Microsoft’s first party lineup is a problem. This is not news to anyone at this point- while Microsoft has some guaranteed sellers in Halo, Gears of War, and Forza (the decline in sales for them notwithstanding), it lacks any larger diversity within its portfolio, unlike Sony and especially Nintendo, who both manage to hit a broader range of demographics and aesthetics with their titles. But even that isn’t the larger problem here- the larger problem is that Microsoft flat out lacks any prestige franchise or studio in its lineup, to drive outside interest in Xbox.
What is a prestige project? A prestige project is essentially something that is your critical showpiece- it is guaranteed a high amount of critical success, and general respect from the industry. It may or may not sell well, but it ends up attracting wider interest to your platform simply by its very existence, even from those people who otherwise may not have been interested in the platform initially. Nintendo, naturally, has a prestige franchise- The Legend of Zelda series. Zelda is often called gaming’s prestige franchise in general, and is the highest rated franchise in history, with each new major release in the series being a landmark title. Zelda is one of the few games that can attract attention to Nintendo platforms even from those who otherwise don’t care for Nintendo, their games, their aesthetics, their hardware, or their IP. It’s a big budget showcase of Nintendo’s game making prowess, its critical reception in the industry is quite literally second to none (the highest rated game of all time is a Zelda game, and no mainline console Zelda game ever had a lower than 93 composite score), wins an astonishing amount of awards with every entry, and generates interest in Nintendo platforms, when Nintendo’s usual fare fails. Zelda is not necessarily Nintendo’s highest selling franchise – in 30 years, the series as a whole has sold 75 million units worldwide, and on average, each game sells 4-6 million – but it is almost second to none in driving interest in Nintendo’s platforms by a larger audience, and buying Nintendo mindshare.
"Zelda is not necessarily Nintendo’s highest selling franchise – in 30 years, the series as a whole has sold 75 million units worldwide, and on average, each game sells 4-6 million – but it is almost second to none in driving interest in Nintendo’s platforms by a larger audience, and buying Nintendo mindshare."
Sony does not have a prestige franchise– instead, PlayStation has a prestige studio. That studio, of course, is Naughty Dog, who have really come into their own in the last decade or so. Their games are guaranteed incredibly high critical reception, and Uncharted 2 and The Last of Us each set a record for the overall number of Game of the Year awards they won in their respective years of release. A Naughty Dog release is a momentous occasion- even Xbox fans usually tend to acknowledge Naughty Dog’s games, and express interest in them. People who are otherwise disinterested in PlayStation get interested with a new Naughty Dog project. When a new Last of Us is announced, or a new Uncharted releases, the entire industry sits up and takes notice. Naughty Dog games, even now, are not Sony’s highest selling titles- that crown is still held by Gran Turismo. But Naughty Dog games are the prestige games, the games that can generate interest from a larger audience that otherwise would simply be disinterested in Sony’s larger offerings.
The release of a prestige game, then, is an event. The release of a new Zelda is an event. The release of a new Naughty Dog game is an event. And yet, Microsoft has nothing like that. The interesting thing is, they used to- until the end of the Xbox 360 era, one could have said Halo is a prestige franchise- which it was. Halo was setting paradigms for the entire industry, selling Xbox consoles all on its own, receiving extremely high composite review scores, winning Game of the Year awards with every new entry. The release of a new Halo game was an event, one that the entire industry took notice of. That it was Microsoft’s highest seller was irrelevant- Halo was their prestige brand.
But that’s not true anymore. Whether fans like to admit it or not, Halo‘s standing is not what it once was. The overall sales of the games have gone down, the critical reception has definitely fallen, and the release of a new Halo title is commonplace, routine, banal, expected. Of course there will be a new Halo game this year- why wouldn’t there be one?
"Naughty Dog games are the prestige games, the games that can generate interest from a larger audience that otherwise would simply be disinterested in Sony’s larger offerings."
