Microsoft as a video game publisher has gotten a bad rep lately. Their most recent game developed by Rare, Sea of Thieves, was met with relatively indifferent reviews, though it has reportedly sold pretty well. What’s more of an issue to the public eye is their relative lack of upcoming exclusive games. There have been some high-profile cancellations that have fans worried as well, like the nixing of Phantom Dust, Scalebound and Fable Legends alongside the shuttering of Lionhead Studios. Then again, over four years ago Sony’s own SIE Santa Monica Studio canceled an unannounced new IP along with major layoffs to the studio – Santa Monica of course went on to release the excellent God of War just a couple of weeks ago, so these things happen even outside of Microsoft’s umbrella.
Instead of lamenting these setbacks, perhaps it’s best to look towards the future in order to see what Microsoft might have up their sleeves to rejuvenate the already healthy Xbox ecosystem. Phil Spencer, the Head of Xbox, has been quick to douse any fires about issues with Microsoft’s first-party output, and has recently spoken with fans about how Microsoft intends to show off RPGs and other Japanese titles at their E3 press conference next month. Microsoft recently announced that Xbox One console sales are up 15 percent over last year, Xbox Live players are up 13 percent, Mixer exceeded over 10 million active users in a month, players have played over 4 billion hours worth of gameplay through the ID@Xbox Program and almost 1 billion hours worth of gameplay through their backwards compatible games, and the Xbox One X has over 200 enhanced games for its souped up specs. So, just like Hardcore Gamer did with The State of Sony’s Development Teams, it’s time to figure out where Microsoft is at with future Xbox One exclusives that are currently in development. Microsoft has seven first-party studios under their belt and a plethora of second-party developers that make exclusive games for them, so with some hard-set facts and a bit of educated guesswork, it’s time to look closely at the state of Microsoft’s development teams in alphabetical order.
What they’re (Definitely) Working on: Halo 6
After Bungie parted ways with Microsoft and began working on a little series called Destiny, 343 Industries was formed with a singular purpose: to make Halo games. Their first effort, Halo 4, was well received, but is generally considered to be a lesser game than its predecessors. Halo 5: Guardians for the Xbox One followed a similar trajectory, and was still well received, but began to make fans worried for the future of the franchise. Instead of jumping the gun and rushing the end of this new trilogy, 343 made the smart decision to take their time with this sequel. Not too much is known about the game, though they have plainly stated that they have decided to shift the focus of the story back onto Master Chief more heavily after playing half of the last game as Spartan Locke didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Though it wasn’t shown off at last year’s E3, this year is almost a surefire bet, which means the game could come out as soon as Holiday 2018 or perhaps early 2019. Regardless, just like Guilty Spark, don’t count 343 out just yet
What They’re (Definitely) Working On: Gears of War 5
Just like Microsoft did with the Halo Franchise, a studio was created from the ground up to work on Gears of War games after Epic went on to make the unknown game called Fortnite that nobody has ever heard of. Though not as well received as the original Gears of War trilogy from Epic, Gears of War 4 was a decided improvement over Gears of War: Judgement. It took place 25 years after the events of Gears of War 3, beginning at a time of relative peace. It introduced Marcus Fenix’s son, J.D. Fenix, as well as a host of new weapons and gameplay wrinkles, including a dynamic weather system that could reign hell upon the player via constant lightning strikes if they weren’t careful. Gears of War 5 will likely focus on the “Swarm,” an evolved form of the Locust from the original games that appeared at the end of Gears of War 4 – couple that with the fact that the human groups the COG and the Outsiders are still at odds with one another, and it looks like this next game will have quite a bit of material to work with. Because the last game came out in late 2016, it’s possible it could hit this holiday, but more realistically, expect a 2019 release.
What They’re (Definitely) Working On: Mobile and Indie Games
Fans have been complaining that Microsoft doesn’t have enough first-party studios under their belt, and though they built Lift London from scratch to create new games, it’s not what hardcore gamers are probably looking for. They’ve been hard at work on mobile games, and though they’ve reportedly been working with Dlala Studios to help them make their next game, it almost certainly won’t be the AAA material many fans are hoping. Still, Lift may just surprise us with their output, so don’t count them out just yet.
Microsoft Casual Games Team
What They’re (Definitely) Working On: Casual Games
While Lift London might have some heavy hitting core games in the oven, Microsoft Casual Games Team decidedly does not. It’s right there in the name: they make casual games. They’re famous for some widely-played titles, but that’s because they’re ready-made for pretty much every Windows computer or device. They’ve made Solitaire, Mahjong, Minesweeper, Sudoku and more for Microsoft, which have been and remain important in a number of ways, but don’t expect a major project out of them pretty much ever.
What They’re (Still) Working On: Minecraft
What They’re (Probably) Working On: Smaller Games
Microsoft bought Minecraft developer Mojang for $2.5 billion in 2014, and while that seems like a verifiable insane amount of money to pay for a company that is mostly known for one franchise, Minecraft has sold over 144 million copies over about just as many devices. Microsoft claims they mostly did it for their mixed reality Hololens technology, which has yet to hit the public market for consumption. And even though Minecraft is still being released on non-Microsoft systems, it’s a big get for the company. Mojang has also worked on (much) smaller projects over the years, and are likely continuing to do so while they ride Minecraft all the way to the bank.
