The cancellation of Platinum Games’ Xbox One and Windows 10 Exclusive Scalebound at the back end of last year might have come as quite a shock to some fans, to others, it signalled a new low point in the history of the Microsoft-owned brand that strives on a yearly basis to compete with fellow console powerhouse Sony.
History tells us that the Redmond-based giant is far from shy when it comes to summoning the executioner to drop the axe on future projects. You only have to look at the tragic fate of Xbox first-party developer Lionhead Studios, who not only saw its extremely charming Fable series come to a seemingly abrupt and sudden end with the demise of promising multiplayer title Fable Legends, but more so, the closure of the now defunct Microsoft-owned studio in April of last year, putting many respected and veteran developers on the unemployment line.
While it’s clear that Mike Ybarra, Phil Spencer, Aaron Greenberg and company want to dream big when it comes to the future of the Xbox after the introduction of Backwards Compatibility last year, Xbox Play Anywhere, Project Scorpio and recently announced Xbox Game Pass, but despite its best efforts to please, is Microsoft swiftly becoming a punchline in the industry for its failure to deliver big consistently where it matters most?
Whether you’re a fan of Xbox or PlayStation or both, you’d struggle to look past Microsoft’s lack of new and exciting IPs, when compared to Sony’s ever-growing library of new IPs and exclusive games, it’s a worrying sign.
Hideki Kamiya’s Scalebound is further evidence of Microsoft Studios unique ability to take a new and exciting intellectual property and sink it deep beneath the ground long before its potential could be fully realised, wasting a golden opportunity to make a real statement of intent in the process.
Fans were understandably disappointed by the death of a game that showed enough promise about it to rival Sony Interactive Entertainment’s recently published Horizon Zero Dawn following its announcement. Sadly, with its cancellation we’re now all left to wonder what might have been, more to the point, Xbox One owners are left to wonder where the next big exciting Xbox IP might come from.
Having recently completed Guerrilla Games’ expansive open world blockbuster it’s clear that in heroine Aloy, SIE and PS4 owners have a brand new darling to adorn after the departure of Nathan Drake last year.
A strong, independent and smart woman, Aloy’s journey to find herself is much more than a simple young girl to woman coming of age story; the protagonist shines excellently throughout the duration of Horizon Zero Dawn, and despite repetitive feeling fetch quests, the game excelled in so many wonderful ways, leaving the fiery red head as a focal point for the future of PlayStation and its games yet to come.
And the divide didn’t begin with the release of Horizon Zero Dawn. When you break down 2016 it doesn’t take a genius to work out which of the two brands had the more successful year. Not only did Sony introduce the PS4 slim, make its debut in the world of virtual reality with PSVR, it introduced and released the PS4 Pro, a console capable of rendering games in a beautiful 4K resolution via updates, it also released a string of successful titles both returning franchises as well as new and exciting ones.
For the record, Sony released The Last Guardian, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, Ratchet & Clank, No Man’s Sky (console exclusive), Rez Infinite and Street Fighter V (timed exclusive), and has continued that same trend in the early stages of 2017 with the previously mentioned Horizon Zero Dawn, Team Ninja’s NiOh, Platinum Games’ NieR Automata, Gravity Rush 2 and then there’s tomorrow’s release of Persona 5, a JRPG currently garnering huge praise by critics.
On the other side of the spectrum, Microsoft can boast Quantum Break, Gears of War 4, ReCore, Dead Rising 4 (timed exclusive) and Forza Horizon 3 among its exclusives released in 2016. But of its new IPs ReCore didn’t fair so good, currently posting a score of 63 on Metacritic and Remedy Entertainment’s TV Show come action romp Quantum Break hardly set the world alight.
It comes as no surprise then to find the reintroduction of Gears of War franchise and the latest Forza Horizon entry represent the console’s best games of 2016, but these two titles are additional games to already existing IPs, and that’s where a large portion of Microsoft’s problems lie.
It’s not enough to merely push out an endless line of indie titles or regurgitate old franchises each year to keep the money coming in. If players part with £350 of their hard earned money for a top console gaming experience, they probably expect a little more for their money than that, they certainly deserve more than fleeting promises from Phil Spencer on a yearly basis about what could be coming in the future for Xbox. They probably expect some form of originality, something both Xbox’s head and Microsoft have failed to deliver for some time now.
