One year ago today, the new generation of console gaming started with the release of the Xbox Series X and S. One hyper-powered games console paired with a lower-end sibling, both looking to roll forward a lot of the positive moves that Microsoft had made over the previous five years.
So, how successful has Microsoft been in recapturing the hearts and minds of gamers? Is the Xbox Series S a major mistake? And how are Microsoft’s first party studios faring?
The Sales Figures
Microsoft has not reported sales figures ever since the Xbox One immediately fell behind the PlayStation 4, but that hasn’t stopped informed guesswork from helping to figure out roughly where they stand in relation to their main rival. The latest estimate puts the Xbox Series X|S family at around 8 million as of the end of September, outpacing the Xbox One and Xbox 360, but what isn’t clear is how that’s divided between Series X and Series S. In Japan, one of the few market where we have weekly sales figures, it’s roughly 2:1 in favour of the Series X, though that country can hardly be a bellwether for global sales given how niche the Xbox brand is.
The other area of speculation surrounds Xbox Game Pass. Having reported 18 million subscribers in January this year, it’s now speculated to have grown to around 21 million by the end of September, missing Microsoft’s internal growth targets in the process, though that’s shortfall could be explained by the necessary delay for Halo Infinite from 2020 to 2021.
Decent in all cases, and certainly good enough for Microsoft’s overarching strategy to keep on moving forward, but fodder for PlayStation fans who can point to the PS5’s even more rapid sales and engagement.
Continuing to be the continuity candidate
The first six months of the Xbox Series X|S era saw Microsoft rapidly iterating upon and adding to the system software that it shares with the Xbox One. Key additions like FPS Boost were rolled out, quickly giving tons of older Xbox One games a fresh lease of 60fps life. That has gone hand in hand with numerous games being updated with support for the Xbox Series hardware, both natively and through backward compatibility updates. Xbox really stole a march on that front, but PlayStation has reached parity behind the scenes.
There were also more subtle quality of life changes for Quick Resume, a 4K dashboard on Series X, and Dolby Vision support when gaming. A new Night Mode also joined the suite of accessibility options through the Xbox system.
The next defining update might not be for Xbox Series, but for Xbox One, with Game Pass streaming slowly rolling out to new devices. With that Microsoft can bring any future Xbox Series exclusive games to the older generation hardware as well, thanks to the full upgrade from Xbox One S server blades to Xbox Series X.
The Game Pass factor
That in mind, we have to consider Game Pass, which has become the lynchpin of Microsoft’s marketing and console strategy over the past few years. Yes, growth targets fell short over the last year, but it can still be extrapolated that they’ve added roughly 5 million subscribers. That’s surely thanks to Microsoft’s worked to bring a broad mixture of big budget AAA and indie games to the table.
The first half of 2021 saw the likes of Outriders and MLB: The Show 21 grabbing headlines, but the last few months have seen Back 4 Blood, The Artful Escape, Surgeon Simulator 2, Moonglow Bay, Twelve Minutes, Hades, The Ascent, Cris Tales, Sable, Aragami 2, and so much more. No, not everything is a must-play sensation, but for those that like to have their finger on the pulse of gaming or try out lots of different games, Game Pass is often allowing you to do just that. I know it’s helped me to play games that I would have passed by in other circumstances.
Of course, there are some major first party games I’ve omitted from that list….
So, Xbox has exclusives now?
Microsoft has bet billions on buying studios and publishers to join its first party development teams, but it’s taking quite a long time to see the fruits of that labour. Part of that is simply because of existing obligations and contracts. Deathloop is exclusive to PlayStation 5 for a year, for example, while this summer’s release of Psychonauts 2 was a years-long project that also had to release for PlayStation – it’s a fantastic game, so play it wherever you can.
The strategy might pan out in the long terms, but nobody’s going to invest in a console ecosystem when there’s no big advantages and exclusive games. Thankfully, Xbox Game Studios could deliver with the release of Flight Simulator in the summer, the sublime Forza Horizon 5 just yesterday, a masterful cross-gen release, and with growing optimism for Halo Infinite after its multiplayer tests and recent campaign re-reveal. Two of these three big hitters are cross-gen releases.
Microsoft’s broad strategy also seems to be working. Whether or not people buy and Xbox Series console, whether they’re dusting off their Xbox One, whether PC gamers are subscribing to Xbox Game Pass or buying games through Steam, they’re getting people to engage with their games. Forza Horizon 5 has raced to over 4.5 million players right out of the gate.
Yeah, 2021 has come back to old one-two punch of a Forza and Halo game, but there’s a pent up appetite for both while we wait for the wider studios to be able to deliver everything that was announced at E3 2021 and before. This time next year, we’ll all be hopefully talking about Starfield and other game launches.
The Series S conundrum
We still don’t know what will happen for the Xbox Series S through this generation. The fact that it’s sticking around on store shelves means that there’s not the same demand for it in the West, but it could be a good gateway console into new markets. That’s clearly a part of Microsoft’s strategy, we just don’t know how it’s going for them at the moment.
It remains a curious machine, able to deliver on the original 1440p promise on some occasions, but more typically being consigned to 1080p by developers. That is often still a major step up over the last generation through 60fps play, but that’s dependent on the game and degree of optimisation – Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, limits the Series S to 1080p30. Of course, when a game on Series X and PlayStation 5 isn’t running at native 4K, with dynamic resolution scaling or a lower 1440p target, that also limits what’s possible on Series S. Put in the right hands, it can shine, with Forza Horizon 5 targeting that 1440p goal while also offering a 1080p60 performance mode.
It’s a case of waiting and seeing how it handles games in a year or two, once developers are able to leave the last generation behind and don’t have to juggle quite so many hardware configurations, but as a secondary console or a cheaper way to get access to new generation games, it remains a small box filled with potential.
Kicking into gear
Truth be told, not too much has changed since our six month report card for the Xbox Series X. The system software remains workmanlike, but effective as Microsoft continues to add edge case features. There’s exceptional backward compatibility support, new games typically run very, very well, and even the Series S has glimmers of reaching its potential once developers can give it a bit more attention.
What has changed since even a few months ago is that there’s finally some hype and excitement for Microsoft’s first party games. Forza Horizon 5 is an exemplary arcade racer that’s drawing in millions of players, the anticipation for Halo Infinite is rising. With Starfield to look forward to for next year, there’s some momentum building. Microsoft just need to keep on building.