I’ve been a proud Xbox owner since 2008.
The Xbox 360 marked an evolution in my mindset in regard to games – specifically, it was the console that erased any belief that might have existed in my mind that games were a temporary, fleeting part of my life that I would eventually grow out of; that they were ultimately a childish pursuit with no artistic value, as many of us are told in youth. Games like Mass Effect, Halo, Gears of War, Fallout 3 and Bioshock (I know three of those didn’t stay exclusive, but they were predominantly associated with the Xbox brand at one point or another in their lifespan) dispelled that notion fairly quickly, as I fell in love with games that boasted both narrative brilliance and innovative gameplay, changing the manner in which I would view the industry for years to come.
When the Xbox One was announced in 2013, I was shaken to my core by some of Microsoft’s now-infamous promises regarding the platform. The apparent excision of used games as a medium, always-online functionality, and mandatory Kinect functionality all seemed to be follies motivated by hubris, reminiscent of Sony’s launch of the PlayStation 3 in 2006. When these were quickly reversed just months after being announced, I was relieved as a consumer, but felt slightly perturbed for Microsoft. It seemed odd for the company to eliminate so many key facets of the Xbox One’s functionality just months out from launch, but I had faith that Microsoft knew that they were doing with the Xbox brand.
Throughout the past few years, ever since the Xbox One launched, it’s seemed as though Microsoft has been fighting a losing battle in regard to that brand – which is odd, considering the fact that the Xbox One’s sales figures are technically just fine on their own. It’s only when placed against the Playstation 4’s meteoric rise that the system appears as though it’s struggling. Every year, it’s seemed as though Microsoft’s been forced to wage war against the court of public opinion in different ways – and it’s led to some truly inspired ideas, such as backwards compatibility that now transcends three generations of Xbox and the adaptation of the system UI into an aesthetic that profoundly resembles Windows 10.
After years of working at damage control, however, Microsoft went into 2017 faced with a new public image concern that couldn’t be so easily fixed – the notion that they simply lacked a proper exclusives library. This was a notion that only seemed to become more prevalent, as the high-profile shuttering of Lionhead Studios, the cancellation of Fable Legends, and, of course, the cancellation of Platinum’s anticipated third-party exclusive for the Xbox One, Scalebound, all placed the onus on Microsoft to prove that it could still compete with the PS4 this late into the current console generation.
The battleground on which Microsoft would seek to prove their naysayers wrong this year, was, of course, the stage at E3 2017 upon which they would conduct their annual Xbox Press Conference. Fans knew going into this year that the centerpiece of Microsoft’s press event would be what was then referred to as Project Scorpio, now officially known as the Xbox One X. Prior to the event, Microsoft and the Xbox team had touted Scorpio as “the most powerful console ever made”, placing it in stark contrast to Sony’s PS4 Pro in an attempt to define the Scorpio as more than just a half-measure, more than just a temporary console upgrade designed to keep the ship afloat until the coming of the next console generation. Ahead of their press conference, excitement for Scorpio seemed palpable, although tempered by an opinion that appeared universal: Scorpio would only work if Microsoft could summon the exclusives library to back it up.
Then came the press conference.
At the beginning of Microsoft’s E3 2017 Media Briefing, Head of Xbox Phil Spencer announced that 42 games would be shown at the conference, 22 of which would be exclusive to the Xbox family of consoles. The Xbox One X was formally revealed, its much-vaunted amount of teraflops brought back into the public consciousness and its sleek physique serving as quite the shock: in upgrading the Xbox One’s processing power, they had also succeeded in crafting the smallest Xbox to date. Announcements were made regarding original Xbox backwards-compatibility, which elicited the largest applause of any moment at the conference, as well as release dates for long-awaited exclusive indies such as Tacoma and Cuphead.
When the conference ended, I was initially very warm towards Microsoft’s showing – while I didn’t necessarily believe that they had done enough to justify the Xbox One X’s $499 price point, I thought that they had done a good job of revealing some exciting games (Ori and the Will of the Wisps, The Last Night, Ashen), ramping up excitement for games we knew were coming (Crackdown 3 and Sea of Thieves), and securing some high-profile third-party marketing deals (Metro: Exodus, Assassin’s Creed: Origins and Anthem). My excitement for games such as Crackdown and Tacoma was through the roof, and it was the first time that I could remember leaving an Xbox press conference satisfied since the Xbox One’s reveal. However, as I began to think more about what I had seen, I began to feel slightly uneasy about my earlier assessment for a multitude of reasons.
Perhaps the most significant talking point coming out of Microsoft’s conference, apart from the Xbox One X, was the manner in which Microsoft once again succeeded in generating new confusion in regard to the definition of the word “exclusive”. Microsoft has been playing with that term for eons now, sometimes to their extreme detriment, as was most certainly true in the case of Rise of the Tomb Raider back in 2015. This year, people began to ponder the definition of an “Xbox One Console Launch Exclusive” in regard to games such as The Last Night and The Artful Escape. One Twitter interaction between Steve Gaynor of Fullbright Games (Developers of Tacoma) and Greg Miller of Kinda Funny suggested that, contrary to what the phrase would suggest, Tacoma would be exclusive to Xbox One for the entirety of its lifespan despite Fullbright’s previous release of Gone Home on the PS4.
Yet, there were games that were very clearly bound solely to the Microsoft ecosystem – first-party titles such as Forza Motorsport 7, Crackdown 3 and Sea of Thieves were all designated as “Xbox One and Windows 10 Exclusives”. If every game shown at the press conference had lifetime exclusivity on Xbox One, wouldn’t it behoove Microsoft to keep the language universal from title to title? As it is, by varying their language from game to game without bothering to explain the distinctions, they’ve once again created the perception that they’re masking a perceived lack of exclusive titles behind convoluted wording, which isn’t good for them. (Phil Spencer confirmed today that the phrase “Console Launch Exclusive” implies that an exclusive title is timed to the platform, which is nice – but that meaning should have been made clear in the first place.)
