So E3 is hoving into view, and once again I must spend some of my dwindling store of precious time watching company men try to get people pumped up for the latest round of sequels, remakes, and rip-offs. Surprisingly, there were some original games scattered here and there, and some of the sequels (etc.) actually looked pretty good.
Dan Mattrick screwed Microsoft, and the Xbox One, hard. In his eagerness to become console gaming’s Steve Jobs, he positioned the XB1 as a revolutionary digital hub around which all of your electronic media would revolve, including music, TV, movies, and so forth. (At the time I noted that, while this seemed like a great thing consumers could do to benefit Microsoft, why it would benefit them seemed a lot murkier.) What he forgot about was the GAMES part of “video games console”, so the XB1 had very few on launch, and not many more since then. This wasn’t his only mistake (jacking up the price by $100 dollars so he could include a pointless peripheral nobody wanted, settling on a nonsensical copy protection scheme that made sharing disks between friends impossible, ceding the gamer demographic to Sony, and on and on) but it was, perhaps, his longest lasting one: the game drought he inaugurated has lingered for half a decade.
Microsoft has had virtually no great exclusives this generation, and few decent First-Party titles. Halo 5 and Gears of War 4 were both disappointments, and no matter how much they trumpet the 2 million players of State of Decay 2, the game isn’t compelling. (I’m betting most of those 2 million people were Game Pass subscribers, who could try the game “for free”, and few of them spent any amount of time on the title. Based on completion rates of achievements, less than 10% of players finished even one game, and only about 5% chose to start a second one. And this was their LANDMARK First-Party title going into E3.)
The PS4 has a massive lead in their install base, in compelling First-Party titles, and in popular exclusives. So, going into this presser Microsoft had a lot to prove: could they somehow catch up to Sony’s sales juggernaut?
The verdict: Probably not, but they made a valiant effort to make it seem like they could.
Microsoft highlighted more than 50 games in their event, including many that are First-Party or console exclusives. Even so, it was a mixed bag: Gears 5 (no “of War”, and no sign the studio understood what undermined the last entry), Halo Infinite (doing its best to seem like Old School Halo), Kingdom Hearts 3 (on the Xbox for the first time, and a genuine get for the Xbox), Crackdown 3 delayed again, and a bunch of games that every platform is getting, but Microsoft announced them first so suck it, Sony.
Less impressively, Microsoft announced they were purchasing five studios, including Ninja Theory (Hellblade), Compulsion Games (We Happy Few), and Undead Labs (the afore-mentioned State of Decay 2). Microsoft is clearly trying to ensure that the recent drought of First-Party titles won’t happen again. The problem is that few of these studios have anything like a track record, so who knows how they’ll perform in the future. More, even studios or franchises that HAVE a track record (Rare Games, for example) usually begin to underperform as soon as they’re bought by Microsoft. True, they don’t have quite as bad a track record as EA, for whom “buy and bury” is practically a religion, but Microsoft’s management of wholly-owned studios is clearly flawed. When a company does its best work before it joins you, you’re doing something wrong.
Look, I’m an Xbox fan. I’ve owned every iteration of the console, and I vastly prefer it to both Sony and Nintendo. But Microsoft has got to stop screwing the pooch. Whatever they have to do to get past Mattrick’s missteps, they need to do it, now. It’s great to have the best hardware (which they do, for now), but without great games to play on that hardware, and especially without a Killer App (Halo: Combat Evolved for the original Xbox, Gears of War for the 360), they’re going to continue hemorrhaging money and coming in second to Sony.
The key to a video game console is great games, Microsoft. You need to make some.