When Crackdown 3 released on the Xbox One, it served as an all too familiar reminder of the state of Microsoft’s first-party game offerings over the past two years.
With the exceptions of Forza Motorsport 7 and Forza Horizon 4, Xbox exclusive games have been largely underwhelming. Sure, many of the first-party games, including Crackdown 3, offer a fun experience for players. However, that doesn’t eliminate the that fact for the second half of this generation both Sony and Nintendo have had much stronger first-party lineups that get their respective fanbases excited every year.
The purpose of this article isn’t to pile on the Xbox One’s troubles with exclusive games; that has been done to death and can be relived in almost any comment section. Rather, let’s take a look at how Xbox arrived at this problem and what some of the potential solutions are going forward.
What a difference a few years makes. When the Xbox One launched in 2013, there were a lot of good things to say about the lineup of games that was coming exclusively to the new console, either at launch or in the first couple of years. Titles like Sunset Overdrive, Halo 5, Titanfall, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, and the always solid Forza games had Xbox fans excited about what they’d be playing on their brand new console. Yes, there were disappointments too – looking at you, Ryse – but they were overshadowed by the truly solid lineup of games that appealed to Xbox’s core fanbase. The criticism at the time was around the console itself. Things like the focus on TV integration, sports, and forcing Kinect 2.0 into the box, culminating with the fact that the Xbox One was $100 more than the PlayStation 4 at launch. These decisions turned off many gamers and they migrated to the PlayStation in droves as a result.
At the same time, Sony was focusing on building a console for gamers and marketing it as such. They not only had the cheaper and more powerful console at launch, but they dominated the messaging as well. However, as someone who also likes PlayStation, many of Sony’s exclusive games in the early part of this generation were good, but not great. While Xbox fans were taking solace in the fact that they had a solid lineup of games to play on their new console, PlayStation executives were developing a new strategy around their first-party offerings: they weren’t going to develop a ton of games, but the ones they did make were going to be bigger in scope and better than what we had seen before. This strategy, along with Sony’s commitment to continue to bring new IPs to the console, was confirmed by PlayStation’s Shawn Layden in February 2019.
As the calendar turned to 2016, signs started to appear that Xbox might have a problem with exclusives. Halo 5 had already released, and Gears of War 4 was about to release in late 2016, meaning fans would no longer have Microsoft’s two giant tentpole franchises to look forward to in the near future. The Xbox hype machine turned to anticipated games like Fable Legends and Scalebound, with both getting plenty of attention at E3. Fable Legends promised to be a different take on the beloved franchise, but it had experienced difficulties throughout its development, to the point that Microsoft announced that it would be free to play at launch. Scalebound was a new IP being developed by Platinum games, starting in 2013, with a release window of 2017 after multiple delays to the game. Both games were expected to lead the exclusive games lineup for the Xbox One in 2016 and 2017 along with Gears of War 4.
Those plans would not come to pass, however. Microsoft announced the cancellation of Fable Legends in March 2016, while the open beta was active. The servers were shut down for good in April of the same year. Scalebound received the same fate when it was cancelled in early 2017, ending what had, at times, appeared to be a contentious development relationship between Xbox Studios and Platinum Games.
Suddenly, the Xbox One had a much smaller list of upcoming first-party offerings, and they were particularly lacking in AAA exclusives. This noticeable gap in AAA exclusives was exacerbated by the fact that the games Xbox did release just didn’t perform that well critically in comparison to the competition’s exclusives. Exclusive titles like Recore, Halo Wars 2, State of Decay 2, and even the much hyped and highly anticipated Sea of Thieves all scored below 80 on Metacritic, with State of Decay 2, Recore and Sea of Thieves landing in the 60s. To be fair, Cuphead performed well with a Metacritic score of 88, and the Forza games continued to be of high quality. Forza Horizon 4 even scored 92. Those games are great, but it’s just not a winning strategy to have racing games and indie titles as the best exclusive games for your console over a period of two years.
