Saying Microsoft has heavily invested in expanding their gaming platform for the next generation would be an understatement - here's why it will pay off
Thanks to a litany of messaging mistakes and a rather lacking schedule of exclusives, Microsoft's Xbox One platform fell short of their rival's successes in the current generation and saw them fall from the top console spot they had secured back in the Xbox 360 days.
That isn't to say that the Xbox family of consoles has failed - in fact, Microsoft has scored consistent profits from its gaming division since the afforementioned 360's time - but compared to Sony's PS4, their hardware sales fell far short of their rival's and the general view amongst gamers is that PlayStation "won" this console generation.
Though team Xbox has done extremely well over the last few years in advancing console gaming and more than made up for their slightly less powerful base console by blowing past the PS4 Pro with their Xbox One X mid-gen upgrade, Microsoft still couldn't dig themselves out of the proverbial hole they found themselves in.
With the next console generation however, the game is completely changing.
While Sony has rested on their laurels and has set themselves up for a rather standard next-gen offering, team Xbox has been busy unleashing the full power of the mega corporation that is Microsoft, investing heavily in the long game and reshaping the videogaming landscape as a whole in the process.
It may sound early to declare a "victor" in the console wars given that the fresh consoles haven't even arrived yet, but Microsoft has set themselves up for victory in every way possible - and it's the gamers that will reap the rewards.
The Netflix of Gaming
Before the next console generation dominated the discussion of gamers everywhere, Microsoft was seeking to change the future of gaming as we know it.
Meet Xbox Game Pass - a monthly subscription service offering tons of games for one low price.
The concept was simple; take Netflix's massively successful subscription model and replace the movies and TV shows with videogames.
Of course Sony had already launched their own subscription service several years prior and had some small success with it and had focused (like Netflix) on streaming.
PlayStation Now was Sony's version of Netflix for gaming, with plenty of old and classic titles being available (many of them being PS3, PSP, or older titles given that PS4 does not feature backward compatability, thus making it the only way to play many of those games without an older device) to stream to their consoles for what used to be $20 a month.
The service did work as advertised, but was hampered by a variety of issues: the streaming worked well for most titles so long as you had a decent internet connection (more recently they implemented the ability to download the games fully instead); the games were often very old with extremely few recent releases; and the subscription pricing was quite steep especially given the lack of newer titles.
With Game Pass, Microsoft sought to address every issue that plagued Sony's service - games would be downloaded and available to play offline without the negatives associated with streaming, a wide variety of games from all genres would regularly be added to the service, discounts would be available for DLC (and the games themselves if gamers wanted to secure a permanent copy in case the game was removed from the service or they cancelled their subscription) for all games featured on the service, and the monthly fee was half of what Sony charged for their arguably inferior product.
The value was immediately apparent for gamers that like to experience a variety of games, but over time it has evolved into something else entirely.
In 2018, Microsoft showed their dedication to the platform by announcing that all first-party games published by Microsoft would be coming to Game Pass (at no extra cost) the same day they hit store shelves.
The move was rather shocking to gamers and the media alike - while Netflix for instance made waves years ago by releasing big-budget original movies on the service either mere weeks after a theatrical outing or foregoing theater releases entirely, when comparing the costs for consumers between a movie ticket or a digital rental and purchasing a videogame there's a massive disconnect.
While a movie ticket may fetch around $10 and digital rentals start as low as $5 with digital or DVD/Blu Ray purchases at around $20-$30, purchasing a newly released major videogame costs $60 US and for a AAA title this rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars for publishers. For a first-party publisher like Microsoft to release all of their upcoming games on a subscription platform that costs just $10 a month? It seemed too good to be true.
Microsoft however has kept their promise and then some, offering up their biggest titles such as Gears 5, Forza Horizon 4 (the greatest racing game ever made), and State of Decay 2 at no extra charge for subscribers, with all of their first-party studio games staying on the service permanently with no risk of being shuffled out of rotation at a later date.
It was a move that has continued to show Microsoft's dedication to the platform and is one that sets them apart from their competition - Sony has continued to remark that such a practice is "unsustainable" and thus they would not be following Microsoft's lead.
