No, not first party studios. It’s an obvious and relatively easy joke to make, but it’s something Phil Spencer and team have gone to great lengths to fix, though the results of the recent (and ongoing) acquisition spree are yet to be seen and felt fully.
I’m talking about the other thing they were missing – a clear, unified vision. And if there’s one thing that’s come to light over the last 18-24 months, is that the Xbox team finally seem to know who they are, and what they want to achieve with their products and their platform.
When Microsoft first entered the console industry, they believed the Xbox was a way for the corporation to get a foothold in the living room, and competed agressively to achieve that goal. Whilst they didn’t succeed first time around with the original Xbox console, it’s hard to argue that they didn’t see success with Xbox 360. I’d go as far as to argue that for an entire generation of gamers, particularly in the US, grew up with Xbox as a household name, worthy of a place next to Nintendo or Playstation.
Back then, Xbox was for “hardcore gamers” (whoever they are!) and I recall seeing the term ‘dudebro’ being thrown around a fair bit. Either way, Xbox made videogaming more mainstream, ushering in the blockbuster era alongside it.
And to be fair, it’s also hard to argue against the impact Microsoft has had on console gaming as a whole – both the good and the bad.
The bad of course, being outrageously priced DLC, or exclusive DLC locked out of other platforms, badly thought out motion peripherals, and a strong focus on their core franchises, but not much else after the first couple of years into a new console.
But the good is not to be sniffed at – whilst the Dreamcast might have been the first console to really have a stab at online gaming, it was Xbox Live that changed everything. A subscription online gaming service, initially just to pay to access online (that bit can go on the list of bad things) Xbox Live made console gaming more social and more connected.
Then, Halo 2 in 2004, right before the release of the 360, ushered in the era of matchmaking. Gone were server lists to manually browse, instead, the games matched you with other players depending upon locale or skill level. Virtually every game now puts players together in this way.
Microsoft brought harddrives to consoles, allowing players to store save games, and developers to utilise them. They brought about the indie renaissance, with Xbox Live Arcade, ushering in a whole new era of smaller unique titles, only available digitally, and with solid marketing, really shone a light on smaller, more unique games.
But then, following the relase of the enormously successful (but enormously flawed) Kinect, Microsoft seemed to lose their way. Relying purely on 3rd party releases, Microsoft allowed the Xbox 360 to languish in the last few years of its life as we approached the release of the next generation.
I recall reading various publications as we approached the next generation stating it was Microsofts game to lose, and that the new Xbox was bound to be the surefire hit for the aforementioned hardcore gamer in 2013.
The rest, as they say, is history.
The Xbox One announce was a disaster. Gone was the games first mantra of Xbox, the team that focused on hardcore gaming. Instead it was TV and movies and voice control, with a packed in Kinect Sensor and an underpowered box comparatively to the competition. And worse, mandatory online check in, meaning folks without decent internet were left in the cold.
Even after the announce, the then most hated gaming executive, Don Mattrick, still didn’t fully comprehend the impact of what he had revealed on stage. One person I’ve spoken to at Microsoft described Don Mattrick as a man surrounded by “yes-men” who tried to hide away the online conversation and backlash following the reveal. Thankfully, that backlash couldn’t be kept quiet for long.
In short, the Xbox team had lost its soul – they had no clear direction or vision, and even when they revealed some admittedly decent looking games at the E3 immediately after the reveal, it was too little, too late.
This is a story we’ve all heard before, and as a long time primarily Xbox gamer, it was a rough generation. On reflection, I think it was a necessary evil. Had this not happened, we wouldn’t see what we’re seeing now, and that is that finally, Microsoft are all in on gaming.
Being in last place has it’s benefits, and Phil Spencer and team have driven some admirable pro-consumer changes across the entire brand.
First, with backwards compatibility – hundred of OG Xbox and 360 games have been added, with no need to “rebuy” games you already owned. Instead, just pop in the disc, and you’re away. And even better, some of these games benefit from native enhancements on the Xbox One X, with increased resolution and framerate performance.
Speaking of the Xbox One X, we finally recieved a console worthy of the Xbox brand, with a focus on power and performance. Microsoft removed the barriers on Xbox Live, allowing for Crossplay across a multitude of devices. Xbox Play Anywhere was introduced, meaning I could buy one game and recieve copies on both PC and Xbox One.
And then there was the biggest game changer of all – Xbox Game Pass.
In some ways, it feels like we’re right back where the Xbox One started in 2013. A mostly digital service, gamers can subscribe to a catalogue of over 100 games, with every Microsoft First Party release launching day and date on the platform with its physical counterpart.
And finally PC users were not left out in the cold, with Game Pass also launching for PC earlier this year.
Now I’m not naive enough to think that the Xbox team are doing this out of the kindness of their hearts. This pro-consumer slant is merely a benefit to an Xbox Team finally executing on their vision for gaming, and that is one of tearing down barriers, and allowing their players to play their games on the devices they own, wherever they are. It helps I think, that Microsoft have seen a transition across their core business, to subscription services, like Office 365 and Azure – why not for gaming?
When I think ahead to the launch of the next generation of consoles, I find myself excited at the possibilities – not just from a technical perspective, but from what an unrestricted Microsoft is going to be able to achieve. As a consumer come launch day, I no longer have to be concerned about what launch titles I should buy – any Xbox Game Studios title will launch on Game Pass, day one. And I would also imagine that XCloud will, in some form, be rolled out to be included into Game Pass as a whole.
Microsoft now have 15+ First party development studios working on a number of titles, ranging from AAA blockbusters in franchises fans know and love, to more unique niche titles that may not be for everyone. Gamepass allows developers to take risks, but they can be purely creative risks, rather than financial. You can look no further than the announcement of Flight Simulator, as niche a title as you can possibly get as an example of this.
As I look back over this generation as it enters its final year, I am glad that the 2013 reveal and subsequent disaster played out the way it did. Because now we all get to reap the benefits of a player in the industry that finally understands, through all the hardest lessons learned, that games have to come first, and the customer that plays them a very close second.