Has Xbox Become the “Why” Box?

In 1998 the idea that Microsoft should create a video game console was brought to Bill Gates. The idea was to create a console, based on PC parts and a Windows operating system, which would allow for ease of development and bring forth almost twice the processing power of the then dominate Playstation 2. Originally named the “DirectXbox” it eventually became what we now know as simply Xbox.

Microsoft reached out to Bungie, well known for titles such as Marathon and Myth, to create a killer launch title for their new system. Bungie who was currently working on a new IP known as Halo: Combat Evolved, which was initially slated for release on Apple and PC, was acquired by Microsoft which turned its focus away from the home computer market to release on the new Xbox console.

So began Microsoft’s journey into the home video game market, something that many had attempted before and failed. Atari exited the scene in the early 90’s, followed closely by Sega. The exits made it appear that there was only room enough for two companies in the home video game market, Sony and Nintendo. That was until Microsoft joined the fray.

When the original Xbox was released, it seemed that Microsoft had a clear goal to make a game console, with the key word being “game”. The “Death of PC Gaming” rumors had been going on for several years, with the constant fear that consoles would relegate the PC to spreadsheets and homework assignments. Therefore, it made sense that Microsoft would double down on a home video game console. The Xbox released with 20 games on launch day, including a solid line-up of sports, action, racing, and the killer launch title…Halo. The Xbox looked aggressive, with a black and green color scheme, a large X shaped design and one of the most massive controllers to come out for a console. There was no question that this was a game console designed with one purpose…to play games.

Xbox 360 followed a few years later, and again, the focus was on games. The 360 sported a smaller, sleeker, more streamlined look, masterfully redesigned controllers and around 18 launch titles. The games were a mix of racing, sports and shooter games which was a respectable line-up. It also introduced Xbox Live, a paid online service. While many moaned about having to pay for online play, something that had been free for PC and Playstation gamers, they appreciated Microsoft’s clear focus on gaming.

The announcement of the Xbox One and more importantly the required Kinect, is where things appeared to shift with Microsoft. The Xbox One still looked like an Xbox and the game controller was largely unchanged, but the discussion, while still about games, had started to change. It was now not only a game box, but a box that would integrate with your existing television service and provide voice commands to maneuver through the menus and launch titles. Microsoft also touted the Kinect as a must have device, which could be used with Skype to talk with family over your TV and the perfect motion tracking device for all the games to utilize. Even though Microsoft had expanded its focus to be more than a game system, Xbox One launched with 22 titles (and several exclusives), showing they hadn’t forgotten the gamers who had stuck with them over the years, but had they?

The Xbox (and Microsoft in general), presented an idea only to change their mind shortly after. Kinect, the redesigned device we had heard was so important, went largely unused. Microsoft failed to bring in big name AAA titles that would utilize it to its full potential. It wasn’t that the Kinect wasn’t a marvel and capable of so much more, it was that Microsoft failed to sell the idea of its capabilities not only to developers but to gamers. Instead of showing their audience why it was important to have one and to pay more for the console because of it, it was slowly killed off and relegated to most gamers closets or sold to Gamestop.

Microsoft had made claims that the Xbox One would be the system for the living room, a device that would look natural sitting next to your home AVR and Blu-ray player. They went as far as integrating an IR blaster in the Kinect to allow control of all IR devices and a pass-thru for TV to integrate with home satellite and cable service providers. Microsoft wanted the Xbox to be the center of the living room experience. It would be as irreplaceable as your cable box, your AVR, and your Blu-ray player…all in one device. This is the point I believe Microsoft lost focus on its key demographic, and the console became the jack of all trades and a master of none.

Streaming videos had begun to take the place of Blu-ray, and the rise of Smart TVs, and Roku boxes meant that for a small amount of money anyone could stream their content to their TVs. There was no longer a need to have a game console to watch Netflix. This negated much of the focus that Microsoft had placed on the all-in-one entertainment device, which pushed the Xbox One back to what its sole purpose should have been all along…to play games.