Though Sony's outlook may be correct in the short term, in the long run such a strategy has proven to be sustainable for other services - it just takes a lot of capital and the dedication to stick with the investment for the long haul, something that a company such as Microsoft can easily afford while Sony simply cannot. For a quick financial comparison of the two companies, Microsoft's profit for the last fiscal year was more than Sony's entire market cap.
That short term gamble has already paid off for the software giant as they recently announced a whopping 15 million people are actively subscribed to Game Pass.
And although one would assume that having a game on the service would cost titles potential sales, Microsoft and many developers have stated that it in fact has done the opposite - for many titles that arrive on Game Pass, their sales have increased (particularly in regards to additional DLC) hinting that the exposure that comes with Game Pass and possibly the amount of players that want to keep the game permanently or simply want to support the developer directly after finding a game they like outweigh any lost sales.
Though Microsoft is obviously paying publishers to put some of their bigger releases on the service (particularly titles such as GTA and Red Dead Redemption II), the potential to boost sales for a game that has already past their launch window sales and increase DLC purchases makes it no surprise that so many big games have come to the service.
For first-party games, not only has Game Pass obviously seen increases in subscriptions surrounding their releases, but Microsoft has continued to pull in great sales numbers for their titles, including the highest sales in Forza Horizon's history with the fourth installment despite it being available in full on Game Pass the day it released.
Now the one drawback to Microsoft's plans has been that for the last generation, while Xbox has released consistently great and well-rated titles (for the most part at least, we'll just ignore the perpetually delayed Crackdown 3) from its first-party studios, it has underwhelmed with its rather sparse release schedule.
Fans consistently argue over which console sports the best exclusives when in reality it entirely depends on which genres you're focusing on - for shooters and racing games, Xbox is the console of choice thanks to the likes of Forza, Halo, and Gears, while PlayStation dominates in terms of third-person action games and JRPG's thanks to the likes of God of War, Uncharted, Horizon Zero Dawn, Bloodbourne, and Nioh amongst others.
The problem Xbox has faced this generation was actually getting their titles out the door - while PlayStation's deep studio roster has kept them consistently churning out quality games, Microsoft's AAA offerings have come far less frequently.
Luckily, Microsoft has more than addressed this issue and has been steadily buying up talented studios over the last few years.
Outside of a few multi-platform releases that were already in development when Microsoft purchased them (but were still added to Game Pass on their release date) such as the excellent The Outer Worlds, fans haven't yet gotten to see the benefits of Microsoft's acquisitions given modern AAA titles take upwards of 2-3 years to develop, but that's all set to change in the near future.
In addition to plenty of unknown games being deep in development from their new studios, some of the first wave of fresh Microsoft exclusives on the horizon include Ninja Theory's Hellblade 2, DoubleFine's Psychonauts 2, and Obsidian's Avowed. And then there are the major Xbox franchises set to hit the market in the near future, including the delayed Halo Infinite, the next Forza, and the eagerly anticipated reboot of Fable.
But first-party titles aren't the only fare to grace the service; in addition to a wide array of titles from smaller studios (many of which are added to the service upon the game's launch rather than months later), Microsoft has regularly added AAA third-party games to the Game Pass library, sometimes just a few months after their initial releases, with Red Dead Redemption 2, Devil May Cry 5, Rage 2, Dishonored 2, and Doom being just a few of the notable Game Pass third-party hits.
In addition to the already impressive lineup, Microsoft has partnered with EA to include their own gaming service, EA Play, at no extra charge for Game Pass Ultimate subscribers starting November 10 (the same day the new consoles arrive).
EA Play allows users to download and play dozens of EA's previous games as much as they want from the "Vault" (games are usually added to the service 6-12 months after release), while subscribers also get to play a 10-hour trial of all new EA releases with those trials typically going live a week before the game is released. Subscribers also get a 10% discount on all of EA's titles (and any DLC) in the Xbox digital store, similar to Game Pass' 10-20% discounts on Game Pass titles and DLC.
The service typically costs $5 a month or $30 annually on its own and bolsters Microsoft's already substantial service library.
Adding Some BFGs (Big Fucking Games)
The Xbox family of games was already set to rapidly expand over the next few years, but just a few weeks ago Microsoft made an announcement that completely changed the game.
If you have any interest whatsoever in gaming, you've undoubedtly heard of Microsoft's massive acquisition of ZeniMax Media, more commonly known by the name of their main publishing subsidiary, Bethesda Softworks.
