Microsoft’s struggles have been well documented over the last few years, but 2018’s E3 press conference saw them take the opportunity to answer some of the question marks hanging over their platform. While there’s no quick fix for the kind of first party development problems that the company have, a string of announcements show how they’re beefing up with an eye on the future.
With 50 games to get through, with 15 of them timed and outright exclusives, the presser moved at a nice high tempo, but also had a few lulls in the action to stop and look at some of the bigger announcements or catch on the Xbox as a whole. Phil Spencer returned to the stage mid-way through the show to talk about founding The Initiative, a new first party studio in Santa Monica and headed up by Darrell Gallagher, formerly of Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix. It’s an exciting opportunity for them to create a new IP, and he’s naturally experienced in leading teams and steering development of third person action adventures.
However, this was just the first of five Microsoft Studios announcements that nearly doubled the number of first party developers in Microsoft Studios. Also joining the family were Playground Games, just as they announced the fantastic looking Forza Horizon 4 and teased a second open world game that everyone thinks is Fable 4, Undead Labs, hot off the release of State of Decay 2, and Compulsion Games, who are still due to release We Happy Few cross platform with Gearbox Publishing in August.
Most surprising was Ninja Theory, coming off the success of Hellblade. However, as popular as it turned out to be, this was a game born out of necessity for the studio. Their last third party published game was DmC in 2013, followed by a few years of contract work on Disney Infinity. Hellblade sparked an important discussion on how to represent mental health issues in video games, but more importantly it was there for Ninja Theory to test the “Indie AAA” business model and sustaining the studio going forward. Now they have the security of Microsoft and a Microsoft that needs their developers and games. Ninja Theory can finally flourish with Microsoft’s backing.
Outside of Playground Games, all of these studios will be joining Microsoft near the beginning of a fresh development cycle, with their games likely already looking to the future of the platform and next generation of hardware. For anyone saying that Microsoft are buying success, it’s simply a condensed form of what we’ve seen elsewhere countless times before. Naughty Dog, Sucker Punch, Media Molecule, Guerrilla Games and plenty others were independent 10-15 years ago before being bought by Sony at various points in their lives, now flourishing in an era of creativity and critical success. Yes, Microsoft are trying to fast track that growth, but these are acquisitions based off existing relationships and designed to grow over time.
However, in the here and now, Microsoft needed to give reasons to turn on your Xbox, and did so with a mixture of expected first party exclusive announcements and reminders that all those enticing third party games are coming to their platform as well.
The show opened with Halo Infinite, but this was sadly just a tease of the game’s potential scope and the Slipspace game engine – it’s a trailer that I find rather reminiscent of the scope and environments of Halo’s original Macworld 1999 reveal and E3 2000 trailer. There’s no date on this, as 343 Studios have been given the time to build new foundations for a broader Halo, meaning that the TMCC rework has a strange significance for the series.
As mentioned, Forza Horizon 4 looks fantastic, bringing players closer together with a shared world and emphasising fluid drop-in multiplayer and world events that bring to mind the party atmosphere of Burnout Paradise. It’s there to lead the console’s line up this autumn, with the other big reveal, Gears 5 (sans ‘of War’) from The Coalition not set for release until 2019. That game looks set to follow in Gears of War 4’s footsteps, with that game tracking well against Gears of Wars 3 in terms of player retention, but with the intriguing twist of switching to Kait to be the first female protagonist.
The one disappointment here is that Microsoft don’t really have anything to fill out the end of 2018. Crackdown 3 is now coming in February 2019 (maybe), Gears 5 is for 2019, Halo Infinite for god knows when, meaning that unless you’re a racing game fan, there’s nothing that’s exclusive to Xbox. Perhaps that value can come from Xbox Game Pass, though?
The game subscription service turns one, and Microsoft are pushing the idea of games entering on day one with their own first party titles – including Sea of Thieves and State of Decay in the here and now, and Halo: TMCC, Forza Horizon 4 and everything else when they release. Third parties and independents are also getting in on the act, with Ashen, Phoenix Point, Afterparty and Warhammer Vermintide II joining day and date, while Bethesda and Ubisoft have just dropped Fallout 4, The Elder Scrolls Online and The Division into the service.
Their stage played host to tons of big third party games though, from Just Cause 4 and Fallout 76 to Dying Light 2, Devil May Cry 5, Cyberpunk 2077 and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (from From Software). There’s plenty to look forward to for gamers in general, and the promise here is that they’re all looking to take advantage of the Xbox One X.
On the whole, Microsoft put together a pretty good showing. It wasn’t one that clicks its fingers and immediately solves all of their problems, but from the breadth of third party support to a number of cornerstone game announcements and adding five studios to their first party roster, this conference lays the foundations for a much brighter future.