“The board is set. The pieces are moving.”Gandalf the White.
This isn’t a tale of good versus evil – no, this is two of the biggest players in gaming – two monolithic corporate entities vying for your hard-earned cash, gearing up for a console launch that will set the momentum and conversation surrounding the next generation of video games. Of course, it’s Microsoft versus Sony.
The Pressure is on.
It’s fair to say Sony put on a slick and well made presentation for the PS5 reveal, particularly so considering the challenges faced due to COVID-19 and lock-downs across the globe. Sony showcased a nice variety of games for their upcoming console, ranging from excellent looking indie titles like Little Devil Inside to curiosities like Stray (I want to play it so badly) all the way through to the incredibly impressive Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart and the gorgeous Horizon: Forbidden West. Playstation fans have had to wait quite some time to hear anything from the Sony camp this time around, particularly when compared to Microsoft. The Xbox team have made plenty of noise since the reveal trailer for Xbox Series X at the Game Awards in 2019, and have been beating the drum on an almost monthly cadence ever since.
But Sony and their fanbase have enjoyed a powerful moment this week, as millions of gaming and Playstation fans finally got to tune in and see what’s coming down the pipe. And while that fanbase may not have enjoyed the wait, it’s understandable why Sony could afford to take their time. With a ratio of 2:1 in sales compared with Xbox, Sony could afford to let the hype and desire to see, well, anything beyond a logo and a somewhat bizzare (for the average consumer at least) technology walkthrough on the PS5 system feature set bubble away. This week, it finally came to the boil.
And so Sony officially broke records, with the most watched gaming stream on YouTube ever as they unveiled not only some of the games heading to PS5 but finally a look at the console itself. Or should I say consoles – because of course, there’s a digital edition too – sans disc-drive, alongside a heap of Playstation accessories, with no prices attached.
And now, all eyes turn to Microsoft and the Xbox team as they now have to show gamers far and wide just what they’ve been cooking. Before we dive into what is arguably the most important piece of that puzzle – the games – there are a number of other areas that we think Microsoft absolutely have to nail in July.
Price is a big one. Back in 2013, Microsoft launched the Xbox One against the Playstation 4, and it was both weaker and more expensive. This time around, they know they have the “fastest, most powerful” box, but being appropriately priced against Playstation is key. Phil Spencer has publicly said via IGN that they will remain “agile” on pricing, and with the Xbox team finally enjoying the full backing of Microsoft from the top down, perhaps we can expect them to be particularly aggressive here. If they can, they should try to undercut Sony at launch, at worst matching their launch price if possible. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that all of the technology inside Xbox Series X has to come at a price. We’d hope to see the price come July, but rumours are swirling of an August event, with both console manufacturers dancing around the issue. Either way, someone is going to have to go first.
It’s fair to say Sony surprised the industry with the announcement of two launch SKUs for Playstation 5. However, it’s been long rumoured Microsoft have been working on a similar approach, but with some unique caveats. Back when Project Scarlett was announced, Phil Spencer spoke of consoles (plural) – and while Anaconda (the code name for Xbox Series X) has come to light, the other console was codenamed Lockhart. And this second Xbox, and for sake of clarity, let’s call it Xbox Series S – is a very different approach to Sony’s strategy. Whereas the PS5 Digital Edition simply removes the 4K Blu-Ray Drive, Series S would actually have different specifications, to target different performance. As the persistent rumours go, Series S would maintain the same overall approach, but with a lower clocked CPU, a less powerful GPU, and less RAM available for games. The strategy being is that this would be a next-generation Xbox capable of playing all the games that Series X can play, with all the appropriate bells and whistles, but at 1080/1440p instead of at 4K.
In effect, this machine is for the price-conscious consumer, or for those that don’t need 4K for whatever reason. Indeed, the majority of games globally today are played at 1080p, despite the proliferation of 4K. This lower-spec machine, being cheaper to produce, would allow Microsoft to hit two unique price points. The Series X for the enthusiast, the Series S for the average consumer or parent. It’s been frequently argued that a lower-spec machine would ‘hold back the entire generation’, but if you look at the PC space, with the myriad of processors and graphics cards available, the difference is simply one of resolution and performance – not ambition.
