What is the future of Xbox?Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Something big is about to happen with Xbox. On Monday, Phil Spencer, head of Microsoft’s gaming division, said: it turned out that the company will share his “vision for the future of Xbox” next week.
What caused this? In January, reports began to emerge that Microsoft was considering porting its excellent first-party title Hi-Fi Rush to other hardware platforms, with the Nintendo Switch widely mentioned as the recipient. At the time, rumors were also swirling that the multiplayer pirate adventure Sea of Thieves might be coming to Switch and PS5.
On Sunday, Verge suggested that Microsoft was considering a multiplatform release for the upcoming Indiana Jones and the Great Circle (below), with a “short” period of exclusivity on Xbox. A day later the story became broader. News site XboxEra claimed that Microsoft plans to bring Starfield, the biggest Xbox exclusive of 2023, to PlayStation 5, shortly after the game’s expansion pack for Xbox and PC. According to XboxEra, the decision has sparked “heavy internal debate” within the Xbox division.
So what will Spencer announce, and why? The problem he faces is that Xbox as a brand has become almost uncontrollable. It started as a console, the Xbox, which sold 24 million units but failed to make an impact in the Asian market. The Xbox 360 followed in 2005, shifting 85 million units, but still falling just behind the PS3 at 87 million. Then came the Xbox One, which reportedly sold 58 million units, half of the PS4, partly due to an ill-advised attempt to market the console as an all-around media platform, while Sony stuck to the motto ‘PlayStation is a game machine’.
Now Xbox is also a software application that runs on PC, phones and some TVs, and it is a streaming platform that consists of both Game Pass for downloads and the Xbox Cloud Gaming service for playing classic games over the Internet. The company also underwent an arduous anti-monopoly investigation to complete a massive $68 billion purchase of Activision Blizzard, a company whose flagship series, Call of Duty, must remain multiplatform.
Then you have the fact that Xbox hardware has been consistently outmatched by PlayStation machines for over a decade. The latest figures suggest the PS5 outsold the Xbox Series figure considers. important indicator of the brand’s success, thanks to the other platform expressions; instead pointing to Game Pass subscriptions. But these figures have also not been reported since January, which are believed to be around 30-33 million globally but may have plateaued.
Microsoft has essentially backed itself into a corner from which no escape route is entirely desirable. In many ways it would be smart to combine the business models of Sega, which left console development after the failure of Dreamcast and became a third-party game publisher, with Valve, which stopped being a developer and became a digital platform holder with Steam . In fact, it could abandon the Xbox hardware and focus on bringing Microsoft exclusives to other platforms, while keeping the Xbox name for a streaming service accessible via PC, phones and smart devices. But that would leave a lot of extremely unhappy Xbox fans.
The worry is that Microsoft will opt for a series of half measures: porting some smaller games up to PS5 and Switch, but not all; release a new Xbox machine, but perhaps only as an elite option; trying to get Game Pass on more platforms while still trying to lock in key exclusives. To ask a brutal question: has it ever mastered the console hardware market like Sony and Nintendo have? Is it time to let go? But my goodness, the response from the Xbox fanbase would be huge, and that alone could be enough to keep Microsoft’s hand in console production. Either way, it’s all a bit of a mess and it symbolizes the strange, slightly awkward role Xbox has always had in the Microsoft empire.
When Xbox does it well, it does it really well. The entire Xbox 360 era, with its revolutionary online multiplayer infrastructure; the legacy of Halo, Gears of War, Forza Horizon, Sea of Thieves, Minecraft, Fable; the sheer bargain of Game Pass. Xbox has been a necessary third runner in the console race, pouring money into big ideas and pushing the tech agenda. Now we have to wait for this announcement about Spencer’s “vision for the future.” And fans of the console will just have to hope it’s not blurry beyond recognition.
What to play
Imagine Streets of Rage crossed with the Michael Douglas film Falling Down and that’s the case To get up, a pixel art fighting game about an office worker who loses out when the printer malfunctions and destroys a piece of destructive equipment. Created by a small team led by coder Erik H Jørgensen, the art style, tone and simple kick-punch-jump action are perfectly reminiscent of the classic scrolling beat-em-ups of the late 1980s, and it’s full of ridiculous comedy moments. You can play for free on the indie gaming site Itch.io.
Available on: PC/iOS
Estimated playing time: An hour
What to read
I loved this Eurogamer piece about the origin of Die Hard trilogy and how British developer Probe wanted to make three games in one – and largely succeeded. But I also like how the article starts off as a profile of Simon Pick, developer of the 8bit classic Daredevil Dennis. You have to read it to see how they are connected.
Kotaku has a very interesting article about it age discrimination in the games industry, where we talk to industry veterans about the challenges of staying in the business in your 30s. “The difficulty of the work and low pay drive even young developers away,” says legendary designer Warren Spector. But for a culture to mature, older voices are certainly needed.
And finally a nice positive piece from Polygon entitled “Palworld is the pinnacle of every game I’ve ever loved,” a review of the unexpected hit, which combines elements of Pokémon and online shooters and now has around 19 million players.
What to click
This week’s question comes from Pushing Buttons’ own Keza MacDonald, who is on sabbatical but slid into my DMs to ask:
“Which Xbox game from history do you want everyone to experience?”
I will always feel guilty when I give Sea of thieves a three star rating, but that was fair at the time as I just couldn’t get a stable game going and there was a slight lack of content – although when everything worked it was magical. Now I think everyone should play it; it’s such a joyful, rich and hilarious experience, and it is So a lot to do.
From further back, the Ninja Gaiden games were brutally brilliant, Gears of War 2 was compelling and I loved the digital titles like Trials and Geometry Wars. Oh and Forza Horizon 4. And Minecraft. Always, always Minecraft.
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