Outsold and Unloved in 2014, How Can the Xbox One Fight Back?
Microsoft's machine was soundly thrashed by Sony's PS4 in 2014, so what can it do this year to claw itself back into the game?
Late last year, while I was still deputy editor at Official Xbox Magazine, Microsoft rounded out one of its Xbox sizzle reels with a quote from Rocky Balboa. The key line: "It's not about how hard you can hit – it's about how hard you can get hit and keep on coming."
Nice bit of self-referentiality there, right? It's almost as though they're talking about the Xbox One's dismal showing against Sony's PlayStation 4, which has outsold it by millions of units thanks to a lower launch price, sturdier graphics capabilities and an unconflicted marketing focus on video games, rather than vaunted "broad entertainment" features.
Is Rocky himself the right point of comparison, though? He's the quintessential underdog, whereas Microsoft's recent activities place it closer to Apollo Creed – the international champ who sets up a match with the Italian Stallion as a PR stunt, only to get bowled over in the first round. Still, let's not forget that, in terms of points, Creed eventually won the fight, and while it may have squandered the advantage built up during Xbox 360's heyday, Microsoft isn't out for the count in this one yet.
From an official mag writer's perspective, the most annoying thing about the Xbox One's initial, catastrophic emphasis on "TV, TV, TV" and Kinect was that nobody paid much attention to Microsoft's accompanying billion dollar binge on new games. The console was swiftly and unfairly dismissed by enthusiast crusaders as a glorified multimedia box, particularly in light of its weaker RAM.
Nowadays that's harder to do. Xbox One has had a great second winter, thanks in part to aggressive price-cutting, but also to an unequalled (if not quite vintage) line-up of first-party exclusives, with Sunset Overdrive and Forza Horizon 2 perhaps deserving of top gongs. This year's slate already looks pretty robust, with more announcements to occur at June's E3 in Los Angeles. There's a new Halo, a new Forza and a new Fable on the way, and Microsoft's engineers continue to shave away at the power gap, eating into processing time hitherto reserved for Kinect to secure decent resolutions for the Xbox One versions of multi-platform titles. It's unlikely that the console's games will ever trounce PS4 in the visual stakes, but if the latest multi-plats are any indication, the differences will be negligible from this point on.
It's a shame that Kinect has been put so thoroughly out to pasture after all the blood and sweat poured into its reinvention, but there should be at least one major pay-off – a second lease of life for the legendary Rare Ltd. Once known for such franchises as Mario alternative Banjo-Kazooie and Viva Piñata, where you force cardboard animals to have sex, the elderly UK studio has spent the past six years cranking out Kinect Sports titles. In the process, key designers and coders have departed, and much of Rare's old wit and charm has been lost.
Something tells me that all of that will change in 2015. Perhaps it was all those studied allusions to sealed-off areas during the Kinect Sports Rivals studio tour last year. Perhaps it's this tweet from the studio's composer, which smells like a Banjo announcement in the offing (try playing those notes aloud), or this tweet from Head of Xbox Phil Spencer about a "uniquely Rare" game.
2015 may see the return of Banjo-Kazooie, originally a hit for the N64 in 1998
Once executive vice-president of Microsoft Studios under Don "backwards compatibility is backwards" Mattrick, Spencer is the man credited with turning Xbox One's public image around. An approachable manner aside, he has done this by working out what Xbox old-timers want and proceeding, by and large, to not fuck them about. So if he's talking up Rare at this stage, I'm minded to get excited. In what seems more than a coincidence, Microsoft has announced plans to overhaul Rare's old Xbox 360 Avatar system on the One, as part of ongoing UI improvements that will doubtless include the long-awaited screenshot feature.
I'm also minded to get all hot and bothered about former Epic man Rod Fergusson's reign at Black Tusk Studios, the super-developer Microsoft has assembled from veterans of franchises like Crysis, Call of Duty, Need for Speed and Splinter Cell. Once the incubation chamber for a brand new mega-IP, Black Tusk is now in charge of the Gears of War series following Microsoft's acquisition of the rights from Epic. With old gearhead Fergusson on hand to steer the ship, this has the potential to be quite the comeback for the franchise, providing they don't do anything thick like fill it to the brim with microtransactions.
In light of the success (online problems aside) of 343's Halo reboots, I'd put money on the unveiling of a remastered original trilogy for Xbox One at E3 this year – the idea being to test the new team's legs and lock down the supporting technology, before Black Tusk embarks on a proper sequel. Assuming I'm right about that, it's unlikely that the remastered trilogy will arrive this winter, given that Microsoft only picked up the IP in January of 2014 – but it will create momentum for the console in the run-up to Christmas.
Other major exclusives lined up for Xbox One in 2015 range from the tantalising to the nebulous. Fable is the wobbliest of the lot, though I love what I've played of it – as a multiplayer-centric affair that has more in common with Left 4 Dead than previous single player outings, it's hardly a love letter to Fable diehards, and may be dismissed by laymen as just another stab at reinventing Middle-earth. Remedy's time-bending terror Quantum Break has a similar problem – sequences in which you crawl around the innards of a flash-frozen explosion promise to drop jaws, but your thumbs will probably still think they're playing a garden-variety cover shooter with slow-mo and platforming bits.
