Spending the start of a console generation on the back foot after a commanding role in the previous one must be something of a humbling experience. Ever since the disastrous reveal of the Xbox One in 2013, with its array of consumer-unfriendly features, it’s taken a long time for Microsoft to engender goodwill in the gaming community. However, 2016 saw the release of the Xbox One S, a much more aesthetically pleasing – and proportioned – version of the hardware, that brought with it HDR functionality and a 4K Blu-Ray drive, while its console exclusives like Forza Horizon 3 and Gears of War 4 made compelling arguments for picking one up.
Those exclusive game announcements need to continue though, and really pick up some momentum in 2017. The PS4 has over one hundred exclusive titles, while the Xbox One boasts a comparatively meagre thirty. Things haven’t been helped by the high profile cancellations of games like Fable Legends and now Scalebound, both of which were well along in their development, and while it’s admirable to take the view that some aspect of these games simply weren’t working rather than foisting them on the public, it’s trimmed an already slim schedule. They undoubtedly need a strong E3 with both short and long term announcements to try and compete with Sony.
What we can be fairly certain of is that we’ll get to see the finished form of the Scorpio, Microsoft’s mid-generation upgrade for the Xbox One. After last year’s smoke and mirrors reveal – heavy on the potential teraflops and light on real details – Microsoft will be going all out over what is set to be the most powerful console of all time. As with PS4 Pro though, gamers are going to need tangible reasons to pick one up beyond the added horsepower so there’ll have to be a range of games that are definitely going to take advantage of it, and that message has to be conveyed to gamers in a distinct manner rather than appearing in some half-hidden patch notes.
A part of the plan for Scorpio is to bring VR to Xbox One, and recent collaborations with Oculus seem to make them the most likely partner to help make that happen. While it would leapfrog the PSVR capabilities, it would also lock out all of the owners of less powerful Xbox One hardware. Is there any way around that? Given the scope of Microsoft’s resources it’s a possibility, however unlikely it seems.
Microsoft’s deep pockets were put to good use when they acquired Beam last year, a streaming service that’s set to be integrated into the Xbox One and Windows 10 UI this spring. It boasts a number of strengths over both Twitch and Youtube Gaming including ultra-low latency which enables real interactivity between a streamer and their viewers. However, Microsoft are going to have to leverage sponsorship deals and a huge marketing campaign in order to knock Twitch from its lofty perch, despite the much improved technology.
The Xbox Play Anywhere scheme launched in the middle of last year is one to be applauded – as much as people joke that it means Xbox Exclusives aren’t exclusive anymore, this is great for consumers – but there’s a lot of other factors related to PC gaming that can be improved.
Microsoft seem to be intent on breaking down the walls between Xbox and Windows further, and the Creator’s Update for Windows 10 will add support for Microsoft’s Beam streaming platform, as well as more of the Xbox community features, such as Arena competitions. HDR support is also being integrated into the OS, which will kickstart HDR gaming on PC, and there’s even the leak of a dedicated Game Mode that will reduce the overhead of running an OS and other apps, getting more performance out of the available hardware.
Our sincere hope, however, is that Microsoft recognise that it’s in Windows’ best interests for these benefits to be shared with everyone. Epic Games’ Tim Sweeney was incredibly critical of the UWP platform in March of last year and how it could potentially lock down the platform, and I’m wary that Microsoft will hoard all of these advantages for the Microsoft Store. If anything, Microsoft need to embrace other storefronts instead of treating them like competitors, to enhance the platform as a whole.
The Microsoft Store itself can do a better job of supporting games, as it currently feels as though it’s geared more toward small app delivery than data downloads in excess of 40GB. Our own attempts to download games over a slow internet connection these last few weeks have seen them restart from scratch if the game receives an update before they finish, and we’d love to be able to throttle the bandwidth it consumes instead of crippling the household connection. Microsoft’s methods of distributing promotional bonus content also feels shambolic, with codes for the Xbox 360 Gears of War collection dished out up to a month after buying Gears of War 4 via Xbox messages, instead of simply being added to your account as soon as you’ve bought the game.
The biggest problem for Microsoft is that as much as Windows 10 has matured over the last 18 months, the forceful push for people to upgrade and early problems and deficiencies with the Microsoft Store and the UWP platform for games have left a bad taste in people’s mouths. The only way to overcome that is to continually deliver good games that have been polished to a fine sheen, but when major exclusives like Quantum Break perform poorly on PC or they accidentally push out a debug version of Forza Horizon 3 that can wipe player progress, that doesn’t help their image one bit. If partisan console gamers love to crow about which console is better, that’s nothing compared to the benchmark analysis and perfectionist streak of high-end PC gamers.
Just as Sony are (hopefully) discovering with the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 4 Pro divide, there’s a lot to be done in the QA department, but Microsoft have the upper hand here. Scorpio will be more powerful than the PS4 Pro, hopefully able to skip past some of the muddied waters of resolutions and relative performance and deliver consistent 4K gaming. Better yet, Xbox Play Anywhere means that their first and second party studios are already adept at catering to multiple platforms and configurations, not to mention 4K and HDR support, and third parties will already be well versed in that regard as well.
This coming year what we really need is for Microsoft to continue doing what they’ve done since that tawdry E3 in 2013. They need to stay humble, and continue to look at what isn’t working and improve upon it. The advantage of competition is that it drives innovation and improvement, and given their previous successes, Microsoft aren’t going to go quietly into the night while Sony marches home to victory. They need to work hard, but 2017 could be a banner year for the Redmond-based giant, and if it is, we’re all winners.