Xbox’s Problem Isn’t Just a Lack of Video Games, It’s a Lack of Identity

Posted on January 27, 2023

Welcome to PRESS START, probablyoliver’s weekly video game newsletter that always, without remorse or hesitation, picks Oddjob. This week, we take a look at Xbox’s Developer_Direct and ponder Xbox’s current identity crisis. Also this week, Square Enix finally pulls the plug on the biggest mis-step in gaming history, CD Projekt Red look to double-down with an incredibly expensive expansion, and I do the unthinkable by recommending a game where you romance anime waifu’s in the only good visual novel ever made.

It’s been an interesting week for Xbox. In fact, it’s been an interesting few years for them. From high profile cancellations, an industry-defining change to subscription-model gaming, and not one but two of the biggest acquisitions in video game history, it’s safe to say that grabbing headlines hasn’t been an issue for Microsoft’s black and green behemoth over the last few years. This week was no different, as Xbox presented its premiere episode of Developer_Direct on Wednesday, highlighting a handful of their upcoming slate of first-party games including Minecraft Legends, Forza Motorsport and Redfall. It was, especially for a first edition, a pretty good showcase, with 45 minutes of gameplay, developer interviews, and perhaps most importantly for Xbox in 2023, release dates.

However, Microsoft also made much less positive headlines this week after laying off an eye-watering 10,000 members of staff, a move which heavily impacted its gaming divisions, with studios ZeniMax, The Coalition, 343 Industries and Bethesda Game Studios being hit the hardest. In the wake of a tumultuous and seemingly never-ending acquisition of Activision Blizzard, and at a time where Microsoft are struggling to keep up with Sony and Nintendo’s impressive first-party release schedule, these mass layoffs could potentially add yet more bumps in what’s already been a rocky road for Xbox’s current gen offerings.

This is not to say that Xbox are doomed, and there are plenty of genuinely interesting innovations and offers the black and green brand have at hand that are worthy of celebration. Their Game Pass model, with users paying a monthly subscription fee to access an impressive library of games across console, PC and mobile, is truly incredible, and is leagues ahead of the copycat services on offer from Nintendo and PlayStation. Xbox is also arguably the most accessible of the three major consoles currently on the market, with strong PC and mobile integration, and also the fact they offer players a choice between the ultra-powerful (and equally pricey) monolithic Series X or the more compact (and cheaper) Series S. It’s a business strategy that gives players a wide array of choices in what is typically a very binary space, and it makes Xbox the most consumer friendly of the three main console brands on market today.

Unfortunately for Xbox, ground-breaking game delivery and a great deal of accessibility can only get you so far. For the past two generations, Xbox seemed to have struggled with its first-party output, and after a handful of missteps with their biggest franchises, Xbox seem to have lost their identity. In its 360 heyday, Xbox fired on all cylinders with a handful of tried and tested, heavy-hitting franchises that were guaranteed to put them in the good graces of gamers with every release. Franchises like Halo and Gears Of War, whilst hardly revolutionary in their own right, at least offered peak water-cooler moments with some impeccable, blockbuster set-pieces and an emphasis on multiplayer which didn’t hamper the stories being told but rather bolstered them. In a generation where Sony fumbled the bag with the PlayStation 3, Xbox triumphed, offering multiple first-party hits from a wide range of genres, as well as securing the marketing rights for a whole host of third-party powerhouses like Call of Duty, The Elder Scrolls and FIFA.

The cracks started to show around the reveal of Microsoft’s next console, the Xbox One, with a misjudged attempt to push players into a ‘digital only’ existence that would allow users to play their games anywhere they went, so long as they remained online at all times. In a vacuum, it sounded idyllic, but anyone without a half-decent internet connection or anyone with imposed caps on their data usage would be left in the dust. It was a disastrous reveal, and after avoiding the issue for months, Microsoft finally caved to the pressure and reneged on almost everything they’d envisioned. It would be unfair to suggest that the nail was already in the coffin at that point, but Microsoft didn’t help themselves by spending much of the Xbox One’s life-cycle mishandling their cornerstone properties, losing out on marketing deals and spending their E3 presentations focusing on gimmicks and, uh, military-grade augmented reality tech?

