With Sony MIA, Microsoft had an opportunity to go on the offensive this E3, which made their lack of detail on next-gen hardware, exclusives, and even streaming technology perplexing. But when you looked past console war talking points and read between the lines of their keynote, 2019 marks the most definite sign that Microsoft is splitting away from its competition, with Xbox Game Pass its centerpiece strategy. Other companies have dipped their toe into the subscription market, but given the maturity and boldness of Game Pass, I’m convinced Microsoft is all in.
The evidence of Microsoft’s subscriptions push was all over their E3 presser: onstage speakers and game trailers name-checked Game Pass frequently. The debut of Game Pass on PC and a special “Ultimate” bundle for combined PC and console access got a prominent showing. Two high budget upcoming Game Pass games — The Outer Worlds and Halo Infinite — bookended the show. And there’s no coincidence the first item Microsoft highlights under their E3 page is Game Pass.
Mortal Kombat 11 had the potential to be one of the best reviewed games of this generation. Game critics universally praised the core gameplay, HDR graphical flourishes, story, training mode, and overall polish. But MK11 hovers at a solid but not stunning 83 on Metacritic given the long, frustrating grind required to unlock cosmetics through the Tower of Time and Krypt single player modes. NetherRealm, the studio behind the game, apologized and promised to improve the situation.
I’m somewhat sympathetic to NetherRealm’s ambition (though this comes with an uncomfortable caveat given troubling reports of rampant crunch and other issues at the studio.) MK11 takes a bold step forward to generate a long tail “endgame” of single player content. You can blow through most fighting games’ solo modes in a matter of hours. MK11 wants to entertain you through randomized Tower encounters and the Krypt for months. But there’s a fine line between a grind that’s rewarding and one that’s tedious; NetherRealm has veered too far into the latter.
Game streaming services depend on three big factors for success: technical prowess, cost, and games. Based on Google’s track record and their recent GDC pitch, Stadia’s tech chops will likely hold up well in real world testing. Consumer cost I’d anticipate won’t be high either. The big unresolved question is what actual games Stadia will have for its release later this year. And it’s on games that give Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo solid footing for blocking Stadia’s advances.
Games carry an outsized significance when considering past PC and console platform battles. For example, the PS4’s “must play” exclusives helped buttress their lead over the Xbox One over the last few years. This is where Google will run into a substantial headwind; game libraries on Switch, Xbox One, PS4, and PC are gigantic, with many critically acclaimed exclusives bound to a single platform. Assuming next-generation consoles from Sony and Microsoft support backward compatibility, this “lead” from Google’s competition should only grow.
Playing console and PC games through streaming may shift from niche experiment to mainstream reality this year. It’s the biggest gaming news story to watch; if the tech lives up to the hype, streaming will disrupt the gaming industry in a way that many companies will be unprepared for.
Historically streaming’s technical hurdles like high latency and bandwidth requirements have been a barrier to entry, but the latest signs of progress are promising. Google ran a beta of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey streaming through a Chrome browser. I read positive feedback on the experience, even from dedicated gaming sites like GameSpot; we’ll learn more from Google at GDC tomorrow. And while Microsoft’s xCloud streaming infrastructure is under private beta, they are bullish enough on the technology to release multiple splashy video teasers. If there are any two companies with the right expertise in cloud infrastructure to pull this off, it’s Google and Microsoft.
This year I finally swapped out my aging 10-year old Sony Bravia TV for a new Vizio P-series. In the intervening weeks of staring at this new screen, well mastered HDR content has been the most impressive improvement. HDR in conjunction with the full array local dimming (FALD) of the TV provides a brightness and contrast boost that surpasses what I experience in NY movie theaters, even well-calibrated ones at the Alamo Drafthouse and Nitehawk. And critically, almost every piece of media benefits from the tech, from TV crime procedurals to Planet Earth II, from Netflix to a la carte streaming rentals and even select Youtube channels.
But that same wow factor hasn’t translated as well to gaming. Of the five HDR capable games installed on my PS4, only two significantly improve the gaming experience.