The $7.5 billion buyout is one of the most significant acquisitions in gaming history and one of the biggest third-party publishers in the world is now under the Microsoft umbrella, with all of its famous development studios coming along with it.
Those studios include the likes of id Software (Doom, Quake, Rage), Arkane Studios (Dishonored and Prey), Bethesda Game Studios (Fallout and The Elder Scrolls), MachineGames (Wolfenstein), and Tango Gameworks (The Evil Within).
Nabbing all of those studios and making every one of their upcoming (and some of their already released work, such as the superb Doom Eternal) available on Game Pass as soon as they're released is an incredible addition to Xbox's killer app, but it's the possibility of making all future installments in franchises as massive as Doom and Fallout console exclusives that turns Microsoft's first-party stable of games from competitive to downright unfair.
There has been much debate amongst gamers about whether Microsoft would make all of Bethesda's upcoming games Xbox exclusives, as after all, that drastically cuts the potential user base for each game, but in the long run (something Microsoft is clearly focused on) it would pay dividends.
Having games like Doom, Dishonored, The Elder Scrolls, and Fallout as Xbox exclusives would devastate their rival Sony and would assuredly result in surges of Xbox console sales. And of course, the exclusivity would only apply to consoles - as Microsoft has already shown in the current generation, they are dedicated to PC gaming and would still release the titles on PC just like they do with virtually all of their first-party games for the last several years.
Given the Windows ecosystem and its grip on the software market, Microsoft are perfectly happy with gamers purchasing and playing their games whether they be on an Xbox or their PC, which of course takes away a lot of the sting of their new first-party studios losing out on their PlayStation install bases. This is a major and overlooked part of the reason why Microsoft is still raking in as much money as Sony from its gaming division despite being far behind in hardware sales.
It would make little sense for Microsoft to make such a massive acquisition without making their upcoming titles exclusives even if it meant less sales from that specific game directly - the additional money they'd make in hardware and subscriptions would likely offset those costs and in the long run surpass them. Making them exclusive would also enable Microsoft to dwarf their competition's stable of first-party releases and make Game Pass an even more incredible deal.
The general rule that has been established in recent years is that PlayStation is the home for third-person action/adventure epics and RPGs while Xbox is the king of shooters and racing games - with all of Xbox's recent acquisitions, the Xbox is poised to dominate plenty more genres in terms of first-party releases.
Xbox's shooter arsenal will of course be mightily bolstered by the likes of Doom and Wolfenstein, but it's now set to have a virtual monopoly on western RPGs to go along with it - with titles such as Fallout and The Elder Scrolls from Bethesda as well as The Outer Worlds and Fallout: New Vegas developer Obsidian under their banner, not to mention the highly anticipated reboot of Fable, virtually every major western RPG franchise (besides The Witcher which is multi-platform) will now be exclusive to the Xbox - and even better, all available with a single subscription service.
Their hand in the horror genre (which has mostly all been multi-platform in the past) is also greatly expanding with the addition of Tango Gameworks as well as next year's Scorn and next month's highly intriguing The Medium.
With Bethesda and all of its studios now under the Microsoft banner and all of the acquisitions they've made in the past couple of years, Xbox now has a whopping 23 first-party developers (many of which are large enough to be working on more than one title at once) compared to Sony's 16.
Xbox boss Phil Spencer recently remarked the goal in the future is to have a major first-party game release every month or so on Game Pass, and with such an impressive roster that dream may become a reality sooner than people think.
But Microsoft isn't stopping there. If there's a corner of the gaming market for the taking, you can rest assured that Microsoft is hard at work implementing plans to take it over, which brings us to streaming games - while other new players such as Google have entered the market to offer full game streaming to try and revolutionize the way gamers access games, Microsoft is leaving them in the dust with Project xCloud.
The Power of the Cloud
Streaming games has always been a rather niche market - after all, if you're going to play games on a capable PC or console, it makes little sense to stream the game and deal with potential lag, dropped connections, dips in performance, and data caps when you can simply install the game on your system and eliminate any such issues (including problems related to ownership of digital goods through a subscription service).
