A Post-Mortem of the Xbox One, & What Microsoft Can Learn From Its Failure
As the next generation of home consoles loom on the horizon in the forms of the Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X, it seems an apt time to reflect on this current console generation. And seeing as I don't have a Playstation 4, I'm going to hone in on the Xbox One and say some mean things. I'd also just like to point out that the Xbox One, whilst considered by many to be a failure, has actually been a commercial success. It's made money for Microsoft - but when I say failure, I am referring to it failing to please people, and failing to innovate, or perform what many expected from it.
Microsoft's Confusing Original Vision
In May of 2013, Microsoft unveiled their successor to the Xbox 360. Titled the Xbox One, it was marketed as the "one" device required to accompany your TV in the living room, and it would act as the "one" singular hub for digital entertainment of all kinds, whether it be gaming, movies, live sports or communicating with friends over video. The Xbox One was slated to require an always-on internet connection in order to function at all, as well as being bundled with an upgraded version of the Xbox Kinect, a camera and microphone device which would be integral to navigation and interaction with the system. However, both of these concepts were vocally rejected by the gaming community at large. Microsoft's focus on Kinect had overshadowed the last few years of the Xbox 360's lifecycle, and although the product had been a success, it had been marketed at the casual market and a lot of the "core" Xbox audience were less than impressed with Kinect, preferring more traditional gameplay experiences.
There were, however, two particularly standout moments following the announcement of the Xbox One, which no doubt crippled its reputation going forwards. The first was an interview with the then-head of Xbox, Don Mattrick, who, in an interview with Geoff Keighley, defended the proposed "always online" component of the Xbox One. "Fortunately, we have a product for people who aren't able to get some form of connectivity - it's called the Xbox 360." Keighley was quick to retort, with a cutting question - "So, stick with 360 - that's your message?" Needless to say, Don Mattrick soon left Microsoft entirely, likely to distance himself from the enormous backlash that ensued following the disastrous interview. The second standout moment that would define the future of the Xbox One and also the Playstation 4, was the announcement that physical copies of games would be tied to individual user's accounts. This was likely an attempt to prevent people from lending games and cut into the second-hand gaming market and force consumers to purchase games brand new or digitally, but again this was very poorly received. So poorly received, in fact, that Sony capitalised on the announcement with their own instructional video on how to share games on PS4. This short satirical video is now at almost 17.5 million views on YouTube, and by doing absolutely nothing at all, Sony had already made a huge leap ahead of Microsoft in terms of pre-release PR and consumer confidence. These two instances paved the way for an easy win for Sony, and put the Xbox One on the back foot before it had even launched.
Microsoft did launch the first edition of the Xbox One with Kinect, but it U-turned on both the always-on and game/account synchronisation following the tremendous backlash that followed. Very few Xbox One games had any substantial Kinect connectivity to speak of, and the next models would go on to not include the Kinect, with the later X and S versions of the system losing the Kinect port altogether. Microsoft's out-of-touch concepts, subsequent defense of their ideas and eventual U-turns confused many people, and these blunders would go on to set the tone for the lifecycle of the Xbox One. It's safe to say that whatever Microsoft's original vision was for the system had been entirely crushed, and instead we got something more in-line with the 360. Although...a lot was missing.
Xbox Used To Be Good
What makes all of this more frustrating to me is that I bought an Xbox One based almost solely on my very positive experience with the Xbox 360. The Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 both enjoyed very similar sales, with the Playstation 3 selling 86.9 million units, with the 360 close behind at 85.5 million. It felt like there was a close rivalry between the two systems, with a plethora of exclusive games and compelling features fuelling the fire of fans debates in school playgrounds and online forums. Both choices felt like they were legitimate options, and unfortunately I don't think the same can be said for this generation.
The 360 had a fairly varied series of exclusive titles from a myriad of different studios. It enjoyed a whopping four Halo titles (plus Halo Wars, which was...fine), and it was the birthplace of Gears of War and Crackdown, two franchises that would go onto become staples for the system. Turn 10's Forza series continued on the 360, as well as the much more arcadey Horizon spinoff which I always found to be more enjoyable. Rare had its share of fun titles for the system too, with 360 ports of both original Banjo-Kazooie titles, as well as the new Nuts & Bolts, two Viva Piñata games and the underrated Kameo: Elements of Power. Bioware's Mass Effect launched on the 360 and blew people away with its excellent world-building in a vast sci-fi world where player's actions would have consequences that rippled across the world (and even into the games sequels), and CD Projekt Red's The Witcher II: Assassins of Kings debuted on console with the 360. You had Left 4 Dead, Dead Rising, Shadow Complex, Geometry Wars, Fable 2, Blue Dragon, Lost Odyssey... the list goes on. A lot of these were absolutely massive hits - this was the Xbox at its best. Not only did it offer a diverse exclusive lineup, but it was well-supported by 3rd party titles like Assassin's Creed, Call of Duty and Battlefield. Perhaps the crowning jewel of the 360, however, was the far superior party system for online play, something the Playstation 3 and Wii were both lacking in. The 360 was the place to play online games. You could have up to 8 players in a party at any time, playing different games, chatting shit and having a good time. Some of my fondest memories of gaming were staying up late playing Halo 3, filling the custom games lobby with friends and just having a blast.
