The Xbox One has a real problem.
It feels weird saying that, having just spend good coin on an Xbox One S. If anything, you would think that any sort of insinuation that things weren't looking rosy for the Xbox brand would be met with a real head-in-the-sand response. However, the months following E3 have really started to paint a bleak picture, and Gamescom has now all but hammered it home.
It's not an issue of any technical inferiority, perceived or real, or even an issue of sales performance. It's an issue of support and, more importantly, it's an issue of originality. In short, the Xbox brand is playing it too safe.
I welcomed the original Xbox brand into my life shortly after the demise of the Dreamcast. Sega's games were scattered like ashes, and the Xbox was home to many attractive offerings such as Jet Set Radio Future and Panzer Dragoon Orta that I just could not say no to.
Jet Set Radio Future was one of many quirky titles that
made the original Xbox something to pay attention to.
But it also opened up the door for a very North American school of thought when it came to game design that had traditionally been more at home on the PC than on consoles. Games like Morrowind, Knights of the Old Republic, The Chronicles of Ridd*ck, and even a port of Half-Life 2 were games that could only be found on the Xbox One.
Even if the Xbox never stood a chance of competing against the mighty PS2, which to this day still remains the best-selling console of all time, even if it was going to miss out on many big titles, it was still a system that made you feel good about it because it was home to rich experiences that couldn't be found elsewhere in the console world.
Games like KOTOR introduced me to a whole new world of RPG.
Even in the early days of the Xbox 360, it was still something that held true. Games like Mass Effect, Bioshock, and Oblivion where originally games that PlayStation 3 owners looked enviously at. (Not to suggest that the PS3 didn't have its own set of enticing exclusives, because it very much did.)
However, in recent times as this school of thought became the dominant and driving force in the console market, and as Japanese publishers retreated to greener pastures of mobile gaming, the Xbox brand's stranglehold on these games waned. And while in itself that might not be an issue, it gained little in the way of creative, imaginative titles to make up for it.
Historically, my favourite periods in gaming have been console launches. This goes far beyond the enchantment with glittering new graphics made possible by the leaps in technology. No, I'm more enamoured by the creativity that is on parade before publishers begin to lock in the sure bets and churn out new iterations in some form of attempted mass production.
Games like Folklore really helped the PS3 set itself apart
from the competition in the system's early years.
It's a period of experimentation and curiosity as developers test the waters about what this new technology will allow to be unlocked from the imagination, and it's given us some of the more endearing if lesser-known titles in gaming, such as Jumping Jack Flash, Zone of the Enders, and Folklore.
Even games we know see as established franchises to the point where fatigue might have set in, such as Assassin's Creed, where once considered fresh, born into a space filled with eager early-adopters who were willing to allow such new ideas to breathe.
Now it appears that Sony is prepared to nuture such boldness going forward, whereas Microsoft, perhaps still reeling from the lashing it received going into this generation, has decided to hunker down and stick with known quantities and sure bets.
The so-called greatest line-up in Xbox history
took no risks and was less interesting for it.
That's not to say that the Xbox hasn't been home to some wonderfully fresh experiences. Sunset Overdrive and Ori and the Blind Forest have been two wonderful examples, and the upcoming Cuphead looks set to be another. But when you examine the Xbox strategy as a whole, the lack of imagination and creativity becomes salient.
Last E3, Microsoft trumpeted the greatest lineup in the history of Xbox, championed by Halo 5, Fable Legends, Forza 6, Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, and Rise of the Tomb Raider. Three sequels, a spin-off, and a remake -- and the spin-off was cancelled. As if reaching into the cupboard and pulling out the Xbox Franchises™ wasn't bad enough, Rise of the Tomb Raider was especially troubling if only because Microsoft's reasoning was that it made sense to throw money at a game to lock it up for a period of time than to create something new.
This E3 it was a similar story. Sure, we saw Sea of Thieves, Recore, and Scalebound, but the heavy hitters, the headliners, were Gears of War 4, Forza Horizon 3, and Halo Wars 2. I guess you could also include some appearances of Final Fantasy XV and Tekken 7 to essentially reassure you that, yes, those games would still come to Xbox One.
It wasn't exactly an unwarranted fear to soothe. The months following E3 have seen some truly imaginative games, the sort that look at all this technology and think not of how they can replicate the possible but how they can realise the impossible, released on the PS4 while skipping the Xbox completely.
No Man's Sky might not be to everyone's tastes, but at
least it wasn't designed by committe and focus group.
Abzu, Bound, and No Man's Sky are examples of this, and while they might not be everyone's cup of tea, they sit alongside the rest of the PS4's catalogue, which includes much of which is available on Xbox One, augmenting it and giving it potential extra appeal.
Then there is what's in the pipe. Games like Nier Automata, Nioh, and Persona 5 won't be coming to Xbox One. Nier Automata is even willing to come to the PC but won't give the Xbox the time of day. There's also indie affair like Aragami that has decided to put the Xbox One version on the back-burner while it focuses its efforts on the PS4 and PC.
Yet it gets even worse if you are considering the Xbox One from a Kiwi perspective. Many independent and digital games simply don't launch in New Zealand, some for known reasons and some for mysterious reasons no one seems to understand.
Games like Jackbox Party Pack 2 and Superhot pass on New Zealand because they are required to have OFLC ratings to be on the Xbox Store whereas they are not required to do this on the PS4. The cost of obtaining a rating means that many simply don't bother for such a small market.
The critically acclaimed Superhot is console-exclusive to
Xbox One, but was never released in New Zealand.
And then there are the games that do have a rating but don't appear on the New Zealand store. The recent Song of the Deep is a great example of this, and while it appeared eventually, Telltale's Batman series is another. Any attempt to get an answer out of Microsoft as to why this is like trying to get blood out of a stone.
The upshot of all of this is that the Xbox One is left to appear wanting. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure Gears of War 4, Forza Horizon 3, and Halo Wars 2 will all be good, fun games, and I'm sure they will be well received by many. But they aren't fresh, they aren't exciting. They don't make the system stand out.
It's the same trap Nintendo falls into: they are good games if you already have one, but they aren't going to make you look at the system if they didn't make you look when Forza Horizon 2 and Gears of War: Ultimate Edition were on offer. And they don't make up for what you are missing.
Meanwhile, the PlayStation 4 has more variety and simply more games on offer -- and it has (slightly) better graphics to boot. Even Microsoft's original point of difference, that it was an excellent media centre with voice support, has been axed in favour of doubling down on the safe and familiar.
Even going forward, it appears the strategy is to double-down
on safe, sure bets -- that are also available elsewhere...
It's gotten past the point where when people ask me what console to get I have to honestly reply the PS4. Indeed, sadly, it's gotten to the point where the Xbox One no longer excites or entices me, and that I don't feel compelled to turn it on. It's the PlayStation 4 that has been stealing my attention lately, and for all the reasons I have outlined above. It's gotten to the point where I feel bad, even remorseful, about my Xbox One S purchase, and that's not how any console owner should feel.
The Xbox One has a real problem, and Microsoft doesn't seem to want to do anything to address it.
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