by Goran Damnjanovic, Gaming Columnist
Published in Gaming on 2nd August, 2018
Okay first, a word of explanation. We as gamers should love games no matter on which system they are available on. PC, Xbox, PlayStation, The Switch, it doesn't matter. Fanboyism is not a trait of true video game fans and, if your finances allow, you should get every console if there are enough quality titles on it. Gaming bias should be avoided by all means and after we cleared that, let us start.
Microsoft nailed it with Xbox 360, part because of their own competence part because Sony thought they could do whatever they like after PS2 became the best-selling console of all times. While at the end both consoles shipped around 80 million units Microsoft practically won because the company closed the huge gap of the past generation when PlayStation 2 managed to sell in more than 150 million units while the Xbox sold in measly (compared to PS2) 25 million units. Not bad for a first Microsoft's console ever but pretty poor when observed in the context of console wars. In just one generation Microsoft did wonders going from a 600 percent gap in sales to a complete parity, which truly is an amazing triumph. But then, history repeated itself and tables had turned again.
Microsoft rested on their laurels and forgot they had to work very hard in order to disrupt the market and become as successful as PlayStation. Instead of trying to appease fans even more, to offer even better package with Xbox One the company served its fans one mess after another. First, there was the infamous "always online" policy that infuriated practically everyone, especially after the #dealwithit incident. After that one Microsoft outdid themselves by announcing the console will block used games, another painful stake that hit right into hearts of most gamers. Then Don Mattrick stated that "If you're backwards compatible, you're really backwards," during his interview with WSJ. And let's not forget mandatory Kinect integration along with privacy issues tied with using a microphone and camera-equipped device that's always on. It all came to a terrific crescendo during the console's official announcement in May 2013, when Microsoft made Xbox One look like a multimedia device instead of a gaming console.
The E3 presentation did nothing to regain fans even though Phil Spencer (who will become head of Xbox a year later) tried to put out the fire by announcing cool new exclusives and focusing on games instead of multimedia features gamers did not care about. And then Sony took a hammer and simply smashed Xbox's head by announcing their system won't require always online connection, that it will support used games - a feature every single console before supported but that was all of a sudden a major feature because of Microsoft's shortsightedness - and, most importantly, by announcing $100 lower price, something that cemented the PS4 as a better choice than the Xbox One. And from then on the Xbox One entered a free-fall that never stopped till today.
Phil Spencer did everything to improve Microsoft's console position on the market by removing all those user-unfriendly decisions of his predecessor like removing always online stuff, putting games on the first, second, and third place, and saying goodbye to Kinect. But mistakes made even before the console debuted were so profound they acted like cement slippers keeping Xbox One on the ocean floor where the console slowly suffocated. Today, the console did manage to improve its position a bit but sales estimates put it well below the PS4. One report published in May 2018 cited EA's Blake Jorgensen, who said that EA estimates installation base of around 103 million current gen consoles at the end of 2017. Since the PS4 sold by then in 73,6 million units that leaves about 29 million Xbox One units sold (Microsoft stopped sharing Xbox sales numbers in 2015), which means PS4 outsold Xbox One by more than 2 to 1 which is a huge fall compared to the days of Xbox 360. Microsoft refuted those claims couple of days later but a report from HIS Markit published in June 2018, showed that PS4 sold in 76.6 million units while Xbox One stayed at 39.1 by the end of March 2018. While a bit better than the last report from EA, this one also shows just how much market Microsoft lost compared to glory days of Xbox 360.
The damage is done and Xbox clearly lost this war. Xbox One and PS4 will be here for a couple of more years and it is already clear Sony can claim victory. Weak decisions made before launch, horrendous console exclusives policy, inferior performance (of the original Xbox One) combined with high price, and the general inferiority of multiplatform games have left their mark and made Xbox One a clear loser of the war. But decisions made after Phil Spencer sat at the Xbox helm along with some predictions regarding next generation of consoles could make the next-gen console from Microsoft a winner of the next-gen console war. If they play their cards right, Phil and the gang could finally achieve the ultimate goal - outselling PlayStation. Let's see just how the future Xbox (whatever the console will be called) could top the PS5.
