Microsoft is playing catch-up. The Xbox One was its vision of the future: a $499 machine with a digital entertainment focus and always-online, powered by the all-new Kinect. Slowly, Microsoft has backed away from that as consumers decided to back the other horse in the race, Sony's PlayStation 4. In the company's defense, Microsoft has backtracked rather quickly: the original Xbox One was on May 2013, only 15 months prior to today. Phase one of the changes involved bringing the Xbox One as a retail product in line with the PlayStation 4. The always-online DRM is gone, the Kinect is no longer a required pack-in, and the price has dropped to $399.
Today at Gamescom, the company is firmly into phase two of the Xbox One makeover. The company's focus is now completely different compared to where it was even a year ago.
The word of the press conference was "exclusive". Microsoft wants gamers to perceive that it has reached into its wallet and hooked some great titles for Xbox One. The centerpiece of this entire push was Square Enix' Rise of the Tomb Raider, which is coming to Xbox One only. Yes, it looks to be a real exclusive this time, with no version for PlayStation 4, PC, or any other platform. There's been no mention of a timed exclusive, so for the time being PlayStation 4 and PC Tomb Raider fans are left in the dark. (Update: Xbox boss Phil Spencer has confirmed to Eurogamer that the game is a timed exclusive.) I was planning on picking the game up on one of those two platforms, but it looks like I'll be playing Lara's next adventure on Xbox One.
Understandably, fans are upset. Square Enix was one of the companies that put the third-party exclusive mostly to bed when Final Fantasy XIII was announced for Xbox 360. There has been one high-profile XB1 exclusive, Respawn Entertainment's Titanfall, but even that game came to PC and Xbox 360. In the Western market, we've gotten used to the idea of multi-platform gaming where third-parties tend to support all the major platforms, so it's up to first- and second-party efforts for differentiation. That's why Microsoft Studios, Sony Computer Entertainment, and indie titles are important. These days, a consumer can buy any one of the three major systems plus a PC and be able to play most of the third-party games available.
Rise of the Tomb Raider being exclusive to Xbox One throws a wrench this status quo. For Crystal Dynamics, the extra push by Microsoft may help them more than a multiplatform release. It's doubtful, but possible.
"Today's announcement with Microsoft is one step to help us put Tomb Raider on top of action adventure gaming," said Crystal Dynamics studio head Darrell Gallagher in a post on Tumblr. "Our friends at Microsoft have always seen huge potential in Tomb Raider and have believed in our vision since our first unveil with them on their stage at E3 2011. We know they will get behind this game more than any support we have had from them in the past - we believe this will be a step to really forging the Tomb Raider brand as one of the biggest in gaming, with the help, belief and backing of a major partner like Microsoft."
This grab is Microsoft explicitly saying "We want you on Xbox One and that's where the exclusives are going." The problem is snagging Rise of the Tomb Raider is a largely defensive and symbolic move for Microsoft at this point. It's defensive because the company is clearly behind in the race, so it's turning to paid exclusives to close the gap. It's symbolic because Rise of the Tomb Raider is a holiday 2015 release.
Yeah, not this holiday. Holiday next year, more than a year away. That's a long time to wait for an exclusive, I can't see the ghost of a Tomb Raider sequel moving a ton of Xbox Ones this holiday. It's the kind of announcement that Microsoft hopes sounds good to consumers. It's all about the perception of being the place where exclusives land.
Back in reality, the rest of the Gamescom announcements were more of games we had already seen at E3 2014. Sunset Overdrive, Ori and the Blind Forest, Killer Instinct Season 2, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Dance Central Spotlight, Fable Legends, and Quantum Break were the exclusives on display. It's a good list, but again, nothing new that's coming this year. Assassin's Creed Unity, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, and Evolve also made appearances: Advanced Warfare will have early add-on content on Xbox One and Evolve's open beta will be Xbox One only. ScreamRide, a physics-laden theme park creator is a new title, but it's not coming until 2015.
The indie-strong ID@Xbox program had a wider debut at the conference. Double Fine's Massive Chalice, Hi-Rez Studios' Smite, Keen Software House's Space Engineers, StudioMDHR's Cuphead, Coffee Stain Studios' Goat Simulator, Asteroid Base's Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, Team 17's The Escapists, TinyBuild's SpeedRunners, and the time-bending shooter Superhot. The indies are another part of Microsoft catching up to Sony; the early PlayStation 4 lineup was as sparse as the Xbox One's, but Sony had the benefit of indies to lean on.
Microsoft also plugged the Xbox One bundles coming to North America this holiday:
- Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare Bundle, Coming November 3 for $499: Call of Duty Advanced Warfare, 1TB hard drive, custom console and controller, and a Limited Edition in-game exoskeleton.
- Xbox One Special Edition "Sunset Overdrive" Bundle, Coming October 28 for $399: White console and controller, Sunset Overdrive, and all the DAy One in-game items.
You'll notice none of those bundles include the Kinect, which is clearly persona non grata. Microsoft's E3 2014 presentation included one Kinect-related title: the digital-only Dance Central Spotlight. Like Jaz said at the time, Microsoft has seemingly given up on the Kinect as a peripheral for gaming and digital media. (I write this as I tell my Xbox One to "Watch Netflix".) It's a decent idea, but the technology isn't quite there yet; even a more gaming-related motion control experience like the Nintendo Wii Remote is only optimal in certain games. So, the Kinect is a marketing experiment that seems all but dead at Microsoft.
Phase two what Microsoft hopes will help them catch up to Sony's 10 million PlayStation 4 systems. Is it enough? What was on display today was a solid and unsurprising presentation headlined by a promise that won't come due until late next year... following other E3 promises like Phantom Dust, Crackdown, and Scalebound. Now Microsoft has to deliver on those promises and hope they're enough to pull consumers in.