games / Columns

The Gamer Parent’s Strategy Guide: Microsoft

May 21, 2021 | Posted by Jed Shaffer
Microsoft Xbox One

Before we begin …

Sorry for the long delay between columns. Some personal stuff came up. Nothing serious.

Moving the links to the lead-off position.

The Gamer Parent’s Strategy Guide Podcast! The latest episode is on video game addiction. I always recommend listening to my podcast (as well as subscribing and rating on the platform of choice), but this one is a pretty important topic all gamers should listen to.

Also, I guested on Learning With Rod Peter Jr. a few weeks back. Trigger warning: it’s a pretty frank talk about mental health, depression and suicide. It was a great talk, though, and Rod’s a great interviewer.

Me on Twitter!

The column and podcast, on Facebook!

The email!.

This week’s business.

Blah, blah, weird personal anecdote that goes on for a few paragraphs and that seems unrelated to the main topic until I tie it in via some weird connective tissue like the classic era of The Simpsons, Microsoft and the X-Box.

Wow, you don’t try hard ANYWHERE.

I mean, you knew that, after dissecting Nintendo and Sony, I’d complete the trifecta. Well, joke’s on you! It’s really going to be a four-parter, because I have to address PC gaming, or else the PC Master Race will make so much noise, they’ll make the Snyder-bros look calm and measured. But 1) I need a break from this format, 2) I have another topic in mind for the next edition, and 3) consoles rule. Too bad, PC people.

So, now that I’ve turned a not insignificant portion of my readership against me with a terrible joke, here we are. Microsoft and the X-Box. I’ve played or owned two consoles in almost every generation; the Intellivision and Atari 5200, the Genesis and SNES, the Saturn and PS1, the PS2 and GameCube, the PS3 and Wii, and the PS4 and Switch. But not once have I owned or even played an X-Box, not even in one of those kiosks at an electronics store. It’s not that I have some tribalistic hatred of the X-Box. I’ve already stated my opinion on tribalism in gaming, and I stand by it; it’s stupid and childish and only serves to cause division. Great games can be found anywhere, in every generation, on any console.

For instance, I’ve heard The Flowers Of Robert Mapplethorpe is a real treat for the senses.

For me, X-Box has never had any console exclusives that scratched my particular itches. That’s not to say they haven’t had any games of interest, just never enough of them (or a singular killer app) that moved the needle. Sunset Overdrive looked cool. The Fable series seemed interesting, even if they never quite measured up to Peter Molyneaux’s never-ending parade of bullshit. And Forza looked a little easier to get into than <iGran Turismo. But I’m not an FPS guy, so Halo did nothing for me, and Gears Of War looked as generic as store-brand soda. Also, I don’t know two longshoremen with a hi-lo to install one of those things in my entertainment center. Good lord, Microsoft, a console doesn’t have to resemble a blacksmith’s anvil.

Anyway, I’ll try to be a dispassionate, objective outsider and just present the facts as I can be. That shouldn’t be too hard, right?

The X-Box’s identity

Oh, come on.

If Nintendo is the quirky cousin that wears two different plaids at the same time, and Sony couldn’t care less to fashion an image beyond “games”, Microsoft is what would happen if you combined a chameleon with the rambling, incoherent lunatic at the bus stop. And before anybody says it in the comments, I’m not down on a brand pivoting, as long as it makes strategic sense. It’s hard to be impressed when Microsoft’s pivots have felt as random as a Family Guy cutaway gag, and have been antithetical to the way they should pivot.

The original X-Box didn’t have the time or the space to carve an identity. They were too busy trying to keep above the water line, which, considering their competition, they did as good a job as they could … here in the Americas, at least. I mean, against the PS2, the best outcome possible was “better than the Jaguar”. In Japan, the X-Box might as well have been the FM Towns Marty. Come the next console cycle, thanks to a smart marketing strategy, a sound foundation, and Sony botching the PS3 launch, Microsoft carved out a fantastic identity with the 360 as the multiplayer console. That is, until they become the embodiment of that meme with the guy walking with his girlfriend and turning to check out another woman. For the 360, that head-turner’s name was “motion controls”. Unfortunately, even though Nintendo already had her number, Microsoft pivoted anyway, giving up second place in favor of something else.

Hey, baby … wanna get together and make something awful?