That hasn't stopped major players from entering the market in an attempt to push this "future of gaming" onto players, such as software giant Google with their Stadia program, but the appeal amongst gamers is very limited as shown by the dismal reaction and adoption of virtually every game streaming service out there. With how cheap one can get a console, the ability to play AAA titles without getting a console or capable PC and instead purchasing a subscription to be able to stream the same games but with added risks is also rather limited.
Mobile gaming meanwhile has become an utterly massive market, but the quality of mobile games is nowhere close to their console or PC counterparts, which is no surprise given the inherent limitiations of playing on a phone or tablet.
Of course peripherals exist that attach to mobile devices to give players a proper controller while playing games on their device to make up for the extremely limited usefulness of touch controls for many games, but those games are still limited by the hardware they're played on.
With Project xCloud however, mobile gaming is turning into what handhelds such as the Nintendo Gameboy and PlayStation Portable have always dreamt of - offering the full console experience in the palm of your hands.
What Microsoft are effectively doing is taking full, unadulterated console/PC games and streaming them directly to mobile devices so that gamers can play them in full on their phones or tablets, looking just like their console counterparts (though the resolution and quality of your phone screen also factors in of course). All that's required (for most games at least, some of the simpler arcade-style games do have touch controls available) is an Xbox controller and clip to hold your phone or tablet (or a different Android controller/holder peripheral).
Even less powerful phones appear to handle the streaming well thanks to the fact that the cloud is doing all the heavy lifting, and really the only hurdles for those that want to use the service are their devices display (obviously if you have a tiny phone screen or it has poor resolution the games aren't going to look great) and having a stable internet connection.
As for pricing, that's even better - Game Pass subscribers can play xCloud compatible games directly from the Game Pass app available on Android devices (it will likely reach iOS devices in the future but no word yet on when).
With xCloud still in a beta phase, more and more of Game Pass' library is being added to its streamable options every week, and the results are rather impressive. With a decent internet connection, games stream remarkably well on your phone without noticeable delays or lag. Of course serious gamers aren't likely to want to play competitive multiplayer games via a streaming service, but that isn't what xCloud is made for.
Given that the service is available at no extra charge, it's something cool to check out for any Game Pass owners and for anyone that regularly travels, it's a steal.
Unlike Microsoft's previous streaming efforts (which streamed games from an Xbox console to another device) it has much broader appeal given that those without a console or even a PC can use the service and the costs are minimal (provided they already have a smartphone and good data plan, which most people already have nowadays).
Speaking of barriers for entry, Microsoft has brought a very intelligent approach to their new line of Xbox consoles.
While Sony has likewise opted for a two-tier approach to their next-gen fare, with both versions being virtually identical other than the digital version coming without a disc drive (meaning owners will only be able to purchase and download games through Sony's store or by buying digital codes for the store from other retailers, and lose access to a 4K blu-ray player), Microsoft's two tiers are catered toward much different markets.
The Series X, much like the Xbox One X that came before it, is aimed at gamers that want the top-of-the-line console experience.
The black box is a genuine powerhouse and while the PlayStation 5 is competitive, there is no way to look at the two new console's specs without seeing that the Series X has a rather significant edge in power (analysis from Digital Foundry pegs the Series X as approximately 17% more powerful than the PS5) and even comes with 175GB more storage space.
And then there's Microsoft's specialty, the software.
While the PS5 features backward compatability for almost all of its PS4 library, the new Xboxes boast full compatability for every Xbox One game along with any older titles (either the original Xbox or Xbox 360) that work on the Xbox One. Select titles on both consoles will get updates for players on the new system to boost their performance and looks, but here's where the Xbox proves it's superiority - every single game is upscaled to native 4K (or 1440p on the Series X) and enhanced to improve performance without any updates or developer work required.
From all of the media members who have gotten their hands on the new consoles the performance boost given to old titles is rather impressive and gives team Xbox a clear edge over its rival - not to mention the fact that all peripherals for the Xbox One, whether it be a controller, headset, or anything else you may use, will also work with the Series S or X.
Microsoft is also touting a robust instant-resume feature as well that's similar to the previous generation's quick resume features, but allows for up to six games to be stopped, switched to and resumed virtually instantaneously, even if the power cord was unplugged (a handy feature of solid state drives).
And then there's Microsoft's claims of improved compression and reduction in the size of game installs which they claim reduces the install sizes of games on the new consoles by as much as 20%.
