E3 2018: Microsoft at E3 Was a Step in the Right Direction, But Nothing More

I was planning to do my own pre-E3 piece on Microsoft. I’d even gone as far as to make it to around 1,500 words before I decided to can the entire thing and move on. Part of the reason was the quality of its content; I’m compulsive when it comes to the flow and tone of my own written work, but the main reason lay in the quick and inevitable realization that what I wanted to discuss, had been stated, restated and regurgitated many a time by many outlets over the past three-or-so years with little expansion or elaboration on the same, tired topics. Of course I’d prefer to stay well clear of anything that might be considered clickbait, but there is some truth to the opinions that have swirled in and around any and all discussion concerning Microsoft. Just ask yourself: since when has it never been “do-or-die” for Microsoft? When have we ever gone into an Xbox press conference — or “Media Briefing” as the Redmond locals would have you refer to it as — under the guise that they’re in a great spot, a good spot at least?

Both Sony and now Nintendo have earned that public perception in the past and yet Microsoft/Xbox always seems to have a dark cloud hanging over its very presence no matter the outcome. Optimism has been shown, but it’s always been the cautious sort, the distrustful sort, the “if it’s too good to be true…” hook that has lent an unwelcome chip to Xbox’s shoulder. Very few would deny Microsoft’s recent presentations haven’t at least intrigued, excited even. Away from the orchestrated and disingenuous screams from the crowd, or more specifically, the well-placed staff at Xbox. But whether it be inside or even outside the confines of E3 as an event, be it backwards compatibility, Play Anywhere or Game Pass, though some may express concern (and rightly so) over Microsoft’s veering towards a closer focus on services — with that mentality bleeding into the development of their first-party titles, it can be argued — you can’t deny that Microsoft, prior to E3 2018, were at least trying (if not wholly succeeding) to win back those it had lost with the abjectly horrid early years of the Xbox One.

Gears 5 Screenshot

Redeemable and brought about in good faith these concepts might seem, a console still lives and dies by its software. More specifically, its games — first and second-party titles particularly. Thus, away from the tired trinity of safe-bets that is Halo, Gears and Forza, Xbox has obviously faltered this generation. Sony and Nintendo have certainly relied on their old (and/or successful) IPs on more than one occasion during this generation, but the point still stands: both those companies herald an impressive number of in-house/first-party or even trustee second-party studios to help keep the PS4 & Switch libraries feeling fresh and consistent. Microsoft don’t. I can imagine some — a minority yes, but sizable in number nonetheless — had come into Xbox’s showing this year with lofty expectations of being bombarded with new IP’s here and first-party offerings there. The latter, though modestly achieved, did fall back yet again on teasing Halo and revealing the next mainline entry in the Gears of War series — with a few surprise spin-off’s tucked either side.

But if there was one take-away from Microsoft’s showing — one that certainly had us in the office expressing that “OH…OK!” reaction — it was the man himself, Phil Spencer, going into a bit more detail over the company’s dealings with particular developers. And while the acquisition of Playground Games and Undead Labs, the develops behind Forza Horizon and State of Decay respectively, might have seemed fairly unsurprising (and a little odd to deem it a note-worthy announcement), the news that Ninja Theory — the studio behind one of 2017’s most intriguing releases, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice — had also been acquired, definitely made heads turn. On top of Compulsion Games, soon to release their follow-up title in the form of We Happy Few, this was exactly the kind of background affair Microsoft needed to vocally profess to the world. To demonstrate, to prove, they were serious when it came to expanding Xbox’s palette on both a first and second-party front.

We Happy Few Screenshot

Granted, we don’t know how well We Happy Few will do and how great a deal that acquisition might turn out for what is essentially a new studio many would easily class under the “indie” moniker. On top of that, Ninja Theory don’t necessarily hold the same lofty reputation as someone like Naughty Dog or Monolith Soft have in regards to second-party, contemporary studios now well regarded with critically-acclaimed, exclusive titles in their portfolio to prove it. Yet let’s be clear, at worst this was a note-worthy moment in the conference but potentially, at best, a smart business decision that could pay dividends in the years to come. But that’s precisely it: Microsoft’s attention seems to be pointing squarely to the so-called “years to come”. The future of Xbox rather than its present — Phil Spencer even briefly touching on “the next Xbox” in the same way Nintendo went about mentioning “Codename NX” at E3 2015. That should be proof enough that the company as a whole may not be betting all their chips in the forthcoming twelve, eighteen maybe twenty-four months at most and are already looking to start the cycle all over again.