Enter the Xbox One. By comparison, the Xbox One has a grand total of 12 truly exclusive titles, compared to Sony's offering of 73 on the Playstation 4, and Nintendo's 62 on the Switch. I've got quite a lot of Xbox One games, but almost all of them can be played on another system or on PC. The Witcher III, Red Dead Redemption II and Metal Gear Solid V are all some of my favourite games of all time, but thanks in no part to the Xbox One. Forza, Crackdown, Halo and Gears all saw releases on the Xbox One, but it's clear that there is a severe lack of passion and inspiration in these later titles. They all feel like they could exist on the 360, and they're all just another entry in a tried and tested formula for each respective series. There's nothing groundbreaking about Halo 5 or Gears 5, and they feel stale. Similarly, many titles were also launched on PC, which is a good thing in many ways, but it does nevertheless give PC players another reason not to invest in an Xbox. Scalebound, which was one of the only exclusive titles in years for the system, was cancelled, and Microsoft are sitting on all of Rare's IPs and doing nothing with them. Perfect Dark. Killer Instinct. Banjo-Kazooie. Hell, I'd even take a new Viva Pinata!
The system also rested on its laurels on the online features department this generation, and they let Sony catch up with them. Aside from the Xbox Game Pass, they've offered precious little in the way of innovation in terms of features this generation. And, if anything, the actual interface of the console feels like a step back in many ways compared to its predecessor.
The Xbox 360 had a series of significant User-Interface overhauls during its lifespan. Launching in 2005, the console had a simplistic colour-coded UI, dubbed "Blades", which was fairly straightforward, but clearly wasn't enough to support the wealth of increasing online features such as parties and the Xbox Live Arcade. In 2008, the 360 received an overhaul of its UI, which put much more of a focus on the online store, user interaction and your friends' activity. It was easy to invite players to join your game. It was easy to find what you were looking for in the store, and navigating menus was a straightforward experience. This interface was tweaked a couple of times, but I think it was perhaps tweaked too many times, as settings eventually began to get harder and harder to find. I was discovering that more and more of the main menus of the system were being taken over with advertising, and unfortunately this trend continued onto the Xbox One. The UI of the Xbox One is not only uninspired, but it is functionally awkward. I frequently have a hard time figuring out where options are stored, and I feel that Microsoft's online streaming service Mixr is shoved in your face at every turn. There are ads everywhere for Xbox Live and the Game Pass, and just getting from point A to point B is frustrating.
By comparison - the Playstation 4's interface is an iteration of the Playstation 3's and is both aesthetically pleasing and simple to navigate. Similarly, the Switch's simple tile system is clean and concise - it's not very customisable, but it's functional and free of bloatware and advertising. Simply finding what you want to do on a console should not be an ordeal, but Microsoft have made it so on their system.
So, what did they get right this generation?
OK, so the Xbox One has no games. It's got an awful menu, they messed up the launch of the system pretty badly, and there's no inspiration coming from the developers. Pretty shit then, huh?
It's not all bad though - there have been some small successes. For one, the Xbox Game Pass is an extremely good value way to play a lot of games. Dubbed the "Netflix of video games", the service was the first to offer a singular subscription in return for unlimited access to hundreds of Xbox One and 360 titles. Despite launching after Playstation Now, Game Pass offered a more competitive and more straightforward pricing structure, and offered players the chance to download the title rather than be stuck streaming it, and no titles were locked behind paywalls once you have a subscription. Not only that, but a number of the system's major exclusives launched on Game Pass immediately, giving players access to brand new games for the introductory price of £1 a month (raising to £4 a month after that). Simply put, it was a very cost-effective way of playing a lot of games. Playstation Now has gradually morphed to become something a lot more akin to Games Pass, in a rare move that had Microsoft making a good decision before their competitors.
Another success was the controller - the 360 already had an excellent joypad, but the Xbox One refined it. The D-Pad was improved, the build quality felt higher and there's something about the weight of the Xbox controller compared to others that just feels satisfying to hold. It's a very ergonomic design, and Microsoft let players really go to town on customising their own pads with the Xbox Design Labs, which is a nice fun idea.
