Microsoft have made a royal mess of things.
That has been the sentiment regarding the company and its gaming offerings with Xbox for the last few years, now. The Xbox 360 was a gamer focused console- what the PS4 is today, the Xbox 360 was back then, and that’s why it caught on so quickly, and so much, with developers and the general gaming public. The face of modern console gaming is shaped in the image of the Xbox 360- because it was, at its core, a truly focused product that delivered exactly what people wanted, without presuming to impose something upon them that they did not.
Somewhere between the launch of the Xbox 360 and the reveal of the Xbox One, however, Microsoft lost the plot. Maybe it was the initial success of Kinect, maybe it was the casual demographic with whom the Xbox 360 did remarkably well, or maybe it was the Xbox 360’s newfound success as a media box over time- but the Xbox One, when originally revealed, was everything the Xbox 360 was not. It was a product focused on anything but games, with media box ambitions and trappings, with intrusive and unwanted features imposed upon consumers, such as the Kinect, with a high price and low value, thanks to it having hobbled and weaker specs, and with intrusive DRM that actively hindered the game playing experience.
Gamers revolted, and Microsoft hastily backtracked. Gone was the Kinect, as well as the DRM. Prices were dropped across the board, new SDKs developed so developers could extract more power from the hardware, but in the end, the initial reception stuck- for the average mainstream customer, first impressions are often the only impression, and too many of them still believe that the Xbox One needs to be always online, and doesn’t have used games. For these people, the Xbox brand is toxic and something fundamentally unappealing- the bad press for the Xbox One from before the console even launched has stuck, and this demographic, the same one that made the Xbox 360 as big as it was, are unwilling to buy into its successor, instead buying the PS4 en masse, in droves.
"Somewhere between the launch of the Xbox 360 and the reveal of the Xbox One, Microsoft lost the plot."
Prior to E3 this year, we speculated that if Microsoft unveiled the Scorpio at the event, it could be a chance for them to reverse all that negative perception and stigma that surrounds the Xbox brand, and the Xbox One console specifically. And if the early reactions to Microsoft’s just concluded E3 presser are anything to go by, that is exactly what they may have done just now.
If Microsoft’s 2013 debut of the Xbox One was them abandoning the core gamer, instead misguidedly chasing a broader audience, tonight represented them doubling down on that very same core gamer, recommitting to them in a way they haven’t done in a decade now. Here are five ways that Microsoft’s conference tonight represented them being more serious about gaming than they have been in a very long time.
SO. MANY. GAMES
Of course, the single most important thing you need if you want to commit to video games as a medium is, well, games. And there were a lot of games that Microsoft showed off tonight at the conference. From ReCore to Sea of Thieves, Gears of War 4 to Halo Wars 2, Forza Horizon 3 to Scalebound, State of Decay 2 to Dead Rising 4, Tekken 7 to Final Fantasy 15, Battlefield 1 to The Division, Inside to We Happy Few, there was a staggering quantity of games on display- AAA games, indie games, Japanese games, western games, first party games, third party games, and everything in between.
The kind of diversity and breadth in game lineup that I had honestly begun to think was the exclusive domain of PlayStation was exhibited by Microsoft for their Xbox lineup today. No matter what kind of gamer you are, no matter what kinds of games you like, no matter how you like to play them, tonight, Xbox had you covered.
"No matter what kind of gamer you are, no matter what kinds of games you like, no matter how you like to play them, tonight, Xbox had you covered."
For a company that has been as monopolistic and singularly obsessed with making money in the past as Microsoft, tonight’s showing cast them in a positively benign light. For instance, take their newly announced Xbox One S hardware- it’s a smaller, better built Xbox One unit, which will be available at the extremely attractive price of $299. That’s damn good, and what’s also good is that all existing accessories and controllers will work for the new console just fine, without needing to fiddle around with any adaptors and what-have-you.
Equally impressive was Microsoft’s Xbox Anywhere initiative, which is essentially their take on Cross Buy, except it extends to literally every single game in their portfolio. All Microsoft games for Xbox One, upcoming as well already released ones, will be made available on Windows 10 as well as Xbox One- and all of them will be available to anyone who buys them once on both platforms. Essentially, you only purchase the license to a game once, and then you can play it anywhere you want, on your terms. That’s some incredible value, right there. Cross Buy is something that Sony and Nintendo have experimented with in the past, but it’s usually been for smaller titles and indie games- Microsoft doing this across their entire lineup is something commendable that deserves to be praised.
MAKING IT ABOUT THE PLAYER
Where the original Xbox One concept was one that only very grudgingly conceded ground to players and gamers, Microsoft’s show today put the player in the front and center- and this was most evident in some of the services that Microsoft announced today. Improvements to the Xbox Live network such as clubs (which seems to be an Xbox riff on the communities concept that already exists on PS4 and Wii U), Looking For groups (to let you basically put out an ad for the kind of player you want to play with on Xbox) to Arena, which is Microsoft’s bid to have a formalized platform for competitive gaming on Xbox Live, it was clear that they were thinking of how to enhance the player’s experience on Xbox through and through. Unlike in 2013, when Microsoft talking about something other than games was your cue to tune out their media or TV nonsense, tonight, when they stopped talking about games, it was only to talk about the player. And that is something that needs to be given due credit.
"Unlike in 2013, when Microsoft talking about something other than games was your cue to tune out their media or TV nonsense, tonight, when they stopped talking about games, it was only to talk about the player."
NO ANNOUNCEMENTS WITHOUT DATES
The one big sticking point for me with E3 in recent years has been the propensity for companies to make announcements for games that are literally years away- often so far from release that they never do release, they get canceled or unrecognizably altered somewhere along the way. And therefore, it is only right that I recognize that Microsoft, who filled their conference to the brim with games, to the extent that it was hard for me to be able to keep up with all the announcements, resisted the temptation to show off anything that was too far from release. In fact, almost every single game that they showed is a game that will be out by this time next year. Very few games, if any at all, were shown off without a date attached to them, and that date was almost always within the next 12 months.
That’s very impressive- it’s a way to properly have an exciting conference without relying on products that literally don’t exist beyond just a name in their creators’ minds.
THE HARDWARE ADVANTAGE
No matter what Microsoft do, however, there is one thing they cannot change, and that is the fact that the Xbox One is weak hardware. It’s not just weaker than the PS4, it’s just weak period. No amount of games, policy changes, or services will change that. So of course, for the final act in their coup de état, Microsoft went ahead and nullified Sony and PS4’s power advantage too. Against all odds, they went ahead and announced the Xbox One Scorpio today- their new, next generation console, one that will be fully backward and forward compatible with the existing Xbox One. The new machine is absurdly powerful, with 6 TFLOPs, and the promise of high end console VR and 4K gaming, and a steady 60Hz frame rate. The Xbox One was hobbled in terms of hardware because Microsoft spent those resources on needless nonsense like Kinect and multimedia functionality instead- and the Xbox One’s weak specs were a ringing reminder of Microsoft’s loss of focus on a daily basis. Now, with the Scorpio being the most powerful console in the world that there is, we have the final, ultimate proof that Microsoft truly are thinking about the players yet again.