There isn’t a business person in the video game industry with a harder job than Phil Spencer. Spencer rose to the head of Microsoft’s Xbox division in 2014, a year after the disasterous launch of the Xbox One, Microsoft’s bloated and unfocused successor to the wildly popular Xbox 360. Underpowered relative to the PlayStation 4, bizarrely focused on acting as a DVR for cable television, and hindered by a nightmarishly botched rollout, Microsoft effectively doomed themselves to second place this generation right out of the gate. Spencer has done an admirable job trying to course correct; rebuilding Xbox’s presence on the PC, acquiring a number of studios to create Xbox games, and launching the more powerful and squarely games-focused Xbox One X. There’s only so much you can do mid-generation, though, and yesterday’s E3 press conference was the clearest indication yet that the current strategy at Microsoft is to wait until the next generation. They seem uniquely well-positioned for this future, but substantially less so for this year.
For the past few years, Microsoft has leaned heavily into making their E3 press conference a showcase of as many games as possible, depth be damned. While I’ve generally been okay with this approach, this year really felt like the first time that the quantity over quality ratio felt out of whack. By my count, there wasn’t a single on-stage demo during the entire presentation. To which, fine, a lot of the time on-stage demos are awkward and they’re risky and yeah I get it. But by focusing so heavily on trailers, Microsoft’s conference just felt poorly paced. It was hard to have any of the individual games feel impactful—since everything moved so fast and since most of what we know about the new games is the title and whatever can be gleamed from a brief trailer. There was a lot of stuff being thrown at the audience, but not a lot to be really excited about.
It also hurts that most of Microsoft’s big announcements were leaked ahead of time. A new game from the developers of Bloodborne in a world created by George R.R. Martin sounds rad, but we already knew about Elden Ring and didn’t learn much else from the brief announcement trailer. Ditto for Tales Arise and Ninja Theory’s Bleeding Edge.
What we were left with a series of announcements for neat but very niche games, and pretty boilerplate trailers for games we already knew about. It’s fucking wild that Microsoft is bringing back Microsoft Flight Simulator and helping Sega localize Phantasy Star Online 2 for North America so long after it was originally announced. But am I super excited for them? Not really! Gears 5 has a neat looking co-op mode, but it’s just confounding to me that Microsoft is relying on a CGI trailer of a multiplayer mode to sell their biggest fall release. Perhaps the biggest surprise was that someone’s making a Blair Witch game, since we didn’t know anything about it beforehand. I wish they had more surprises like that.
So much of this press conference was forward-looking. You see it in the expansion of the Game Pass, Microsoft’s monthly subscription service that gives you access to a rapidly growing list of games for $10 a month. You can now get Game Pass on the PC and the list of included games is expanding rapidly.. Microsoft has built a truly impressive list of accquired developers that are making games for Game Pass, including Obsidian, Ninja Theory, Playground, Undead Labs and now the perpetually charming Double Fine. But most of those developers are still early in production on their new games or finishing up projects that were in development before they got bought. Obsidian’s Fallout-New-Vegas-meets-anti-capitalist-sci-fi game The Outer Worlds looks incredible, but because they were making it before Microsoft acquired them, I could just play it on my PlayStation if I wanted too.
But when you combine the ideal of Game Pass with the possibility of games streaming, you basically get the Netflix for Games model that Google Stadia failed to announce last week. Microsoft spent a surprisingly brief amount of time on their streaming plans but what they did say sounds encouraging. Microsoft is going about it two ways; one is turning your Xbox into a home server that you can use to stream your games onto other devices (something PlayStation has had for a while now with remote player). The other, way more ambitious piece is Project xCloud, a fully cloud-based service that’ll be able to stream games from Microsoft’s data centers to any device. Microsoft is the position to make a more creditable play for cloud gaming than Google, and early tests seem to indicate that Project xCloud performs better than Stadia. It’s impossible to judge these streaming services until they are available to try, and we’ll only be getting a preview of the service in October. It appears that Microsoft’s big push for streaming will not happen this year or on Xbox One hardware.
All of this groundwork presumably will pay off when new consoles come out. Microsoft’s biggest announcement was probably the confirmation of Project Scarlett, their next console and “the formation of our future in the cloud” according to Spencer. The promo they showed mostly aligns with the console’s rumored specs (and what we’ve heard so far about Sony’s new box): support for 8K graphics, an emphasis on faster storage to reduce load times, and an exponential increase over the current consoles. These new boxes are going to be especially hard to show off in this format: 8K graphics and 120fps frame rates aren’t very precivable when viewed through a shitty Twitch stream. Microsoft sidestepped this by showing basically nothing actually running on this new hardware, aside from an impressive Halo Infinity cinematic. What we were left with was an impressive sounding console that we probably won’t know much more about until next year.
Microsoft is in a position to dominate next generation. They have a strong lineup of first-party developers, they are saying what they need to to rebuild trust after the Xbox One debacle, and what we know about Scarlett is exciting. But this conference still felt a lot like Microsoft punting the ball until next year when they can talk more about the Scarlett. For until then, we saw a number of games we (mostly) already knew about in an unexciting and frankly exhausting format and a downright concerning surface-level showcase for what is supposed to be this fall’s big first-party exclusive. It’s very excited to get excited about Xbox’s future, and hard to get excited about its present.