Hardcore and online gamers were sidelined as Microsoft barfed up the Kinect, the must-shrug accessory of the generation, as the public’s love for motion controls soured. For the next several years, Microsoft would lose the plot harder than a James Nguyen movie. When they prepared to transition from the 360 to the One (THESE FUCKING NAMES AGAIN), they did so with all the grace of a drunken water buffalo, having perhaps the most disastrous E3 console unveiling since the Sega Saturn. Sony’s PS3 reveal, with the “historical” kaiju crab and middle-finger pricing strategy, was bad, but Microsoft said “hold my brewery” and went all-in on outsmarting themselves. They made Kinect and online connectivity mandatory at all times, which meant if your internet went down, you couldn’t even play a single-player game. In an effort to drive new game sales, games were locked to consoles with a form of DRM that prevented even loaning someone a game. As if all that wasn’t enough, they took a page from the Philips CDi marketing playbook and push the One as a media hub. Nobody could explain the advantage of running their Blu-ray player through a game console, since the game console COULD PLAY BLU-RAYS IN THE FIRST PLACE. It was like plugging headphones into an iPod, only to put the earbuds up against a microphone plugged into speakers.

Which brings us to now, and it’s still hard to say what their image is. The Series X and S are a fine idea on paper … except the S can’t run in 4K like the X can, and this all digital console has a hard drive half the size of its physical media-reading sibling, meaning you’ll need an external hard drive soon enough. It’s enough to wonder what is the point of the S. Microsoft also seemed either glib or unfazed about their new consoles not having any exclusives for the eighteen months. And by “exclusive”, I mean even the console generation. It begs the question of what the point is of buying EITHER console.

So … I hear you like to do nothing useful.

Look, I’m not trying to pile on and paint them as a schizophrenic Sega … which, come to think of it, is just Sega. Microsoft’s got their fair sure of success stories on their CV, and I’d be remiss without mentioning them. Online console gaming would not be the thing it is today without them pushing it as a must-experience feature on the first two X-Boxes. Their original online marketplace is the blueprint for the ones we use today, right down to opening the door to indie developers, and allowing for game updates and DLC on consoles. The interiors of their consoles mirror PC design so much, ports between the two are as simple as putting on socks, which is a benefit for both environs. They’ve been at the forefront of cross-platform connectivity, helping to shame Sony into allowing it. They loaned Nintendo Banjo-Kazooie for Smash Bros Ultimate, just for kicks. And they have been the lone proponents for backwards compatibility through each and every generation, on a comprehensive scale the likes of which console gaming has never seen, which is awesome from both a retro-gaming nerd’s perspective and for the preservation of gaming’s rich history.

Even if it is to know what lines should never again be crossed.

But if I were an employee at GameStop and a parent asked me if they should buy an X-Box for their kid, I point off in the distance and run while you looked away. They’re a brand without a consistent identity. Is it for hardcore gamers? Online gamers? Gaming history nerds? Motion control fan? (The lack of plurality is not a typo.) I can’t answer that, because I’m not sure they can.

The graveyard of – err, studio acquisitions

Microsoft has been voracious in buying up studios over the years. It’s not a bad idea, and if you’re a parent or a gamer in general, seeing the roster of studios under their control should be as eye-catching as a Vegas marquee: Rare, Ninja Theory, Double Fine, Obsidian, and now Bethesda. That’s a hell of a list. Anybody with decent knowledge of the gaming industry should be impressed with that line-up. The games coming out of those developers should rival the murderer’s row of franchises Nintendo has on deck. As good as Sony’s franchises are, even they shouldn’t be able to stack up.

Until, you know, you spend more than half a second being starry-eyed by the list of names and look at the reality of it. Microsoft’s history with their acquisitions is, at best, rocky, and there’s no better example than Rare.

It’s like finding out Gordon Ramsay runs an Arby’s.

Rare’s pre-Microsoft resume is responsible for some of the 90’s most treasured, iconic games; the Donkey Kong Country trilogy, Killer Instinct, GoldenEye 007, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, the list goes on and on and on. But once their last non-Microsoft game was released in 2008, something changed. That shift marked the “gaining weight and wearing sweats every night” portion of their marriage. Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts was the first red flag. Microsoft rewarded that game’s failure to be anything anybody asked for by tasking them with supporting the Kinect for the next five years. Yes, Sea of Thieves has enjoyed success, after a No Man’s Sky-style launch full of broken promises. And what did they follow up that with? A mediocre relaunch of Battletoads. Their name used to be a gold standard in quality; now, it’s become synonymous with existing.

It isn’t just Rare. Obsidian has published one game since being bought – The Outer Wilds, which did not live up to its Fallout-killer hype – and a co-op survival game in early access that I only just now heard of in doing research for this column. Double Fine hasn’t put out anything since being bought, and the one game they have on their schedule – Psychonauts 2 – is a multi-platform game. And then there’s Ninja Theory, who is like one of those actors who keep getting huge paychecks, even though they keep releasing bombs. Heavenly Sword and Enslaved: Odyssey To The West got critical praise and released to an onslaught of no sales whatsoever. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice sold well and got great reviews, so that’s good. But then … then … IT happened.

