Honestly there’s not much more to say about Microsoft and Xbox at this point that I haven’t already said. Over the last few years, I have been trying my best to analyze Microsoft’s business strategies, their vision and goals, and their failures, trying to rationalize and recontextualize the latter into some grand plan, but as more and more time has gone by, it has become increasingly more evident that the very notion of some unified cohesive vision for gaming by Microsoft might be a far fetched fantasy.
The company is, very obviously, invested in video games as a business, as an industry, and as a market – you don’t try to spend $70 billion on a video game publisher acquisition if you weren’t committed – but the issue is that Microsoft does not yet seem to have any vision or understanding for what it wants to stand for as far as video games go. This is something that has become more and more evident over the last few years, and has been thrown into stark relief over the last few months, with the dirty laundry being aired out thanks to the Activision acquisition attempt, as well as the release (to a critical mauling) of Redfall.
This isn’t just some contrived shifted goal post being used to knock Microsoft down a peg or anything, as eye rollingly stupid as it might sound. Video games are a creative, artistic medium (largely) – which means that, as with any creative medium, a creator has to have a vision for what they want their works to be. It doesn’t have to be some noble, far reaching prospect of touching billions and changing their lives with the power of video games or anything like that – but it has to stand for something.
I mean, beyond just making money (which, obviously, all of these companies want to do). Making money is the end goal – but you have to do something to get there. For example, to speak of Microsoft’s two competitors in the console space, Sony’s vision for video games is as a powerful form of interactive storytelling (like movies). Nintendo’s vision for video games is as a boundless means of expression through playing and experimentation (like toys). Both of them are fundamentally selling this vision for games, and using that to make money.
Microsoft, on the other hand, seems to lack a clear and distinct goal or vision for what it wants its mark on the medium to be. This is, surprisingly, a recent development (surprising because you usually would expect it to go the other direction – a newcomer not knowing what they want their works to stand for, but figuring it out over time, until, after more than two decades have passed, they know what their works are supposed to be). See, for the first 10-15 years of Xbox’s life, we could have very easily (and correctly) pointed to multiplayer and community being Microsoft’s vision for gaming. Their games, their console, their ecosystem, everything Xbox did, was entered around the concept of community and multiplayer.
The original Xbox’s claim to fame was Xbox Live. Xbox’s biggest hits (notably, Halo and Gears of War) were all big hits off the back of their multiplayer functionality, and how they used that to redefine what one might expect from games. Xbox Live, multiplayer games, community, and essentially using games as a way to spend time and tell stories together – a communal form of narrative building, almost like tabletop RPGs – that’s what Microsoft seemed to stand for with games. That’s where they drew the line in the sand and said “this will be what our legacy on the medium will be”.
But those days are long gone. Xbox did actually keep the connected experience central to itself – we’ll get back to this later – but as time went on, this “vision” for gaming so to speak seems to have gotten more and more diluted. Xbox games are no longer designed around this central tenet. In and of itself, that’s not an issue – in fact, if you are like me who mostly abhors online multiplayer in games, it might even a good thing – but you have to replace it with something.
There has to be some other vision or goal Xbox games stand for. And there… aren’t. Xbox’s games in the last decade have largely felt like a smattering of mixed quality releases, all of which seem to be tentatively stepping in several directions to try and chase some trend or community feedback or the other, never quite committing to any creative vision of their own, let alone any bigger one. There have certainly been some great Xbox games that did wholly commit to one central vision and executed on it marvellously – the Ori and Forza Horizon games instantly come to mind – but those are the exceptions that mostly serve to underline the lack of those qualities elsewhere, especially in the Halo and Gears of War games in the post-360 era, whose decline can almost be traced back entirely to roughly the same time that Xbox lost cohesion in its game output strategy (and its console strategy).
With Halo and Gears of War both declining, Microsoft’s industry leading premier first party titles, the prestige games that were also system sellers and also perpetuating their vision for games (so basically their equivalent to a Mario or Zelda) were basically… gone. Meanwhile, third party multiplatform games took the lead in pushing the envelope on multiplayer and community based game experiences. Overwatch. Minecraft. GTA Online. Fortnite.
Do you know what these games all have in common? They are all also available on systems other than Xbox. Worse still, in many (or most) cases, these games are better on other platforms, and heavily associated with those other platforms thanks to savvy marketing and branding deals run by said other platforms (let’s stop beating around the bush, those other platforms are PlayStation, which Sony has moulded into the home of multiplayer video games starting with the PS4).
