In December 2015, we took a look at the state of the Xbox One in a four-part series on TheXboxHub. Over two years have passed since then, and a lot has changed in the console gaming landscape, so it seems as good a time as any to revisit this series with a fifth installment. You can get caught up with parts one, two, three and four right here.
As 2016 began, the Xbox One was finally sitting in a good place. Still millions of units behind Sony’s PlayStation 4 in sales, Microsoft’s console could boast strong leadership under Phil Spencer, and an exclusive lineup to be proud of. The Fall 2015 releases of Halo 5 and Rise of the Tomb Raider as console exclusives at the time gave the Xbox One a decisive advantage in games over the competition, and they seemed poised to take the next step. However, the winds of change were about to strike the console gaming world yet again, and Microsoft was again left fighting an uphill battle.
Sony’s PlayStation platform had outpaced the Xbox One in sales since the very beginning of the current console generation, due in part to Microsoft’s poor messaging at launch, but mostly because Sony had the more powerful console and an exclusive games library that was objectively far more diverse than what Xbox was offering. On PlayStation systems you knew you were going to get games like Uncharted, God of War, The Last of Us, MLB the Show, Days Gone, Infamous, and Horizon: Zero Dawn. Although many of those franchises had not yet come to the PlayStation 4 in a new iteration by the end of 2015, the simple fact that they were coming eventually kept their fans excited and patient. Meanwhile, Xbox was fighting the stigma of being the console that offered you shooters and racing games as exclusives.
Microsoft seemed determined to shed that label, as their 2016 lineup promised titles such as Remedy’s Quantum Break and Armature Studio’s ReCore confirmed for 2016, along with Scalebound, Fable Legends, Halo Wars 2, and a new Crackdown game all coming out in 2016 or 2017. While Quantum Break and ReCore were both fairly well received, the repeated delays or outright cancellations of Scalebound, Fable Legends, and Crackdown 3 left Microsoft with both a black eye and a fairly empty slate of exclusive titles for the 2016-17 window. To add insult to injury, Sony was not only starting to get their biggest franchises onto the PlayStation 4 with Uncharted 4 releasing in Spring 2016, but they announced an upgraded console named the PS4 Pro for release in November of the same year. While the Pro was not seen as a significant upgrade, it did offer the optimal experience for PlayStation’s newest console accessory – the PlayStation VR headset.
Once again finding themselves in a position where they must respond, Microsoft delivered in a way that got fans excited about the future of Xbox. In the weeks leading up to E3 2016, rumors began to spread that Xbox would have an answer to the PS4 Pro in the form of at least one new console, with the possibility of a second, much more powerful one as well. These rumors were confirmed at Microsoft’s E3 conference, where they revealed the Xbox One S, a console that ran slightly better than the original Xbox One, but featured a smaller, more appealing design and 4K support – including a 4K Blu-Ray drive. This gave the Xbox One S an advantage over the PlayStation 4 Pro, as the Pro was curiously missing a 4K Blu-Ray drive in the system.
When asked why their upgraded system would not include a 4K Blu-Ray drive, PlayStation president Andrew House essentially stated that players didn’t want a drive for physical media as much as they wanted 4K streaming capability. House stated “Our feeling is that while physical media continues to be a big part of the games business, we see a trend on video towards streaming. Certainly with our base, it’s the second biggest use case for people’s time on the system so we place more emphasis on that area.” While that sounds good, there are three problems with that. First, when the PS4 Pro launched in November 2016, there was no 4K content available on the PlayStation Store to stream. Second, this decision was relatively tone deaf to the trend in North America of major internet providers imposing monthly data caps on their customers – and streaming 4K video consumes a significantly larger amount of bandwith than HD content does. Finally, it is yet another example (EA Access, anyone?) of the company that boasts that it’s about giving gamers choice, making the decision for its loyal customers. While the trend toward streaming video likely played a part in the decision for Sony, the part they leave out is that it’s incredibly likely the decision was a cost saving measure in order to keep the price at $399.
However, the Xbox One S wasn’t the only piece of hardware Microsoft had to offer at the 2016 E3 conference. Rumors of a significant upgrade over the original Xbox One were confirmed in the final minutes of the conference when Xbox teased the development of what they called the most powerful console ever built. During the tease, prominent developers such as Todd Howard from Bethesda praised what would be known for a year as Project Scorpio, saying it would be the console that allowed them to fully reach the potential of their games, including VR titles like Skyrim and Fallout 4. The announcement had Xbox fans in a frenzy, and for the next year speculation ran wild as to what the console would be called, whether it would truly live up to what was promised, and how much it would cost.
The answers to those questions came a year later at E3 2017, when Microsoft gave players their first look at the Xbox One X. A significantly smaller box than the original Xbox One, the Xbox One X featured six teraflops as promised and complete 4K video and gaming capability. Additionally, the Xbox One X would feature a host of games at launch that would be Xbox One X enhanced – meaning they would be upgraded to 4K quality for the launch of the new console. Also, fall releases like Assassin’s Creed Origins, Madden NFL 18, and Forza 7 would feature 4K resolution on the Xbox One X. On the 4K stream of Microsoft’s E3 conference on Mixer, it was clear that gameplay shown from titles like Assassin’s Creed and Forza 7 represented a significant upgrade in resolution from earlier iterations of the Xbox One.
