Xbox Doesn't Need More Power, It Needs More Exclusive Games

Xbox Doesn't Need More Power, It Needs More Exclusive Games

Glixel

The Scorpio may be the center of attention at E3, but it isn't the solution to Microsoft's challenges with Xbox

The Scorpio may be the center of attention at E3, but it isn't the solution to Microsoft's challenges with Xbox

More than any other year in recent memory, the three big console platform holders have bigger and more disparate challenges to address during E3. Constantly threatened by more and more players turning to their PCs and smartphones for habit-forming games like Overwatch, Playerunknown's Battlegrounds, Hearthstone, and Clash Royale, the job of convincing people why they need a particular console is harder than ever. This year, Nintendo must demonstrate that the Switch will be more than just a passing fad, Sony has to show how it will hold onto its significant lead, and Microsoft has arguably the toughest job of all: showing how it will reinvigorate the Xbox, play catch up to Sony's 60 million console sales, and present a strong, convincing vision for what makes it special.

Microsoft has stopped reporting numbers of Xboxes sold, but estimates put it at a little over 30 million for the global installed base of the Xbox One. Numbers provided by SuperData Research indicate that it had sold approximately 26 million consoles as of January. Recently, Microsoft announced that there are now 52 million monthly active users on the service, up 13 percent year over year, but that's a misleading number as it's not an accurate reflection of paying subscribers. It's also not clear how many of that number are people that have only played something like Microsoft Solitaire that uses Live on Windows 10, or players still using it on Xbox 360.

The obvious news about Xbox at E3 is that we'll finally see the super-powerful Scorpio console in its final form, with a real name – likely Xbox Elite – and a confirmed price point. We already know that the Scorpio is a big bump in power over the Xbox One – comparable to a mid-range gaming PC built around a $200+ graphics card like the Nvidia GTX 1060.

A box like that sounds like a PC that would be the $500-$600 range, so we'd be very surprised if the announcement comes in at anything less than $499. At that price, it's fairly clear that this is firmly intended as a prestige box, even more than Sony's beefed-up PlayStation Pro. Sony Interactive Entertainment America president Shawn Layden told us that the redesigned $299 "slim" PlayStation 4 is still the "workhorse" of the PlayStation range – at $399 the Pro represents 20 percent of new PS4 sales, and of those, 40 percent are people upgrading from an existing PlayStation 4. It's not really growing the PlayStation base – it's giving the super-dedicated a moderately sexier box, and a relatively small number of others the peace of mind that they bought something slightly more future-proof.

The Scorpio's real job is to be a brand-amplifying "halo" product. It's the Ford GT supercar to the humble Fiesta hatchback

If Scorpio is even more expensive than the PlayStation 4 Pro and follows a similar pattern, it's clearly not the solution to Microsoft's Xbox problem.

Hardware power is frankly the least of the Xbox's problems, and Scorpio being "the most powerful console ever" isn't enough of a reason on its own to really make a difference. The Xbox One S is already a great piece of hardware that's more than capable – ultimately, that's the box that Microsoft needs to move more units of. The Scorpio's real job is to be a brand-amplifying "halo" product. It's the Ford GT supercar to the humble Fiesta hatchback, designed to make the whole brand seem hotter.

Microsoft's best possible strategy next week is an overwhelming show of force on the games front, and to continue to demonstrate that it really understands what drives modern gamers.

On that latter point, it's certainly on the right track. The recent purchase of interactive live streaming platform Beam – just rebranded as Mixer – shows that it gets the significance of streaming, and a willingness to try and change the way broadcasting is baked into Windows and Xbox-native games. The recent $10 a month "Netflix-for-games"-style Xbox One Game Pass is a progressive concept that shows Microsoft has a stronger grip on how people consume media these days than anyone typically gives them credit for. Its current library of 100 games is a mixed bag, but just like Netflix before it, the selection will no doubt improve in the months ahead. The Xbox and Windows "Play Anywhere" initiative (where you buy a game for one and get to play it on both) is great in theory, but in practice is just taking too long to happen. In the year since the program was unveiled, we've only seen 12 games that take advantage of it – and only eight more are confirmed this year. The earliest batch was a mixed bag – great exclusives like Gears of War 4 and Forza Horizon 3 were accompanied by ReCore, which was awful, and Fallout Shelter, which you probably already play on your phone. The next wave should see some potential whoppers like Ark: Survival Evolved, Rare's Sea of Thieves, Middle-earth: Shadow of War and Crackdown 3 before the end of the year.