So – Xbox’s own innovations and attempts at pushing the envelope have stalled in the very space they themselves pioneered in the console gaming market. Their games are no longer the cutting edge segment leaders in this portion of the market. Those leaders are now mostly unassociated independent third party games, and while many of them do come to Xbox, almost all of them treat PlayStation as their home. In the minds of the public, Xbox is no longer the multiplayer games system. PlayStation is.
It also doesn’t help that Microsoft’s own push for online and community based gaming seems to have… also stalled? Don’t get me wrong, as I mentioned previously, the connected online experience is still central to the whole Xbox pitch, it’s just that, as is the case with almost all of Xbox at this point, that experience seems to be focused more on everything but new games. For example, look at Game Pass – amazing new paradigm for games distribution, possible only because of Microsoft’s network connectivity focus, infrastructure, and experience. But Game Pass is not at all relevant to the games themselves. It decides how you approach playing games for sure, particularly if you really get into it and use it as an opportunity to start trying out games you otherwise may never have – but there’s no direct impact on the games themselves. It’s just essentially a new way for Microsoft to package and present games to you.
This point is probably best illustrated by comparing to another community and connectivity based innovation in the console space introduced by Microsoft themselves – achievements. Achievements were introduced by Microsoft as a standard on the Xbox 360, and were then adopted by everyone else in the industry (except Nintendo, because of course).
While achievements don’t have any singular impact as big as Game Pass might, they were also an innovation intrinsically tied to video games as a medium and form of creative expression itself. They not only tied into how games are designed, and how games are played, tapping into the spirit of community and competition that is so built into games as a medium and culture (an amazing example of bringing their vision for gaming to the market via smart innovations, by the way), but are also something that is more or less uniquely possible only with games.
- were influenced by, and influenced, how games are designed
- were influenced by, and influenced, how games are played
- were mostly possible only for video games and nothing else
Now contrast this with Game Pass. Game Pass doesn’t really impact how games are designed, it doesn’t impact how games are played, and it is certainly not unique to games (the whole pitch is “Netflix for games”, as in, doing something other industries are also doing, but now with games).
Both Game Pass and Achievements are a way by Microsoft to make their ecosystem “sticky” (as in, to keep people invested in playing their games on Xbox rather than elsewhere, and earn more money off of them), but the difference in approach is stark and clear. One was designed uniquely for, and by, games. The other is not.
I think this comes back to the broader point about Xbox I (and several others) have made over the years – Microsoft needs to bring the focus back to games. People get frustrated with Xbox because they have been promising improvements over the last ten years, and there is this sense that those promises were hollow, that Microsoft did not deliver any improvements.
But here’s the thing, they did! Their hardware is much better than it ever was, their services and ecosystem are much better than it ever was, even their business policies are much better than they were in the early Xbox One era. But the problem is, they improved everything but the games. The games have not only not improved in this period, they have arguably declined outright, and it almost feels like Microsoft will put their money and resources into fixing everything but their games output.
That same mentality seems to be evident in the difference across their approach to Game Pass and their approach to Achievements. And it is why they seem to have such a scattershot approach to games. They have lost their focus on what they wanted to stand for with games, with their older vanguards and standard bearers declining, and no new ones cropping up to take their place (with the sole exception of Sea of Thieves, an inspired bit of game design that uniquely encapsulates what Microsoft once stood for with games); others have taken the concept and run away with it, while finding themselves a home on PlayStation and away from Xbox.
Meanwhile, Microsoft themselves have struggled to even figure out what they want their games to be. There is no cohesion, no consistency, no uniformity, not just in quality and quantity, but also in what the games even are. When you buy a Nintendo game, you know what kind of game to expect – Nintendo has the most varied and diverse output of games in the world, and gets wildly experimental with its projects, but even so, there is a general focus and style Nintendo games go for that most of its products by and large hew to. Ditto with Sony – while Sony is not even fractionally as diverse with its output as Nintendo, they have a remarkably varied lineup regardless, but one that still manages to quintessentially feel “like a Sony game” across the board.
Microsoft does not have that. In the coming months and years, Xbox will have to go through a period of self reflection and rebuilding, and I imagine they will have to decide how best to proceed in the market from here on out. I wish them all the luck (because I really do want them to do well), but they need to understand the centrality of games to this whole exercise – games need to be at the centre of everything they do, and they need to design what informs and guides their engagement with games as a creative medium to begin with. Failure to do this will only continue to result in more misfires and third place finishes for Xbox in the future.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.