It should be a fantastic time for the Xbox division right now. The Xbox One S launch brought with it a true upwards trajectory in Xbox sales and even outpaced the PS4 several months in a row in the US, including during the launches of the PS4 Pro and PSVR. So why is there such a cloud hanging over the platform?
Where have all the Xbox games gone?
In January, Microsoft’s big Platinum Games developed exclusive, Scalebound, was killed off after extended delays and reports of serious trouble with its development. The game was consistently named as one of the platform’s most anticipated exclusive releases, so the reaction to the news was understandably negative. Regardless of which party holds the most blame for the game’s failure though, it’s definitely Microsoft who bears the brunt of the fallout.
The real issue at the heart of Scalebound’s cancellation – far more than the game itself – is that it joined a high number of other cancelled or delayed Xbox One exclusives. Most notable is the failure of Fable Legends – a game-as-a-service experiment that failed to find the fun despite a long-running public beta. The game’s cancellation brought with it the sad demise of its studio, Lionhead. Shortly beforehand, Project Spark – a free-to-play game-making sandbox – was also unceremoniously killed off despite being a headline attraction at Microsoft’s Xbox One launch event. Meanwhile, Crackdown 3 has continued on the same concerningly quiet path as Scalebound had before its cancellation. While Indie-developed Cuphead, which turned heads at E3 2014 with its classic animation stylings, has still failed to materialise 3 years later. To top it all off, Microsoft revealed a remake of essentially the only original Xbox game Japan ever bought – Phantom Dust – only to kill the project off a year later following more reports of yet another rocky relationship with another developer.
The very public cancellations and delays put a microscope over the state of exclusive titles on the Xbox One, and the results were not positive. While a steady diet of Forza, Gears of War and Halo can be relied on, there is an increasing feeling, as titles such as Scalebound dropped away, that any variety on the platform had gone with them. Only two other first-party games are currently announced for this year – Rare’s Sea of Thieves and ReAgent Games’ Crackdown 3 – and you’d be forgiven for being reluctant to put real money on Crackdown being released in 2017 as it is.
Other Microsoft exclusives, beyond its core three franchises, have also failed to find traction during the console’s lifetime. New IPs ReCore and Quantum Break had a lacklustre reception – though neither were critical disasters. Meanwhile, Sunset Overdrive’s net positive responses failed to lead to enough financial success for Microsoft to pursue funding a sequel. Two Dead Rising games in succession also failed to pay off on their console loyalty by being pretty poor instalments, while exclusivity deals for Titanfall and Rise of the Tomb Raider failed to generate a long-term drive of hardware sales and likely failed to return on the cost to net those deals to begin with.
While the Xbox One has hardly suffered from the problems of the Wii U when it comes to software support, these recurring issues with cancellations, delays and under-performing releases have combined with an entire market of developers in Japan ignoring the console altogether. All dealing successive blows to making software a compelling enough reason to own an Xbox One over the more powerful PS4.
Are exclusive games really that important?
It’s probably worth keeping in mind though, that to begin with, Sony were not having the best of times with exclusive games on the PS4, either.
In fact, despite the lacklustre response to most of the exclusive games outside of the Halo/Forza/Gears core on the Xbox One, until 2015, the Xbox One was handily producing twice the amount of new AAA exclusive titles than the PS4. Sony mostly had to prop up its offering of games like Bloodborne with HD re-releases of the PS3’s greatest hits and multiple waves of Indie releases. They even had their own stumbles with the responses to new IPs Knack and The Order:1886. Meanwhile, fielding Street Fighter V against Microsoft’s exclusivity deal for Tomb Raider turned out to be very much in Microsoft’s favour as Capcom made a significant mess out of Street Fighter’s launch.
Despite all of this, the PS4 started off with a 2:1 sales ratio to the Xbox One, and the ratio hasn’t significantly changed since.
Meanwhile, the Wii U in fact had the most AAA-level new console exclusives of anyone during the entire lifespans of all three consoles so far – the majority of them being extremely well received as Nintendo first party games are won’t to do – but failed to make any headway out of the corner Nintendo had driven themselves into with the console’s launch.
It’s an obvious fact that console exclusives are a hugely important factor in the success of a console – but the evidence of the last three years makes it even more obvious that it clearly isn’t the deciding factor.
The deciding factor?
With Project Scorpio, Microsoft are clearly of the belief that the true deciding factor is raw power.
There’s certainly evidence to suggest that they could be right. The way the market has shook itself out between Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo lines them up neatly in order of the raw power of their respective machines. Sony’s more powerful PS4 has dominated the slightly under-powered Xbox One, while Nintendo’s significantly under-powered Wii U has struggled to ever really get off the starting blocks. Microsoft’s aim is to take Scorpio – which will undeniably be the most powerful console on the market – and ultimately claim Sony’s position at the head of that chain.
The reason why this could actually pay off to some level comes right back to the argument about console exclusives.
If Sony’s console exclusives were not the reason why the PS4 so handily eclipsed the Xbox One, then the biggest reason (leaving aside the PR nightmare that encircled the Xbox One’s launch) is surely that the third party multiplatform releases were, by default, better on the PS4.
Gamers enjoy having the latest and greatest, and a decision between a console that runs most of the games you’ll play best vs a console that plays them worse is barely a decision at all.
When Scorpio lands, although it will be the most expensive console on the market, it will also be the one that plays the latest games at their best. There is no doubt that this will turn a tide of customers that haven’t yet decided on one of the two consoles, as well as finding purchase in some PS4 early adopters. Especially those who haven’t yet upgraded to Sony’s own PS4 Pro.
Is this Microsoft’s simple answer then? That they can continue a diet of Halo/Forza/Gears so long as the latest from EA, Ubisoft and Activision run the best on their machine?
Scorpio is almost certainly going to help in giving the Xbox platform a generous upswing here – but realistically, raw power still just isn’t enough. The reason why Scalebound’s cancellation was such a big loss wasn’t just that it was yet another exclusive gone, it was that it was a type of game that Microsoft just doesn’t have on their books. A large part of the audience looking forward to the game were not existing Xbox customers. It was the type of game that would swing the decision to buy an under-powered console and that’s a significantly stronger effect than the much more basic compulsion to buy a powerful gadget.
The way forward
Microsoft fundamentally needs to align these two factors – power and exclusives – in order to reverse the Xbox One’s fortunes and cut down on that ratio to the PS4.
Simply releasing Scorpio this Christmas without a strong exclusive offering to boot is not going to be enough. Especially not in a year where Sony are unequivocally delivering on new and exclusive games, or while Nintendo threatens to upset the Christmas-themed apple cart by combining the hugely successful launch of the Switch with the first major new Mario game since Mario Galaxy on the Wii.
It’s generally expected, if not hoped for, that Microsoft’s currently quiet release schedule for the rest of the year is a direct result of keeping their cards extremely close to their chest for a big play at E3. Crackdown 3 re-materialising for a Christmas release will certainly go a long way towards helping out. But if they’re otherwise relying on simply wowing people with how great Forza 7 looks on Scorpio, they could be in for a nasty shock come January. They certainly won’t be looking down the barrel of a Wii U style problem. At its worst, the Xbox One is still set to outsell the Xbox 360 during its lifetime, after all. But, the long term success of the Scorpio project will certainly come down to a lot more than having a few extra teraflops on the PS4 Pro.