Sunday, June 17, 2018

Microsoft Directionless at E3

Lost in a sea of thieves.

By Patrick "The Law" Morris

            In 2001 Microsoft came storming into the console market led by Seamus Blackley and immediately became a heavy hitter that could compete with the likes of Nintendo and Sony. What made the first two generations of Xbox so wildly successful with the audience was focus; the first generation of Xbox was designed by a team with PC gaming at the forefront of their minds, a team looking to bring the PC gaming experience to the living room. After succeeding in their maiden voyage in spite of less than stellar sales Microsoft set out to bring the second generation of Xbox to market and just four years later the 360 made its way into homes all over the world. With the 360 again came focus, focus on the games, the experiences, and the players. Microsoft focused on the online experience and for the second generation in a row made a PC level experience previously unavailable on consoles the new normal. Then on that fateful day in May 2013 everything that was the essence of the Xbox began to come unraveled. Gone was the focus on games and players and in its place was a focus on becoming the all in one box for the living room; a focus on being a jack of all trades and a master of none. Now here we are after yet another underwhelming E3 where Sony and Nintendo had both just recently unloaded their clips and Microsoft could land some serious body blows and bring me back to my once treasured relationship with the Xbox brand and instead what happened was the same thing that has happened every year at E3 since the Xbox One was released, they showed me yet again why after two generations of Xbox being my platform of choice I continue to be team blue even if deep down I still feel loyalty to team green. 
            Pre-2001 Microsoft was a computer company that made machines for businesses and had shown no interest in video games or the industry as a whole. It took a dedicated PC game developer with years of experience with both software and hardware to push the idea of developing and mass producing what was essentially a featherweight gaming PC and usher the concept to market. What made Blackley’s concept feasible was the idea that every single console would be the same hardware configuration allowing developers to focus resources into optimizing their games for the specific hardware in the Xbox rather than making their games scalable which in turn allowed games to offer significantly better performance than a PC with similar specs. Additions of components that to that point had been PC specific like a hard drive, high speed modem, and dedicated graphics processing unit began to blur the previously distinct line between PC and consoles. The first-generation Xbox was a console made by PC developers with games being the priority in every decision. The Xbox was designed to play games, everything else took a backseat.
            Wasting no time, the team at Microsoft set forth on developing the second generation of Xbox in early 2003 and once again every decision seems to have been made with the priority of making a PC gaming experience equivalent for the living room. Microsoft had found their niche in the market and kept pushing to pursue that niche with the 360. Retrospectively it seems like such an obvious decision to design the console from the ground up to be centered entirely around the online experience but at the time it was a major gamble, one that paid off in the end. For four years decision making had centered around bringing the Xbox closer to the PC but internet connectivity was an integral part of PC gaming and while it had been available on the Dreamcast, PS2, and Xbox it was only the most dedicated players that had accessed it; Xbox 360 was designed from the start to be used online by everyone and in 2005, an entire year before Nintendo’s or Sony’s offerings, the 360 and Xbox Live made online connectivity a monumental standard in console gaming. Once again Microsoft had developed a console intended to push the industry forward into new uncomfortable spaces all with a focus on games and in doing so changed the landscape of the market, suddenly Microsoft wasn’t the nerdy guy that nobody invited to the party they were a force to be reckoned with and a lackadaisical Sony wound up playing catch up for seven years and the entirety of the seventh generation.
             On May 21st, 2013 fans waited with baited breath to see what Microsoft had in store for them as a follow up to the beloved Xbox 360 as the longest console generation ever that had been elongated by the economic recession in 2008 was officially winding down. What was shown was…disappointing to say the least. The key to Microsoft’s success in the industry, the focus on the games, was almost entirely absent. Instead what was presented was social experiences, TV, all in one entertainment, TV, the power of the cloud, TV, and digital rights management (DRM). From the looks of it Microsoft had scripted the loading of the gun to shoot themselves in the foot into the show. Underwhelming hardware specs necessitated cloud computing and in turn cloud computing necessitated DRM. Players everywhere revolted against the idea of DRM as the benefits were far outweighed by the anti-consumer practices. Loaning your games to a friend was gone. Renting games was gone. Saving by buying used games was gone. Microsoft even ruined movie night by forcing the Kinect to be always on and always connected so they could look into your living room and make sure only the legally allowed number of people were gathered to enjoy. All this in the name of cloud computing so that destruction in Crackdown 3 could be 50% better! Focus was gone and in its place was an Orwellian device straight out of 1984. Within weeks Microsoft had walked back the severity of DRM and Kinect implementation but the damage had already been done, the third generation of Xbox had been poisoned.
