Xbox, do you even have a plan anymore?

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Ever since Microsoft started on their spending spree of acquisitions in 2018, gamers have feared the worst. Would Microsoft simply out-spend Sony to secure market dominance? Would PlayStation gamers be deprived of innumerable great games? Were they building Game Pass into a video gaming Death Star?

It turns out we should have feared the opposite. Death Stars do have a tendency to blow up, after all…

The past six months – pretty much ever since Microsoft closed the staggeringly huge acquisition of Activision Blizzard King – has seen almost every aspect of Xbox as a platform thrown into doubt. From first party games being console exclusives, to potentially quitting the hardware business, and now even the mere continued existence of their expensively acquired studios, there’s a complete lack of certainty to where the Xbox business is heading.

This week’s closure of Tango Gameworks, Arkane Austin, and Alpha Dog Studios, and Roundhouse Games’ integration elsewhere came as a massive shock. Arkane Austin’s Redfall was a flop, there’s no denying that, and the fact of the matter is that, even if a studio has been pushed down a particular path by management, no team is truly immune to failure. But Tango’s Hi-Fi Rush wasn’t a failure, far from it.

Hi-Fi Rush large cityscape

This time last year Hi-Fi Rush was held up as a shining example of what Xbox can do. Tango won’t have a chance to make a sequel.

Here was a game that potentially proved Microsoft’s plan from the end of the last generation. Hi-Fi Rush was a smaller production, a cheaper release and an eye-catching addition to the Xbox Game Pass library. It snagged 3 million players in just a few months, but it helps that it was a critical darling that ended up as a genuine Game of the Year contender, but it just did very well in general. “Hi-Fi Rush was a break out hit for us and our players in all key measurements and expectations,” Xbox marketing exec Aaron Greenberg tweeted a couple months after its release.

Reports suggest that the nail in the coffin for both studios was that, as they pitched new games – a Hi-Fi Rush sequel and a new immersive sim, potentially in the popular Dishonored universe – they requested more manpower. Instead of saying they should adjust and make do with what they’ve got, they decided less manpower was the answer. Xbox Game Studios’ head Matt Booty’s internal email said that closing both teams will “create capacity to increase investment in other parts of our portfolio and focus on our priority games.” Head of ZeniMax studios Jill Braff, meanwhile, suggested Bethesda had become too big to manage – “It’s hard to support nine studios all across the world with a lean central team with an ever-growing plate of things to do,” she said. “I think we were about to topple over.”

Maybe you could hire back some of the people you let go in January to help out?

What’s particularly galling about this claim is that Booty has since gone on to say “We need smaller games that give us prestige and awards” during a Microsoft town hall meeting. A statement that presumably saw an awful lot of pillows being used to muffle screams from employees.

Hellblade 2 screenshot

The first Hellblade was an indie success, but how will the sequel be judged? And what will that mean for Ninja Theory?

Between such statements and these actions, it’s looking ominous for almost every non-Activision studio owned by Microsoft. Closing down Tango wasn’t even from the “what have you done for me lately?” school of business like Arkane’s might have been – Booty claims otherwise – and suddenly you might be fearful for what awaits Ninja Theory after they ship Hellblade 2 in less than two weeks. Microsoft was confident enough to use the game alongside the Xbox Series X announcement, give the studio more time and more resources to work, and it’s expected to garner plenty of praise much like the original… but is that enough anymore?

By contrast, Obsidian’s recent track record feels like they should be comparatively safe. They’ve produced a couple of those desirable award-winning smaller games, and have a pair of bigger ones in the pipeline as well, but if Xbox also wants to focus on “priority games”, then Fallout could well be in their future after Avowed and The Outer Worlds 2.

But there’s also all the studios and projects that are reportedly struggling on their way through protracted development cycles. Perfect Dark is in all sorts of difficulties, and a “big, protracted mess,” according to video game historian Liam Robertson and several other sources, we’ve heard nothing about Rare’s Everwild since a reported project reboot in 2021, and all we’ve ever seen about Undead Labs and State of Decay 3 is its 2020 CGI announcement – far from the only game which has had a single announcement trailer to pad out an Xbox showcase.

Games take longer than ever to make, but we’ve now got no idea where Microsoft’s patience begins and ends. Do any of these teams feel particularly safe now? Certainly not when there’s already reports of more cuts on the way.

Really, the one bankable certainty is that Call of Duty is going to do Call of Duty things later this year, and completely dwarf whatever the rest of Microsoft’s game studios is able to do. That’s potentially the problem, as the acquisition of Activision Blizzard has completely changed the scale on the quarterly revenues graph, the measure stick of success is suddenly much bigger.

We’re almost six years on from the start of Microsoft’s spending spree, and while there’s definitely some promising and enticing games in the works – we can expect a barrage of trailers, announcements at positive spin next month – but it’s far from clear what the plan really is anymore. The last six months have felt about as rudderless as the final days of a Tory government that (outside of spitefully salting the earth for their inevitable successors) has no purpose other than trying to shake every last penny out of the purse.

Video games might be a lucrative business, but they’re also a passion-filled creative endeavour. Whatever the next plan or the plan after that ends up being, try to remember that, Xbox.

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1 Comment

  1. “Hey guys, we’re launching your game across new platforms to reach an even wider audience. That means even better sales figures! Also, you’re all fired. Never forget that studios like you are central to our success while you collect your final paycheck!”

    Microsoft’ eyes were bigger than their belly. They bought up all of the studios knowing – as anyone could have predicted – that it would never be viable to keep all of them up and running under one umbrella.

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