Opinions around Microsoft’s 90 minute Xbox & Bethesda E3 showcase are positive, a highlight alongside Nintendo’s outing in an otherwise quiet E3 year. But there have been pockets of criticism around the show’s lack of depth and “wow factor.” VG247 argued there were not enough “next-gen show stoppers”. Threads on Resetera, social media, and Digital Foundry knocked the Xbox presentation for having too many CGI trailers.
I’m sympathetic to missing more hands on time with Microsoft’s upcoming lineup. However, much of this “depth” criticism is myopic, relevant to an earlier era where Microsoft’s core focus was on the number of games and consoles sold. Thirty trailers in ninety minutes may not be an optimal pitch for $70 games and $500 consoles. However, it is a very sound approach to push Game Pass.
E3 2021 has made it abundantly clear that Microsoft has bet Xbox’s future on subscriptions. Keeping gamers hooked on Game Pass is a different, tricker pitch than buying high profile games. Variety is a must, with enough titles and genres to attract a wide variety of subscribers. Quantity can also help. Not every game will interest a potential subscriber, but the feeling that many more games are coming to the service over time adds to its sense of value.
After almost two decades of avoiding Microsoft-based web products whenever possible, I’ve come full circle: the new Microsoft Edge is my browser of choice. It has excellent privacy options, a large extension community, and developer support that makes it a reliable option on macOS over Chrome, Firefox, and Safari.
Admittedly, when I first started using the new Chromium-based Edge a few months ago, I was skeptical about its potential. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer left a bad taste in my mouth, thanks to the struggles I had developing against IE6 and IE7 in the early 2000s. But the more time I spent with this fresh iteration of Edge, the more I was left impressed.
Stadia looks like a flop out of the gate, and its meager, overpriced game selection is a significant factor why. Google overestimated the console market’s appetite for experimental moonshots. Most gamers aren’t making purchasing decisions based on streaming quality, teraflops, 4K, or fast SSDs. Instead, as I wrote about earlier this year, it’s the games themselves — both selection and quality — that matter most. It was a crucial differentiator in the battle between PS4 and Xbox One, essential to the Nintendo Switch’s breakout success, and it will continue to be important for next generation hardware.
Games matter more for reasons beyond their historically strong track record. It’s also because across other facets — hardware, marketing, third party integrations — Sony and Microsoft will be on similar footing next generation, at least to your average consumer. I don’t foresee the major stumbles that marked previous console generations. Price and power, two factors that solidified PS4 as the clear victor this generation, I expect to be a moot point in 2020. Microsoft learned its lesson launching a console $100 more expensive and less powerful than Sony’s. Sony hopefully still remembers the $600 launch PS3 debacle and how undercutting on price helped secure their win for the PS4. Speculation from Digital Foundry and other sources posit the PS5 and Xbox Series X will rely on similar internal components. The result for consumers should be two boxes with similar specs and no more than a $50 gap in price differential.
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.