After making a solid entry in the console market with the original Xbox, Microsoft capitalized on their early success and reached even greater heights with their second console, the Xbox 360. After that, they obviously would have been hoping to continue that upward trajectory, but the Xbox One proved to be a console of ups and downs. Like Nintendo with the N64, Sony with the PS3, and Sega with the Saturn, Microsoft also stumbled with their third console in the market.
The early years of the console were particularly troublesome. Microsoft started off on the wrong foot with the Xbox One’s reveal, positioning it as a media center for the home with heavy media requirements, an unnecessary focus on the Kinect, and not nearly enough focus on the one thing that mattered more than anything else- games.
Like the PS4, the Xbox One’s hardware wasn’t exactly cutting edge either. It was, in fact, weaker than its direct competitor, and yet it was a full $100 costlier than the PS4 at launch. Meanwhile, while Microsoft had with the Xbox 360 at least tried to get a foothold in Japan, with games such as Lost Odyssey, with the Xbox One, they pretty much gave up any and all pretenses, launching the console in the region nearly a year after its worldwide launch, and continuing to see abysmal sales to this day. Many major Japanese-developed games thus remained exclusive to PlayStation for a long time, including the likes of Yakuza, Nier Automata, and Dragon Quest. Others, such as Nioh and Persona are exclusive to this day.
None of these things worked in its favour, and other factors contributed to the Xbox One’s initial hurdles. The biggest of them all was a lack of exclusives, which is perhaps the thing that has hurt Microsoft more than anything else during this generation. Even during the Xbox 360 years, Microsoft had garnered a reputation as a studio that relied on a chosen few franchises – Halo, Gears of War, Forza, and Fable – but with the Xbox One, even that output floundered.
Under 343 Industries, Halo suffered the disastrous launch of The Master Chief Collection, and followed up on it with the most underwhelming game in the series, Halo 5. Under The Coalition, Gears returned with Gears of War 4, a solid game, but one that was criticized for playing things too safe, and that franchise, too, lost the luster it had held in the Xbox 360 years. Fable already had a lot to prove after the disappointing Fable 3 on the Xbox 360, but Fable Legends, after years of development, was cancelled, and Lionhead was shut down. Forza, at least, continued to move from strength to strength, with the Horizon games in particular being some of the best Microsoft has ever produced.
There were other disappointing first party games as well. Ryse: Son of Rome set the tone early, Quantum Break was perhaps Remedy’s most inconsistent game, ReCore was a sore disappointment, and the less we say about Crackdown 3, the better. Meanwhile, PlatinumGames’ Scalebound was looking promising, but that, too, got cancelled. Sure, there were some bright spots, such as the Ori games, Sea of Thieves and its excellent post-launch support, Gears 5, the aforementioned Forza games, Sunset Overdrive, and the recently released Flight Simulator, but by and large, Xbox One’s first party support was disappointing, to say the very least.
Around 2017 though, things started looking up for the Xbox One. Backward compatibility became something Microsoft started focusing on. Microsoft added the ability to play Xbox 360 and even various original Xbox games on the Xbox One, and promoted that heavily. 2017 also saw the launch of the Xbox One X, which was proudly declared (over and over) as the most powerful console ever (which it was, at the time). Its 4K capabilities were impressive, and even several backward compatible games benefited from Xbox One X enhancements.
But of course, the biggest change that Microsoft introduced was Xbox Game Pass, which completely changed the face of the company, of Xbox, and redefined Microsoft’s approach to content development and how they would position themselves as a company, and Xbox as a platform. Xbox Game Pass launched in June 2017, and instantly saw great success. Since then, it has only moved from strength to strength. Its library of games is massive, and full of must-play titles from first parties and third parties alike, from major AAA developers and talented indie studios, ranging across various genres. All Microsoft first party games join the service’s catalog day and date, and so do various third party games. From day one, value for money was something Xbox Game Pass emphasized heavily, and it continues to do so to this day.
By itself, Game Pass immediately turned the Xbox One into an immensely more attractive product. The ability to sign up for the service at surprisingly reasonable subscription prices and hop into a library of hundreds of compelling games right off the bat is something that almost makes up for the Xbox One’s disappointing first party support. Cheaper hardware SKUs such as the Xbox One S and the Xbox One S All-Digital Edition suddenly seemed like even more alluring products.
Microsoft have, in fact, taken a lot of other positive steps in the last few years, and though they haven’t necessarily changed things for the Xbox One itself, they do hint at a promising future. After a flurry of acquisitions over the last few years, the Xbox Game Studios line boasts of nearly two dozen studios, which includes the likes of all of Bethesda, Obsidian Entertainment, Playground Games, Double Fine, Ninja Theory, The Coalition, and so many more. Whether or not the Xbox One will benefit from their output remains to be seen – it probably won’t – but things look bright for the Xbox Series X and S, at the very least.
While the PS4 was a success for Sony from beginning to end, Microsoft experience with the Xbox One was much more tumultuous. It started out catastrophically, and continued to flounder for several more years, and arguably, even at the very end, it’s not exactly in the best shape possible. But in the second half of the Xbox One’s life, the sudden pivot in Microsoft’s approach to gaming, and in their approach to the industry as a whole, brought about lots of positive changes, with things such as backward compatibility, the Xbox One X, and Xbox Game Pass working together to improve things on the Xbox front significantly.
It may not have been the incredible success Microsoft may have been hoping it would be, especially after what they enjoyed with the Xbox 360, but it’s clear that their initial failures with the Xbox One have defined what sort of a company are now, and what their approach to gaming is going to be in the future. If nothing else, the Xbox One has at least set the stage for what’s looking like a brighter future.