Is Microsoft Still Interested in the Console Market?

At E3 2016, Microsoft announced their Xbox Play Anywhere initiative, wherein essentially all subsequent Microsoft published games would be available on both PC and Xbox One, and gamers could buy one copy of any given game and play it on both devices. It was a surprising announcement that, even then, had fans and journalists alike questioning the relevance of the Xbox brand moving forward. In the time since, Microsoft has released the Xbox One S, a revised iteration of the original Xbox One and more recently released the Xbox One X, a significant hardware upgrade capable of 4k gaming. These actions seem to contradict one another, as Microsoft has put significant weight into the PC gaming space, but continues to improve upon their Xbox One line at the same time. Are they losing focus, doubling down on the console market, or gradually transitioning into the PC landscape wholeheartedly?

Play Anywhere

Xbox Play Anywhere is good for gamers. No longer are Microsoft’s exclusives restricted to Xbox platforms, but are now accessible on the world’s most wide-spread gaming device. It’s surely helped Microsoft line their pockets by appealing to this major market, but has undoubtedly weakened the Xbox brand. After all, the Xbox One technically doesn’t have exclusive games anymore – only console-exclusive titles that won’t show up on a Sony or Nintendo platform. Certain IPs, like Halo and Gears of War, remain inextricably linked in the collective gamer consciousness to the Xbox brand, despite also appearing on the PC. These games showing up on the PC isn’t anything new – PC ports of Xbox games have been a common occurrence for over a decade, but those ports typically came out long after the Xbox release made waves in the industry. That’s simply not the case anymore.

Microsoft’s Play Anywhere initiative shows their commitment to the PC, but it continues to draw focus away from the Xbox One. Of course, Play Anywhere doesn’t hurt the games themselves: Xbox gamers still get the same games on their console of choice that they would have if Play Anywhere didn’t exist in the first place. Sea of Thieves, Crackdown 3 and more won’t be hurt by this initiative – in fact, boosted sales from the PC will surely help their bottom line. Because the Xbox One line of consoles has an architecture so similar to gaming PCs, developing these games for the two platforms simultaneously isn’t particularly taxing on developer’s resources. Frankly, working on PC versions of these games makes it even easier for developers to give the Xbox One X enhancements for their games more prominent and fiscally feasible to focus on.

Xbox One X – The Last of its Kind?

The Xbox One X is a strange concept. Just as the PlayStation 4 Pro allows gamers to play the same PS4 games available on the base unit, albeit with gameplay and graphical upgrades, the Xbox One X also provides these improvements without housing any exclusives of its own. The One X, on the other hand, is undeniably more powerful than the Pro – that’s just a cold, hard truth. The thing is, the Xbox One X marketing push at launch seemed more like Microsoft was launching a new console generation than simply improving upon the platform they’ve already established. That much makes sense, seeing that Xbox One sales numbers have dragged far behind those of the PlayStation 4, and they needed a boost in buzz around their brand in the face of this disparity. What’s more, the Nintendo Switch has taken the world by storm, and even though it doesn’t even remotely compete with the Xbox One X on a technical level, it’s gaining a foothold in the gaming mindshare more by the day, as its first ten months on market have been stellar, and the first half of 2018 already looks promising for the little handheld/console hybrid.

Xbox Chief Phil Spencer has been frank about their focus on games and services over their attention to the hardware itself. They’re becoming more and more interested on reaching gamers across mobile devices, the PC, and naturally, the Xbox family of consoles than they are in simply selling Xbox units. What isn’t clear is what Microsoft’s long-term plan for the Xbox brand is. Will they continue to iterate the Xbox One every few years, eventually phasing out the weaker base model as newer, more powerful Xbox Ones become available? Will there ever be a new console generation from Microsoft, or will hardware capabilities simply continue to scale with games as they become more technically taxing, as the PC has done for decades? Is the Xbox brand simply turning into a series of ready-made gaming PCs in their eyes? These questions apply to Sony and (to a lesser extent) Nintendo moving forward, but Microsofts focus on the console market is becoming more and more blurry as time passes. Now, it seems, games and services really will be their driving force in the industry.

Exclusives Drying Up

Exclusive games are the life-blood of any console. What is the PlayStation 4 without Uncharted 4, Horizon: Zero Dawn and Bloodborne? Would the NES have ever taken off without Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda? This continues to be true for the Xbox One as well: its list of upcoming exclusives isn’t awe inspiring, but it’s not devoid of exciting games either. Phil Spencer has been open about Microsoft’s ebbing tide of Xbox console exclusives lately, but he claims Microsoft is looking to rectify this by investing more in first-party content and studios moving forward. This is good news, considering the prospect of Xbox exclusive games has been dwindling rapidly with the shuttering of Lionhead Studios, the cancelation of Scalebound, and the continued delay of Crackdown 3.

Unfortunately, AAA games nowadays typically take three or four years to make, and even longer if they are new IP – which is something Microsoft sorely needs in their pockets. At the beginning of the generation, Microsoft resorted to paying for timed exclusivity for games like Rise of the Tomb Raider, or shelling out cash for one-off exclusive games from third-party studios like ReCore. They’ve also taken to establishing studios with the express purpose of continuing established franchises, like 343 Industries taking on the Halo series or The Coalition handling Gears of War. For the future, it seems Microsoft is aware some of these tactics don’t always work in the long-term, and they are hopefully preparing more in-house exclusives in the coming years.

To the Future

We won’t see the fruits of Microsoft’s investments in first-party studios for some time, but this timing could very well line up nicely with a new console generation, if that’s where Microsoft is headed. It’s difficult to read the signs as it is. Are they doubling down on PC gaming with Play Anywhere? Are they putting their money on the Xbox brand with the One X? Does their renewed focus on first-party content show a continued commitment to this brand? It will be interesting to track Microsoft’s progress on all these fronts in the coming years, but in the meantime, there are still plenty of Xbox console exclusives to be excited for – whether it be announced games like Sea of Thieves or inevitable announcements like Halo 6 and Gears of War 5. It’s easy to forget how quickly Microsoft turned around the Xbox One after its poor reveal and shaky initial release. Don’t count them out just yet – after all, Microsoft is still one of the most powerful companies in the world. To dismiss the Xbox brand just because they’re in a transitional period would be foolish.