E3 was fairly low key this year. In place of big reveals or surprises, we saw a solid suite of games as the current console generation hits its full stride. Two narratives stood out: Microsoft is staying in the game, and we’re getting next generation consoles sooner than I originally expected.
Microsoft’s best presser of the generation
Microsoft’s overall E3 message was one of strength and confidence for both the present and future. Their press keynote reassured Xbox loyalists and anyone else considering a dip into the Xbox ecosystem.
Granted, Microsoft’s keynote on paper shared the same DNA as their last few: trailer after trailer for solid third party games. It’s an obvious move given their competition moved in a different direction at E3 this year: Nintendo stuck to Smash Brothers while Sony focused on first party titles. But this year had especially strong game variety and pacing. The presser got virtually every third party game of interest through next year. Closing with Cyberpunk 2077 — hands down the most buzzed about game at E3 — was a masterstroke.
Microsoft’s E3 presser is a must-see this weekend, and not necessarily for any single game or hardware announcement. It’s because unlike other console manufacturers, they lack any clear long-run trajectory. As the only real wild card for E3 2018, Xbox’s positioning at the show has large implications for its relevancy over the long run.
Conventional wisdom suggests Xbox needs more killer exclusives. Offer the games, and the fans will follow. But at this stage, I don’t see Microsoft capable of making this happen. On paper, they don’t have enough first party studios, and those studios haven’t branched out beyond long-standing IP from the Xbox 360 era.
Nor are Sony and Nintendo standing still. This late in the console cycle, both platforms are hitting their stride. For Sony, the pedigree of The Last of Us II and the hype factor behind Hideo Kojima’s enigmatic Death Stranding sets a high bar. Nintendo is already riding high with a new Zelda and Mario in their back pocket. New Pokemon and Smash Brothers are out later this year with much more to come. Even if Xbox announces four big titles — Halo, Gears, Forza, and a fourth IP surprise — at best Microsoft reaches a draw with Sony and Nintendo.
Stories of harassment in creative industries dominated headlines in 2017. Harvey Weinstein’s misdeeds were the spark; ever since there have been countless exposés uncovering deplorable behavior in film, TV, technology, and journalism. Gaming hasn’t gotten as much coverage, but that doesn’t make the industry less culpable. In some ways, it’s even worse. As Xbox head Phil Spencer noted in his recent GDC keynote, if the industry isn’t willing to make changes with regards to diversity, inclusion, and harassment, it risks its survival over the long run.
Representation in-game is a weak spot. Only a handful of the top rated Metacritic titles from last year feature a woman or person of color in any significant role. LGBTQ characters are effectively non-existent. And that trend continues when examining the best selling games over the past five years. Admittedly many games don’t feature a human-like protagonist. You’re playing as an anonymous avatar, a vehicle, or a sports team. But for those that do, diverse representation continues to be a rarity.
Xbox is in a slump. Sales are solid, but hype and critical attention are behind rivals Sony and Nintendo. It has reached the point where Microsoft could pull out of consoles altogether over the long run with the Xbox One X their final release. But the recent announcement of an improved Xbox Game Pass subscription service (what I’m terming here “Game Pass 2.0”) changes my outlook.
Going forward, all Xbox new release first-party games (e.g. Sea of Thieves, Forza, Halo) will join the subscription service. Previously Microsoft limited Game Pass subscribers to mostly older titles from previous Xbox generations. Seen generously, this is like Netflix offering select first-run movies as they open in movie theaters, while still maintaining a flat $10 a month price. It’s a huge change from what came before.
By focusing on its subscription service, Xbox could sidestep the fragmented game landscape that they’ve faltered on for years. Console hardware sellers have always been exclusives, but Microsoft’s fall well short of the competition. Big budget moneymakers like sports and multiplayer shooters were a sure thing for Microsoft in the Xbox 360 era. Today they are a dicey investment. Budgets are out of control. Gamers are increasingly turning against loot boxes and other questionable microtransactions. Indies can grow to be a phenomenon (PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Cuphead, Stardew Valley), yet the market is getting oversaturated.