We joke sometimes about companies having an “identity crisis”.
Sometimes that’s outright hyperbole; after all, developers and publishers alike have to not only make video games, which takes years, but try and spot and/or adapt to shifting market trends. Most of the industry hasn’t even adapted to the Nintendo Switch yet, which after almost 19 months on the market should be a terrifying indictment as to the current state of the industry. This is not a science; it’s guesswork and reactionary grandstanding, hoping by the time your game lands it’s either good enough or relevant enough to stand on its own in a crowded scene where there are many other new titles (and some stubborn old ones) all competing for the consumers attention.
I get that. I can say that and believe that to be the truth of the matter. So when I say that after XO2018 I am even more confused about what Microsoft is doing, you’ll appreciate how mind-rendingly frustrating the whole thing was. Aside from on the night discovering who Rylan Clarke was (it was a very weird night), I came away with some questions that demonstrate just how infuriatingly muddled this whole XBox thing has become.
The first is that XO2018 was one glorified two-hour-long advertisement for the Microsoft/XBox Game Pass.
Everything in the show revolved around the Game Pass, a subscription-based service that allows you access to a selection of games for a nominal monthly fee. And like PSNow! and the Nintendo Classics Selection, I do understand the appeal of having a chunk of games available to download and play for not that much money. Heck, I understood the appeal back when OnLive was offering a similar monthly subscription in 2012, so this isn’t something that just happened by magic. Getting to play a bunch of games, particularly those that you may have missed or have changed somewhat since launch, can do wonders for a brand. Dark Souls was massive, and that’s what made the giveaway on the PS3 of Demon’s Souls all the more special; people got to see the inception of a franchise, the origins of the mythos if you were, and I’ll say it now – I think Demon’s Souls is technically the better game, even if Dark Souls remains the more coherent.
But Crackdown 3 will be on Game Pass. That’s a brand new game. That suggests one of two things to me; either Game Pass needs something to reel people in because it’s not doing so well, and so the inclusion of a brand new hotly-anticipated game becomes something of a marketing exercise… or there’s so much bad blood and concern about the end quality of Crackdown 3 that they have little faith in the end result shifting any full-priced copies in any volume. And Crackdown 3 will be offered at full price too, which is even more confusing, because why pay £50 for a game when in theory you can play it for a mere £7.99?
I said it before in a post about streaming but I’ll say it again; I don’t think Streaming Subscriptions will generate nearly enough revenue to support loads of developers.
Which neatly ties into my next concern – Microsoft buying up smaller development units like Obsidian Entertainment, inXile Entertainment and Ninja Theory. These are doubtlessly very good developers who make brilliant niche gaming content. It’s not even about “selling out”; if a company like Microsoft is offering you a blank cheque to all intents and purposes and is (at least for the moment) promising to be largely hands-off when it comes to what they want to make, that decision is obviously going to involve taking the safety and security of an obscene amount of money. And yes, there’s something commercially cynical about having laid the foundations of games like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Pillars of Eternity and Wasteland and then making the future of those series exclusive to the XBox brand. Still, welcome to the Games Industry. Where EA, Activision-Blizzard and WB Interactive have demonstrated how cynical companies are willing to get.
But I don’t see any of these companies bar Ninja Theory doing anything spectacular with the hardware. Maybe I’ll be wrong. But I think these are smaller companies who’ll have to grow to be “big boys” in the Top Tier Market, and as we’ve seen with Blizzard in the last few years – growing large and having lots of things to keep on top of turns out to be very difficult for some. The likes of Sony and Nintendo make it look easy when it is anything but.
More than that… removing choice indie developers from the market smacks of a misguided endeavour to “endear” Microsoft to the average gamer. Microsoft is no stranger to buying their way into a position of power – that’s largely what they did with the OG XBox and the XBox 360, to the detriment of their PC Market. But as the market demographics change, I wonder if people will see this as an act of charity or an act of aggression. Microsoft taking out of the wider industry companies who have done some truly wonderful things on multiple platforms, allowing them to release their current projects on hardware as a Trojan Horse of Marketing, the carrot-on-a-stick of, “If you want more of this, that’ll be £450 for this console you probably didn’t want to buy thanks!”
