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Microsoft’s Xbox gaming division is finishing the year strong. Unlike the 2020 holidays, the company isn’t only relying on new hardware to carry its momentum forward. Xbox Game Studios is on a hot streak when it comes to software, and that’s a strong indicator that Xbox is on the right track. And it is indicative of the wider Xbox strategy working for the company.
But what is that strategy? At a glance, it is easy to assume that Microsoft is running an “Xbox Game Pass at all costs” playbook. The reality is more nuanced than that, and it’s something that 343 Industries studio boss Bonnie Ross explained well in a roundtable with former Xbox executives today.
“For us, [the Xbox initiative is] really about having a diverse set of content, meeting players where they’re at, and taking those experiences forward,” Ross explained to moderator and former Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime. “It’s really about putting the player first.”
The point here is that the Xbox team is not working backward from any one single product. Microsoft has a console, it has a PC operating system, and it has the cloud, and the company is going to use those tools to accomplish its real goal. Ross reiterated what that goal actually is.
“How do we meet the player where they’re at,” she asked. “It’s not really just about the console anymore. It’s really thinking about how do we make sure that the games they want to play … are there for them to play.”
Xbox is reaching players wherever they are
If the goal is to bring games to where people are already playing, then what does that mean for games? Well, it means that every Xbox Game Studios team needs to make the right decisions to fit their projects into this overall game plan. Halo is a good example of this.
With Halo Infinite, Microsoft and 343 Industries are not taking any half measures. We live in a world where the biggest games are often free-to-play shooters that fans can play anywhere. So when 343 was building Halo Infinite’s multiplayer, the team decided early to design it for that business model. Microsoft did not interfere to force 343 to find a way to compel Halo multiplayer fans to buy an Xbox or to subscribe to Game Pass.
It makes sense for Halo multiplayer to go free-to-play on as many platforms as possible, so it is.
This uncovers a subtext with Microsoft’s current push with Xbox. By doing what it takes to find players where they’re at, you will likely end up doing what is right for the games.
Forza Horizon 5 is evidence that this is working. That game has had 10 million players, according to its in-game leaderboard, since debuting November 5. Microsoft has probably not even sold 10 million Xbox Series X/S systems yet. But that doesn’t matter because the game is on the cloud through Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, on Xbox One, and on Steam.
This doesn’t mean Microsoft is forgetting about the Xbox hardware. It instead means that Xbox Series X/S are part of a wider ecosystem that is thriving, based on the success of Forza Horizon 5.
Xbox is investing in variety
Ross also referenced a need for diversity, and she means that in a multifaceted way. She means diversity in terms of the experiences that creators choose to center. But she also means it in terms of a variety of content that appeals to different kinds of people.
“When you think about Halo and then the other games in our portfolio, it’s also about making sure you have a diverse world and a diverse set of characters,” said Ross. “And we’ve done a lot of acquisitions of studios — I think we have 23 — which is really to try to have content for everyone.”
While those 23 studios continue to spin up, however, Microsoft has relied on third-party partners to bring a variety of releases to its Xbox Game Pass service. That has worked well, but now it’s up to Xbox Game Studios to bring that variety while also maintaining and raising the bar for quality.
And to that point, 2021 has proven Microsoft can do exactly that.
Xbox is investing in quality
In her explanation to Fils-Aime, Ross also mentioned pushing experiences forward as a third pillar for Xbox. That means Xbox needs to release games that are either so good or so fascinating that they advance the medium. This is something that Xbox has shied away from. During the Xbox One generation, the company made safe bets on familiar software to the exclusion of almost everything else.
But over the last year, thanks in large part to its acquisitions, Xbox Game Studios has released one critical and fan hit after another. And while some of those are familiar, Microsoft has shown a willingness to invest extra to ensure those come out in the best-possible state.
Since August, Xbox Game Studios has released Psychonauts 2, Deathloop, Forza Horizon 5, and Halo Infinite’s multiplayer. The first three of those are all nominated for awards at The Game Awards, and Halo came out after the eligibility period.
Quality out of Xbox cannot come from a single game release — or even a good year. The company needs to show a consistent commitment to excellence. But that is exactly what it did show with its 2021 releases. After acquiring Double Fine and Arkane (through Bethesda/Zenimax), Microsoft paid and provided support to polish up Psychonauts 2 and Deathloop. That is on top of delaying Halo Infinite an entire year to do the same thing with that game.
This institutional determination to do what it takes to release good games is the final thing that Xbox needs. And with it, the other pillars of the strategy should take care of themselves. If Microsoft delivers games that people want to play, then yes, they will play them wherever they are. And if Microsoft gives developers the time, money, and support they need to deliver on their ideas, then the diversity and variety should come as well.
And if 10 million showed up for Forza Horizon 5 this year, how many are going to show up for a Starfield, Avowed, or Perfect Dark?
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