            Since the initial launch disaster Microsoft hasn’t done much to stop the bleeding and Sony continues to land blow after blow making it harder every day for Microsoft to right the ship In case it isn’t obvious I want the Xbox One to succeed. Xbox succeeding not only means great games to play on Xbox but it forces Sony and Nintendo to be better. Players all over the world have countless priceless memories that involve an Xbox controller in their hands and I am one of them. 
            Microsoft has plenty of problems and one of them is an E3 problem, for years Microsoft has been completely outclassed at the biggest conference of the year but where the problem became especially evident was this year when Sony had almost nothing new to show; it should have been an easy win for team green. Despite what any industry experts might say exclusives sell consoles and in previous generations Xbox has played the exclusive game quite well. Halo, Fable, Knights of the Old Republic, Amped, and Fusion Frenzy are games that have made the previous Xbox’s consoles to have. Even timed exclusives like Mass Effect, and Bioshock made their names on Xbox and cemented themselves in player’s minds as Xbox games first. Over the past several years Sony has played a long game and executed on it very well showing exclusive titles that are still years away to reassure players that games are coming then working towards those major releases with more information with each E3. 2018 was the year that that momentum started to slow down for Sony and Microsoft could have easily made their move with games that we know are in development like Halo 6, and Forza Horizon 4, games we suspect are in development like playgrounds Fable 4, and Splinter Cell 7, and games that would come as show stopping surprises like Knights of the Old Republic 3, Fusion Frenzy 3, and Skate 4. Sony hit hard and fast and is running out of gas and yet Microsoft continues to run the same play announcing first party development studios but no games to go along with them. All the hardware and developers in the world means nothing if there is no good software to go with it.
            Specifically, Microsoft’s E3 format doesn’t work. Internet forums are constantly abuzz about Xbox One’s biggest problem being a lack of exclusives and Microsoft has clearly taken note. What the executives fail to realize is that simply literally saying the word “exclusive” or “console exclusive” before a trailer for a game that nobody cares about doesn’t solve that problem. The exclusives problem isn’t just an exclusives problem it’s a good exclusives problem, Sony isn’t selling two PS4’s for every Xbox One Microsoft is selling because they have games that aren’t on Xbox they are outselling Xbox because they are making best in class games that can only be played on PS4. Where is Microsoft’s God of War or Horizon Zero Dawn or Uncharted 4? When the best exclusive offering the platform has had in years is a cartoon looking multiplayer pirate game that has been hailed as a really great chat room to hang out with friends in there needs to be major changes at the ground level of the development process. When first hearing the deep voice say “Exclusive” before a game trailer one could be forgiven for thinking it was a cheeky joke by Microsoft poking fun at themselves while portraying the message that they are aware of the problem and they are working on it. When the voice keeps going throughout the entire conference it’s something that will be remembered as a cringey E3 memory and will be laughed at alongside giant crabs and historical accuracy. Now the voice has made an appearance at multiple E3’s and is just evidence that Microsoft definitely does not understand their actual problem. Every year Microsoft shows up with a lackluster lineup of games that demonstrates the out of touch nature of things on the Xbox team. A glossy black stage, the word exclusive, promises of the most powerful console hardware ever, and news of new first party developers are not reasons to buy an Xbox they’re reasons to keep an eye on what Microsoft might say or show in the next several years, but Microsoft isn’t in a position to be asking their playerbase to wait.
            Often times fans go to the internet and present “solutions” that are near impossible to achieve as if they are as simple as a hop skip and a jump, there is no easy road to Microsoft resolving their exclusives problem but getting things headed in that direction could fix their E3 problem overnight. Personally, I had high hopes for Microsoft this year thinking it would be the year that Microsoft convinced me that the Xbox One has arrived but all I learned from the E3 conference is that my Xbox One will continue to collect dust for another year. While the obvious solution to the exclusives problem is as simple as develop triple A titles that people want to play that is much easier said than done and definitely doesn’t happen overnight. But getting these games in development and showing them all in the same conference can happen overnight. 343i has stated that Halo 6 or infinite or whatever it ends up being called is in development, speculation points to Fable 4 being in development, Splinter Cell has been alluded to lately and has always had a home on Xbox so announcing that as an Xbox exclusive would be huge, all of these games being announced all at once would have the potential to over the course of 90 minutes make the Xbox One a must own device.