Ah, ‘value’ – such a nebulous term in and of itself. How can you define value, in so far as it would differ from person to person depending on their circumstances? Well firstly, you offer choice, which we’ve covered. Secondly, Xbox need to give those taking the plunge into next generation with Xbox sufficient reason to jump in. Thankfully, they’ve got a number of great ways of doing that.
First off, we have Game Pass – this service, which currently enjoys over 10 million subscribers, is likely to be bundled in all of the launch consoles (We expect a one or three month subscription at most to be included). Gone are the days of picking up a console at launch, looking across that initial line up, picking one or two (maybe three if you’re feeling flush) games and plonking down your hard earned cash. Because now, everyone who buys an Xbox will technically not have to spend ANY additional money for games within that First Party sphere. Halo Infinite, the jewel in whatever launch line up gets announced, is included in the service. In fact, ALL Xbox Game Studio titles are included in Game Pass, at launch. If you ever buy more than two Microsoft produced titles in a year, Game Pass more than pays for itself. And that’s not even looking at the hundreds of other games on the service, all available as soon as you’ve plugged your new console in at home and set it up.
Then we have Backwards Compatibility. Sony have been somewhat direct that while the PS5 will support some form of backwards compatibility with PS4, they still fully believe in a clean break from generation to generation. The Xbox team are differentiating themselves here, allowing consumers to bring along their pads, headsets, and most importantly, all of their games along for the ride. The new Xbox is going above and beyond here, providing impressive and automated improvements like auto HDR, more stable framerates and increased resolutions – and with some titles, even framerates that go beyond what the game was originally designed to pump out. All of this is done at the back end, with no requirements or investment from the developers of those games. Further more, cross-generational titles (which is a pretty normal thing for the launch of new generation of consoles) will have a specific badge telling consumers that this product has been “optimised” for their new machine.
Lastly, Microsoft have Smart Delivery – a term they’ve coined to indicate what consumers can expect when they buy games. All this really means is that if you’re not ready for a brand new console at launch, you as a consumer can continue to purchase games on Xbox One and be confident that when you choose to make that transition, you won’t have to re-buy your games or rely only on backwards compatibility – you’ll get the version that is optimised for your shiny new Xbox. A number of games will use this feature, like Halo Infinite, Cyberpunk 2077, Gears 5 and more.
So that’s the elevator pitch for the console, and while it’s all well and good, it will and arguably should come down to one thing.
Games, games, games
It is no secret that Microsoft has long been behind in producing exclusives that are both wild sales successes and critical darlings. Good games, sure, but not jaw dropping ‘must-haves’, at least from a general consensus point of view. However, Phil Spencer and team have, over the last few years, invested heavily in studios, both at a hiring and growth level, and via acquisitions. Xbox Game Studios now have fifteen studios, some with multiple teams and July is when we get to see the fruits of that endeavour. And rest assured, it is not the time to hold anything back. Microsoft has, for a long time, played it relatively safe in revealing games that are only due in the next year to eighteen months at previous E3 shows, particularly following the high profile cancellations of Fable Legends and Scalebound. Now that their pipeline is stable and in-house, we think we can expect to see some seriously cool games from both those internal studios and via external partners through Xbox Game Studios Global Publishing.
But what do they need to do to truly turn heads and get people talking?
Halo is absolutely going to be key here. The rumours and speculation on what it will actually be have run rampant, and now 343 needs to show us the game, with a fleshed out demo from the view of pad in hand. Show the campaign, show us multiplayer, show us Forge – there’s no denying the intense pressure there is for this game to deliver.
But it’s not just about Halo. There are other games to show here. We want to finally see the supposed Fable reboot from PlayGround Games. The latest iteration of Forza Motorsport from Turn 10, with all the RayTracing bells and whistles one could imagine. They could show us more on already revealed titles like HellBlade 2 and Everwild. Then we could look at things that are further out, like new games and IPs from Obsidian, Compulsion, inXile and Double Fine. And could they finally reveal what The Initiative has been working on? Is it Perfect Dark? Would certainly be one way to get attention.
