing something) the Xbox 360 is stupid about having two controllers connected at the same time, without two Xbox Live accounts to go with them. Switching between Wheel and standard controller was a hassle, forcing me to constantly log in to my Xbox Live account each time I picked up the other controller. Eventually the system got so confused that the main display thought I was logged in but the pop-up ‘blade’ display [what do you call that?] thought I wasn’t.

I’m no Xbox 360 guru so if there’s a better way of handling this I’d love to hear it. I don’t mind setting down one controller and grabbing another between races if I don’t have to do all this logging in and out.

So that’s the bad stuff. The good? The wheel works really well when actually racing in Forza 4. I could hold a line nicely and my lane transitions were very smooth. At the end of each arm of the U, underneath, is a trigger. The right is for gas, the left is for brakes. There’s a D-pad on the tip of the left arm, used for shifting, and the face buttons are on the tip of the right, used for handbrake, clutch, look back and rewind. The game defaulted to a manual transition and I decided, for once, to stick with it. Shifting quickly came to feel natural; as you hold the Wheel your thumb rests easily on that D-pad.

How you hold the wheel doesn’t matter (in Forza at least). You can hold it up vertically or almost rest it horizontally in your lap. I thought my arms would get tired after a while but that wasn’t really a problem. Sometimes I’d rest the base of it on my lap while driving. You can also easily scratch your nose in the middle of a race…steering one-handed for a few seconds isn’t a problem using the wheel.

The wheel is heavier than you might expect it to be but that gives it some…inertia maybe? I think if it was any lighter you’d lose some stability. Eventually one hand started to cramp a little bit but I think that was due to my deathgrip on the thing during tense racing action. 🙂

According to the docs, the wheel can read pitch and yaw in games that require it to, so presumably it’d be a good controller in flight or space games too.

I do think Forza 4, or other games that have a simulation feel, would be a better fit than an arcade racer where you’re throwing your car violently into turns or ramming other cars off the road. The wheel feels like it’s better for finesse than for radical movements, and Forza 4 is a game of finesse. You rarely have to turn more than (total guesstimate) 20 degrees. Turning the wheel more than 90 degrees would feel really awkward.

As a test, at the end of the night I put down the wheel and picked up the controller and went back to Forza 4. Sure enough, my driving suffered. Maybe you’re better than I am, but I find in driving games my car tends to wobble a bit as I push the analog stick through the dead zone and then over-steer slightly as I leave the dead zone. I can correct of course but it doesn’t feel or look like real driving. With the wheel my replays look like there’s a person actually driving the car.

If you have a force-feedback steering wheel, I’m sure that’s going to be better than the MWSW. But for those of us without the room for a proper wheel and pedal setup, in my opinion the Microsoft Wireless Speed Wheel is a better alternative to driving with a standard controller.