Whether it was a hope or a true prediction, many people were saying the Xbox One X would launch with a price of either $399 or $449 USD. Those hopes were dashed during the full reveal of the console at E3 when the launch price was announced at $499 USD. While many, including myself, saw this as a missed opportunity to truly close the gap on the PlayStation 4 in terms of console sales, it’s important to remember that the cost of including a 4K drive and the cost of building a console that is objectively more powerful than any other current gen console on the market isn’t low. In the end, the price didn’t hurt the launch of the Xbox One X terribly, as sales numbers were strong out of the gate in November 2017.
As good as the Xbox One X was, Microsoft was still facing one glaring problem – the delays and cancellations of a number of games in the previous twelve months left the platform with a noticeable lack of exclusive games. Without games like Scalebound, Fable Legends, and Crackdown 3 to help support the launch of the Xbox One X, Microsoft was offering up a premium console without a compelling reason to upgrade from an Xbox One S or switch over from the PlayStation side. Part of this problem was due to the aforementioned cancellations and delays, but another variable was the ongoing change in third-party strategy from both Microsoft and Sony.
As recently as 2015, Xbox players were accustomed to their console of choice having exclusive deals with third-party developers and publishers that would bring a level of exclusivity to the Xbox version of a game. Fans of Call of Duty or Battlefield would enjoy DLC content launching first on Xbox, as well as the Call of Duty Championships being played on Microsoft’s console. FIFA players would enjoy exclusive Ultimate Team content on the Xbox One, and even some AAA games were timed console exclusives – the most recent example being 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider. Starting in 2015, however, Microsoft’s third-party strategy began to shift. They were going to move away from console exclusivity deals and focus instead on the overall experience on the console, through feature and interface changes, as well as first-party titles.
Sony was executing a change in their third-party strategy during this period as well. Knowing that their premier first-party titles wouldn’t start coming out in great numbers until at least 2016, Sony reacted by securing agreements with third-party publishers. The first prominent example of this was 2014’s Destiny from Bungie. PlayStation players would experience console exclusive Strikes and gear for the highly anticipated game, driving many players to play it on Sony’s platform. 2015’s Star Wars Battlefront had the PlayStation logo attached to any promotional material for the game, a campaign so effective that some gamers thought Battlefront was a Sony exclusive. Then, striking at the heart of Xbox’s player base, Sony announced a partnership with Activision for future Call of Duty titles. With these shrewd moves, Sony was presenting the case that PlayStation was the best place to play major AAA releases, and the strategy paid off for them in a major way. Sony had been able to keep players excited about the PlayStation 4 as the best place to play games by partnering with third-party developers, so as games like Horizon: Zero Dawn and Persona 5 found their way to release, Sony fans’ excitement was palpable.
In early 2018, Xbox has the advantage of having what is objectively the most premium console on the market today. However, they currently face the question of “what if we threw a gaming party and no games showed up?” Sure, they have all the same third-party titles that the PlayStation does, but Sony has effectively stated to the general gaming public that PlayStation is the place to get the best experience playing those games. More than anything, Xbox needs a compelling lineup of first-party titles that are more than just racing games and shooters to make the case that the best games and the best system to play them on can only be found in one place. The upcoming launch of Sea of Thieves in March 2018 should help excite a fanbase hungry for first-party titles, but with God of War releasing a month later on PS4, the buzz might be short lived. Add to that the uncertainty surrounding when we’ll see Halo 6 and the fact that Crackdown 3 has been disappointing when it has been shown, and Microsoft has a definite problem that must be solved quickly if the Xbox is to continue to thrive.
One thing Microsoft has done to combat the shortage of first-party games is the creation of the Xbox Game Pass. Unveiled in 2017, the program allows gamers access to over 100 Xbox One and Xbox 360 titles for $10 USD per month. Game Pass is not a streaming service – you download the game and it is saved on your console, and you can play the game as long as you are an active member of the Game Pass program and the game is still part of it. Furthermore, in early 2018 Microsoft announced that first-party releases would be a part of Xbox Game Pass from launch, starting with the much anticipated Sea of Thieves.
In an attempt to correct the shortage of first-party games, Phil Spencer named Matt Booty, previously a leader on the Minecraft team, to the position of corporate vice president of Microsoft Studios. This move came on the heels of Spencer being promoted to executive vice president in a role that would allow him to oversee all games, game hardware, and game strategy for Microsoft. Relinquishing direct control of Microsoft Studios allows Spencer more time to focus on the overall strategy of gaming at Microsoft, while Booty’s sole responsibility with Microsoft Studios should help give first-party development the attention it needs to be successful. New types of games have to actually be developed and announced, but the Xbox team has indicated that 2018 will have some surprises. Until we actually see them though, it’s a game of wait-and-see.
With a vastly improved hardware product and the offering of a choice between the original Xbox One, Xbox One S, and Xbox One X, Microsoft sat in a good place as we entered 2018. Whether that good standing remains is up to the Xbox team. Can they take advantage of the excitement around the Xbox One X and capitalize with a lineup of high quality first-part titles? They will need to do it quickly, as there are already rumors of an announcement of the PlayStation 5 happening as soon as this year.
Ultimately, the Xbox One is finally in a position to put the bad impression they left at the beginning of the cycle completely in the past and truly thrive as a gaming ecosystem. A number of impressive AAA offerings and a VR option would go a long way toward accomplishing that.
Finally free from the burden of being second best to Sony in most ways, Xbox is now in a position to truly define the Xbox experience. As an Xbox gamer, I’m excited to see what that definition will be.