An Xbox Renaissance

Is Microsoft’s gaming house finally in order?

Author’s Note: This week I was supposed to post Part 3 of the Japanese games on Xbox series. E3 happened, however, and has forced me to change gears a little bit. So please enjoy this slight detour.

Back during the sixth generation of video game consoles, I was one of the weird kids who had an Xbox instead of the massively popular PlayStation 2. The sad part is that if you asked me why I had an Xbox instead of a PS2, I couldn’t tell you. All I know is that I had an Xbox and I loved it. I remember playing a bunch of great games on it: Blinx: The Time Sweeper, Blinx 2: Masters of Time and Space (both by myself and with my one friend), TimeSplitters 2, Fable, Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance and, of course, Halo. Oh, I also remember playing The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind on it (even though it didn’t run very well on the console). I know I missed out on a bunch of good games like Jade Empire, Knights of the Old Republic I & II, and Ninja Gaiden but I still had a great time regardless.

Fast forward to the seventh generation and the arrival of the Xbox 360. Everyone wanted one it seemed. I remember seeing it advertised at Blockbuster (of all places) along with the launch titles Kameo: Elements of Power and Perfect Dark Zero. I knew I wanted one and tried to preorder it but was told they were all out of preorders. Undeterred, I kept my eye on the 360 as it launched. I was unable to find one as they continued to be sold out everywhere. I continued to search for a 360 despite the news that they were having widespread technical issues (the now infamous Red Ring of Death) and I was rewarded when I found one at Walmart on New Year’s Eve. My parents were kind enough to take me there after the New Year’s party at my aunt and uncle’s and we were able to buy me an Xbox 360. I have so many fond memories of my 360. Experiencing another grand adventure in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, visiting the haunting and beautiful underwater city of Rapture in BioShock, beating up criminals (and other things) in Condemned: Criminal Origins, and joining the 3rd Street Saints in Saints Row. Perhaps my favorite memories, however, are of playing Halo and Call of Duty with my friends every single weekend. Sure, the RRoD did strike my 360 but I got it replaced and kept the good times rolling. It remains my favorite console to this day despite its problems.

I tell you all this because despite my obvious love of the Xbox brand, I have been disappointed with my Xbox One almost since day one. I originally bought an Xbox One because I wanted play the new games that were coming out but I honestly wasn’t excited by the console itself. The terrible reveal coupled with the required Kinect really gave it a bad reputation. But I relented and bought the Xbox One because I wanted try out Titanfall and Sunset Overdrive as well as the goofy-looking D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die. They were (and are) all good games but then that was as far as my interest in exclusive games went for the console. The most recent editions of Halo, Gears, and Forza really weren’t doing it for me and I wasn’t all that interested in the free-to-play craze that was producing games like Fable: Legends and Gigantic. Meanwhile, great single-player and Japanese games seemed to only be coming to Sony’s PS4. The outlook was certainly bleak.

But then good news came in the form of backwards compatibility. Neither the Xbox One nor the PS4 had supported this feature at launch but at E3 2015 Microsoft announced it had found a way to do it postlaunch. That was great news to me. I have since made extensive use of the feature. Two of my favorite games I have played since they became backward compatible have been Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Lost Odyssey. But then the bad news started coming in again. Not only was Fable: Legends cancelled but the studio behind it, Lionhead, was closed down, the Platinum Games developed Scalebound was cancelled, no sequels for D4 or Sunset Overdrive were in sight (and probably won’t ever be), and all the good Japanese games continued to only be released on PS4. It seemed that Xbox would only every receive sequels to Halo, Gears, and Forza for the rest of its lifespan. As if matters weren’t bad enough, articles like this one continued to appear quite frequently. In addition, Microsoft launched the Play Anywhere initiative whereby all Xbox exclusives would launch on PC as well. All of this contributed to the Xbox One selling quite poorly compared to its rival the PS4 and left me feeling glum about the future of Xbox.

And so, with all this in mind, I was convinced that Microsoft might pull a Sega and exit the console business. In fact, up until recently, the title of this blog post was “Will Microsoft exit the console business?” The signs were all there: bad decision-making at the start of the Xbox One’s lifespan, numerous cancelled projects and closed studios leading to no originality or surprises in their exclusive lineup, them deciding to bring their biggest games to PC, and a seeming unwillingness to court game companies to bring their biggest and most popular projects to the One. It appeared that Microsoft was building an off ramp to escape the console business. And so, I contemplated selling my Xbox and just buying everything for my PS4. And so it was that I tuned in to watch the E3 2018 festivities. My expectations were pretty low so Microsoft didn’t have to do much to win me over but I think they went above and beyond what was required. I won’t say that it has made me completely forget my worries about sticking with Xbox but it has definitely made me rethink my position.

Let’s start with the games. Microsoft showed game after game after game after game with few breaks in between. They showed off games we had already seen like Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Fallout 76, Just Cause 4, Kingdom Hearts III, and Metro: Exodus. Not only that, but Microsoft debuted a few big games as well: Dying Light 2, Devil May Cry 5, and Cyberpunk 2077. They also trotted out games that, in the words of one YouTuber, would appeal to the “non-stereotypical Xbox player, if such a one exists.” I’m here to tell you that they do exist and I am one of them. These games for the “non-stereotypical Xbox gamer” included Tales of Vesperia: Definitive Edition, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and Jump Force. They also announced that Nier: Automata is finally coming to the Xbox One in the form of the Become as Gods edition later this month. No matter who you are or what you play, there was something for everyone and that doesn’t even include the first-party content.

