Xbox is in a weird spot right now; after a shaky start in the current generation of consoles, they’ve restructured, with new people leading the console that others designed and built. Since 2014, when Phil Spencer was given the position of “head of Microsoft Studios”, the narrative has been about the new leadership trying to steady a sinking ship; which they have accomplished. Since 2014, Xbox has launched 2 new hardware options (a revised base version of Xbox One, called the Xbox One S, and the “premium” more expensive and powerful, Xbox One X), initiated multiple, consumer-friendly and platform-expanding programs, and reworked the limited, slow and convoluted console UI. Unfortunately for Xbox, even though these changes and improvements were necessary steps, the console still lacks the basic component for a successful console: Games. To me, the best analogy to describe what the Xbox One console is, is to call it an “early-access console”; you buy in mainly for what’s to come. That doesn’t mean that what’s already here is bad or the overall lack of quality is excusable; it means that I bought an Xbox console because I saw that this was a platform that was willing to own up to their mistakes, fix them and try risky, interesting new things, in order to win people back. That is certainly true, when it comes to hardware revisions, programs and UI improvements, but unfortunately, it is not true when it comes to video games, which is what actually matters. Just like with any early-access game, you buy in for what’s to come; but, if what is already there isn’t good enough, why should you trust that what’s coming up will be? For example, I bought Dead Cells in early-access and, in its current state, the game is great; it needs more stuff, some systems need to be worked on, some variety needs to be added. The developers have been really good at addressing these issues, with constant updates and fixes, however what was in Dead Cells at the beginning was great; it simply keeps getting better with each update. Xbox’s early-access metaphor is more akin to Subnautica; it made a terrible first impression with bugs, glitches and a shallow gameplay loop, which put a lot of people off. It turned out to be great, when it finally released, but the initial buzz was not great.
Thus, I loop around to where I started; Xbox’s in a weird state right now. They’ve steadied their ship, they’ve made a lot of people happy with their programs and their UI improvements, but they are missing the key component to complete their incredible turn around and time is running out for them.
What I expect/want to see:
Let’s start with some pretty safe bets; firstly, Playground Games new Forza game. It is probably going to be Forza Horizon 4, but I wish it to be a new spin-off; Horizon 3 was a massive success and it wouldn’t make sense to drop the name, however, I wish they can come up with a new concept and provide a bit of variety for the racing series, like the original Horizon did in 2012; as I said, that’s probably not going to happen, and in all honesty, I’m pretty excited to play a new Horizon title, but I would be more excited to play a new Forza spin-off series. Moving on to Crackdown 3, which sounds pretty interesting, until you look at it; it looks like a previous gen title rather than a current one. However, if the developers can deliver the destructible environments, the core Crackdown gameplay experience and keep a steady performance on all Xbox consoles, then I don’t really care about the visuals; my issue with the visuals is that they show the troubled development of the game and work as red flags on the overall quality rather than a show of moving past the troubled development. I expect to see some mention of already released games, such as Sea of Thieves and State of Decay 2, but that is all the titles that I think we can safely assume their presence in this year’s conference.
Moving on to the games that I think are likely to be there, but not certain, such as Halo 6. History-wise, Halo has been on a 3-year gap, with Halo 4 in 2012 and Halo 5 in 2015; thus Halo 6 seems likely. Gears has also been on a 3-year gap, with Judgment releasing in 2013 and Gears of War 4 in 2016, so it’s very likely Gears of War 5 will be a 2019 release, and it stands to reason that Microsoft won’t release or announce both games in the same year as both could end up shadowing each other. Furthermore, I expect to see a bit more from titles shown last year (such as The Last Night, The Artful Escape, Ashen and Ori and the Will of the Wisps), that have yet to be released; some don’t have a proper release date yet and this could be their chance at announcing it. There will, probably, be a large chunk of original Xbox games, released in Backwards Compatibility program, and a few 3rd party games to show off; my guess is Anthem and Battlefield V from EA, possibly another trailer from Metro: Exodus with some gameplay, and a few other AAA titles. It’s also a safe bet that a few, unannounced indie games will show up, either on the ID@Xbox highlight reel or on a short trailer on their own.
Honestly, the line up this year could be amazing or disappointing, depending on what Xbox’s 1st party (or at least, their exclusive catalog) situation ends up being. If half of the above ends up being true, and then they add a couple of new, exciting IPs, then they have a slam dunk; however, if everything above ends up being true, but they add nothing new, then it’s probably going to be underwhelming. There isn’t a lot of information yet on Xbox’s conference, and that’s exciting; they have the element of surprise and delivering a few exciting announcements could be enough. However, I do wish that they nail this conference, as time is running out for them to convince people (and regain control of the narrative regarding their console) that Xbox is currently a great platform and the future will be even better, rather than the current, accepted discourse of “they’ve given up on this generation, we’ll see what happens on the next one”. In order to convince people of the present and the future, or at least convince me, I would like to see them learn, not only from their own mistakes, but also from what the competition has got right. For example, it is very clear that Microsoft has been developing games with the “games as a service” model, but it leaves so many people uninterested that it makes them look greedy and unable to react to criticism, when Playstation is creating critically acclaimed and risky new ventures like God of War and The Last of Us. Furthermore, while Playstation has been giving chances to studios known for marquee franchises to branch out and create new, exciting IPs (like Guerilla Games known for Killzone, who were allowed to pitch and develop the surprise hit Horizon Zero Dawn), Microsoft has been renaming studios after their respective franchises and essentially forcing them to create games, only for those franchises. These are just some examples of mistakes they have been making, which they could show at least an attempt at correcting; but, to be clear, they have been making deals with developers for all kinds of games, however they have not been developing them and are not making new and risky attempts- at least not yet- to bring worthwhile experiences to the platform.
All in all, this year, and the next, will be the “make or break” for the legacy of Xbox One as a platform; if things turn out right, then the Xbox One can have a PS3-esque legacy: A controversial and slow start to the generation, which was turned around and won back people, to end on a high with the best possible omens for the future. If things turn out wrong, then the legacy will be much less favorable, more akin to the Nintendo Wii U. It is worth reminding that, we are in the 5th year of the 8th generation of consoles, and while Playstation keeps creating better games as time goes on, and as developers get used to the new consoles, harnessing their power to create better experiences, Xbox has been left behind; their only truly great exclusive (at least in my opinion) was Sunset Overdrive and that was in 2014. It is not too late to win back their fans and the discourse around their platform, and it certainly won’t be easy or cheap for them; however this E3 will be a perfect starting point for them to at least attempt to turn this ship around, after they stopped it from sinking.