My concerns going forward.
If you watched E3 this year (or have been reading my blog), then you know that Microsoft surprised everyone with a slate of studio acquisitions. Playground Games, Undead Labs, Ninja Theory, and Compulsion Games are all a part of Microsoft’s first-party studio lineup now. Additionally, Microsoft has founded a completely new studio, The Initiative, in Santa Monica. This brings Microsoft’s first-party studio total to eleven. This was music to my ears since the Xbox brand as a whole (and the Xbox One in particular) has suffered from a lack of first-party studios for a while now, in my opinion of course (and apparently a lot of other people, just check on YouTube). Despite this good news, I still have a few reservations and concerns about the whole thing given Microsoft’s checkered past with first-party endeavors. Has Microsoft changed its internal culture? Will we finally see some great games from its studios? And will the company find success in its new strategy? Let’s wildly speculate.
After the initial excitement I had when first hearing about the acquisitions, I asked myself “Will these new studios have creative freedom?” It’s a good question to ask and many people who cover video games have been asking it. I was (and still am to a certain extent) wary that these new studios will be forced to make certain video games or, if they make a successful game, they will be forced to only develop games within that franchise. For Microsoft’s part, both Aaron Greenberg, Head of Xbox’s marketing, and Matt Booty, head of Microsoft’s first-party efforts, stated after E3 that these new studios would have full creative freedom. On the one hand, I believe them because a few of these studios probably would never have agreed to sell if they thought they’d be forced to make games they don’t want to make. On the other hand, however, I still have my reservations about them having full creative freedom based upon past experience.
To understand what I’m talking about, let’s examine Microsoft’s main first-party studios which have been with the company for a while now and one which has closed its doors. We have 343 Industries, The Coalition, Turn 10, Playground (although they were technically second-party until recently), Mojang, and the recently defunct Lionhead Studios. Each of these studios have only developed games in the Halo, Gears of War, Forza Motorsport, Forza Horizon, Minecraft, and Fable series’ respectively. Do you see the problem? Each studio, while under Microsoft’s umbrella, has only developed games within a certain series. In essence, these studios have been locked into and associated with their franchises. They haven’t ever deviated from their standard operating procedure, as it were. This is in sharp contrast with Sony’s approach. Take its studio Guerilla Games, for example. During the PS3 era, Guerilla was known for developing the FPS series Killzone. On the PS4, however, the studio developed the critically acclaimed action-adventure open world game Horizon: Zero Dawn. Guerilla Games was given the opportunity to completely change genres and was better off for it. I hope Microsoft emulates this approach and allows its studios to branch out a bit.
For their part, Playground Games, Ninja Theory, and Compulsion Games all released statements explaining why they decided to join Microsoft. Playground Games, which had the closest relationship of all the new studios with Microsoft before the acquisition, said they thought their games would get better now that they were an official part of Microsoft. Compulsion Games promised to continue making “crazy games” now that they weren’t independent anymore. The most interesting statement came from Ninja Theory, however, in the form of a video the studio released on YouTube (which I suggest checking out if you’re at all interested in this topic). I’m paraphrasing here but the fine folks at Ninja Theory said that they were worried about keeping the lights on as an independent studio thus they agreed to become a part of Microsoft. They also stated that Microsoft promised them full creative independence and the full resources of the company to make their games even better. Although I still am a little skeptical (as we’ll discuss down below), I am wondering if Microsoft really has changed and is fully prepared to go all-in on this approach. As with most things, we’ll have to wait and see.
Before we exit this section, I would like to address an issue I see with two of the studio acquisitions: the problem of bugs and glitches in both Compulsion Games’ and Undead Labs’ games. If you read through (or watch) the criticism for Compulsion Games’ most recent game We Happy Few, you’ll notice that bugs are mentioned over and over again. Even though Microsoft didn’t publish the game, I think the company needs to address the issue anyways because it will hurt Compulsion Games’ reputation going forward and, by extension, Microsoft. For their part, Compulsion Games mentioned in their letter addressing why they chose to sell that they did so in large part to ensure they can polish their games more in the future. I’m glad they were honest and said that because it is an issue that needs to be addressed. As for Undead Labs, both their games State of Decay and State of Decay 2 are absolutely riddled with bugs. I hope for Microsoft’s sake that it has a plan to fix this problem for future installments.
Don’t Fear Single-Player
The biggest concern for me personally is that Microsoft will force these new studios to make multiplayer-focused games. This feeling was amplified in the wake of what Shanon Loftis, the Head of Microsoft’s Publishing arm, said in the aftermath of Visceral Games’ closure (Visceral Games wasn’t a Microsoft studio just for the record). She said that “Single-player games weren’t dead, per se” but the economics around them were “complicated.” This led many to believe that Microsoft was essentially done making single-player games. Although I admit that it was probably an overreaction, the evidence at the time suggested that it was true.