Turn 10 Studios
What They’re (Definitely) Working On: Forza Motorsport 8
Last year’s Forza Motorsport 7 was an excellent game and it continued to cement the series as one of the greatest simulation racers of all time. Well, this year is Forza Horizon’s turn to shine, so that just means Forza Motorsport 8 will be out in 2019, unless some terrible mishap occurs or they decide to hold over FM8 for another console generation and development becomes elongated as a result. Regardless, it’s almost certain that Turn 10 is cranking out another stellar game in their renowned series and we can’t wait to get our hands on it.
What They’re (Still) Working On: Sea of Thieves
What They’re (Maybe) Working On: Unannounced Future Projects
Though many place Rare’s decline in popularity on its acquisition by Microsoft back in 2002, the primary culprit for this slide is a loss of major studio figures at the same time. No, Rare hasn’t made a proper Banjo-Kazooie or Donkey Kong Country or GoldenEye game since their Nintendo days, but they’ve made some undeniably fun games since. The Viva Piñata series scratched an itch we didn’t know we had, their Kinect titles sold like hotcakes filled with drugs and even though their latest release Sea of Thieves didn’t get absolutely stellar reviews, it’s still a fun time with friends and Rare is continuing to work on the game post-release, hopefully working on major content updates for the future. They’re a big studio, or at least they used to be, and having multiple teams isn’t out of the question. It’s possible they’ve been working on something other than Sea of Thieves, but if they haven’t, don’t expect something new that isn’t Sea of Thieves-centric out of Rare for quite some time.
What They’re (Definitely) Working On: Ori and the Will of the Wisps
Announced at E3 2017 during Microsoft’s press conference, Ori and the Will of the Wisps is the sequel to Ori and the Blind Forest – one of the Xbox One’s best console exclusives. It runs on the Unity engine and employs a gorgeous, almost painterly art style that helped solidify the title in many gamer’s minds. It’s a platform adventure game with many backtracking opportunities, making it a strong Metroid-vania throwback with a lot of modern twists. This sequel is sure to build off that great foundation, and expect to see some gameplay this E3, possibly up on Microsoft’s stage.
What They’re (Almost Definitely) Working On: Forza Horizon 4
What They’re (Maybe) Working On: Fable
Playground Games, much like Turn 10, are known for one thing: Forza. Of course, their focus is on the Forza Horizon sub-series of open-world racing games and their popularity keeps increasing with each entry. Because last year saw the release of Forza Motorsport 7, this year it’s Forza Horizon 4’s time to shine. Of course, it’s possible Microsoft will let the franchise sit a year out, but considering their success, it’s not likely. More interesting are rumors that Playground Games have begun work on a new Fable game. Though their experience is solely on racing games at the moment, they have a knack for open worlds, which is what the new Fable would likely be. It’s rumored to a reboot of sorts after Lionhead Studios, the original creators of Fable, were shut down two years ago by Microsoft. Don’t expect Playground Games to simply resurrect Fable Legends – a full blown RPG is far more likely. If it’s real, it could be revealed this June at E3, hopefully making it in time for the end of the Xbox One’s lifespan in 2019 or so.
Sumo Digital/Reagent Games/Ruffian Games/Cloudgine
What They’re (Definitely) Working On: Crackdown 3
Crackdown 3 is a strange beast. Originally announced back in E3 2014, Crackdown 3 was set to be released in 2016, but was purportedly delayed to launch alongside the Xbox One X in November 2017 as a showcase title. Unfortunately, many people who got their hands on the game running up to that release date were underwhelmed by its performance and specifically noted its lackluster graphical qualities – something Microsoft surely didn’t want associated with the brand new, 4K enabled Xbox One X. It’s also being developed by four studios at once, with Cloudgine working on the cloud-based Microsoft Azure engine, Reagent Games focusing on art and multiplayer gameplay, Sumo Digital focusing on the campaign and Ruffian Games adding extra support in some capacity. Much of the game runs off of Microsoft Azure, meaning if the system isn’t connected to the internet at a decent bandwidth, its fully destructible environments are compromised. The campaign is reportedly going to have a much more scaled-down level of destructibility because of this caveat, though hopefully Sumo Digital will pull through and make something more akin to the original Crackdown than Crackdown 2. Development on this title may feel messy at the moment, but expect to see the game at this E3. It’s possible that these disparate teams will pull something great together and deliver a truly special exclusive for the Xbox One.
What They’re (Definitely) Working On: State of Decay 2
Coming out later this month (May 22, to be specific), State of Decay 2 follows the original game’s open-world zombie survival blueprint, expands upon it significantly and adds online cooperative multiplayer. Largely focused on building a makeshift community of survivors in order to withstand the onslaught of zombies, the game throws in everything you could possibly expect from an open-world game: RPG mechanics, driving, melee combat, shooting, exploration, relationship options and more. Whereas the original State of Decay ran at a budgeted $19.99 USD, this sequel is going to run at a still frugal $29.99 USD, giving players a lot of bang for their buck. Though it was originally slated for a 2017 release, its newest date looks like it will stick, hopefully giving Xbox gamers a great exclusive very soon.