What if video game obsessiveness, but affordable?
It is absolutely no secret that I have been won over by Microsoft this past generation. I mean I’v expressed my love of the myriad of extremely consumer friendly moves over the past 5 or so years in writing, podcasts, live streams etc. You name a medium and I have sung this company's praises. However, this was not always the case. Microsoft started the current generation on a very hubristic foot back in May 2013 (where has that time gone?), with what seemed like miss-step after miss-step when it came to quelling the consumers worries on the still ridiculously named XBOX One. From under powered hardware, to always online DRM, to a mandatory bundled Kinect peripheral (which was also always online), to the sheer fact that their console was $100 more expensive than its competition in the PS4, things began very shaky indeed!
The writing was on the wall that Microsoft was in dire need of new leadership in its gaming division. Someone who had not completely lost touch with their audience, someone who understands not only what it means to be a modern gamer but also how to simply talk to them and understand their needs and worries. Enter Phil Spencer. Spencer was promoted into a leadership position across XBOX, XBOX Live and other facets of their gaming divisions, and though I’m sure everything happens at the approval of a board, has seemingly single handedly steered the Microsoft gaming division from what was appearing to be an in-escapable blackhole towards what can objectively be looked at as the single best gaming ecosystem of all time. So today I want to share with you the reasons why I feel so strongly about what Phil and the team over at Microsoft have done, and why they made my next-gen console decision unquestionably the XBOX Series X from a sheer value proposition.
Note: All opinions positive and negative are my own and I am in no way associated with Microsoft or any other organisation.
Hardware, from Zero to Hero
As mentioned, the XBOX One was not met with many ooh’s and ah’s back in 2013 at its launch. Microsoft having taken a stance, somewhat ahead of its time, to focus on being the all in one media centre for your living room meant that sheer graphical power wasn’t seen to be the core focus of the XBOX One, a decision that SONY would consistently poke at in their ‘all about the games’ marketing of the time. What this resulted in was underpowered hardware in comparison to its nearest competitor in the PS4, with third party showings such as Battlefield 4 and Assassin's Creed Black Flag looking underwhelming by comparison, with little in the way of impressive first party offerings to sweeten the deal.
Fast forward to E3 2016 where we not only got a glimpse at the XBOX One S, a slightly more powerful console which would take the ‘base’ console position moving forward, but we also got the first mention of what was then code named Project Scorpio. A console designed with pure graphical power as its core design initiative, to provide us gamers with a console experience like never before. And y’no what? They delivered! The now named XBOX One X launched in November 2017, with true native 4k support, much faster read/write speeds to its S cousin, with many games both existing and future receiving what was called XBOX One X enhancements such as higher frame rates or resolution at no cost to the consumer at a competitive price point. Finally, Microsoft was starting to take this game a lot more seriously.
This ethos of console power and efficiency has not died either it would seem. With the XBOX Series X being touted as the most powerful console ever made, and the Series S being the console for the more casual gamer who doesn’t have a need for 4k bells and whistles but just wants to play the newest games. It seems from a sheer value perspective, whether console longevity or initial entry price is your main concern, XBOX just cannot be beat.
First Party Studio Acquisitions
A very valid argument over the past console generation, and arguably the next, has time and time again been about exclusives, and rightfully so. Sony have shown over the past generation that in the AAA home console space that their first party studios simply cannot be bested in terms of engrossing single player (mostly third person over the shoulder for whatever reason) narrative experiences. With the XBOX One, there was one Halo (excluding remasters), two Gears of War, the failed game to TV experiment that was Quantum Break and not really much else of serious note. The first party studio support early on simply was not there. However, Spencer planned to change all of this by shaking up the XBOX Game Studios division into a force to be reckoned with.
