Even the most ardent of Xbox fans can’t deny that that 2017 was not one of the best for our beloved system. It wasn’t a complete write-off as there was still the release of the brilliant Xbox One X, we finally got Cuphead, and Forza Motorsport 7 was the best racing game released last year (on any system). Unfortunately (though great for the games industry as a whole), Microsoft’s competitors had a great year. Sony had titles like the great Horizon Zero Dawn and an array of Japanese games like Persona 5, Nioh, Nier: Automata, Yakuza 0, and Gravity Rush 2. Nintendo hit its stride again with the superb Switch and titles like Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, Splatoon 2, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. All of these games reinforced the ideas that Nintendo is the best place for younger gamers, while PlayStation is the home of Japanese games for the rest of the world. This got me thinking, what image does Xbox have and what is its identity?
Xbox used to have the image of being the place to play online. It was the first console to popularise online gaming on consoles (both Dreamcast and PlayStation 2 had online capabilities but were not as successful in their attempts). Xbox Live was a game changer in the way that it required a broadband connection and had an annual fee. While these would normally have restricted the service’s appeal, gamers recognised that they were necessary limits to provide a quality service. Xbox Live allowed console gamers to play together in a way that PC gamers had bragged about for years. The service paved the way for our gaming landscape today where big-budget multiplayer-only games are a very viable product. While Xbox Live is still going strong, the PlayStation Network has now caught up, and Nintendo is making moves in the right direction. All of this means that the online capabilities are no longer what sets Xbox apart.
In the Xbox 360 generation, one of the ways the system set itself apart from the competition was its stable of shooters. This genre was attracted to the rock-solid online performance and one of the best game controllers ever created. The Call of Duty franchise thrived in a mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship with Xbox. The supremely stable online network helped the franchise to move its multiplayer from something of an afterthought to the reason that a lot of people buy the games. Call of Duty brought a lot of gamers to Xbox and Microsoft furthered this by paying to have map packs first on their system. It wasn’t just multiplatform games that brought shooter fans to Xbox. Microsoft had its own heavy hitters in the form of Halo and Gears of War. Sony tried to counter with its Killzone franchise, but the series never took off in the same way as the Xbox shooters. This generation Sony has emerged as the new home of Call of Duty by taking over the new maps exclusivity deal from Microsoft. They have also got similar arrangements with EA for Battlefront II and Activision for the Destiny franchise. Once again, this all mitigates the ways that Xbox can set itself apart.
The Xbox branding has taken a hammering this generation. Ever since the massively flawed announcement of Xbox One, Microsoft has had to be on the back foot. They have been trying to take steps forward, and some have worked (Xbox One X is gaining goodwill everywhere), and some have not (the Rise of the Tomb Raider timed exclusivity deal probably did more harm than good). Xbox really needs to find a way to set itself apart from its competition. This would normally be done with exclusive games but 2017 was a particularly bad year for exclusives and though the beginning of 2018 is looking very positive (Sea of Thieves, State of Decay 2, and Crackdown 3), we have no idea what is coming at the end of the year. We can be pretty sure that there will be a new Forza game (Forza Horizon 4?), but we don’t really know what else to expect. If the usual timetable is to be expected, we should get Halo 6 but we have yet to see anything about it, and we would normally get at least a teaser trailer a year before a new Halo game. Meanwhile, Sony also has some heavy hitters incoming with exclusives like Spider-man, Days Gone, God of War, and The Last of Us Part II. Microsoft needs to back its Xbox brand. They need to invest in new games, or properties, or studios. Most of all though, they need a strong 2018 and part of that is defining what the identity of the platform is for the future.