Let’s get right to the point; the Xbox brand is not doing well. It’s a somewhat dramatic statement, but you simply can’t ignore it. No, it’s not that the brand is being discontinued, but even the most hardcore Xbox fans are hugely disappointed, perhaps even furious. Where this disappointment and anger comes from cannot be explained in one sentence. So I’ll just do it this way:
Last week, the long-awaited Redfall was released, developed by Arcane Studios (known for DeathLoop and Dishonored, among others). When happy Xbox gamers finally plugged the game into their console, they were completely shocked. First, the numerous bugs and crashes made it immediately obvious that the game was far from finished, but had apparently been given the green light by Microsoft to be released. Second, Redfall is simply not fun to play, and it doesn’t help that the game would have looked bad even if it had been released ten years ago.
Now it can happen that a game comes out that can’t live up to expectations, and lately there have been many games coming out anyway that turn out to be unfinished. But for Xbox fans, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and releasing an exclusive game in poor condition has long since ceased to be an incident for Microsoft. Then at an Xbox podcast by Kinda Funny Games, the head of the Xbox division, Phil Spencer, came out deadpan to tell us that it more or less doesn’t matter if they make good games at Microsoft. That’s when the hearts of many Xbox gamers broke, including mine.
To the top!
To understand why my heart finally broke, I cannot escape delving into the history of Xbox. At Microsoft, they were eager to gain some space in living rooms, having already triumphed in the computer room with their PCs and Windows. Sony, meanwhile, had already started their second console and it was all running pretty successfully. Microsoft released their first console, Xbox, and turned a loss on every console they sold. That cost a lot of money, but Microsoft is now very rich and they wanted to be successful in the living room at all costs.
The first Xbox may have been an ugly console, but it had many great exclusive titles, such as Project Gotham Racing, Panzer Dragoon Orta, Rallysport Challange, Grabbed by the Ghoulies, Splinter Cell, Jade Emprie, Ninja Gaiden, Knights of the Old Republic, Chronicles of Riddick, Top Spin, Links 2003, Fable and, of course, Halo. At the time, it was also the console with the most power and the whole device was a must-have for multiplayer gamers. In the end, the first Xbox left a fine impression, but sold far fewer consoles than the PlayStation 2, also because it came to market many times later that generation.
To make sure they were first to market with the next generation of consoles, they dropped the first Xbox after only four years to introduce the Xbox 360 as soon as possible. A decision that every Xbox fan seemed to understand, and fair is fair, it was also a great device. Tubs of exclusive titles came out, including Project Gotham Racing 3, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Mass Effect, Forza Motorsport 2, Viva Pinata, Gears of War, Ninja Gaiden 2 and finally reaching the absolute top during Halo 3.
At the time Halo 3 came out, the Xbox 360 was in many times better shape than Sony’s PlayStation 3, everyone wanted online gaming on Xbox Live. In addition, multiplatform games ran better on the 360, the console was also much cheaper. It seemed that Microsoft had managed to take over from Sony fairly quickly when it came to living room space, the Xbox brand had never been stronger before!
Xbox’s free fall
Xbox was doing very well, but then came the fall. At Microsoft, they looked at Nintendo, who had won over a new target group of ‘gamers’ with their Wii: older people. They wanted to appeal to that target group as well, so the focus went from gamers to ‘gamers’. And so the Kinect, a camera on legs that allowed you to play games with your body. At first glance it seemed like a great device, also because they showed a demo of features that later turned out not to be part of the Kinect’s capabilities at all. It was supposedly even going to replace the controller, because yes, the motion of throwing a grenade is of course many times more efficient and faster than a single button press.
Suddenly no new IPs were being developed outside of the Kinect, studios were closing and no one in the company was stopping it. At Sony they were aware of the backlog and there the focus went to making quality games, such as the Uncharted series, Little Big Planet, God of War, The Last of Us and Gran Turismo. Partly because of this, Sony’s PlayStation 3 still finished above Xbox 360, although the “red ring of death,” in which many consoles had to be repaired due to an error in console production, also played a role. Still, it was notable that the 360 was never as popular after 2008, and Microsoft really let that slip out of their hands.
Unfortunately, the people who had made these decisions were still working in key positions at Microsoft when it came to getting the Xbox brand ready for a new generation of consoles. We all know by now that they then made very many mistakes with the Xbox One, from design (much less powerful than the competitor, mandatory Kinect, Always Online), to focus (watching TV instead of games) and price (a hundred euros more expensive than the much more powerful PS4).
