The End of Xbox Originals TV: Microsoft Has Lightened the Load

Microsoft’s Xbox One has had a rough journey. Gamers anticipated that the successor to the Xbox 360 would mark another big step forward for games, but Microsoft had other plans in mind. Though it’s been downplayed recently, the Xbox One’s role as a media hub has lessened its hardcore appeal. Between dropping its DRM and abandoning Kinect, the Xbox One has shed its skin time and again, and now another new form is revealed.

With the dissolution of Xbox Entertainment Studios, the organization behind the upcoming original programming for Xbox Originals TV, the Xbox One is dropping another anchor off its back, all while keeping just enough weight for it to grow stronger down the line. The fat is trimmed, but the meat is still there.

I don’t think anyone would disagree that the Xbox One’s announcement was a disaster. Microsoft’s vision of a centralized media hub might have had ambition on its side, but the way the console was announced was anything but gamer-friendly. The Xbox One’s reveal was packed with music, TV, movies, sports…but barely any game content. This device with the Xbox name slapped on offered nothing for the core gamer demographic. The Xbox One’s reputation didn’t recover from that first impression; the system’s used game policies, Kinect requirement, always-online functionality, lack of indie self-publishing, and hefty $499 price point turned the console into a punching bag over the next year.

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But even in their darkest hour, Microsoft surprised many with a number of announcements. The used game limitations and always-online requirements never came to fruition. Indie self-publishing through ID@Xbox appeared in 2013. Now, Microsoft’s Xbox One can come Kinect-free for $100 less than the original retail price, matching the price of its rival, the Playstation 4. However, the lingering ideology of Xbox One as a media hub still hovered in the background, silently discouraging consumers who were looking for fresh new games to play in this new generation. Even with some E3 surprises like Scalebound, the system’s gaming capabilities were overshadowed by an older announcement: the debut of original TV programming for Xbox One. Xbox Originals TV was Microsoft’s answer to Netflix, who ventured into the realm of original programming with critical successes like House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black. Microsoft was set to match that with quality programs like the documentary Signal to Noise, live concert footage of Bonnaroo, and two series taking place within the Halo universe. With film luminaries like Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott at the helm, Xbox Originals TV was set to be a big deal. But earlier this week, Microsoft announced that that the studio was shutting down. Xbox Originals TV ended before it began.

The decision echoes Microsoft’s recent string of turnarounds. Despite announcing Kinect to be an integral part of Xbox One, the system can now be sold without it. Despite attempting to push the positives of always-online and used game limitations, those features were scrapped before launch. Now, Xbox Originals TV, a realization of the media goldmine that the Xbox One was announced as, is out of the picture. All of that hype, all of that pedigree, set aside in a day. Microsoft has been criticized for its abrupt changes in tone over the course of the Xbox One’s launch, reversing decisions that were said to be unchangeable. Each backstep built skepticism around Microsoft’s business plans.

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Xbox Originals TV’s dissolution was cited as being due to lack of interest, and I can’t help but agree. There were two projects in the pipeline for Xbox Originals TV that actually sounded right for Xbox brand and they were both Halo. I’ve said before that Microsoft’s direction with Xbox Originals TV was scatterbrained at best, with the Halo projects being the only original programming that has a chance to hook gamers. Fortunately, those are two of the few projects still in production. Soccer reality shows and generic concert footage don’t fit the ecosystem of Xbox, but with their top tier production values and talent, the Halo series would be a painful loss. Keeping the NFL on Xbox programming alive as for more general audiences is pretty smart as well (especially since that’s not expensive to produce).

With a more precise focus, Microsoft can stick to its guns and invest more of its energy in what built Xbox: the games. While Microsoft has had some middling successes with games like Titanfall, the system is still in need of an adrenaline boost. Sunset Overdrive looks to be the defining Xbox One exclusive of the year, with Scalebound, Killer Instinct Season 2 and Phantom Dust bringing the hype down the line. At this point, casting a huge net has left Microsoft in an indecisive spot. As a central media hub, Xbox One lost its identity as a gaming console. Without all of these TV shows cluttering up the Xbox One’s persona, the system can be considered a gamer’s console once more. What projects remain are aimed squarely at gamers – it no longer feels out of place.

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Microsoft isn’t out of the woods yet, but the condensing of their “original programming” vision into something more gamer-focused is a strong step to gathering more of that demographic. While few would buy an Xbox One for soccer or drama series, many would buy it for a new Halo game, especially with some live-action expanded-universe content on the side. By trimming the fat from their video service, Microsoft has turned their bugbear into something a core audience might actually want. No frills, no extraneous shots in the dark, just shows for the Xbox One gamer. And with so much weight off their back, Microsoft can invest their time in rebuilding the Xbox One’s image as a game console. That’s exactly what Microsoft needs to be showing right now.