     With these major exclusive title announcements Microsoft would also need to make some revisions to how their titles are presented, Microsoft needs more, for lack of a better word, showmanship. Any conference ending with a “one last thing” moment is a big deal but when your “one last thing” is predicted by dozens of journalists and hundreds if not thousands of players then it’s not really a surprise in the way that the “one last thing” moment is supposed to be. CD Projekt Red was very forward with saying that they would be at E3 with an RPG that is not in the Witcher universe making it so that only the stupidest people wouldn’t be able to connect the dots to know that CDPR would be at E3 with Cyberpunk 2077. CDPR’s console debut was and still is an Xbox 360 exclusive and all of their Witcher 3 E3 presence was on Microsoft’s stage. These two things combined makes it fairly obvious that if Cyberpunk 2077 would be at E3 (which we were basically told it was) it would be on Microsoft’s stage. When a major game’s presence is telegraphed to that degree it should absolutely not be in the “one last thing” slot. Even if that slot is voice over and a logo teaser for Fable 4 or even the Respawn Star Wars game put something that will leave us surprised and excited in that slot. Not only is Microsoft incapable of handling the presentation of a game E3 2018 demonstrated that Microsoft has little to no respect for their own IP’s. When the first mention of Gears of War is a Funko pop breaking through the gears logo that’s a problem. Gears 5’s debut trailer played second fiddle to a Funko pop. Let that sink in for a minute. If that isn’t a blatant indication that Microsoft is not making their tent pole IP’s and inherently exclusive triple A titles a priority I don’t know what is. Repeatedly at E3 Microsoft has run the same play that gets beat every time and they continue to be bewildered as to why. Microsoft as a whole has lost sight of what made the original Xbox and the 360 great, and their broken record talk of hardware and dev teams has left me uninterested in what they have to offer. 
            The Xbox brand isn’t dead yet and it can definitely be saved but major changes need to be implemented quickly for that to happen. For the most part the old Microsoft that made a great platform by focusing on games and pushed the industry forward and was the first to blur the line between PC’s and consoles is gone. In their place we have a directionless company that can’t make up their minds on who they want to appeal to, the casual crowd with games like Sea of Thieves and State of Decay or their original niche audience. The old Microsoft is still in there somewhere and that is evident through the Xbox One X, those ideas and priorities need to be pushed up to the top if they want to compete with the behemoth that is the PS4. Maybe there are changes that already have gears in motion and I would love to eat crow later, but I can’t remember the last triple A game I bought for my Xbox One. It’s sad to say but I think that the E3 2018 presentation was the last nail in the coffin of the Xbox One and at this point even Microsoft is ready to pronounce it dead and begin preparations for the next generation of Xbox when hopefully they will be able to regain their composure and come out swinging.