The hoped-for resurgence
Now many more people are responsible for a company’s decisions, but Don Mattrick was the leader at the time and the problems eventually cost him his head, figuratively speaking. Phil Spencer, who had long been involved with PC and Xbox games, took over and immediately made changes. The Kinect was scrapped, the console became cheaper, GamePass was announced and investment in new studios and games was once again made. In the meantime, Microsoft has acquired and created more than 20 studios and Spencer seems to have won back the goodwill of the gamer. At Xbox and Microsoft, they seemed quite ready for the generation we have now been in for almost three years.
Now Spencer has been in power at Xbox for ten years, and while we cannot deny that he has had a very positive impact on the brand, he has so far failed to improve the biggest problem of the last decade: the lack of quality, exclusive games. Since Microsoft went down the wrong path in 2009, we have been anything but spoiled when it comes to Xbox games. ‘Xbox has no games’ is a meme that has been heard for nearly 15 years now, and Microsoft itself has stated each time in recent years that they want to release a top exclusive game at least every quarter.
With the announcement of Microsoft’s newest consoles, the Xbox Series S and X, Microsoft seemed to come back rock hard. This is how HellBlade 2 was shown in December of 2019 and not long after that, games like Everwild, Fable, Perfect Dark and Forza Motorsport were announced as well as Halo Infinite, was released after a year’s delay. The acquisition of Bethesda Studios also saw the release of Starfield announced as an Xbox exclusive.
Where are those games?
It’s been almost four years since HellBlade 2 was announced, but since then we’ve seen a little bit of it two years ago, but otherwise there’s little to tell about the progress of that project. At the images of Everwild, we all briefly said “wow,” but after the screening, it was reported deadpan that they just didn’t know what kind of game it was going to be yet. Since then, we haven’t seen anything about it at all, and the question is also whether we will ever encounter the game in playable form.
Forza Motorsport appears to be coming out this year, after being delayed once before. Fable and Perfect Dark have reportedly gone back to the drawing board and are not going to be released or shown at a recent event for the time being. Other than that, some smaller games did come out, including, for example Pentiment, Grounded and Psychonauts 2. The latter, by the way, also came out on PlayStation 4/5. Frankly, these were quite enjoyable games, but not games with which to attract new audiences to your ecosystem. Outsiders in this case are the Forza Horizon series, which seems to get better with each installment, and Microsoft Flight Simulator.
For me, the treatment of Halo remains the greatest tragedy in Xbox history. In the ten years since Phil Spencer took over, the once beloved franchise has been systematically mistreated. Now the problems began as early as Halo 4 on the 360, but under Spencer’s reign not a single Halo game has been released in complete condition. The first project was Halo: The Master Chief Collection, a collection of Halo 1 through 4, including all the maps for multiplayer. A great idea, but the product is almost been unplayable for four years. It still remains absolutely outrageous that that game was released in that state, only to do nothing about it for three years.
At Halo 5 there were also many problems, including the lack of content, which Halo Reach once included from day 1. At 343i and Microsoft, they don’t seem to understand that you can never maintain a high player count if the game is already offered while it is unfinished. If your game lacks features that everyone expects to be included from the beginning and then starts adding those features only after a year, gamers have long since left for other games. Of course something like that can happen, but then you have to learn from your mistakes, it’s Halo!
Unfortunately, they really learned nothing at all from their mistakes, because after 6 years of development, Halo Infinite was finally released, delayed for a year and still released in an unfinished state. Features like a co-op campaign, Forge, ray tracing, couch co-op and simply maps were either scrapped or added months/years later. The joke is even, that the game was so poorly developed that the creators themselves only made new maps with Forge, because the engine itself is too difficult to work with. Six years were spent working on the game and it is expected to switch to the Unreal Engine as soon as possible to make a new multiplayer only Halo. All the years 343i put into their own engine appear to have been a waste of time and money. The gameplay is fine, but due to various problems with the engine, the content is still extremely sparse after almost three years.
Redfall and Starfield
Xbox gamers have been waiting so long for a stream of good games from Microsoft, after all, it has been promised several times that it is coming. Despite the fact that many gamers were looking forward to Redfall, there wasn’t really much hype surrounding the game and that has to do with the fact that we simply haven’t seen much gameplay of it. Last week the game finally came out and the result was seen as the absolute low point in terms of quality Xbox games. Redfall is plagued by many bugs, ugly graphics, uninteresting gameplay and more importantly, the game feels like it is not finished yet. This is starting to become a recurring “phenomenon.