This one made masses to hate Xbox One but ultimately it was Microsoft who brought previous gen games to the current gen hardware. As of the time of this writing there are almost 500 Xbox 360 games we can play on the Xbox One, and some of them are enhanced for the Xbox One X allowing them to look crystal clear and render in 4K resolution making some of them look so good some could even mistake them for this gen titles. Games like Red Dead Redemption and Burnout Paradise are the best examples, two games that look and play like they are from 2017. On the other side the PS4 does not come with backwards compatibility support (it technically does offer something similar with PlayStation Now, but the service costs $20 a month and offer subpar streaming quality along with a massive input lag) and while this may not be extremely important today, the omission of this option will hurt the PS5 badly.
You see, Microsoft is already pretty experienced at porting last gen games, and the number of past gen titles will surely close to 1,000 by 2020 when we expect the next gen consoles will arrive. This will mean that the next Xbox will be able to run Xbox 360 games, which is great. It also means that the console will probably be able to run every single Xbox One game. Yup, you read it correctly. You see, Microsoft decided to test their proficiency with making X360 games playable on the Xbox One, and those games were made for a console that utilized completely different hardware. X360 was powered by IBM's PowerPC CPU, while the current console runs on an x86-based CPU. If Microsoft managed to port so many games from X360 the company surely has plans to allow every single Xbox One game to run on the future console because the next-gen device will be based on the same CPU architecture. In fact, the PS5 will be powered by AMD's Zen CPU along with Navi GPU and there's no reason Microsoft won't pick the same parts. Couple that with an OS that will also be based on Windows 10 and you got yourself a platform that will play last-gen games with ease.
Sure, Sony could also create backwards compatibility program of their own but Microsoft will have years of headstart by then and if the next Xbox comes with full support for Xbox One games that will definitely be a game changer. You see, you won't have to wait for the console to get a decent game library, you can buy it on launch and play Xbox One game while waiting for new titles. Backwards compatibility is a great feature to have and if Microsoft manages to achieve complete compatibility with Xbox One games, that alone could make the future Xbox way more popular than the PS5 from the start.
Phil Spencer announced at this year's E3 that Microsoft works on new Xbox consoles. Yes, there will be more than one and that also could help Microsoft in getting an edge in early sales numbers. If they decide to offer gamers something similar to a base Xbox One and the more powerful Xbox One X for enthusiasts, with the first one coming with an affordable price they will sell loads of new consoles. Instead of putting all your eggs in one (pretty expensive) basket like they did with the Xbox One, Microsoft will offer something for everyone. An affordable Xbox for casual gamers and top of the line machine for those who must play in 4K. But it gets better.
As you probably have heard, game streaming is the hot gaming topic of 2018. Everyone talks about it but delivering a quality video game streaming service is harder than it looks. Firstly, the company who wants to accomplish that has to have lots of resources they are willing to throw at R&D. Then, they have to have lots of servers scattered all around the world in order to overcome the infamous input lag, the biggest problem of current (and past) game streaming services. You have PlayStation Now but input lag is so high it prevents most people from playing anything faster than adventure games. Finally, you need to have lots of capable programmers and hardware experts who will make the service as optimized as possible in order to make the service available for people who don't have great internet (meaning most of the US). And Microsoft has all of the needed ingredients. They have lots of money, their Azure servers can be found in lots of countries around the world and the company has tons of programmers and hardware experts.
So, if Microsoft offers an extremely cheap Xbox device without lots of power but capable of streaming games at decent quality and with small input lag, it could unlock doors of millions of gamers who don't want to pay hundreds of dollars for a console but do want to play some next-gen games. If the company offers three tiers of devices - one extremely cheap, streaming device, one relatively inexpensive capable of running games at 1080p, and one top notch with a high price but 4K capabilities, Microsoft will have a perfect next-gen lineup and high chances of topping Sony right from the start.
Streaming business always comes with a subscription plan and the Xbox Game Pass is just that, albeit in a bit more different form at the moment. Instead of offering streamable games Xbox Game Pass gives subscribers a chance to download and play more than 100 titles for just $10 per month. Overall, the offer is outstanding and much better than Sony's PlayStation Now, a streaming service (that comes with all the usual downsides like input lag and subpar video quality) that offers PS games and costs $20 a month. Overall, Xbox Game Pass is a massively better offer and Microsoft surely has a plan for expanding the service to streaming space in the future.
All future Xbox One exclusives should be playable day one on the Xbox Game Pass making the service extremely valuable for hardcore gamers and those who spend their money on getting AAA exclusives on day one or preordering them. For the price of 2 AAA games, you get a yearlong access to an excellent library of games which regularly expands and which won't disappear all of a sudden because we are sure Microsoft introduced Game Pass as a sort of a test for the next generation business model. And once the next Xbox comes out you can be sure Game Pass will offer both Xbox One and next-gen games for the system, making the offer even better. This will make the decision to switch to the Xbox easier for PS4 owners because for just $10 a month they will be able to play lots of quality last gen games along with a solid library of exclusives not available on the PlayStation, and with the combination with backwards compatibility new owners will have a ton of games to play right at the console launch.
