It’s an undeniable fact that Microsoft are losing this generation. According to SuperData, by the end of 2016 the Xbox One had sold roughly 26 million units worldwide. Meanwhile, the PlayStation 4 has managed well over double that, with a staggering 60 million units sold. In an effort to salvage what they can of this generation, Microsoft are releasing the Xbox One X in September, a true 4K-capable machine of power so far unseen amongst consoles and a significant hardware upgrade over the standard model. However, I don’t think this is the approach that they should be taking, and to understand why we have to look back at what went wrong in the first place.
The earliest blunder from the company came in the form of the unmitigated catastrophe that was their E3 2013 conference. A follow-up to the independent announcement conference earlier in the year, Microsoft execs strode onto the stage like dodgy double-glazing salesmen trying to con an old lady out of her money, speaking confidently about all of the ill-advised changes they intended to implement that would, as everyone else could plainly see, make the console worse rather than better. Discussion of features such as a 1984-esque ability to spy on you in your own home with an always-on Kinect camera, a requirement to ‘check in’ with an internet connection every time you started up the console, and a much-parodied overuse of the word ‘TV’ in an event advertising a videogame console rubbed a great many fans up the wrong way. Things were made even worse when PlayStation showed up later that very same day, having had the chance to change their script in light of the failings made by Microsoft, and completely blew them out of the water. Sony had an absolute field day; even the announcement that they wouldn’t place any limits on second-hand sales (as their competitors had announced they intended to do) was met with rapturous applause. While Microsoft eventually retracted these ludicrous design choices, the damage had arguably already been done, and I’m fairly certain that this absolutely impacted the sales of their console.
Perhaps most importantly of all though, Microsoft has failed to support the console with many hard-hitting console exclusives. The highlight at launch was intended to be Ryse: Son of Rome, a game which turned out to be unanimously deemed lacklustre by critics, who said it was far too short, with gameplay that was filled with unsatisfying QTEs. Since then, Xbox One owners have received a couple of Dead Risings (the most recent of which has received a fairly lukewarm response) a new Halo and the divisive Quantum Break. The first Titanfall was a fair success, selling at least 10 million copies and being well-liked by fans despite an apparent lack of content, but even this has an unfortunate twist, as Microsoft lost exclusivity for the multiplatform sequel. Rise of the Tomb Raider also only had timed exclusivity (a good thing too, as re-releasing it on PS4 at least gave Square Enix a chance to get some of their money back – although we don’t know if the publisher even managed to break even.)
Now, call me biased all you like, but I think it’s a pretty fair, objective truth that none of these titles have managed to even scratch the surface of the heights reached by PS4 exclusives such as Uncharted 4, Horizon Zero Dawn and The Last Guardian in quality. The fact of the matter is that consoles – in this time of publishers more often than not opting to go multiplatform, in the hopes of making a profit when games can cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make – need a lineup of strong exclusives in order to differentiate themselves. It has been proven that even a single massive, quality exclusive can sell a console. Just look at the stunning success of the Switch just this year, a console with very little support so far from third parties that millions have already bought into purely on the strength of Breath of the Wild in some cases, and the promise of more amazing exclusives to come for others. Most early-adopters are also fully aware that the system will receive very little third-party support too, at least for a while, yet they are still buying into the system in droves.
It’s true that the PS4 Pro has been a success for Sony. One in five PS4 consoles currently out in the wild are reportedly Pros which, while certainly a high proportion, would not be a very significant help if Sony were in the same position as Microsoft. The tech giant will have invested a lot of money and resources into making Project Scorpio into what it is, and production costs will only inflate the expenses even further. While nobody could possibly deny that it is a very attractive and admirable product as a piece of technology, it all feels very much like an ill-advised last-ditch effort. I can’t help but think their money would be better spent on improving their existing studios, maybe even setting up some new ones, to get some new IPs off the ground and produce more of what Xbox fans really want – games. And no matter how powerful the console is, it still feels premature when very few people will see any noticeable improvement in visual quality. Yes, the argument can be made that overall performance will be greatly upgraded too, but how many console players (a demographic that cares far more about affordability and practicality, unlike the PC crowd) will really care about such things when their current machines are still more than adequate?
I would just like to highlight that none of this means I don’t want Microsoft to succeed. The best thing for the gaming industry is competition, and so I would absolutely love to be proven wrong in this case. I might well be, too – I’m not an analyst or a business expert, after all. Whatever happens, though, Microsoft will be just fine: Bill Gates doesn’t have anything to worry about just yet.