Since then, Xbox have been attempting to claw back some measure of momentum, and though there’s a diehard fanbase who are insistent that everything is currently fine and good things are on their way, it’s undoubtedly concerning that Microsoft failed to release a single fully-fledged AAA-game on their home consoles in 2022. That, combined with lacklustre and poorly performing recent entries in their once landmark franchises Halo and Gears Of War, as well as many of their upcoming slate of first party games being met with tempered expectations, makes me concerned that Xbox’s current problem isn’t just a lack of games, but a lack of identity altogether.

For evidence of this apparent identity crisis, I’d say to look no further than Wednesday’s Developer_Direct. As I mentioned previously, it was a decent showcase, and there are certainly things worth getting excited for on the horizon, but I can’t see that any of the five games shown could become synonymous with Xbox’s identity or break through into the ever-important Game of the Year conversation.

First there was the niche, hobbyist games Forza Motorsport and The Elder Scrolls Online, both of which look absolutely fantastic and will undoubtedly rake in nominations for their respective genre-specific awards come the end of the year, but short of being revolutionary, neither stand a change of permeating into the zeitgeist. Then there was Minecraft Legends, an online, multiplayer, action-strategy hybrid. Again, it will definitely find its audience, but just like Forza and ESO, there’s little chance of it hitting the mainstream. Next on the docket came Hi-Fi Rush from Tango Gameworks, an ultra-vibrant and intensely colourful rhythm action game, and easily the most surprising of the five games on show. Directed and produced by horror aficionado’s John Johanas and Shinji Mikami in a stark contrast to their usual brand of survival spook’em-ups (both previously worked on Tango’s horrifying The Evil Within franchise), it’s a fast-paced and charming sprint that I’d recommend to near-enough anyone, but again, it’s a game that simply won’t find an audience outside of those already on Xbox’s platform.

Finally, there was the main event of the evening, the upcoming vampire shooter Redfall, and the first game developed exclusively by Arkane’s Austin studio since 2017’s brilliant but oft-forgotten space horror Prey. For me, it’s a game I’ve been cautiously optimistic for ever since its initial reveal in 2021, but the more I see of it, the more concerned I become. Not only does there appear to be a heavy-handed emphasis on multiplayer, but it seems too big for its own good, almost as if its being designed by committee in an attempt to tick as many boxes as possible rather than offering the kind of bespoke experience that Arkane are famously brilliant at. I hope I’m wrong, and I hope it’s every bit as brilliant as its initial reveal suggested it could be, but with Xbox’s track record of late, I’m becoming more and more concerned that it could collapse under its own weight in the same way that Halo Infinite did back in 2021.

Ten or fifteen years ago, I’d tell you Xbox was all about squadding up with your pals to take down hoards of aliens, Nazis or zombies in Halo or Call Of Duty. It was about championing innovative indie arcade classics like Braid, Limbo or Fez, and it was about exploring massive worlds in role-playing classics like Knights Of The Old Republic or Skyrim. Maybe it’s just the nostalgia talking, but I can’t see that any of that still exists to the same level it did on Microsoft’s platform, and I can’t see how any of Xbox’s upcoming slate of games can look to fix that.

Xbox are deserving of a win right now, their Game Pass model is truly impressive, their accessibility suite is next to none, and there’s a handful of games in the pipeline that could genuinely be brilliant, but they can’t afford to make anymore mistakes. PlayStation have put out enough God Of War’s and Spider-Men in the last few years to occasionally take the hit on a poorly received game like Forspoken or The Order 1886. Same with Nintendo, because for every Arms, there’s a Splatoon, but Xbox have lost that luxury in the last few years, and if they don’t fire on all cylinders and deliver a few bona fide 10/10s over the next year or two, they may risk losing their identity altogether.

This week, it was announced that the plug was finally being pulled on its live-service Marvel’s Avengers game, with the final nail being hammered in when it’s removed from digital storefronts on September 30th of this year. When it was first announced back in January 2017, at a time when the Marvel Cinematic Universe was raking in literal billions at the box office, it seemed impossible to fail. Yet here we are six years later, lamenting a game which flopped both critically and commercially, and was even deemed a ‘disappointment’ by developer Square Enix.