The point is that games are king, and now they have the teams to be able to deliver. We’ve not even touched on what Global Publishing could be up to, as well as any other 3rd party partnerships. The overwhelming point of the show should be to demonstrate the roadmap and give Xbox fans a view into what’s coming and when, ideally for at least the next two or so years.
And it’s important to state this. Show us gameplay. We know that the definition of this can change depending on your view point, but essentially, if they can, they should avoid glitzy CGI, or ‘pre-rendered’ targets. As gamers, we all love to see actual games being played.
We’d also love to see Xbox lean in to the nostalgia around the platform a little more – while they may not be huge sales successes or critical darlings, give fans titles they’ve been clamouring for – Banjo is long overdue a return, MechAssault, Ninja Gaiden – we could go on. The point, we think, is to finally give those fans what they’ve been asking for.
Services and Paywalls
There’s no denying Microsoft is King when it comes to services and platform features, from accessibility, parental controls, online play and Game Pass. But one of these sticks out like a sore thumb, and that’s Xbox Live Gold. Microsoft paved the way for all the platform holders to charge a membership fee to play online, but over the course of this generation they’ve aligned themselves closer and closer to the PC. By doing so, they’ve created a natural disconnect. If Xbox is a platform, that spreads across PC and Console, then you simply can’t charge one set of consumers a fee, and not the other. We know, we’ve heard the argument: “Microsoft is not going to give up free money” – we disagree. With Game Pass becoming an undeniable success, it is clear to see where the money for content is now being spent – and it’s not on Games with Gold. If Gold does stay in any capacity, we think it should be some form of discount program and nothing more. What do we hope to see is for mutliplayer and online play in general go completely free, for all. A nice touch for users with remaining Gold subscriptions would be to automatically convert them to Game Pass – but only if they disable auto-renew for those customers. It would certainly make one hell of a statement.
Of course, the other service that’s waiting in the wings for a public launch is xCloud, Microsofts Cloud based gaming on demand service. We’ve already been informed it’s going to be linked to Game Pass, allowing subscribers to play a growing library of games, on any device, with their friends. Game Pass Ultimate includes the Xbox Live Gold subscription – could we see that swapped out for automatic membership to xCloud instead? We think so. Further to this, could we see xCloud being used to allow players to stream a game as it downloads in the background?
Concise and Clear
If there’s one thing Microsoft should have learned their lesson on by now is to be clear with their messaging. We all remember 2013. Always online, 24 hour check-ins, DRM nightmares…it wasn’t great, and Microsoft rightly pivoted after very vocal feedback from fans and the media. But the damage was done.
We’ve already seen evidence that they’ve mostly corrected this fatal flaw. Since Phil Spencer took the helm, Xbox has become more customer focused and it’s earned them some great momentum as we go into next-gen. They’re human, and as such, can still make mistakes – indeed, the May 7th showcase was a minor wobble. But it seems they’re listening and after seeing Sony muddy some of the messaging following their show, it’s our hope Microsoft are acutely aware of the need to be very clear with how they communicate. If you have a timed exclusive, tell us. More so, tell us the timeframe of that exclusivity, so consumers can understand and make informed decisions. We’re not going to lie, it wouldn’t be a Microsoft E3 show without “WORLD PREMIERE” and “EXCLUSIVE” being repeated throughout, haters be damned.
Okay, we know this one is a slightly petty one to put on here, especially considering the circumstances. COVID-19 has affected the entire world, and realistically, everything should be given some lee-way, and we really should accept a ‘best efforts’ on this sort of thing. Unfortunately for Microsoft, Sony have shown that it is possible to put on a slick presentation, even though it was only 1080p and 30 frames per second. Microsoft have gone all in on framerates and how important the feel of games should be this generation, so it would be a shame if the reveal of great games was marred by a low quality stream. And please, someone get Aaron a better webcam. He can keep the fridge, that was good fun.
So that’s it! That’s what we think Microsoft need to do in order to win hearts and minds for the Xbox platform. What do you think? Did we miss a megaton that would be a no brainer?
Let us know, in the comments below.