This brings us to the three primary problems that Halo has suffered from, seeing its standing go down: in the transition from Bungie to 343 Industries, Halo suffered in terms of quality. And while there is an argument to be made that Halo 5 is a return to form somewhat, Halo 4 and Halo: The Master Chief Collection damaged the brand’s standing immensely. Of course, this is not getting into the larger problem of Halo 5: Guardians, while being the best of the 343i Halo games, is still not on the same level as the original Halo games- the critical scores and sales are a broad empirical reinforcement of that. This is in sharp contrast to the critical scores and sales of Zelda and Naughty Dog titles, which have remained consistent in the case of the former, and gone up dramatically in the case of the latter.
The second reason is that Halo has settled down into a larger identity. It knows what it is, and it tries to do that, and do that well- there is nothing wrong with that! It means Halo is consistent more than anything. But it also means that if the average PlayStation or Nintendo gamer was not interested in Halo 1-5, Halo 6 will not change their mind. This is one area where Zelda has a major advantage over Halo (and indeed, most other franchises in the industry)- each game is a dramatically new take on the franchise, with its own distinct spin on the mechanics, series’ lore and characters, distinct visual identities, and they indeed, play out differently too. Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, Wind Waker, and Skyward Sword are all vastly different games from one another, with Twilight Princess really being the only retread in the series. The upcoming Breath of the Wild again looks to be a thorough departure from all Zelda conventions. With a new Zelda game, you never quite know what to expect- even something as basic as how the game might look is up in the air. With Halo, you know exactly what you are getting with a new entry. Which, again, is great for fans- but is not good for driving larger interest, and, thanks to diminishing returns, also not good for sustaining critical reception.
The final reason for this is Halo‘s release cycle- there will be a new Halo game coming, you know that. And within reasonable parameters, you can even guess when it will be out. For a while, in fact, the franchise had settled into an annual release schedule, and while it has broken away from that recently, there is still a general expectation regarding when a new Halo game will come out. This is vastly different from both, Naughty Dog and Zelda. In the case of Naughty Dog, you never quite know what their new project will be- you could not have reasonably predicted that there would be an Uncharted 4 after Uncharted 3, or a The Last of Us Part 2 after the original game. In the case of Zelda, you know there will be a new one eventually- but you never know when. Zelda games have highly sporadic release cycles, and take forever to come out. A Link to the Past released in 1991. Ocarina of Time was a 1998 game. Majora’s Mask came out in 2000, while The Wind Waker was a 2003 release. Twilight Princess was 2006, with Skyward Sword following in 2011. Breath of the Wild will be 2017. Given this schedule, can you tell when the next Zelda game will be? It could be 2019, or it could be 2023. No one knows.
"Whether fans like to admit it or not, Halo‘s standing is not what it once was anymore."
This predictability, then – predictability in knowing just what Halo will be, and when it will come out – when coupled together with Halo‘s general decline in quality compared to the Bungie days, has made it lose its standing as a prestige franchise. And now, Microsoft finds itself in the unenviable position of having no brands and no studios with which to drive larger interest in its platforms. Halo is in fact the perfect encapsulation of Microsoft’s first party situation- safe, predictable, generally good, but nothing mind blowing, and nothing that will convince anyone not already convinced.
This is a situation that Microsoft needs to fix, for the long term viability of the Xbox brand. There needs to be a high quality studio or series that remains fresh, remains inventive, remains high quality, is well respected and received, and is capable of driving interest in the Xbox platform even from non Xbox fans. Remedy could have been Microsoft’s prestige studio – yes, I know they are not a first party partner, but even so – but the failure of Quantum Break, and Remedy’s departure from the Microsoft fold, have put an end to that line of thinking. And while it might not have been a series or even an ongoing arrangement, Scalebound could certainly have been a prestige project for the Xbox One- but that got canceled too.
I do hope, however, that this is a situation Microsoft can rally from, and that it can work its way into a position of strength back from here. Microsoft’s output has suffered of late on the Xbox One, but that kind of thing can happen to any platform holder with a struggling platform- just as Nintendo with Wii U, or Sony with PlayStation Vita. With the upcoming Scorpio, however, Microsoft should be able to do relatively better- especially if the Scorpio can turn into a pseudo next generation platform. Even if not, however, they have a deep catalog of IPs, from their own PC days, as well as from their ownership of Rare, that they could look into tapping. If not… well, I wouldn’t say no to some new games, either.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.