But let’s face it, you can’t simply churn out numerous releases — new IP or not — on a yearly basis; in this current generation, projects that could be deemed AA/AAA outings exclusive to the Xbox platform will take time, money and plenty of backing from Microsoft themselves. It’s good to see creative liberties remain in tact for a developer like Ninja Theory (or at least they claim they still hold such rights) and that a studio like Playground talk of already begun work on a new open-world IP that isn’t just some to-be-expected, annual Forza iteration. The sad truth is, Xbox may have to bear the brunt of a painful short-term to enjoy a prosperous long-term. Both Sony and Nintendo had to go through the exact same process and as it stands, PS4 is one of the best-selling consoles of all time and the Nintendo Switch garnered one of the best first year outputs for a console in quite a while, in terms of games.

Tales of Vesperia Screenshot

Say what you will about the undeniable drought of first-party titles on Xbox at present — the same pessimistic tone rightly directed at the announcing of a new Battletoads game but a dispensable teaser trailer penned for a 2019 release. Or that, for the most blunt of us, as great a variety of Japanese-developed titles that Microsoft managed to secure for their own conference — FromSoftware’s newest IP, Devil May Cry’s long overdue return, Tales of Vesperia’s remaster — these games, once again, are not exclusive to the Xbox platform. Xbox’s presentation suffered a little in pacing at points, naturally, but few would deny that there wasn’t a decent variety on show still. Games many are intrigued by; Metro: Exodus looked fine; Dying Light 2 garnered intrigue and DLC for Cuphead was always going to be appreciated. At the very least, developers and publishers far and wide are proving that they see no reason to ditch the platform in the same vain as the Wii U.

Nintendo were able to claw back some of that lost partnership with the Switch and I’m sure Microsoft can do the same and more. Remember the days when Xbox 360 was considered a great hub for Japanese titles. When the likes of Nier, Star Ocean: The Last Hope and indeed Tales of Vesperia — exclusive, timed-exclusive or otherwise — were commonly associated with the Xbox platform out of sheer consistency of software output. Given the circumstances, the reality is that Microsoft were never really going to fully invert the perception they still hold in many consumers’ minds. To come away with one’s limitations and their flatulently trailing position in the console race, remain. It says something when their nearest rivals, Sony, only really have to show up to have a “good” E3 but I give credit to Microsoft this year for at least trying to paint a more fruitful and prosperous future for Xbox that isn’t solely based on services, statistics and player engagement…whatever the hell that means. Of course, as is often the case, actions speak louder than words but fans and interested viewers alike will come to realize that Microsoft are looking to the future if they truly mean to revitalize — resurrect even — the Xbox brand in what might be the next generation of console gaming.

Devil May Cry 5 Screenshot

That might come at the cost of the current Xbox One, but it’s promising to see Microsoft making moves and financially investing in studios far and wide to help bring Xbox closer to the accumulative strengths of a company like PlayStation on software alone. It will take time and plenty of smart business decisions to bring Xbox back to the grand heights of the early-to-mid 360 days. And while you may scoff and simply revert to playing these newly-announced titles on PS4/PC/Switch, for those of us who avoid gleefully snickering at a company’s demise or [personally-warranted] financial failure, the hope is that this is the first step in what will likely be a long and winding road for Xbox’s future.

E3 2018 was a promising first-step and given the circumstances, that was all Microsoft could and probably should have delivered to prove, as a company, they were aware of the situation staring them right in the face. Even as a fellow consumer who still sees no reason to own an Xbox One at this present time, I wish them the best in the foreseeable future. The industry needs a three-console structure; Nintendo were capable of turning fortunes around in 2017, Sony before that. I see no reason why Microsoft can’t do the same.