Meanwhile, Sony’s new strategy was paying off in a huge way as early as 2015 with Bloodborne. However, starting in 2016 it seemed that PlayStation was releasing at least one legitimate Game of the Year contender every year. Uncharted 4, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Persona 5, God of War, and Spider-Man all scored in at least the high 80s on Metacritic, with the first four being over 90. Each of those five games was a nominee for Game of the Year in their year of release, with God of War winning the award in 2018. In the same time frame that the PlayStation 4 had five exclusives be GOTY nominees, how many did the Xbox one have? Zero. Not only was the quantity of exclusives suddenly not there for the Xbox One, but the quality was missing too.
The problem is clear, but how does the Xbox One recover from this and once again offer top-tier AAA exclusive games that sell consoles? The announcement at E3 2018 that they had acquired five new studios to become part of Xbox Studios’ family was a clear indication that Microsoft is well aware of the problem and is taking steps to address it for the future. The issue is that the future they have in mind is likely the next generation Xbox, rumored to be released in 2020. For the rest of 2019 we have Ori and the Will of the Wisps, Gears 5, and the inevitable Forza Motorsport 8 to look forward to. Ori, as good as the first game was, is a smaller scale game and not a console seller for most. Forza won’t move many consoles either because it’s a racing game. Besides, if someone was going to buy an Xbox One for a Forza game, they likely would have done so already. That places a lot of pressure on the team at The Coalition to deliver a fantastic AAA experience with Gears 5. On the heels of the solid Gears of War 4, the foundation is there, so there is hope that 2019 will be a better year for Xbox exclusives.
So, it appears that the quantity issue is being addressed, and so that leaves the issue of quality. Forza Motorsport 8 will undoubtedly be a very good racing game that looks absolutely stunning on the Xbox One X. Will it stand out in a way that makes us think Game of the Year? Probably not. Ori will likely be a very good game that looks great as well, but smaller titles can’t be what carries a console. Gears 5 has to deliver a fantastic experience for 2019 to be considered a success for Xbox exclusives. Chances are that we’ll see some of what the new studios are working on at E3 this year, along with more from Halo Infinite, but those games are all probably being held for the launch window of the next console.
A recent article on Polygon suggested that Xbox could consider leveraging its very successful Xbox Game Pass even more than it already is – to the point that it designates some of the non-AAA exclusives as exclusive to the Game Pass program. It’s an interesting idea, considering that the Xbox One has embraced the “gaming as a service” model more and more in the past few years. Games like Crackdown 3 and Recore have lacked the big game feel, and suffer in reviews because they’re also retail releases along with being on Game Pass. If they were offered as sort of a bonus that’s exclusive to Game Pass members, suddenly they might be seen more as fun experiences with a low amount of risk for everyone playing it.
The movie industry has already started doing something similar. Movies like Avengers: End Game or Star Wars: Episode IX would never be released straight to Netflix, but those with a higher risk of bombing at the box office get shopped to Netflix more often now as an alternative to a theatrical release. The Cloverfield Paradox and Holmes and Watson are good examples of this, though Netflix turned down the opportunity for the latter film. While Sony’s God of War is the Avengers equivalent of game releases, some Xbox games like Crackdown 3 might be a lot closer to the Holmes and Watson end of the spectrum and could very well benefit from being a bonus game that’s exclusive to a subscription service like Game Pass.
The final option is one that Xbox might be doing already. We just won’t know for a year or more. They could adopt a strategy similar to Sony where they focus on quality far more than quantity, with the goal of developing Game of the Year contenders regularly. Phil Spencer has already stated that the new studios have the freedom to make the kinds of games they want to make, and that they would not be limited by budget (within reason, I’m assuming). That language alone is a departure from how Xbox Studios acted in the past, and it very well could result in some better games. Halo Infinite will be a good test to see if this is happening. It will be getting at least five years between games, as opposed to the normal three. That should result in a much more polished and memorable experience than the Halo 5 campaign offered.
While there hasn’t been a truly bad game in Xbox’s exclusive lineup over the past few years, it’s clear that the quality of the games hasn’t matched that of Sony’s or Nintendo’s. As fun as many Xbox exclusives are, it’s hard to not think the grass is greener when the other side is getting recognized for excellence every year. There are ways to fix the problem though, and I feel that the Xbox team is using most of what I mentioned earlier. They are definitely leveraging Game Pass, and it seems that they have changed their approach to first-party game development and their level of investment in exclusives. Will it work? We’ll probably know the answer to that in late 2020.