October 25, 2021

XBox One’s (Terribly Obvious) Problem.


This is probably not news to anyone, but I’m knocking together a quick post on it regardless.

Unless you’re living under a rock, you’ll have probably noticed in recent weeks a deluge of articles talking about Microsoft and the XBox One, about how it’s not all that interesting – which is fair enough – and how Microsoft needs to do a lot better if, indeed, there’s any chance to catch up right now. With a reported 30-odd million units sold for the XBox One, predictions are that the Nintendo Switch will sometime next year be poised to match this figure in much less time on the market, if not perhaps exceed it.

And that’s the whole problem. The Nintendo Switch happened.

Let’s be fair and impartial here – from December 2012 to March 2017, Nintendo was the industries little whipping boy and this was caused by a little disaster called the Wii U. You may have heard of it. It was a commercial bomb, despite having numerous critically-acclaimed video games like Bayonetta 2, Super Mario 3D World, Pikmin 3, Hyrule Warriors, Xenoblade Chronicles X and we could be here a while so let’s just end with Super Smash Bros. The reasons for this will be debated for years to come so let’s just say that Nintendo was both ahead and behind the curve at the same time, and as a result it ended up a remarkably niche product that through those four years and four months sold just shy of 14 million units.

Frankly, a catastrophe in terms of console hardware. It has to be said. There’s no way to sugar-coat it. Love it, hate it, that’s just facts.

Microsoft’s XBox One was much-reviled through 2013, of course, but as many will attest – it’s much more fun to rag on Nintendo, because ‘reasons’. And with the Wii U being such a commercial failure, suddenly the press and the gamers alike had ample reason to grab their whacking sticks and go to town on smacking Nintendo’s skull into the ground. Microsoft wasn’t as interesting – it made a few adjustments before launch and therefore took the middle ground, leaving the press and gamers to their little game of pulling wedgies on Bill Trinnen.

Reggie's Sad Face
“They did… what?”

And that was fine… until Nintendo launched the Nintendo Switch.

With 17-odd million sales to date from last count, the Switch managed to outsell the Wii U (reportedly) by the end of 2017. And Nintendo is showing few signs of slowing down with a new Smash Bros. game due sometime this year, with a full debut at E3. It’s been a complete change in fortunes, and if Pokémon Switch does happen this year… I’d suggest placing no bets.

So now we need to get picky. What -is- the Nintendo Switch? Neither definition will fill Microsoft with much “Joy”, so let’s be pedantic. The question is; is the Switch just a souped-up mobile Wii U? If so, does this make the Switch part of the mid-gen refresh like the XBox One X and PlayStation 4 “Pro”?

If your opinion on this is “Yes, it’s a redesigned Wii U launched in a mid-gen refresh”, then that means we must include the Wii U sales to date – about 14 million – with the reported 17 million of the Switch, which brings us to a grand total this generation of 31 million unit sales. It may be a little behind the XBox One overall to this point – but not by much, and Nintendo is likely poised to overtake the XBox One probably within months. Of course, you could also add in Nintendo 3DS sales here but that would be facetious. So in a year, on this metric, Nintendo has closed a significant gap with the XBox One.

However, the interesting angle is when you say, “No, the Nintendo Switch is a different kind of console that should stand alone on its own merits.”

On this front – the Switch is behind the XBox One and probably will be for a year or two; but if Microsoft can’t find any way to dramatically increase the sales volume of the XBox One – Nintendo has a slew of games coming which might start to rapidly close the gap. Smash Bros. Switch will be a big thing, and Pokémon Switch will be – as ever – a massive deal, considering Sun and Moon became the second-fastest-selling game behind the eponymous Grand Theft Auto V. Which, itself, might end up on the Switch – a portable GTAV might seem like a small deal but this does happen to be a game that still resides on the monthly best-sellers charts, so a new audience and an entirely new hardware angle might push it right back up to the top again (and help push Switch hardware sales to boot).

The more Nintendo closes that gap in the next year, the weaker the XBox One will appear; Microsoft had three-and-a-bit years to make some kind of headway over the Nintendo Switch. To lose ground to it in such a small space of time is going to reflect poorly on the hardware. And ultimately, reflect badly on Phil Spencer.

Phil Spencer - Stock Image.
The current public face of the XBox One.

Either way, it’s not a good look.

So it must be asked; why now? Why slam on the XBox One now when it’s clearly had problems for some time? Well, Nintendo is back in the good books of the Industry. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild walked away with almost every major Game of the Year award in 2017. It’s handling ports of modern games – and doing so well, even if a small but loud portion of people scoff at the reduced resolution (failing to grasp that what you lose there, you gain in portability which for some may be a very valid compromise and/or trade-off). And let’s not forget, thanks to Mario+Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, it made the beleaguered Rabbids culturally relevant again – or perhaps for the first time, depending on how you want to see it. That’s not gone unnoticed to UbiSoft, that’s for sure.

The Switch is seeing an explosion in software sales – with regular reports that games are selling gangbusters on the Switch. And third parties are on board; I have said this before on this blog, but Dark Souls Remastered using the Switch as its lead-in platform was a massive statement of confidence in the machine. Even Bethesda – a company who once was very vocal about their opinion of Nintendo (and that was not a nice opinion either) – has recently said if they can get games out at the same time on the Switch, they would prefer to do so because they’ve seen strong sales on the platform.

And let’s repeat this because it’s so important; Nintendo pulled this stunt off in a single year. Off the back of unquestionably one of the industries most visible sales disasters.

Microsoft is a massive entity – projected to begin earning a trillion dollars per year in the 2020’s, with soaring profits elsewhere. Money should be no object for the XBox One – and the XBox One X certainly seems to suggest they’re not afraid to splash the cash. But therein lies the problem? Lately, people are asking “Where is Microsoft’s answer to God of War?” – but we can go deeper than that superficial query. Where was it’s answer to Super Mario 3D World? Or Hyrule Warriors? Or Bloodborne, or Mario+Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, or Breath of the Wild or well you can insert any popular and massive exclusive for other platforms.

Breath of the Wild Screenshot
BOTW is -very- photogenic.

It has no answers. Not really. The only big-selling and high-rated game it has is Forza Horizon 3. Everything else has just blended into an intangible mush.

And as obvious as it is to say it, now I’m wrapping this up – that’s just not good enough. Say what you will about the Wii U – we already have – but at least it was seen to be trying. There’s a reason so many Wii U games are making the “Switch”, as it were. They were great games on hardware that couldn’t sell. Microsoft has hardware that can sell – at least, to a point. But there’s no juice in the can, nothing is standing out right now to say, “You simply MUST play this game.” Sadly, not even Sea of Thieves could do that.

And no. It’s not as if Microsoft hasn’t been trying if you look hard enough. It has tons of games; but they’re just not all that interesting. Dead Rising 3 and Dead Rising 4 were critical bombs compared to their irreverent Gen-7 forebears. Rise of the Tomb Raider should have been a score – it wasn’t. Even Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds; how ironic what a year ago seemed like a major coup blew up in their face thanks to a little multi-platform thing called Fortnite

Microsoft is being asked to “produce”, and it’s got little to nothing to actually produce. And that wouldn’t have mattered in the slightest… if we were still able to rag on the Wii U. But instead, Nintendo has moved wholesale to supporting the Switch. The Wii U is officially dead; discontinued before the Switch even hit the market.

So critics follow the path of least resistance… which has led them, invariably, to the doorstep of the XBox One.

Yeah. This was all obvious. Sorry about that. I got nothing else right now, trying to look around for a new place to live…


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