In an effort to appeal to a wider audience, Microsoft rolled out Windows 10 to Xbox One under the covers, which allowed streaming of Xbox games to PC. In addition, the initiative to release games on the Xbox One and have them playable on the PC continued the Xbox’s downward trend. The problem wasn’t the technology, the problem was finding a purpose for the once great console.

For most, the choice to play a game on their gaming PC or on their console is an easy one. Since in most cases a gaming PC will offer superior graphics and higher frame rates, PC would be the logical choice. If most games available on Xbox are also available on PC, then Microsoft is simply losing its base of console players, to their PC/Windows platform. The rise of streaming games to your TV (via Steam Big Picture) also negated one of the other advantages that the Xbox had over its PC brethren, the ability to sit on the couch and game on a big screen.

If this is true, why does Playstation continue to flourish when you can apply the same argument as far as PC gaming is concerned? The answer is…Playstation exclusives, both in quality and in quantity. This is where Sony excels, ensuring that if you want to play games from studios such as Naughty Dog, you can only do that by owning a Playstation. Fanboys on all sides will argue whether a game looks better on PS4, Xbox One or PC however the one thing that the Sony fanboys will always point to is their exclusives, which are only playable on Playstation.

Playstation continues to attract the masses because top level exclusives bring more to a console then simply the games themselves. If a decision to buy only one console is based on an exclusive game, then non-exclusive games will be purchased for that console as well. Exclusives get you in the door, but the other games ensure you stay there.

Looking at the specs of the upcoming Xbox One X, there is little reason to see it as the smaller, weaker opponent, to the Rocky Balboa Playstation 4. Xbox One X will be faster, include a 4K Blu-ray player, and will be the king of the consoles from purely a hardware specification standpoint when it’s released in November.

So why is the excitement for Xbox One X so diminished? Why are folks already questioning the successes of the console as well as Microsoft’s role in consoles in general? The answer is simple, Microsoft hasn’t given us a reason as to why we need it…why it matters. Those riding the 4K bandwagon will point to the fact that the Xbox One X is (on paper at least) capable of running games at a high frame rate, but unless you have a 4K TV then this is simply a function that will go mostly unused. The faster hardware will allow for current generation games to run at faster frame rates, improving the overall experience, but for current Xbox owners (or for those choosing between Playstation and Xbox) will that be enough to incite them to purchase an Xbox One X over their existing Xbox or Playstation? Much like the ill-fated Kinect, Microsoft tells us what it can do, tells us what it could mean for the future, but never SHOWS us why we need it. It’s great to talk about the advantages of a new device, but talk is cheap, where is the proof?

This all boils down to one thing, exclusives…games that you can play only on Xbox, and that’s where the hush falls over the crowd. When the Xbox, Xbox 360 and Xbox One were released they released with numerous launch titles, many of which were exclusives. However looking at Xbox One X, there are very few launch titles and Crackdown 3, which was supposed to be the killer launch exclusive has been delayed into 2018. Microsoft announced they would be updating their legacy titles to take advantage of the improved visuals (130 and counting), but once again if gamers don’t have a 4K TV is that a reason to go out and immediately buy and Xbox One X? Adoption of 4K has been slow, and while the visuals may look breathtaking, even photo realistic in some cases (Forza 7 does look amazing), is that a reason to upgrade?

It feels as though Microsoft is still trying to figure out what it wants to be. The platform is there for them to make a bold statement. The fact that it runs on Windows 10 means it should be able to attract development studios based on familiarity of that alone…so where are they? Regardless of what fanboys will argue, the world needs Xbox to be successful…success brings competition which drives innovation, and ultimately lowers prices. However, Microsoft needs to give the world a reason to buy one. Flashy graphics and high frame rates while great on paper, don’t sell consoles…games sell consoles and exclusives make all the difference.