Starfield was delayed at the same time as Redfall, and after its release last week, it’s hard to have much faith in Bethesda’s open-world space game. Also because similar games like Fallout 4 and Fallout 76 appeared to be in terrible shape upon release. Another such baby carriage release as Redfall in a very short time, a bad release of Starfield will leave a very sour aftertaste with Xbox fans. Then we would rather have the game delayed yet again, but at Microsoft they think they will benefit by releasing Starfield, no matter what, so there is some new gaming to do on GamePass. Of course, I hope my concerns with Starfield prove unfounded upon release, but I hold my heart.
Phil Spencer after release Redfall
Phil Spencer was a guest on an Xbox podcast of Kinda Funny Games and raised a lot of eyebrows. He seemed irritated and came across as a little less relaxed than usual. He stated that Xbox is not a market leader and that you won’t turn that around with good games anytime soon, because everyone is already locked into an ecosystem. That’s quite a bold statement, because in the last decade we’ve barely seen any good games and I believe Microsoft really had a chance to at least rectify this again. But then again, if you don’t release anything qualitative, there’s no way to know if you can get any closer. Besides, the pace at the competition has also been faster before, yet they manage to release well-polished games at Nintendo and Sony.
Indeed, there was a positive vibe surrounding Xbox in the period between announcement and release of Xbox Series S/X, but that positivity is completely gone. The console has yet to receive an exclusive topper, what has been announced just doesn’t seem to be coming and what has come is of very questionable quality or not even finished. Phil Spencer’s comments have given a lot of loyal Xbox fans quite a slap in the face. Or could it be that Spencer said this with the case surrounding the Activision/Blizzard/King purchase in mind, since there has been an idea at the British CMA that Xbox is getting too big on cloud gaming. It cannot be ruled out, but that does not change the lousy quality of games.
In the end, what is the real problem?
Around the release of Halo Infinite, there were stories going around that 343i was not handing out permanent contracts and, as a result, employees could only work on the game for a maximum of a year and a half. Then they were replaced by new employees, again without permanent contracts. As a result, they had to be reintegrated into the company and you don’t do that in a day or two (or twenty). This way, the employees have little feeling with the product and when they finally got used to it, their contract already expired. Meanwhile, there was a lot of pressure from Microsoft to meet deadlines and all together resulted in an unpleasant atmosphere on the shop floor.
Meanwhile, many heads rolled at 343i, something that should have happened as early as after Halo 4, Halo: The Master Chief Collection or Halo 5: Guardians, but more than half of the employees at the developer ended up being laid off. It’s not clear if that includes people whose contracts expired, but especially at the top of 343i, many people had to suffer, including Frankie O’Connor and Bonnie Ross. The developer itself will remain, but will be filled out differently. Further, it is not yet entirely clear if all of these people will be replaced, but rumors would suggest that the studio is mostly getting smaller and that the focus will be completely on multiplayer.
When this news came out, the main focus was on the structure within the developer, but it is unclear whether this took place only at 343i or if this is a typical Xbox Studios thingy. So if this is largely the modus operandi of all Xbox Studios, then the lack of a steady stream of quality games does not come out of the blue. In that case, Spencer, as head of Xbox and Xbox Studios, has himself been directly responsible for these abuses all along, and so that is exactly the fear of many Xbox fans. Like Halo, Microsoft has really had plenty of opportunities to cement their place in the console market, but every time it comes down to it, the company fails immensely.
Right now Spencer is even exuding that they have little ambition at Xbox and that they have given up faith in making good games, and that is so alive among the fans. Whether they can ever fix this I don’t know, because it already took such a long time to build a little goodwill over the past ten years. For much of those ten years it seemed that they at least intended to put the gamer first, but it seems like they have “given up. They may never become market leaders again, but at least exude that you do strive to eventually do persuade gamers to purchase an Xbox.
Whichever way you look at it; Microsoft and Xbox Studios just can’t seem to manage to release games that ooze quality, while their competitors have released some pretty good exclusive titles in recent years. It’s hard to say exactly why, but everything seems to point to poor management and an inability to learn from mistakes. And that’s coming from one of the biggest Xbox fans in the Benelux!
Extra: So who am I?
I was once a SEGA fan, but when the Japanese company stopped making consoles, I actually rolled pretty automatically into the world of Xbox. Since then, I have talked many friends, their friends and family members into an Xbox and am now known to them as “The Xbox Guru,” despite the fact that I love to game on ALL platforms.
Now, they don’t follow all the news stories surrounding games as intensively as I do, but subconsciously the situation has now become clear even there. For example, at the beginning of the current generation, my Halo buddy suddenly asked out of the blue ‘shouldn’t we go for PlayStation this generation, since I think they have better games?‘. Min Xbox heart immediately broke…