The evidence I’m talking about is all the games Microsoft has pushed and supported on the Xbox One thus far. We have all the Halo games, Gears of War 4, State of Decay 2, Sea of Thieves, and PlayerUnkown’s Battlegrounds. Even though a few of these games have single-player campaigns, all of them are multiplayer-oriented. In fact, most games Microsoft promotes and develops are bent (this has been especially egregious during the Xbox One’s lifespan) towards multiplayer. Let’s not forget the cancelled Fable: Legends, the heavy co-op push for the also cancelled Scalebound, and Microsoft’s partnership with Motiga Games (now a defunct studio) for Gigantic: also a multiplayer game. The point I’m trying to make here is that Microsoft (and Xbox) already has plenty of multiplayer experiences. This isn’t even counting all the popular third-party multiplayer games. Microsoft desperately needs exclusive single-player games and I hope we start seeing more of them now that they have purchased these other studios.
This discussion of single-player games and Microsoft goes hand-in-hand with a rumor that has been circulating the past few weeks: that Microsoft may buy Obsidian Entertainment. If you didn’t know, Obsidian is the developer behind such single-player hits like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, Fallout: New Vegas, South Park: The Stick of Truth, and Pillars of Eternity. If the rumor is true, then this would be a great new addition in my book. At least on the surface, that is. My concern around this acquisition deals with the fact that Obsidian was actively developing a game exclusively for the Xbox One in 2012 but it was cancelled by Microsoft.
It was called Stormlands and, by all accounts, it was to be a fully-fledged RPG with all the trimmings. The problem? Microsoft kept upping the ante. In a great article, Eurogamer summed all the things that went wrong during its development and why it was ultimately cancelled. It seems Obsidian tentatively pitched the idea of having co-op and Microsoft morphed that idea into a “million-man raid” mutliplayer experience. Microsoft continually pushed for bigger ideas and concepts and Obsidian, being an independent studio, realistically couldn’t keep up. The final nail in the coffin was that the game had to be ready at the launch of the Xbox One. This story immediately popped into my mind when Kotaku reported that Microsoft was buying Obsidian. Although it is good that both Microsoft and Obsidian have mended fences, I’m still worried this situation might happen again (where Microsoft pushes for a game Obsidian isn’t comfortable making) and that Obsidian would be closed down. Again, it all comes down to whether or not Microsoft has actually changed its ways.
A piece of advice I have for Microsoft is that it should always carefully consider the release dates for its exclusive games (this is incredibly presumptuous of me, I know). For example, Alan Wake (a great game, by the way) was released on the same day as Red Dead Redemption. Talk about an uphill battle. To be fair, though, Microsoft seems to have learned its lesson on this one based on the release date for the upcoming Crackdown 3. Microsoft moved the release date from late this year to early 2019 because of, let’s face it, the imminent release of Red Dead Redemption 2. They may not have learned the lesson entirely, however, since early 2019 is chock full of other games that were trying to avoid the Red Dead juggernaut. In fact, three other titles were expected to release on February 22nd: Anthem, Metro: Exodus, and Days Gone. Sony seems to have spotted the problem and has since moved Days Gone to a later release date. I suggest Microsoft follow suit given the fact that the Crackdown series isn’t exactly the most popular.
One final note about Microsoft and single-player games is that Phil Spencer, the Head of Xbox, has also weighed in on the subject. He said that Game Pass will help Xbox in the single-player department given the fact that all first-party games are available with Game Pass on day one. I actually agree with this sentiment given the fact that people give games they wouldn’t normally play a shot when they appear on Game Pass. Game Pass could be the key to success for Microsoft and its exclusive single-player woes.
At the End of the Day, Money Has to be Made
This is the final section, I promise. At the end of the day, companies have to make money. That’s how they always operate and that’s how they will always conduct business. To that end, that makes me worried about these newly acquired studios’ future. After all, Microsoft has closed many studios in its day (FASA studios, Ensemble, etc.) and quite a few relatively recently (Lionhead, Team Dakota, Press Play). This leads me to believe that, if Microsoft’s newly acquired studios don’t perform well, they will mercilessly be closed down too. It’s a legitimate concern of mine that I hope doesn’t come to pass since the Xbox platform needs new games to keep it going strong into the future.
As you can see, I have many concerns over Microsoft’s first-party efforts going forward. I hope that Microsoft allows Playground Games, Ninja Theory, Compulsion Games, Undead Labs, and The Initiative to have the resources and creative independence to make the games they want to make. I also fervently hope these studios don’t shy away from well-crafted single-player experiences. Additionally, I hope that, if these studios fail on the first try, Microsoft gives them the chance to make a second game. Of course, this all depends on if Microsoft has changed its internal culture and attitude towards its first-party portfolio. The signs seem to point in the direction of change. I only hope it will turn out to be true.
Thanks for reading! Did you agree with my concerns and assessment? Or do you think I’m just blowing smoke! What do you hope to see from Microsoft’s first-party studios? Let me know in the comments and be sure to follow the blog! I would greatly appreciate it! I will not be writing a blog post next so I’ll see you in two weeks!