Xbox Game Pass already is much more popular than the PlayStation Now and once streaming becomes a thing the company will have a huge library of streamable games (that will surely include most backward compatible X360 titles) for a sweet price of $10 per month, two times cheaper than what the competition offers.
During this years' E3 conference Phil Spencer, among other things, announced Microsoft's acquisition of four game developer studios. Playground Games (Forza Horizon series), Ninja Theory (Hellblade), Undead Labs (State of Decay series), Compulsion Games (We Happy Few) are now first party Xbox developer studios. Add to that a newly Microsoft founded studio The Initiative and you got a healthy base of developers ready to give birth to lots of quality first party exclusives for the next-gen Xbox console. It seems Microsoft realized they really missed the mark when it comes to exclusives for the Xbox One and it's good to see the company is serious in bringing their first party exclusives for the next generation.
Sony simply dominates when talking about first party (and second and third party) exclusives during this console generation, which is one of the main reasons of why the PS4 is so ahead of the Xbox One. Much better exclusives combined with lower price and better performance with most multiplatform games made the PlayStation 4 considerably better deal for most people. But, Microsoft will definitely up the ante when it comes to exclusives for the next console generation and while the company probably won't beat Sony or Nintendo, they will try to match them. Considering the sad state of first-party Xbox One exclusives anything will be better than what we have now.
Xbox Play Anywhere is a great thing that allows people who buy a game on the Xbox One or PC play the game on the other system. One purchase allowing games to be played on two systems is great by itself but the fact that every future Xbox exclusive will also be released for PC is even better. This gives gamers a sort of flexibility when deciding on which platform they want to play certain games. Shooters like Gears of War are clearly better on PC while racing games like Forza play much better on the Xbox One and now they don't have to worry about which system they bought the game for.
Sure, this could mean that someone could get a PlayStation and skip Xbox One because they can play all of the exclusives on their PC but Microsoft's Xbox brand is overarching both Xbox the console and Windows 10 PCs. And since Xbox Play Anywhere titles can be played exclusively on Windows 10 PCs it's a win-win situation for Microsoft. They earn money from selling games and from selling their operating system. They get new members of the Xbox community and spread their brand to people who wouldn't play Xbox games if they weren't available on PC. And some people will surely get an Xbox if they like games because, as we said, some types of games are much better when experienced on a console.
Microsoft ignored PC for a long time when it comes to gaming, forgetting they could spread their Xbox brand to PC gamers. But now their interest in PC gaming is rising with each passing year which can only be a positive thing. Because software, not hardware is what brings profit and if Microsoft can build a big Xbox community on PC they could earn lots of money once game streaming becomes viable because you can bet the company will push hard for Xbox game streaming on PC.
And this last one is a longshot but if it happens it will give Microsoft a huge advantage the day next get consoles debut. As you probably know the Xbox One X is a great device. For just $500 you get an immensely powerful gaming console capable of running lots of games in native 4K with gorgeous visuals. You simply cannot build a PC with the same power for $500, making the Xbox One X a great deal for those who want superb 4K visuals but don't want to spend about $1,000 (or probably more) in order to build a 4K capable PC.
And since the console is so powerful for current gen games we have to wonder would it be powerful enough to run next-gen games, at least in 1080p resolution? Well, the console features pretty powerful 8-core Jaguar CPU @1.8GHz that, even if being much meeker in terms of raw power than AMD Ryzen CPUs that will be used in next-gen consoles, could still probably run next-gen games at 1080p or maybe 900p and 30 frames per second because its GPU is pretty powerful and Phil Spencer mentioned the next-gen consoles will focus on providing better frame rates without such a high leap in terms of image quality like it was between X360 and Xbox One.
If that's true the Xbox One X could indeed become a sort of cross-gen hardware capable of running both current and next-gen games. And while this isn't highly probable it could happen. If it happens Microsoft will have a base next-gen console with a solid install base even before their true next get console comes out. While negatives are there and plenty the sole possibility of gaining massively positive feedback from fans and the fact they could have millions of next-gen boxes even before next gen starts knocking on our door could lead Microsoft in trying to make the Xbox One X next-gen capable.