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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Microsoft’s E3 announcement of Project Scorpio is big news. It’s the first official sign of consoles moving toward a faster, more iterative release cycle. But the announcement is also a big strategic mistake.
Not because of the Scorpio concept itself. Consoles have advantages with a faster release cadence. There’s more wiggle room for innovation and breakthrough gaming experiences. Game compatibility expands; older platforms aren’t immediately left behind.
Yet I see two big errors on Microsoft’s part. They announced Scorpio too early and are targeting a high end, costly specification.
The maturity of the console market and strong sales clearly rubbed off on the Microsoft and Sony this year. Each had their missteps, but they stayed on message and were the most interesting pressers by each company in several years.
Yet Sony and Microsoft took different approaches. Microsoft knows it’s well behind Sony and wanted to present a wide net for potential buyers. They succeeded; onstage content was bright, fun, and diverse.
Sony had the swagger of being in the lead. While Microsoft went wide, Sony went uncharacteristically narrow and minimalist. PlayStation VR got a mention, but the focus was otherwise all on games, many of them first party exclusives.