Given that the Series X is at the exact same price point as the premium PS5, the gamers that are looking for the best performance available (without having the roughly $2000 or more to drop on a PC with similar capabilities as either console) have a very easy choice to make as to which Xbox is preferred, while PlayStation fans will have to decide if getting rid of the disc drive and relying entirely on the digital storefront is really worth the $100 difference in price.
For their budget option, Microsoft has likewise gotten rid of the disc-drive, but have also made a series of other reductions to greatly reduce the cost for consumers.
With a slightly less powerful CPU than its beefier brother (yet it's still more powerful than the PS5's), a 500GB SSD instead of 1TB, and a less powerful graphics unit, the Series S is meant for gamers that don't have a fancy 4K TV or are otherwise looking for a cheaper way to get a next-gen experience without breaking the bank.
The Series S is designed specifically for a smooth experience without requiring the extensive resources of 4K - for those with a 1080p TV, there likely won't be a huge difference in the way games will look whether they have a Series X or S, and the console will still be just as fast given its SSD and similar CPU.
Though some may grow concerned about the smaller storage space, Xbox's smart delivery system comes in to save the day - rather than having to install all of those beefy 4K assets, Series S owners will have significantly smaller install sizes as the console installs only what is needed for 1080p (or 1440p if their TV/monitor supports it) gaming.
All of those reductions result in a console that's just $300 US, or $120 cheaper than the cheapest PS5. For casual gamers or those that don't have the money for a 4K display, the Series S is an incredible deal, while more serious gamers have access to the most powerful console ever built if they want to spring for the full experience.
And then of course there's how it looks - the Xbox Series X may look like a small subwoofer, but it can fit in virtually any home theatre setup without sticking out like a sore thumb. The Series S meanwhile is extremely small and likewise can go with pretty much any entertainment centre without being an eyesore. The PS5? Not so much.
Not only does it look like an obnoxious gaming router from a decade ago, the PS5 is also certifiably massive - the Series X may defy traditional console sizes by being so wide to maximize airflow (leading to many people joking that it looks like a fridge), the PS5 on the other hand is a hulking monstrosity.
Not only will it dominate your entertainment centre simply due to its sheer size, but it's gaudy design draws even more attention to the oddly shaped heap of plastic.
If you're on the fence about which console to go with and aren't persuaded by raw power, you might want to check out videos showing just how comically large and ugly the PS5 in practice and not viewed with no surroundings for reference.
In another smart play Microsoft has also come out with monthly payment options for those that may not be able to save up enough to enjoy a new console normally.
Dubbed Xbox All Access, this new program allows customers to get a new Xbox Series S or X with no upfront costs nor interest payments on a 2-year subscription service that includes Xbox Game Pass Ultimate for the duration of the plan (Ultimate includes Game Pass, Xbox Live Gold which is required for multiplayer and also includes access to deals and freebies, and now EA Play as well) starting at just $25 a month US ($30 CAD).
Considering Ultimate alone costs $15 a month, that's a sweet deal for those that don't have the cash laying around to buy a console outright, or gamers that may have chosen to purchase a Series S given their budget but can now afford to upgrade to the premium console.
For Canadian gamers Microsoft has further shown its committment to fan-friendly business decisions by eating some of the dollar conversion - while the Series S costs roughly the US amount converted ($380) in Canada, the Series X costs nearly $70 less than what it should with the current conversion rate at just $599.99. Sony has similarly eaten some of the conversion for Canadians, but remains the most expensive option at $629.99 for the premium version, meaning Canadians can grab the demonstrably more powerful console for 30 bucks less than its competition.
As if all of this good news for gamers wasn't enough, Xbox gamers have already reaped the rewards of the Microsoft Rewards program for the last few years and with all of the new additions and features provided with Game Pass, the program adds incredible value for gamers at no extra cost.
Similar to many loyalty programs, Microsoft Rewards gives members points when they purchase products or services through the Microsoft store or the Xbox digital store, but Microsoft doesn't stop there - simply logging in to the members area and clicking a few links each day earns more, and using the Bing search engine either on a computer or mobile device also quickly adds points to your account.
Installing the Rewards app on your console will easily earn you more points, with daily and weekly "quests" netting you points for accomplishing simple tasks such as earning a few achievements in any game or looking at featured games in the store.