In 2014, XBOX Game Studios acquired Mojang, the developers of the most successful video game of all time, Minecraft, for a cool $2.5 billion. A pricey business decision to be sure, but one that I’m sure has paid for itself by now and if nothing else, got the world looking at what the studio would do next. From there they have enveloped many gaming studios, both minor and major, into their first party fold. Such as:
Double Fine Productions (Grim Fandango, Psychonauts)
inXile Entertainment (Bards Tale, Wasteland)
Ninja Theory (Hellblade, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West)
Obsidian Entertainment (The Outer Worlds, Fallout: New Vegas)
Not to mention one of their biggest gets to date in the form of ZeniMax Media, the parent company under which one of the biggest RPG & Shooter (sometimes at the same time) development houses of all time resides. Bethesda Softworks (The Elder Scrolls & Fallout series, DOOM)
And that is only to mention a few. With a first party line up like this, alongside the already established and loved 343 Industries, The Coalition and more, it seems as if for once, Microsoft is in a position of potentially endless first party power. Only time will tell if they make good of course, but right now it seems too solid to fail.
So this Is a feature where your mileage may vary, however, it cannot be argued that its inclusion does provide fantastic value for money. When the XBOX One released it had no such feature, exclusively playing new generation games was the ethos of their design for the console with Sony’s PS4 following in the same footsteps. A decision begrudgingly accepted at the time, even though the past generation consoles had supported this, it seemed like having the ability to play your acquired game library on your modern console was going the way of the Dodo. Not if Spencer had anything to say about it.
At E3 2015, in a move which completely flew in the face Don Mattrick’s (Spencer’s predecessor) "If you're backwards compatible, you're backwards" messaging, Spencer announced to tremendous applause that the Backward Compatibility initiative on XBOX was kicking of in earnest, with a number of both XBOX 360 and original XBOX titles being brought to the new generation systems both digitally and using traditional disc based media with more to be announced each month. I remember this announcement vividly as being the point where I was convinced that XBOX cared about my wants as a gamer.
Each title was worked on internally at Microsoft in conjunction with their developers and publishers to work on the new hardware, many times with notable improvements on their One X console, and suddenly the available game library on your humble XBOX One had potentially tripled in size. With the key value addition being the function to allow for the download and verification of these titles at no additional cost if the user had access to the original disc. A move that ultimately was carried out, given older 360 and original XBOX games could be bought in second hand retailers for a pittance bringing in no additional revenue for Microsoft, was ultimately done in the interest of the consumer no matter how you slice it.
This initiative has carried on strongly in the five years since its announcement, with access to an ever-growing library of over 600 backward compatible titles, both first and third party, not playable on Sony’s newer machines. Microsoft have since confirmed that this initiative is to continue on their next generation offerings, meaning that you can add that 600 to the list of titles playable on your new XBOX along with all XBOX One titles, whilst the PS5 will solely focus on last generation compatibility. As a video game collector, I for one cannot wait to put my Fallout 3 disc into my shiny Series X on launch week. (Yeah, I’m that guy)
And finally… (Drumroll please)
XBOX Game Pass, “The best damn deal in gaming!”
You simply can not talk about the XBOX ecosystem, especially from a financial perspective like this article, without talking about the wonder service that is XBOX Game Pass. Which is why I saved the best for last.
For the past decade, gamers and game companies alike have tried to crack the ever-popular Netflix model of game service. Somewhere you can simply pop up a menu, and with a monthly fee, have access to a full library of games at your fingertips. Trading the occasional €60 purchase for a more consistent subscription fee on the promise of convenience, and many have tried. From pioneers in the field such as OnLive, to more contemporary (honestly over ambitious) offerings such as Stadia, no one seemed to be able to crack the right way to approach this model in the video game space. Well, enter our boy Spencer and his teams to once again not only nail the approach, but do so in an incredibly cost effective manner as possible for us, the consumer.