After a launch so bad it forced Sony to remove the game entirely from its digital storefront, things finally start to be looking up for Cyberpunk 2077. Not only was CD Projekt Red’s first person RPG recently awarded with the ‘Labour of Love’ award at the recent Steam awards, but now a Reddit post from community director Marcin Morton has confirmed that the upcoming ‘Phantom Liberty’ DLC is the biggest and most expensive DLC the team have ever made. Considering this would include The Witcher 3’s epic Blood And Wine expansion, that’s no small feat, and we could finally be on the precipice of Cyberpunk 2077 finally getting its flowers.

In an interview with BuzzFeed this week, Naughty Dog co-president Neil Druckmann has claimed that the developers have officially “moved on” from the Uncharted series, and could potentially do the same with The Last Of Us if it doesn’t have a compelling enough story for part three. This comes in the same week that HBO’s adaptation of The Last Of Us saw the biggest episode 1 to 2 viewership jump in history, with a whopping 5.7 million viewers tuning in on Sunday night to see the second chapter in Joel and Ellie’s story of survival. Whatever’s next for Naughty Dog will undoubtedly have a high bar, but with their track record of incredible narrative adventures, I have no doubt it’ll be a stunning success.

Finally this week, Rick And Morty creator and alleged domestic abuser Justin Roiland has officially resigned from Squanch Games, the studio he co-created back in 2016. Last month, Squanch Games released High On Life, their epic space shooter which would have been more bearable if not for Roiland’s incredibly annoying voice work. In their statement, Squanch Games promised to “keep developing games we know our fans will love while continuing to support and improve High On Life”.

Season: A Letter To The Future releases on Tuesday, January 31st on both PC and PS5, and early reviews suggest it’s another win for indie games, promising “stunning visuals, subtle score, [and] compelling characters”. The development of this indie darling was marred in controversy after reports of abuse allegations back in 2021, however an independent audit into the studio “did not find the presence of systemic sexual or psychological harassment”. It’s still worth noting however, and I recommend everyone does their research before jumping into any such game.

The long-awaited re-release of classic 1997 multiplayer favourite Goldeneye 007 releases today, January 27th on Nintendo Switch and Xbox for anyone looking for a heavy dose of nostalgia and terrible shooting mechanics. I was absolutely besotted with the original back in the late 90s, and I personally can’t wait to dive back in, even if just to remind myself of how far we’ve come.

On occasion for PRESS START, I’ll be digging deep into my never-ending backlog to play something I totally missed when it first came out. This week, we take a look at Doki-Doki Literature Club.

Now, I’ll start by saying that I have zero interest in visual novels, anime, or virtual dating sims of any kind. In fact, I typically find the genre somewhat uncomfortable. I could spend this entire section delving into why, but instead I’ll just say any game that has to come with a pre-roll disclaimer stating that all the girls depicted in the game are over the age of 18 is a little icky by my standards. But hey, this isn’t the time or the section for that discourse.

I’ll follow that up by saying I’ve been aware of this game for a few years, and I understand how highly regarded it is. However, it’s a game I’ve ignored regardless of its high praise as, again, it’s not a genre I have even a tertiary interest in. Still, the sheer amount of recommendations I’d had to play the game finally got to me, and after being told (numerous times) that it was a subversion of the visual novel genre, I finally caved and picked it up on PlayStation last week.

Since then, I’ve played through it (twice), and I can safely say that it’s not only one of the most brilliantly written video games ever made, but there are certain moments that will henceforth live in my mind rent-free in the same way the opening of The Last Of Us or the ending of Final Fantasy VII’s disc one do.

I won’t spoil anything, because I really believe it needs to be seen to be believed, and I’m genuinely jealous of anyone who’s yet to have experienced it or had the game spoiled for them. All I will say is that the first hour plays out exactly the same as I imagine any straight-played visual novel does, you’re presented with four giggling girls who are quick to fawn over your wit and charm, and through a series of text-prompt decisions, you must choose the object of your affections. Then, out of nowhere, it changes, and what comes next is truly stunning.

It’s not converted me to the genre by any means, and though I can appreciate other subversions like Hatoful Boyfriend or Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator, I’ll happily live the rest of my life in the knowledge that no game of its type could ever come close to the psychological warfare I experienced at the hands of Moniker and the rest of the literature club.

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