Game Pass adds even more ways to earn, with tons of daily, weekly, and monthly quests available (and easily accessed via the Game Pass mobile app) for playing Game Pass games, trying out new titles, earning achievements, or just using the Game Pass app.
It's remarkably easy to earn points (many of which you'll get naturally if you play any Game Pass titles) and those points can be used to purchase gift cards to a variety of stores, Xbox/Microsoft store credit, or even make donations to a variety of organizations. The best value however is undoubtedly in getting additional months of Game Pass - if you play games regularly and take a few minutes every day to earn points, you can easily earn enough to redeem free months of Game Pass Ultimate to the point that you may never have to pay for the service again. If the best service in gaming wasn't already an amazing deal, Microsoft Rewards makes it an absolute steal.
With all of their services firing on all cylinders and offering incredible value to gamers, Microsoft has turned itself into the most fan-friendly and value-packed place for gaming.
The Ultimate Delay
No, we aren't talking about Cyberpunk 2077 being delayed for the umpteenth time - the bigger delay (in terms of what it will cost its publisher) is by far Halo Infinite.
With Xbox firing on all cylinders and poised for a massive hardware launch, Microsoft had bet big on delivering not only an amazing next-gen suite of services and features, but also on a massive release shipping with their shiny new consoles, reminescent of the original black box that launched 19 years ago alongside a little game called Halo.
In fact, much of the promotional material (including the back of the console box itself) is focused on Halo Infinite, the ambitious new entry in the hit franchise from 343 Industries that is bringing the beloved shooter to an expansive open-world space - but after a rather lukewarm response to their E3 gameplay reveal and what can only be described as mismanagement by the developer, Microsoft was forced to delay their biggest franchise until sometime next year.
The delay is no doubt the best choice for fans of the series; as much as it may be disappointing, it's better to wait for a game to be completed and appropriately polished than to get an unfinished, buggy mess instead.
Though the gameplay shown earlier this year looked like a step in the right direction and the new title still appears promising, there's no denying that it didn't exactly look like the visual leap forward gamers were expecting on such powerful hardware, with many of the textures being rather poor and some rather jarring pop-in being present that simply shouldn't be happening with the power of the Series X at their disposal.
If the showing had been a year ago it would have been perfectly fine - but such a state less than 6 months out from release was cause for great concern, and it soon became clear that the project (which 343 Industries has been working on for the past 5 years) was not where it was supposed to be.
The excuses posited by some of the higher-ups at the developer however indicated mismanagement was a clear culprit, with the studio farming out various sub-systems to other developers and claiming it caused issues while others cited COVID-19 being a major factor, which simply fails to hold up to scrutiny when you compare it to plenty of other developers out there that have managed to complete their games during this "pandemic".
Though Microsoft has opted to speak as little about the delay as possible to avoid it being the focus of its new console launch, the company no doubt realizes how much 343's failure has cost them coming out of the gate in the next round of the "console wars". 343 Industries may be a very talented development studio, but they clearly need some restructuring and management changes given their history (some of which we've already seen following the announcement that Infinite was getting delayed).
In the meantime however Microsoft is left without a new, major first-party title for the release of the Series S and X - instead, they've had to settle for upgrades and free content additions to some of their biggest Xbox One releases in recent years such as Gears 5, Forza Horizon 4, and Sea of Thieves alongside non-exclusive third-party games and last-gen upgrades along with a few niche titles such as Gears Tactics and The Falconeer.
Luckily for team Xbox, their competition isn't exactly killing it with their launch lineup, though they do have a few more actual next-gen titles rather than upgraded recent releases. The PS5's "big" releases include Spider-Man: Miles Morales, a spinoff of the great PS4 exclusive Spider-Man game that is essentially a standalone expansion turned into a budget launch title (though it will undoubtedly be good given the base game was and its developed by Insomniac), and a remake of Demon's Souls.
Of course the massive library of Xbox One (or older) games available day one all with enhanced playback and visuals makes up for some of the sting, but it's undeniably disappointing that the next generation is starting out with no true "next-generation" gaming experiences - if 343 hadn't dropped the ball, the Xbox's launch may have truly been something special.
Though the next console generation may not come roaring out of the gates, Xbox's services and long term prospects are undeniably impressive and have Microsoft poised to take over the future of gaming - and it's the gamers who will be reaping the rewards.