I also wonder if this will damage the developers and/or their reputations, especially the likes of Ninja Theory who not long ago were expressing their deep disquiet about this exact sort of situation, extolling the virtues of remaining independent and pitching games that looked top-tier but were more manageable, more interesting, more daring because of them being made outside the typical industry infrastructure. All of that rings a little hollow now, doesn’t it? As for Obsidian Entertainment… this is a company that not too long ago was still crowdfunding for their projects, which must again feel like a slap in the face to thousands of backers who were thrilled to be more intimately involved in the creation of a game outside the “evils” of the usual corporate structure.
It doesn’t work, however, if the future hardware isn’t affordable or interesting enough.
The Wii U had tons of great, hell, Game of the Year video game releases. But that console sold like bottled water in the middle of a monsoon. Some of the finest games of this generation were on the Wii U; it didn’t matter, and most have seen better sales figures on the Switch. Having games is great – games will sell SOME consoles. But you need something that people want to buy in the first place and with the XBox One now way behind its rivals (if you collate Wii U and Switch figures together, which for the sake of this argument I will), having a bunch of smaller formerly-indie-darlings on your payroll doesn’t feel like enough of a change to warrant two hours of fluff and nonsense.
Moreover, I just don’t see where Microsoft is going with this. Is the next XBox going to be more modest in hardware, ergo the necessity for developers who think on a smaller scale? Are they looking at pitching more at the Windows 10 crowd, trying to wrench them away from Steam with a decent subscription ideal? Where exactly is their future – and what are they planning to do? I just don’t see anything in Microsoft lately that suggests they have an eye on the future, rather they’re trying to fix past mistakes we’ve largely all already forgotten about. That’s why the Switch succeeded; it marched once more to the beat of its own drum, away from the smouldering crater of the Wii U, and we followed. And we know where Nintendo plans to go in the future because we know they’re already working on the next “Switch” console. Which should drop in 2021/2022, because mobile hardware has shorter generational cycles.
And XO2018 felt like a celebration of a machine which deserves no real celebration. I know XBox One fans will balk at that somewhat, but I just don’t think this generation has been good to Microsoft. Nintendo could at least go boast about big software sales and high critical praise for the Wii U and be straight-faced about it. Microsoft seems to be celebrating mediocrity; and since I can’t think of a more damning statement than that, I’m just going to leave it there.
This close to The Game Awards, there’s a feeling that XO2018 could have been condensed down into three statements; one, Crackdown 3 release date. Two, we’ve bought out these indie developers. Three, Game Pass is a thing and it is $1 for the first month. There. Those were the highlights. I can’t imagine that wouldn’t have been better served as announcements at TGA2018. Actually, the buying out developers thing might have got them booed a little but that’s hardly reason enough to throw a two-hour show.
Of course, I don’t mind unpredictability in the industry – in fact, I prefer companies to surprise me a little. Sometimes things can get a little stale because big money demands more stability, which leaves us with sequel after sequel, instalment after instalment where nothing much changes from one year to the next. And yes, Microsoft isn’t having a bad year – if you want to see this years biggest corporate loser, take a glance over at Square-Enix and drink in the desperation. That’ll make for a very fun end-of-year ranking, considering I already have four contenders from Square-Enix’s stables vying for a place on my Worst Games of 2018 list.
But for all Microsoft’s bombast, I walk away thinking the Emperor not only is butt-ass naked, but possibly may be exaggerating their importance and their title somewhat.
Which is fun and all, but when I say that the most entertainment I had on Saturday night was discovering who Rylan Clarke was (I may have said some things about his mouth. I’m sure he’s a nice bloke but man, that’s an unnaturally large mouth with unnaturally pristinely-arranged teeth), it only reminds me that I had more fun with the company I kept that night than the event in question.
… though I’m sure there was some cheesy TV-ad-inspired madness at the end which felt like “Hello fellow kids!”. That or someone spiked my green tea.
Because they couldn’t possibly have thought that was a good idea. Right?
No image punchlines today.
I’ll have something more at the end of the week.
Thanks for stopping by and enduring this long-winded rant.