Historically, consoles have lived and died on their exclusive titles.
When the Sega Genesis debuted, it was able to launch itself into competition with the NES thanks in no small part to being the only way to play popular games like Sonic the Hedgehog. The Playstation 2 became the leader of its generation thanks to a catalog of fantastic games that were only available on it. The Nintendo Switch’s portability gimmick wouldn’t have moved any units were it not for fantastic exclusives like Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey. Indeed, much of the success of the original Xbox can be chalked up to launching with Halo: Combat Evolved, an FPS that would define its genre for years. A certain percentage of consumers will buy a console-based solely on brand loyalty or technical specifications, but the majority are mostly interested in the easiest way to play certain games and will buy whatever console gives that to them.
With that in mind, things were looking rather grim for Microsoft in 2019. There are only a handful of titles that can only be played on the Xbox One, and fewer still are worth buying. This small library of exclusives looks tiny when compared to the blockbuster exclusives amassed by Sony (most recently Days Gone and Death Stranding with The Last of Us Part II on the horizon) and downright pitiful when compared to Nintendo’s exclusives (Fire Emblem: 3 Houses, Luigi’s Mansion 3, Super Mario Maker 2, and Pokemon: Sword and Shield among others). A look at the past few Xbox E3 shows is enough to demonstrate the platform’s weakness in this regard, almost none of the games advertised at the high-profile conferences are genuine Xbox exclusives. Instead, they showcase titles that could just as easily be played on the PS4 or PC.
In the past, when faced with such a situation, it would be normal for Microsoft to either outright acquire prominent development houses or at least cut some backroom deals with them to bolster the number exclusives for the Xbox One. Yet, in 2019 we’ve seen the exact opposite happen. Gears 5, the latest entry into the historically Xbox-exclusive Gears of War series, launched not as an Xbox-exclusive but on PC as well. Even Halo, the original Xbox-exclusive (though it should be noted that Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 2 were previously ported to PC) and the source of much of the console’s early success is in the process of being ported to the PC. At present time, only Halo: Reach has been released, but there are plans to bring the rest of the series in chronological order (not the order of release) to PC. The phenomenon is not limited to just the big AAA titles either, as indie games that were backed by Microsoft like Ori and the Blind Forest and Cuphead have been released not only on PC but on the Nintendo Switch as well. In a period where the Xbox is looking weak in terms of its game library, Microsoft seems to be actively giving away its most interesting and attractive titles. In his scathing criticism of the Xbox’s game library, YouTuber VideogameDunkey explains that Xbox has become “the system you get because your friends have Xbox” not the system you get because it has great games.
Pithy as Dunkey’s commentary may be, it paints an unnecessarily bleak picture. The decision to give away their most appealing exclusives was not something that Microsoft undertook in a vacuum. The Xbox One is at the end of its lifespan, indeed 2019 will likely be the last full year for the entire 8th Generation of Consoles. Project Scarlett and Playstation 5 are set to launch next year. The time where non-Xbox fans would buy an Xbox One because of its exclusive games is long past. The only thing that keeping Gears 5 and Halo exclusive to the console would do is prevent interested (but not that interested) PC gamers from buying them. Microsoft correctly realizes that 2019, is hardly the most opportune time to be pushing for hardware sales on a legacy console like the Xbox One. It’s better to rake in what software sales they can and focus on the lineup for the next generation.
That next generation, by the way, is starting to take shape and resemble something more along the lines of the experience already available on the PC. At the end of last year, the Xbox One added Mouse and Keyboard support, and Project Scarlett will feature Mouse and Keyboard support out of the box. This is great news for fans of First Person Shooters and Real-Time Strategy games who have wrestled with game-pad controls that feel at best awkward and at worst downright clunky. Indeed, between support for keyboard/mouse and making the Xbox Game Pass available for PC as well as their console, it seems that Xbox is now actively catering to PC gamers. It makes sense why they would, while many games are available on Mac the vast majority of PC gamers use a windows machine, by trying to compete against PC gaming the Xbox was always, in a sense, competing against themselves. Xbox has spent the better part of the last year blurring the lines between their console and PC gaming, and I doubt they have any reason to stop.
Indeed, I suspect that the xCloud and Project Scarlett will, shortly, blur this divide even further. The xCloud will offer the ability to play any Xbox title on any device with a strong internet connection. Project Scarlett, with its support for keyboard and mouse and lack of any console exclusive titles, will resemble a gaming PC with stripped-down functionality and less customization. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised to see one unified Microsoft store, where a customer could purchase games and then play them on either their Xbox console/PC/phone/tablet (jumping back and forth on the same save file stored in the cloud). As someone with a distinctly PC background and biases, I have to admit that I’m intrigued by the possibilities of such a system.
That’s not to say that everything will go off without a hitch. The xCloud, in particular, seems like a perilous experiment. As the Google Stadia’s rocky launch has shown, creating a video game streaming service is no easy task, even under the best circumstances. High-speed internet is required for streaming even the most basic game, a fact I with my pitiful 30 Mbps connection am particularly aware of. Nor am I alone in this fact, as most Americans outside the urban hubs are accustomed to internet speeds well under 100 Mbps. Even with ridiculously fast internet speeds input delay is all but guaranteed, and graphical quality is certain to be significantly worse than games that have been installed locally. The market for such services always puzzled me as well; who out there is interested in AAA games, is already shelling out for expensive high-speed internet, and doesn’t own a console/PC? At least xCloud seems to be steering clear of the Stadia’s problem of charging a subscription to use the service on-top of the full retail price to play the games themselves. It’s likely that the xCloud will use the same model as the Xbox Game Pass, and charge users a monthly fee to access a library of curated games. I doubt that the technical hurdles of streaming games will be surmounted anytime soon, especially when the hardware to play these games locally is so much more readily accessible than the internet speeds needed to stream them.
In isolation, 2019 seems like a grim year for the Xbox. They have no exclusive games worth mentioning, nor any looming on the horizon. If you don’t already own an Xbox One, I can think of no reason why you should run out and buy one. The changes made to the platform in the past year seemed more aimed at selling software to PC than they do to making the Xbox One more competitive with its rivals at Sony and Nintendo. Yet, all is not so hopeless as some commentators make it out. I suspect that for Microsoft and the Xbox brand, 2019 is a “rebuilding year” where they get themselves ready for 2020 and the 9th generation of consoles. With the Xbox Game Pass, the more PC-like console of the Project Scarlett and the xCloud, Microsoft seems to be positioning itself as a force that straddles the line between PC and console gaming. Success is not guaranteed, but if Xbox can attract attention and support from PC gamers with its new services and technologies, it could tap into a huge potential market. Even if all it does is sell games and Xbox Game Pass subscriptions to PC gamers, it would be a great win.