XBOX Game Pass was officially released to the world post E3 2017 after a period of beta testing and offered all members of the then XBOX Live Gold subscription model access to a select catalogue of XBOX One games to be downloaded at any time to your console, and played in full. That was the secret sauce to the platform’s success that every other game service had failed to solve for, downloading the game. (Though they didn’t stop there, see Project XCloud below)
You see, when dealing with audio or video formats such as film and music, lag in input is not a noticeable issue as you, the viewer, are not physically interacting with the content. Sure, you can play, pause, rewind etc, but if that action is met with 2 seconds of buffering it is virtually unnoticeable. However, when you then apply this logic to a completely interactive experience such as gaming, every second of input latency is felt and makes for an unplayable experience. This is an issue that still has not been completely solved today which Microsoft had completely side stepped by utilising its already in place online store front infrastructure to simply provide you the game as though you bought it. This seemed like wizardry at first, but it is now becoming the industry standard with companies like Sony and Nintendo following suit.
Since its initial ‘humble’ implementation, with access to over 100 games to download, it has since ballooned into a behemoth of a service, offering well over 200 games at any one time and adding features that honestly could not have been predicted, each adding layers of value that make XBOX the home of value proposition gaming.
Day and date releases of all first party games on the service. I have played every single XBOX exclusive over the past two years, at no extra cost to myself as I was always going to subscribe to this service. The Outer Worlds, Gears 4 and 5, Halo Master Chief Collection, Forza Horizon 4, State of Decay 2, all played with arguably zero investment from my own wallet. I still get a kick on the launch day of a game that I’m excited about, being ready to go post pre-load from Game Pass at 12am launch day. What a time to be alive!
Game Pass on Windows PC Ok so I’ve not really used this service much, however, it is pretty incredible. Game Pass has been brought to windows with its own very similar collection of games where all the standard Game Pass benefits apply. I currently do not own a gaming PC but knowing that should I invest I will immediately have a huge library of modern and older games at my beckon call is undeniably cool!
Project XCloud Not satisfied with simply solving the games as a service model, Microsoft have even pushed the video game streaming market into some very interesting places and are currently the leading solution in this market. Included in the Game Pass Ultimate subscription tier, XCloud allows you to stream your Game Pass library to your Android device with plans to soon be brought to PC. Now I know I spent a paragraph dismissing game streaming above, and this will not take the place of standard downloads for me, however I have played around with it and even now in its beta form the latency at play here is pretty negligible. Supporting Xbox controllers and in some cases touch screen controls, you can now game anywhere you can get a stable internet connection.
Inclusion of other game services such as EA Play Microsoft recently announced that titles found on EA’s similar platform EA Play will now be included in Game Pass. This means not only will Game Pass subscribers have access to great EA titles such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age, but also day and date releases of their flagship annual titles such as FIFA or semi-annual releases such as Battlefield. A very tempting prospect indeed.
All of the above and more is available to all XBOX users from as little as €9.99/month for base Game Pass access or €12.99/month for the full Game Pass Ultimate experience. From a cost to value perspective, there truly has never been a better deal in gaming to date.
So where do you land?
I think I've made my position on the whole XBOX ecosystem obvious. It's great. Yes there have been stumbles along the way but where we have ended up is somewhere very special indeed. I was moved to write this piece as a more and more financial conscious gamer, with saving for a house whilst paying exorbitant Irish rental prices and trying to live a well rounded life all happening at once. I was on the lookout for a solution to my next-gen gaming needs that wouldn’t break my bank account every month, yet allow me to run a video game blog site, podcast and stream content which is not only contemporary but also best in class. When you consider all of the above, it really seems that Microsoft has my back on this.
Not to mention very attractive price plans for leasing the new generation consoles, which is not supported yet in my region, so I won’t cover here.
At the time of writing, Sony have also announced plans for a similar service to accompany the PS5 to PS Plus subscribers and I will be sure to give my two cents on this when I learn more.
What do you think? Is any of the above enough to move your needle over to the Green side? What could Sony do to combat this rise in functionality and availability provided by Microsoft? Do you think I’m a corporate shill that’s secretly being paid by Microsoft? (I wish) Let me know in the comments below or over on our socials.
All images taken from xbox.com
Title image was self made
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