Microsoft has been pushing very hard on its esports programs, too. More than 200,000 players have participated in its Gears of War 4 esports program this year and the first season of its pro circuit wrapped up on June 4, with OpTic Gaming taking the win. Over the course of the first season, Microsoft gave away $1.25 million in prize money and took tournaments to Columbus, London, Mexico City, Atlantic City, Paris, and Las Vegas. The second season starts later this year with a minimum $1 million prize pool.

Microsoft is pursuing esports around Forza very aggressively, too. The Forza Racing Championship is currently the highest-profile racing esports series and the final round of competition in its third season Porsche Cup will take place in France during the the 24 Hours of Le Mans the weekend after E3, on June 17 and 18.

Ultimately, though, none of these smart moves will matter unless Microsoft comes out swinging – and hard – with choice-affirming new games from its first-party and partner studios. If Scorpio is going to change Xbox's image, we need to see game after game after game to back that up.

343 Industries' last big release was Halo 5 back in 2015, followed by a collaboration with Creative Assembly on the adequately competent Halo Wars 2 in February this year. Halo's singular purpose is to sell Xboxes – it doesn't really exist for any other reason. A tease of Halo 6 isn't just a wise move for this E3 – it's practically a necessity.

What's concerning is that of all these studios that Microsoft is confirmed to be working with, we already know what the majority of them are up to.

Mojang, the studio behind the multi-squillion-selling megahit Minecraft that it bought in 2014 for $2.5 billion is arguably the single most important tool in Microsoft's toolbox. While we won't see Minecraft 2 any time soon (or ever, really, as it'll evolve indefinitely) it seems we will finally see a shift to a unified Play Anywhere title. Minecraft Xbox One Edition and Minecraft Windows 10 Edition will become the same thing, making it simple to pick up where you left off regardless of which version you're playing. This is far from the most exciting news in the world, but it's a significant move given that the audience for Minecraft is in the tens of millions.

We already know that Rare is beavering away on Sea of Thieves, its Play Anywhere, multiplayer-focused cooperative pirate game – but that was revealed last year. While it looks like a good laugh, it's hardly going to carry the Xbox this year. There are rumors that the large UK studio has at least two other games in development, so it could be the source of some surprises on Sunday. Perhaps we'll get that Viva Pinata reboot we've all been secretly craving?

Forza studio Turn 10 will surely show 4K-optimized versions of both Forza Motorsport 7 as well as enhancements and updates to partner studio Playground Games' Forza Horizon 3, which has now sold 3.2 million copies. It seems unlikely we'll see anything brand new this year. Similarly, The Coalition will no doubt show a dolled-up 4K Gears of War 4, but given that it's in the middle of a season pass run, it seems unlikely there'll be news of a sequel yet.

Xbox Head of first party publishing Shannon Loftis stated during an E3 2016 stream with Geoff Keighley that – as of June last year – there were 14 games in development that Microsoft was overseeing. Of those she mentioned at the time, one has been cancelled (Platinum Games' Scalebound) and three have shipped already: Killer Instinct, Halo Wars 2 and ReCore. This year, we'll see open-world action game Crackdown 3 from ReAgent Games, Sumo Digital and Cloudgine, along with Undead Labs' zombie survival game State of Decay 2. Both of these were announced ages ago and are confirmed Play Anywhere games. Beyond that, we know that Beep Industries is working on VooDoo Vince Remastered, Lionhead spin-off Flaming Foul Studios is working on the Fable card game Fable Fortunes, and Studio MDHR is trying to finally finish Cuphead.

What's concerning is that of all these studios that Microsoft is confirmed to be working with, we already know what the majority of them are up to. And that's not terribly exciting. If there's not something waiting in the wings that's a total surprise – or there's not some kind of studio acquisition or deep partnership announced – then we're probably looking at Crackdown 3 being the showcase for all the cleverness that Scorpio is capable of. If you played Realtime Worlds' original game back in 2007 (forget Ruffian's 2010 sequel, it wasn't amazing) then that's great, but can Crackdown 3 becoming the defining game of a generation the way Halo and Gears of War did before it? Probably not. What Xbox One and Scorpio needs is something brand new and fresh. But who is going to make it?

Given the enormous commitment that Microsoft is putting into revitalizing its hardware and supporting it with forward-looking services, it would be foolish to assume that there isn't something huge waiting in the wings. All those changes have to be in service of something. For the first time in years, though, it's unclear what that could possibly be.