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.
Nine months ago I wrote the Nintendo Switch off as a lost cause with bad specs, a poor launch lineup, and an unclear audience. Rarely have I been so wrong.
Mid-summer the Switch briefly came into stock, and I bought one. I first wrote the purchase off as a wasteful, impulsive buy fueled by Nintendo nostalgia. However, at this point I’ve been a Switch owner for five months, and pound for pound it’s the most fun console I’ve had in over a decade. What happened?
After twenty plus hours with Bungie’s Destiny 2, the level of Bungie’s craftsmanship remains standout. There’s pitch perfect audio, and the intuitive controls and gameplay are arguably best in class for console shooters. There’s a wide variety of fun, distinctive weaponry yet as a more casual player jumping into Destiny the first time, I’ve hit a wall. The campaign is thin, competitive multiplayer intimidating, and the leveling process frustrating.
At least the campaign is cohesive, which is a step up from the first Destiny. But even with recognizable voice talent (Gina Torres, Lance Reddick, Nathan Fillion) no character leaves a lasting impression. The attempts at humor can feel forced, at times cringeworthy. We’ve seen the story many times before, sci-fi that blends the “putting the band back together” trope with Star Wars Episode IV.
At a glance, Microsoft had a decent E3. Their presser showcased a huge number of quality games, solid genre diversity, and decent pacing. Xbox head Phil Spencer remains a great ambassador for the brand. And the Xbox One X looks to be an engineering marvel, a cutting edge console in a svelte enclosure.
But Xbox doesn’t exist in isolation. Sony is well ahead in mindshare and sales. Nintendo surprised many (myself included) with the runaway success of the Switch. With E3 over, Microsoft has two chief questions to answer. Why should anyone buy an Xbox One X? And why invest in Xbox over the PS4?
Sadly, Microsoft stumbled on both questions. Like I wrote earlier, by leaning so heavily on 4K, Microsoft has put themselves into a weak position for the holidays.
Microsoft has bet big on Project Scorpio to generate Xbox sales and hype. Their PR cycle projects confidence: Scorpio is a large focus of their E3’s presser less than a month away. They also provided an extensive walkthrough of the hardware specs to Eurogamer weeks ago.
Yet Microsoft is kidding itself if it thinks the market for Scorpio is anything larger than a small niche. Raw horsepower won’t win a console war. In fact it’s the opposite: software, not hardware, would be transformative for Microsoft in the long run.
Scorpio, like the PS4 Pro, is a non-starter for the price sensitive casual market. A Project Scorpio will cost likely $500 or more, double the cost of a baseline PS4 or Xbox One. That’s too expensive, especially given both low and high end consoles share the same game library.
Nintendo has seen better days. The Wii U was a sales disappointment. Competition is fierce with the PS4, Xbox One, PC, and mobile platforms enjoying record sales and attention. Early details suggest the Nintendo Switch won’t pull the venerable gaming company out of its slump.
On the positive front, Nintendo hasn’t lost their knack at hardware innovation. Almost every hands on report praises the Switch’s hardware and build quality. The device easily transitions between home (docked, playing on a TV) and portable modes.
Yet many other specs and stats are worrisome. A $299 base price for the console isn’t crazy in isolation. However, it’s the same price range as the Xbox One and PS4, both bestsellers with an extensive game library. Other costs add up: an extra controller costs $80, $20 more than the competition. Also, there’s now a monthly fee for multiplayer and it’s questionable if Nintendo can provide the same level of service provided on PSN or Xbox Live. Furthermore, several game prices feel unjustified. Nintendo wants $50 for a mini game collection (1-2-Switch) that should have been a pack-in title. Ultra Street Fighter 2, a repackaged fighting game from 2008, costs a rumored $40.
Early signs suggest 2017 will be a conservative year for gaming. The PS4 and Xbox One have little to prove, with an already robust library and huge user base. VR will be fascinating to watch, but mainstream adoption isn’t happening anytime soon. And the disappointing sales of several AAA sequels (Dishonored 2, Titanfall 2, Watch Dogs 2) will make major studios cautious with their output.
Despite all this, several factors may shake up the industry. PC and console gaming have been inching closer together for years; strong PS4 Pro and Scorpio sales should speed up this trend. And Nintendo continues to play a wildcard role. They could transform iOS and Android gaming and revitalize dedicated portable gaming devices.