Last year’s X018 show was, in a word, dismal. It was a whole lot of announcements that amounted to just about nothing, a two hour long waste of time that was capped with the one notable announcement of a couple more high profile studio acquisitions for Microsoft. It was a bit perplexing that Microsoft felt the need to have a whole event when they clearly did not have the content to justify it at all.
Phil Spencer, the new head of Xbox, has been nothing if not responsive to feedback. He has explicitly admitted to the criticisms long leveled at Xbox, and has vowed to address them. In what has to be a dramatic change from routine for a corporate bigwig, he has then actually followed through on those promises. Xbox One hardware was criticized; we got the Xbox One S and Xbox One X; Microsoft’s state of exclusives and first party studios was criticized; Spencer ended up spearheading the purchase of half a dozen studios to compensate that. Microsoft’s PC gaming efforts were roundly reviled and rejected by PC gamers. Spencer addressed those problems by committing to a PC release for all Microsoft games, introducing a new store front that is far better than the train wreck that is the Microsoft Store, introducing Game Pass on PC, and also resuming Microsoft support of Steam again.
So it stands to reason that X019 would, in response to the criticism thrown at X018, be better. I was just unprepared for how much better, because in a lot of ways, it feels like one of Microsoft’s strongest showings in the last decade or so. In addressing the core complaints with X018, Spencer and company have also addressed two very substantial problems Xbox has otherwise had for a very long time now. Let’s get to them in short order. First, I want to actually talk about the show itself.
The show itself was, in a word, extremely, extremely good. It was well produced, it was paced well, it didn’t have too much filler or awkward segments that only serve to cause flagging audience interest, and the focus was largely kept on games, and gaming-related stuff. And there was actually quite a bit of substantial stuff in way of those announcements too: Obsidian and Rare each announced a new IP, the former with Grounded, which looks like a delightful, smaller-scale (pun intended) survival RPG, and the kind of game that is perfect to add to Game Pass’ library. Rare, on the other hand, had Everwild, which graphically looks stunning, taking cues from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. We actually know far less about Everwild than we do Grounded, but it looked amazing—it’s exactly the kind of exclusive game announcement Microsoft needs to have to interest people in picking up the Xbox Scarlett.
Then there was the other stuff: we got to see Age of Empires IV at last! And it looks great. Graphically, it is stunning, and in terms of setting, it appears to be going back to the medieval era—which, given that Age of Empires II was the most popular game in the series (indeed, one of the most popular games ever), it makes sense to be evoking that one. We got the announcement of Tell Me Why, a brand new Dontnod IP that, in what is an impressive coup for Microsoft, will be coming exclusively to Xbox and PC (Xbox Game Studios are publishing it, so the chances of it hitting other platforms seem low). Microsoft managed to address their Japanese game deficiency problem head on, with Yakuza 0, Yakuza Kiwami, Yakuza Kiwami 2, and every Kingdom Hearts collection on PS4, all confirmed for Xbox One—and as Game Pass games, day and date, too! God damn.
And then there was xCloud. At a time when Stadia seems to be foundering before it is even out, thanks to what seems to be mismanagement of scope and expectations on a monumental level, Microsoft made it seem almost effortless. It’s due out next year (on PC at least, and in beta), it uses PS4 and Xbox One controllers, and Microsoft already has over 50 games confirmed for the service, at launch, which is more than the number of games Stadia has managed to have confirmed for it in total, period.
On every front, Microsoft was firing on all cylinders. They had the games, they had the services, and they painted what was, in my opinion, an extremely important picture for them to paint: the picture of a brand that’s healthy, and has renewed momentum, as well as buy in from all levels of the organization. Those things are important, because continued support for a console, even when it is failing, even when a new generation is around the corner, is what often translates into early momentum in the next gen. Just ask Sony, who stuck with the PS3, pushing out tons of impressive games and exclusives for it even into 2013, giving customers confidence in Sony enough to purchase PS4 at launch in record numbers. Microsoft, by continuing to secure all these games and deals for Xbox One, when they could just as well be ignoring that console and doubling down on trying to get the Scarlett out of the gate as strongly as possible, are in fact increasing consumer confidence and engagement in the brand, and adding a sense of momentum to it—all of which should ultimately help Xbox have a far stronger start next generation than they had this time around.
It is also impressive how X019 demonstrated Microsoft tackling one of the most common criticisms that is leveled at them: their lack of games. This has in the past been best demonstrated by their release schedule: consider, for instance, that in 2019, their releases consisted of Crackdown 3 in February, then Gears 5 in September, and that’s it. That’s all they had. This is a far cry from the games they have lined up for next year, such as Grounded, Bleeding Edge, Psychonauts 2, Halo Infinite, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, Wasteland 3, Minecraft Dungeons, and Tell Me Why, at which point they’re basically pushing out one major game every two months. True, all of those are not exclusives, owing to prior commitments studios may have had before being acquired, but it points to one very important fact: Microsoft now has enough content to be able to achieve this kind of release cadence, and once their studios are done meeting their commitments they had prior to release, their slate of exclusives should swell immensely.
And, of course, I would be remiss if I did not point out how overjoyed I was at Microsoft tackling, head on, the one problem that has marked Xbox’s existence through the last two decades more than anything: the lack of meaningful Japanese support. This is a problem Phil Spencer has admitted to multiple times in the past, and he has spoken of his desire to address it. We’ve seen the problem being “fixed” in the form of major Japanese AAA games also coming to Xbox, but the smaller, more niche Japanese fare? That has continued to skip Xbox, in favor of presumed greener pastures on PlayStation and Nintendo. But the announcement of Yakuza, which, for all its cachet among gamers, remains highly niche in the real world, is a signal that that might be changing too (Kingdom Hearts is just icing on the cake), and seems to indicate that in the future, we may not be all that surprised if a Persona or Dragon Quest game also came to Xbox.
The best part is Microsoft pushing for their inclusion on Game Pass, because that to me demonstrates that they are trying to fix this problem in the long term, rather than just getting brownie points with some late ports here and now. See, the reason Japanese games often skip Xbox is because there is a common belief that there is no audience for them on the console; conversely, the reason there is no audience for them on the console is because there are no Japanese games on Xbox. Chicken and egg problem, right?
So here we are, with some of the best Japanese games on offer (Final Fantasy, Yakuza, Kingdom Hearts), all on Game Pass, which most Xbox owners already subscribe to. Now, the players who may have heard of these games but been wary of trying them out play them, and many maybe like them—enough that in the future, they will want to buy newer games in those series. Microsoft ends up sidestepping the core problem, then, by cultivating an audience on Xbox for Japanese games.
So yes, on all fronts, Microsoft was on fire yesterday. I can’t think of a single bad thing to say right now. Console warriors and brand fans will continue to spew nonsense and garbage, but they’re beyond help anyway. For normal people who are fans of the medium, the fact that Xbox is stepping its game is exciting—a rising tide lifts all boats, after all.