I'd like Halo 5: Guardians to blow the doors off sales projections, having played and loved the beta, but something tells me that it'll be a strong but unremarkable seller. Were it not for Titanfall, Destiny and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, the game's jet-powered movement upgrades might have caused a stir, but as it is the response has been merely positive (and punctuated by the odd full-blooded denunciation). Microsoft has yet to reveal much of the single player or story, mind you: there's talk of an open world, which would be quite the change of pace and might help the game see off the winter's traditional assortment of ultra-linear bangfests.
Still, will it be a system seller? Glancing across Xbox One's 2015 offering, the console does seem somewhat at a loss for a killer app at present (as, in fairness, does PS4). Some of the most attractive exclusives or timed exclusives are smaller indie or "indie-styled" releases, the kind of games people supposedly don't buy hardware for – chief among them Capybara's Below (Dark Souls meets Zelda), Ori and the Blind Forest (gorgeous fairy-tale platformer in which a large sad bear starves to death) and Playdead's Inside (like LIMBO, but seemingly set in a Victorian meat factory).
Perhaps a decent third-party deal will help with that. Microsoft's existing Call of Duty and FIFA partnerships are dependable, but they aren't exhilarating, and nabbing a window of exclusivity for this year's Tomb Raider sequel may not amount to much in the face of Sony's fearsome Uncharted 4: A Thief's End. Ditto the timed exclusive DLC and functionality for Evolve, another game I'm utterly in love with, but one that's targeting a niche – after the mighty Titanfall's underwhelming sales, the odds of a multiplayer-driven sci-fi shooter setting records in early February seem slim.
Tom Clancy's The Division, on the other hand, could do serious numbers. It's another lushly appointed open world extravaganza from Ubisoft, the publisher that has come closest to stealing Rockstar's crown; the gunplay marries Splinter Cell's open-air buffet of gadgets to party RPG tactics; and its quest to reclaim New York from a plague compares favourably to Destiny's tussle over extra-terrestrial salvage rights. Microsoft has already snaffled some timed exclusive early DLC for The Division, and if the manufacturer is able to own the game's publicity cycle as thoroughly as Sony did Destiny's, the fallout will be dramatic. A timed exclusive beta this summer ahead of a probable winter release would do wonders for holiday 2015 Xbox One sales, no doubt.
There are even bigger fish to fry, however. We know next to nothing about DICE's Star Wars: Battlefront right now, save that it contains Stormtroopers, landspeeders, Hoth and Endor, but even if the developer opts to re-skin Battlefield 4 with combustible Ewoks, the result will be 2015's best-selling game. Without question. Not even DICE's disastrous track record for launch day bugs can dispel the lure of a Luke Skywalker simulator running on Frostbite technology, in which B-wings dance around Imperial Walkers as deftly as helicopters circling a skyscraper in Battlefield.
If I were Phil Spencer, I'd be throwing banknotes at EA – a company with which Microsoft already enjoys a close rapport – to bring some element of Battlefront to Xbox One exclusively. That's providing there's any cash left in the money hat after the acquisition of Minecraft and Mojang, a huge move whose ramifications obviously extend far beyond Xbox. The franchise still earns hundreds of millions of dollars a year, and as over-exposed as the game itself is, there's plenty of room to grow. Simply updating the console or mobile versions to match the current PC build will generate momentum, and the potential for spin-offs is vast. Think of a Travellers' Tales LEGO game with Minecraft in it, for example, or MC Steve in Disney Infinity.
And think, too, of a fully 3D holographic Minecraft world – brought to life by Microsoft's just-announced HoloLens headset, which projects computer graphics onto real-life objects and allows you to manipulate them using your voice and hands. You might be wondering why I've left the hottest Microsoft news of the month until last, especially given that Minecraft features so prominently in the device's reveal trailer.
The answer is that its impact on Xbox One is hard to gauge. The device won't be on sale anytime soon, for starters, and its capabilities are largely untested: a few hands-ons with prototypes aside, all we've to go on right now are promises and some predictably ecstatic concept videos. It's also doubtful that Microsoft sees HoloLens as a means of propping up Xbox One's sales – this is, the manufacturer has declared, the future of media consumption and computing across the board, with gaming applications merely a part of the package.
Another leap in technology to ponder is the ability to stream Xbox One games to Windows 10 PCs and tablets, available once the new operating system hits shelves. It's a neat addition – Ryse: Son of Rome on the toilet, anyone? But it'll only work across local Wi-Fi networks, which is disappointing given the PS4's ability to output gameplay over the internet to a PS Vita.
There's no magic sales bullet on the way for the Xbox One hardware itself, then, which means that it'll fall once again to the games to make a case for ownership. Thankfully, the console has built up a nice head of steam in this regard. If there's an upside to all those "Xbox 180s", it's this – the traditional role of the Xbox as a delivery mechanism for the likes of Halo rather than House of Cards has been firmly reasserted after years of slack-jawed industry mooning at TV and film. Microsoft seems to have taken the lessons of Xbox One's launch to heart. And as Rocky would say: "It ain't over 'til it's over."