2017 begun much the same way the previous 12 months had ended as 343 Industries and Creative Assembly’s Halo Wars 2 debuted, once again, another returning Microsoft IP, albeit to great response and acclaim. But that’s just it, returning IPs are not Microsoft’s problem. Release Forza, Gears or Crackdown annually or across a 2-year cycle and it will always sell well.
It’s Microsoft’s lack of ambition or the wherewithal to bring in studios and nurture new and exciting IPs that should worry fans and owners of both Xbox One and Xbox One S the most. It’s an area that desperately needs addressing, and it needs addressing in 2017.
The divide between Microsoft and Sony has fast become one that Spencer and fellow Xbox hierarchy will struggle to close unless something drastically changes. Of course, Microsoft has Sea of Thieves. We actually know a fair bit about Rare’s swashbuckling pirate adventure with Insider members having had access to early stages of the game for a while now, not to mention the developer sharing regular videos of its progress. Following that we then have Cuphead and Tacoma, but that’s seemingly where it all ends for Xbox and originality.
The lack of original, fresh AAA IPs heading to the Xbox One is astounding. Without wanting or looking to disrespect a talented studio like Rare or other studios working on the previously mentioned titles, none of the above is or will ever be enough to keep Microsoft’s head above the water, competing with Sony’s steady stream of new exclusives, in all honesty, the list doesn’t even begin to scratch that itch or the surface.
Before the dreaded guillotine ultimately fell on Kamiya and Platinum Games, Scalebound‘s tale of one man and a dragon represented so much more than just an exciting new IP for Xbox owners to sink their teeth into, it represented a new fresh direction for Microsoft, a promise of exciting things to come, without it, the company is left with more glorified indie titles and the release of Crackdown 3 and State of Decay 2, if either make their expected 2017 release window.
There was a time not so long ago when Microsoft once held the bragging rights against Sony, it had exclusivity with big name franchises such as Bioshock and Mass Effect, yet it currently struggles to compete with Sony to secure even timed rights to downloadable content for games, as seen with the recent Resident Evil 7, previous Call of Duty titles, and the recently announced Destiny 2, after the 2014 title shared the same fortune.
In 2012, Microsoft owned more first-party developers than its rival, a lot has changed since then.
In 2016 Andrew House and Sony Interactive Entertainment collectively gleaned after succeeding with another blow to Microsoft; securing Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima’s debut project Death Stranding as a console exclusive for PS4, it can also freely turn to many of its already owned studios, all of which are capable of producing original and exciting content with Naughty Dog, Guerrilla Games, Media Molecule, Supermassive Games, Polyphony Digital, Santa Monica Studios and Sucker Punch all under the Sony umbrella.
On the flipside, while Microsoft does own its fair share of first-party developers including 343 Industries (Halo Wars) and Turn 10 (Forza), the company simply can’t reach the same level of originality as Sony, and unless something changes soon Microsoft might find more of its long time customers moving across to the Japanese giant for something more than an annual release of say a Forza Motorsport 7 or Gears of War 5.
It’s time for Microsoft to take a stand, it must address this issue before the gap becomes so big, a divide that’s fast becoming so insurmountable, that closing it will soon become an impossible and thankless task. On top of what it already has at its disposal, Microsoft needs to acquire new bright and talented studios, to ultimately develop and produce new, fresh and original content that will keep Xbox owners excited for year’s to come.
The current state of play is not a pretty one, it doesn’t make great reading for Microsoft. To coin a phrase that often gets bandied about, there is no “console war“, it simply doesn’t exist as far as producing high-quality content is concerned at least. Sony has expanded its gap on its rivals to such a large extent, and it has done so without so much as even a fight from Microsoft.
In Project Scorpio, Microsoft will have the most powerful console on the market, but will it have the games to prompt players into parting with what potentially could be a hefty sum for a mid-cycle console? Sure it will undoubtedly have Halo 6 to fall back on, the possible inclusion of a VR headset to compete with Sony in the virtual reality department also, but will it still have a large enough fanbase by the time any of this comes to fruition for any of that to even matter?