The usual suspects in terms of first-party content were represented of course. We got a teaser for the next Halo installment called Halo: Infinite. I for one was surprised it wasn’t coming out this year but it appears to be in the early stages of development. The reason why is because 343 Industries is building a new engine for it: the Slipspace engine. I was, however, glad to see it wasn’t coming this year as it gives the impression that they are being given the time to make it great. I miss seeing the excitement that a new Halo game brought and I hope they can build up the excitement in the coming year(s). Gears was well represented with separate announcements for mobile, PC, and Xbox One: Gears Pop!, Gears Tactics, and Gears 5 respectively. I have to hand it to them here since I’m not a huge Gears fan but I was kind of excited by these announcements (at least two of them). Gears Tactics seems like a solid turn-based strategy game in the style of XCOM and I liked how they unveiled Gears 5 with an emotion-filled trailer. There seems to have been a rethinking about how to market this series. Gears of War 4 was unveiled with shooting and action sequences whereas the story and characters were front and center in 5’s premiere. I’ll have to keep an eye on it but it made the series appealing to me as a non-Gears player. And last but not least we saw Forza Horizon 4 revealed on stage and I have to say that I was somewhat interested by what I saw which is unusual for a racing game. Despite this excitement, however, reveals for these three first-party series’ were expected and predictable. What made it more interesting was the announcement of new studio acquisitions.

Microsoft announced that they had added not one, not two, but five studios to their first-party family: The Initiative, Playground Games, Undead Labs, Ninja Theory, and Compulsion Games. The Initiative is a completely new studio being built from the ground up in Santa Monica. I can only hope its name is original and not a tie-in to the projects it will produce (looking at you 343 Industries and The Coalition) so it can make more than just one series. The acquisitions of Playground Games and Undead Labs aren’t all that surprising to be honest as they have always had a close relationship with Microsoft: Playground for making the Forza Horizon series and Undead for the State of Decay games. The most interesting part was when Phil Spencer, the Head of Gaming at Microsoft, admitted that a second team had been formed at Playground for a game he couldn’t talk about yet (it’s definitely Fable IV). The two biggest surprises were, by far, that Ninja Theory and Compulsion Games were joining the Xbox family. They were a surprise because Ninja Theory has always been proud of its independence and Compulsion has We Happy Few coming out on all major platforms very soon. I am most excited by these two acquisitions as both of these studios have done great work in the past and I can’t wait to see what they produce in the future. I only hope that these studios receive the independence and breathing room they need to continue making great games (especially single-player ones) as Microsoft has a track record of shutting down studios that aren’t performing well (RIP Lionhead, Press Play, FASA Studios, etc.)

All of these announcements were welcome news to me (and I’m sure to many others) but frankly, these commitments should have come sooner. It makes me believe that Microsoft wasn’t fully committed to its games business and that maybe it was considering leaving it behind. Phil Spencer even alluded to this fact in an interview he gave following E3. He said that they, meaning Xbox, hadn’t been able to invest as much as they wanted to into first-party games until very recently. This makes me think that Microsoft was, in fact, not fully behind Xbox and, as a result, Phil Spencer and co. were fighting this console war with one hand tied behind their back. That would certainly explain the Xbox One’s lack of exclusive content.

Despite all of this good news, it does point to a problem for the Xbox One. Almost none of what was announced will bear fruit for Microsoft’s current console. It is obvious that Microsoft is readying itself for the next fight. They have lost the current battle and they know it. That’s not to say there is no more content coming to the Xbox One (because there is) but Phil Spencer has made it clear that Microsoft is moving on. He even said so during the E3 presentation: they are actively working on the next generation of consoles. That’s right, he said consoles not console. It’s obvious they’re going to continue the trend of releasing iterative upgrades during each console generation. Some people are upset they announced they’re working on new consoles already but I’m not mad at them for doing so. We’re in the fifth year of the Xbox One’s lifespan so it should be obvious we’re coming up on the end of the current generation. It’s only a matter of time before we see the official announcement.

Of everything shown during Xbox’s E3 2018 showcase, I would say the most important takeaway was that Microsoft is committed to the gaming space and Xbox in particular. I was seriously doubtful of their commitment up until their E3 showing but some of my concerns have been put to rest for now. Phil Spencer himself seemed to be aware of the doubt surrounding the Xbox business when he said, in the same interview cited before, that “Anybody who worries about our console future, I wanted to put that at ease.” And that is exactly what he did for me by showing off big third-party games, announcing new acquisitions to broaden their first-party offerings, and by saying they are actively working on the next generation. I still worry about Microsoft’s ability to allow their new studios (Ninja Theory and Compulsion) the freedom needed to produce the high-quality work they’re known for. They have had problems with that in the past. Despite this worry though, I am excited for the first time in a long time about Xbox’s future. Something seems to have changed within the company and they are now willing to spend some money to improve the Xbox brand. They have not only signaled that they are staying in the fight but are re-entering the console war in a way. I just hope they are able to keep up the momentum and can deliver some quality first-party exclusives in the future because I would be sad to see the Xbox name disappear.

Thank you for reading and I hope you enjoyed it! What did you enjoy most about this year’s E3? Are you ready for the next console gen? Let me know!

p.s. I didn’t mention this in my E3 Special Edition nor in this post but there was a game called Tunic announced during Microsoft’s conference that I think is adorable. The creator has stated that the Legend of Zelda was an influence and it definitely shows. I hope it releases soon.

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