Strap in Xbox fans, 2018 is a rebuilding year. To clarify, a rebuilding year is most commonly found in the world of sports. It references a team or club spending time and resources on building today for a championship tomorrow. While it’s maybe a crude apology, it’s clear that Microsoft has been in a rebuilding phase for a while now. The real question then is when will the Xbox be championship ready?
The catalyst for rebuilding is normally a failure and a firing. In 2013 Microsoft introduced the world to the Xbox One. The critical reception of the Xbox One was mostly negative thanks to the console being $100 more than its competitor and mixed messaging about always online connectivity. There is no question that this initial impression of the Xbox One is the sole reason that, 4 years later, it is still being outsold 2-to-1 by the PlayStation 4.
While maybe not directly, this debacle contributed to Don Mattrick’s departure from Microsoft less than 3 months later. It wasn’t until March of 2014 that Microsoft announced that Phil Spencer would be taking over as head of Xbox. This is really when the rebuilding starts. Phil Spencer was GM of Microsoft Studios from 2008 until his promotion in 2014. He has had a hand in series like Halo, Gears of War, and Forza. He was also influential in the acquisition of Minecraft. It’s clear that Spencer wants what’s best for Xbox…which is games.
2014 – 2016 – The Lost Years
Let’s start with Kinect. Personally, I was a fan of the original Kinect. I can’t count the number of hours my kids played Happy Action Theater or Once Upon a Monster. I even found myself enjoying The Gunstringer and Dance Central on occasion. The Kinect was a breakthrough in technology, and Microsoft decided to include Kinect 2.0 with every Xbox One sold. This was a huge problem for 2 reasons. First, not everyone wants to play with motion controls and second, and more importantly, the included Kinect made the Xbox One $100 more expensive at launch. While Spencer did finally release a Kinect-free Xbox One in the summer of 2014, the damage was already done.
Another huge loss to Xbox, and gamers, happened in 2016 with the cancellation of Fable Legends and the closure of Lionhead Studio. Fable was one of the pillar franchises on the Xbox platform. Lionhead was trying something new with Fable Legends, moving the game from a single player, story-driven experience to a 4 vs. 1 action game. While the game didn’t capture the heart of every Fable fan, it was still a new entry in a beloved series. Microsoft announced that it was closing Lionhead and cancelling Fable Legends in early 2016. The Fable franchise hasn’t been mentioned since.
2017 – The X Year
The momentum of 2016 lead into 2017 in the worst way possible. Microsoft, already struggling for new, exciting IP, canceled Scalebound in January of 2017. Scalebound was an ambitious, open-world action game, by fan-favorite Platinum Studio. The game premiered, as a trailer during the 2014 E3 presentation. Microsoft confirmed the Scalebound cancellation with the following statement:
After careful deliberation, Microsoft Studios has come to the decision to end production for “Scalebound.” We’re working hard to deliver an amazing lineup of games to our fans this year, including “Halo Wars 2,” “Crackdown 3,” “State of Decay 2,” “Sea of Thieves” and other great experiences.
The good news was, 2017 was shaping up to be a fantastic year full of great releases like Crackdown 3, State of Decay 2, and Sea of Thieves. In case you missed that, it was a giant plate full of steam broiled sarcasm. The fact is, 2017 turned into one of the worst years for Xbox exclusive content ever. Halo Wars 2 did release, but failed to find much of an audience. Microsoft was also able to push out a mostly broken version of PUBG to finish the year out. This is a far cry from what was promised.
It wasn’t all a loss in 2017. Both Cuphead and Forza 7 were released to huge praise garner several game of the year nominations and even a few wins. Cuphead, specifically, was the only game on all 4 of the XBE Writer’s game of the year lists. 2017 also saw the release of the Xbox One X, the most powerful home console ever made. These are all clear indications that the Xbox brand is on the right path.
2018 – The Rebuilding Year
Before you go organizing a parade or making “Video Game Championship” t-shirts for 2018, Xbox fans need to properly manage your expectations. Don’t misunderstand; there is a lot to look forward to in 2018. PUBG just barely launched and will see continued success as an Xbox console exclusive. Sea of Thieves is looking better with each trailer and will be out in a few short months. We also know that State of Decay 2 will be launching this year as well. It’s also likely that we will finally see Crackdown 3 and possibly Ori 2 and a new Forza Horizon game. Xbox fans do have a lot to look forward to in 2018.
The hard truth though, is that Microsoft is still in a building phase. I believe that 2018 is when we start to see the tides turn a little bit, but I do believe that overall it will be another stepping stone to the future. A few reasons I feel this way are UI, Account Systems, and AAA games. Microsoft has spent the last 3 years retooling the UI to work better without the use of Kinect. 2017 saw the largest update so far and arguably the most intuitive of the UI releases yet. While not perfect it’s clear that the UI is much more user-friendly than it was at launch.
We also know that account changes are coming. Microsoft has confirmed a new avatar system that was pushed out of 2017 as well as an update to the achievement system. The most recent rumor points to a career system that would award players Xbox specific loot boxes. The ability to use things like achievements or time spent in-game as a currency to raise your social awareness on the platform has huge potential. If achievements changed the game when they were introduced, this new career system might possibly do the same thing again.
Finally, there is still a mostly vacant AAA schedule. You can argue that Sea of Thieves is AAA, but I wouldn’t consider Ori or State of Decay AAA. We have also not heard anything about Crackdown 3 since the last delay announcement so we can’t say for sure if or when that game is coming. We know that there will be no Gears this year, 343 has heavily hinted that there will be no Halo this year, and, while it’s expected, there has been no formal announcement that a new Forza game will be released in 2018.
What is clear to me is that 2018, at this point, is still very much a rebuilding year. There is no doubt that it will be a step up from 2017, but I think it will still be part of this rebuilding phase. Everything from launch until now has been building to what’s next. I believe that next championship season starts in 2019.
2019 and Beyond
You might think it’s way too early to talk about 2019, but technology travels at light speed. 2019 will be here before you blink. As a dedicated Xbox fan, I believe that 2019 is shaping up to be an amazing year for Xbox. There is a chance we get Halo 6 and Gears of War 5 both released in 2019. If tradition continues, this would also be the year that Forza 8 launches. There has never been a year that saw all three Microsoft AAA series release a new game together. 2019 would also be the 2nd year of both Sea of Thieves and PUBG, which are games designed to grow and improve with the audience. Just that line up alone is a slam dunk for Microsoft.
The other important thing here is new IP. A video game can take 3 to 5 years to develop depending on funding and team size. Let me help you translate those numbers in a way that matters. Phil Spencer took over Xbox in 2014. As the person that ran Microsoft Studios for years, there is no doubt Phil knows video games. If a game was spun up in 2014 or 2015, it would likely not see the light of day until…did you guess already?…2019. Sure, that is mostly conjecture on my part, but games like Fable Legends and Scalebound were all in development before Spencer took over. With his pedigree, it’s clear that he felt those games were not what the Xbox library needed. I fully believe that the head of Xbox wouldn’t cancel exclusive projects without other games in the works.
In conclusion, I am hopeful that 2018 is going to be a beacon of hope for the Xbox and the future will only look brighter. I expect massive surprises at E3 and big moves by Microsoft all setting up what I think will be a memorable 2019. If Microsoft can accomplish a full turn around in the next 2 years, it will have momentum for the Xbox brand as we move into the next generation of consoles. If you are an Xbox fan reading this, batten down the hatches for just a little longer but do not be misled, dawn is breaking very soon.