It’s the first game made of Axe Body Spray and Tapout shirts.

They’re working on Hellblade II, which will be a Microsoft exclusive, so, yay, that’s something. And the other studios I mentioned also have console exclusives in the pipeline, even if they’re dated TBA, and some are so far off in the distance, they have “Project [Something]” as placeholder names. But it’s hard to ignore what Microsoft has done with their acquisitions. Microsoft’s studios … something’s not right, man. They buy a studio, and if the studio doesn’t end up tasked with the most menial garbage, they’re producing games that are fine but forgettable, or selling them on competing platforms. I don’t doubt Microsoft’s commitment to being in the industry, but I doubt their commitment to the commitment, if that makes sense. When Sony or Nintendo puts out something that doesn’t hit, I know there’s a good chance the next thing will. When Microsoft puts up a dud, I wonder if the gun is even loaded. Or if that’s a gun and not, say, a spatula.

The games

And that brings us to their game library. A console is only as good as its exclusives. I mentioned before the obvious names – Halo, Forza, Gears of War. After that, it gets a little dicey. The gaps between releases starts getting wider, and you have to question if they’re viable franchises anymore. Flight Simulator is scheduled to come to the S/X sometime this year, maybe … but kids aren’t exactly lining up for life-accurate recreations of flying a Cessna. Crackdown was going fine until the third entry spent five years in development, and was released in a state that looked like it was programmed over a long weekend. State Of Decay 3 was announced, and has a date of “someday, maybe”. It doesn’t even have its own Wiki page yet, that’s how not-far into development they are.

If you’re following along on that IGN article, the next entry, besides the obvious Halo, is Killer Instinct. The last time that had a new entry was almost seven years ago. From there, you have to start measuring the gaps in historical eras. The last Crimson Skies game came out before the first iPhone. Again, I’m forced to compare Microsoft to Sega here, as both companies have a line-up of forgotten franchises that would keep most developers afloat for a century.

Hard to believe they failed to see the marketing opportunities here.

The lifespan of the X-Box brand is directly disproportionate to the lifespan of their console exclusives. Sony may ditch IP’s, but they quickly replace them; Jak & Daxter were retired for Uncharted. Infamous got mothballed, but now there’s Horizon. X-Box has not been so fortunate, and, from a parental standpoint, it hurts. Unless the person is a complete partisan shill, I haven’t seen a reviewer doing a console comparison this generation that has endorsed the Series X/S over the PS5, for one reason: exclusive games. The Series S/X just doesn’t have them. Someday in the future, yes, that’s a given. But even when they have exclusives, they’re in the same boat as Sony, with few, if any, games for younger kids. There’s more for older kids, but again, the exclusives are few and far between, and when they’re also available on PC and maybe even the X-Box One X … well, we’re back to start, and there’s no $200 to pick up.

So, for parents looking at the games line-up … I’m genuinely at a loss as to what to tell you. I feel like I should again stress that the exclusives they do have are renowned. It’s impossible to dispute the excellence of games like Halo and Forza. But if you’ve got a seven year old, I legit can’t give you a good reason to even look at an X-Box, and once they’re a teenager, they could just as well get a PC, so they can play many of the same games and have a homework machine too.

Um … Roblox teaches architecture and design? And, uh … PornHub teaches anatomy?

So, what does it all mean?

I wish I could tell gamer parents looking to get their kids a console that there’s a great reason to buy an X-Box, but this generation, they have rendered themselves irrelevant from jump street. Their games are on PC, which can double as a utility. They hobbled themselves with the exclusives issue. They’ve left most of their franchises in a box in front of the grocery store, and they’ve done less than the minimum to make the console appealing to younger kids. If you’re a fan, hey, more power to you, I hope you’re happy with it. I would never begrudge your happiness. But, as an impartial bystander, and as someone trying to break down this console and this company for parents, nothing about it makes sense whatsoever. As they stand now, they’re buggy whips.

Does that mean that’s all they’ll ever be? No, I’d be a liar and a fool to say so. Nintendo has bumbled as many console launches as they’ve nailed; hell, they just came out of their worst console generation ever and made Nintendo a must-own device again. The PlayStation 3 was a monumental failure, until they re-calibrated. Even though they have a track record of zigging when they should zag, Microsoft, in theory, should be able to make the correct pivot. The question is, if they do, will it be too late for parents?

I see you’ve made the console version of Windows ME. Would you like help?

And in closing …

Next edition should bring us back to our regular schedule. Should have a new podcast episode up next week too. Was supposed to this week (with 411mania’s own Sean Garmer!), but scheduling conflicts caused a delay. Has anybody listened to it yet? Would love to hear some feedback.

See you in 2.