Another success was the hardware itself, and I think this extends to the Playstation 4 also. It's safe to say that the previous generation, consisting of the 360, PS3 and Wii, was one of the less successful periods for hardware. Countless 360s suffered the dreaded Red Ring of Death, and the PS3 had the similar Yellow Light of Doom, and the Wii too suffered a fairly substantial system failure rate, not to mention the number of smashed TVs, impaled with Wii remotes... According to a Game Informer survey, a whopping 54% of Xbox 360s suffered hardware failure of some kind, which is honestly horrendous. In addition to this, as the 360 reached the end of its lifecycle, more demanding titles such as Halo 4 really seemed to struggle on the system, suffering framerate drops, and with the fans inside earlier models sounding like they were about to explode. Thankfully with the Xbox One, they seem to have quelled almost all of these hardware issues, with no substantial failure rates to be found anywhere online, and much more stable gameplay experiences.
Lastly, one of the few things that the Xbox One did better than the Playstation 4 - backwards compatibility. Over 600 Xbox 360 and Original Xbox games will run on the Xbox One, with a full list available to view on the Xbox website. So, if you've still got your old copy of Morrowind, Halo 2 or SSX Tricky lying around - that's right, it will play on your Xbox One. This is truly one of the few great things about this console, and something that Sony only recently offered in their Playstation Now function, and is entirely absent on the Switch. Nintendo's only offering currently on the Switch is a limited selection of NES and SNES games, with no N64, Gamecube, Wii or Wii U support in sight whatsoever.
To be honest, the odds are stacked against the Series X. The name alone is confusing, and the recent "gameplay" showcase was unfortunately pretty underwhelming. Touted as an exclusive first-look at gameplay on the Series X, many were quick to point out that there was very little actual gameplay going on. The video ended up being a lot of flashy in-engine compilations of what could possibly be gameplay, but what are more likely to be pre-rendered or sequenced events with the graphics cranked up to a higher standard than we will see when these games launch. Misleading promotional material is nothing new for gaming, sadly. Because it's happened before. Quite a few times. Rather a lot, actually. So, naturally, people are wary.
So, it wasn't a promising start, but the Xbox is the underdog in the next phase of the so-called "console war" - this should push them into a competitive place. They've already announced that a number of games such as Cyberpunk 2077 and Halo Infinite will feature free upgrades from Xbox One to the Series X, which is a nice goodwill gesture that seems to be centred at regaining the trust of the consumer. This means that they are in the prime position to throw everything they've got at this console, and they've recently acquired a number of studios with promising back catalogues. Compulsion Games, inXile Entertainment, Ninja Theory, Obsidian Entertainment, Playground Games, Undead Labs and Double Fine Productions. Combine this with Rare, Turn 10, Mojang and World's Edge, and you've got a really solid bunch of development studios here. Will this be enough for them to turn the tide and crank out some unmissable exclusive titles on their new system? Probably not, but hey - only time will tell.
...Oh, and then there's Halo.
I've only really glossed over Halo in this entry so far, but the significance of this series really cannot be stressed enough. The first game launched alongside the Xbox, and the second game kickstarted the Xbox Live phenomenon. I'm also pretty sure that the green glow of the Xbox brand and the green Mjölnir armour that the Master Chief wears is not a coincidence. Honestly, Xbox owes its existence to the Halo series and you cannot mention the future of the Xbox platform without acknowledging Halo. The original developer behind Halo was Bungie, and they created the original trilogy, as well as ODST and Reach, all of which received almost universal acclaim from critics and fans alike. It seemed that they could do no wrong with the franchise, with Halo 3's launch in 2007 becoming the single biggest entertainment debut in history, earning more than $170 million in a few days, and selling 3.4 million copies in the first week alone. Xbox Live activity peaked at a level that has not been matched since, and it went on to sell a total of 14.5 million copies. Microsoft had a winner on their hands here, and it was something that Sony had tried to compete against with the likes of Haze, Killzone and Resistance, but nothing could come close to the gargantuan that was Halo back in the 00's.
Where things begin to get a bit murky, however, is when 343 Industries formed from within Microsoft and Bungie to continue production of the Halo franchise once Bungie moved onto Destiny and other projects. Halo 4 and Halo 5 were both commercial successes, but it's clear to see that Halo is not the cultural phenomenon that it once was on the Xbox. And with the Master Chief Collection recently releasing on the PC enabling players on Steam to play every Halo title except Halo 5, it seems that the Xbox's tight grip on one of its only "must-have" franchises has become rather loose. Many fans feel that 343's Halo is not the same Halo that Bungie curated, and that the series lost its way in recent years. The art style changed, the gameplay became more akin to other shooters such as Call of Duty, and Halo 5's lack of split-screen play all made it feel like Halo had lost part of its identity.
Much like the Series X; the odds are against it, but Halo Infinite might just be what fans want. The direction of the two teasers that we've seen so far seem to indicate that 343 are returning to the original art style, and even the soundtrack borrows notes from Halo 3's famous Finish The Fight piano melody. It's a long shot, but Microsoft has everything it needs to make both Halo Infinite and the Series X a success. It just needs to be very careful, get the system off to a strong launch, keep publishing compelling games, and respect its consumer base.
And hey, if not, I've got The Master Chief Collection on PC.