Another point that made me uneasy following the end of the Press Conference was the role that the Xbox One X played in the proceedings. The first ten minutes were essentially devoted to the X, rolling out the shiny new hardware in style, praising its technical prowess, and using it to transition into the stable of games that they had ready to show throughout the briefing. The X also came back into prominence at the end of the conference, when Spencer appeared once again in order to announce the price point (a development that I was shocked that they saved for the end of the conference, given how high the price was). Besides that? It felt like the X was an afterthought.
Throughout the various demos and reveals in Microsoft’s press briefing, text would consistently pop up in the lower-left hand of the screen to remind the viewer that games were “Xbox One X Enhanced”. Besides that, however, there was nothing to convince the viewer that there was any reason to upgrade from their base model Xbox One to the X rather than the promise of 4K visuals in a time in which 4K technology is barely on the cusp becoming price-friendly to the mass market consumer. If Microsoft was truly going to distinguish the X as a wholly different beast, the “most powerful console ever made”, why not point to specific features in games that could only be achieved with the power of the X? Why not shed more light on how the X can help achieve Crackdown’s promise of large-scale environmental destruction? How is this new box going to improve ambitious games in manners beyond graphics and visuals? Microsoft didn’t need to distinguish the X as a console with individual exclusives, but it’s hard to tell who the device is meant to appeal to besides the most hardcore tech enthusiasts and devoted Xbox fans – not the audience that they needed to win over at this year’s conference.
Finally, it’s important to discuss the stable of exclusive games Microsoft had on display at this year’s E3, even if the meaning of the word “exclusive” remains in question. There were two distinct traits that defined the majority of Microsoft’s exclusives this year. The first was that they were largely defined by indie titles – after years of being remiss in this particular department despite the fact that Xbox Live was once the definitive breeding ground for console indie titles, Microsoft came out swinging in full force.
The second trait that stuck with me regarding the lineup of exclusives shown at this year’s conference was that, of the few AAA titles shown, most of them were promoted with an emphasis on multiplayer content. State of Decay 2 was one of the most high-profile titles of the conference, and it’s a zombie game centered mostly around interaction with other players. Sea of Thieves (the rare multiplayer game to actually manage to intrigue me in a profound way) is also based mostly on a shared-world experience. With Crackdown, the much-touted ability to destroy the entirety of the player’s surrounding environment appears exclusive to the game’s multiplayer component. Significant new acquisitions such as games like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, The Darwin Project, and Black Desert Online continued this trend.
As I scanned the internet for reactions to Microsoft’s press conference, I saw some of the usual takes – that it was a disappointment, that it didn’t do enough to move the needle in their favor, that it seemed to demonstrate a lack of understanding of what their fans want. But I also saw something interesting – enthusiasm in the gaming press, as well as in the hardcore Xbox community – general optimism brewing for the first time in ages. People seem thrilled and enthralled by most of the titles, and it was this that led me to a conclusion that I wasn’t expecting, because I still wasn’t satisfied:
Microsoft has finally figured out what this current generation of Xbox is.
Based on this year’s conference, it’s become apparent that the higher-ups at Xbox have realized that there’s no way they can catch up to Sony in the way that their most staunch critics have wanted them to – Sony boasts an install base large enough to draw every third-party developer to their doorstep, over twenty first-party studios with an almost unfair amount of AAA development talent spread amongst them, and a four-year head start during which they’ve won almost nothing but public adoration. Phil Spencer and the team at Xbox have clearly grasped that when it comes to defeating Sony in the court of public opinion, there’s no point in going after them where they live: the realm of AAA single-player first-party exclusives.
The future of the Xbox brand would appear to be one in which, at least for now, they focus on an online, competitive ecosystem. They’re clearly leaning into Xbox Live as their platform, using it to bind the Xbox One family to Windows 10 PCs in a cohesive way. “Xbox” is no longer a brand of consoles, it’s becoming a service, and Microsoft’s approach to games such as Minecraft and Sea of Thieves illustrates how that attitude is translating over to their games as well as their hardware. When it comes to the “war” waged with exclusive titles, they’re content to allow promising indie developers to supplant their lack of AAA first-party games – which is great for developers whose talent might be criminally underexposed.
However, as a fan of Xbox who grew up during the 360 era, this is disappointing – as someone who vividly remembers the era when Halo and Gears of War felt fresh, when Microsoft had the clout to draw games like Bioshock and Mass Effect to their platform-exclusive library, when a single-player exclusive RPG like Fable II had the ability to set the world on fire, this isn’t what appeals to my sensibilities as a gamer – which is a sentiment I’m also seeing around the internet as of late. Fans of AAA titles don’t feel the draw to Xbox that they used to, and it shows in Microsoft’s choice of titles to show at their conference this year. This was the first time in my history as an Xbox consumer that an Xbox press conference has ended and I actively found myself looking into the economic value of getting a Sony console.
To be clear, this direction that Xbox seems to be heading in isn’t necessarily a bad one. I think it’s good to see Microsoft, as a company, playing to the Xbox brand’s strengths, even if they aren’t the ones I would focus on. The focus on multiplayer experiences and connected ecosystems makes sense – after all, this is the company that created Xbox Live and redefined online multiplayer gaming as we know it while creating a market for independent game developers to share their craft. It’s not a bad direction to take at all.
It just might not be one that I’m interested in taking along with them.