When Xbox executive Phil Spencer takes the stage this weekend at E3 2019, he will almost certainly reveal the next Xbox console. But it's another console, the Nintendo Switch, that bears watching during Microsoft's reported two hour press conference.
One of the more surprising stories of 2019 has been Microsoft's pivot toward supporting other consoles. Minecraft and Cuphead are currently the #1 and #2 games respectively on Nintendo Switch, with Cuphead set to eventually feature Xbox Live integration. There were reports that Xbox Game Pass might come to Switch. Microsoft and Sony have even set aside their respective differences for a deal involving Microsoft's Azure cloud services.
Why is Microsoft suddenly being so friendly to its rivals? One reason is that its console business has fallen firmly into third place, with the PS4 selling more than double the units of the Xbox One, and the Switch experiencing massive success of its own. Nothing spurs creative thinking quite as much as desperation. Another is that Microsoft is pivoting back toward services over hardware, where it has always been far more comfortable.
Unlike Nintendo and even Sony, the Xbox accounts for just a fraction of Microsoft's overall business. The bulk of its revenue comes from its productivity and business departments, where it profits handsomely from Microsoft Office. It built its business on Windows, which, while no longer as dominant as it once was, can still be found on the majority of PCs. As this article from Geekwire highlights, its Azure cloud computing platform has become increasingly integral to its server and tools services.
Spencer told Geekwire back in March, "We want to bring Game Pass to any device that somebody wants to play on. Not just because it's our business, but really because the business model allows for people to consume and find games that they wouldn't have played in any other space."
In pushing Xbox subscription and cloud services on multiple platforms, Microsoft is effectively going back to its strengths. It also suggests that Microsoft sees Google as its true rival in the coming console generation, as the tech giant is set to fully reveal its Stadia platform later this week. Its new partnerships could be construed as Microsoft trying to head Google off at the pass, leveraging its long-established position in the games industry to gain a large headstart on its rival.
"The business inside of games is really selling games, and selling access to games and content in means like that is the fundamental business," Spencer said. "So if you open it up, the more often people can play, the more they're enjoying the art form. It increases the size of the business."
Quotes like these make me think that Microsoft will continue to push its new relationship with Nintendo during its press conference. In the short-term, that probably means ports. I wouldn't be surprised to see Ori and the Blind Forest (or its upcoming sequel) announced for Switch, for example, nor would I be shocked to see Halo: The Master Chief Collection make its way to Nintendo's platform. (How weird would it be to have Halo on Switch after all these years?) I wouldn't even be surprised if Xbox Game Pass were announced for Switch, despite reports to the contrary.
Whatever happens, we're surely entering a new era for consoles. We've become accustomed over the life of the industry to the so-called "console wars," in which platform holders jealously guard their exclusives. It was a massive deal when Sonic finally made his way to a Nintendo platform. But with subscriptions increasingly ruling everything, platform holders like Microsoft are starting to lean on established services, which makes getting Xbox Live and Game Pass on as many platforms as possible in its best interest.
In that vein, while every console generation features some kind of sea change, this upcoming transition looks more momentous than most. It's hard to know what will come of our glorious cloud-based future, but one thing seems certain: the way we play video games could soon be fundamentally different.
Major Game Releases: June to June 7
Here are the major releases for the week of June 3 to June 7. Want to see the complete list? Check out our full list of video game release dates for 2019.
- Elder Scrolls Online: Elsweyr [June 4, Xbox One, PS4, PC]: Elder Scrolls Online's latest expansion has been in early access for a little while now, but this week it will be out for real. This update brings players to the eponymous Elsweyr, home of the cat-like Khajiit, which hasn't been seen since Elder Scrolls Arena. ESO tends to fly under the radar compared to the rest of the series, but it has a passionate fanbase in its own right. Keep an eye out for our review this week.
- Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth [June 4, 3DS]: This may be the last 3DS game most people play. With hardly any 3DS games on the docket for the rest of the year, it looks like this is pretty much it for Nintendo's dedicated handheld. If it is, Persona Q2 isn't a bad note to go out on, as it once again pairs Etrian Odyssey's familiar dungeon crawling with Persona's effervescent personality. Pity it's not on the Switch though.
- Slay the Spire [June 6, Switch]: The darling of the PC crowd makes its way to Nintendo Switch this week. Mixing Magic the Gathering-like CCG mechanics with roguelite gameplay, Slay the Spire revolves around building a deck on the fly while battling increasingly difficult enemies. It's addictive as all heck and should be perfect for a platform like the Switch. Keep an eye on this one.
- Octopath Traveler [June 7, PC]: Octopath Traveler is out on PC this week, and it's... really expensive. At a cool $59.99, the Square Enix tax is certainly in full effect with this port. But Octopath Traveler is still a really dang good RPG, and if you missed it on Switch, now is the time to play it.
This Week's News and Notes
- E3 2019 starts in earnest this weekend. Eric, Caty, Mike, and I are all flying down on Saturday, with the press conferences set to kick off the following day. Here's all the info you need to know about conferences and everything else at E3 2019.
- In the meantime, lots of announcements are hitting this week. Google Stadia is set for its big reveal on Thursday, and a Pokemon Direct will be providing all of the details on Pokemon Sword and Shield on Wednesday. It's going to be a busy couple weeks in gaming.
- On the subject of Google Stadia, I'm going to confess that I just don't get it. Sure, being able to play Assassin's Creed on any device is kind of neat, but input delay would seem to make games like Call of Duty a total non-starter. As it is, Google Stadia has a long way to go to prove that it's more than a novelty item for casual gamers.
- In one of the biggest surprises of the year, Death Stranding was confirmed for a November release date last week. I'm honestly shocked. Based on Hideo Kojima's track record and Sony's absence at E3, I had assumed that it wouldn't be out until 2020 at the earliest. But it's coming, and it honestly looks pretty neat. Eric went back and watched a bunch of the old Death Stranding trailers, and now he has a whole lot more theories on what is actually going on.
- One more reveal: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, which was confirmed to be a soft reboot (sorry, "reimagining") in last week's big announcement. As some have already written, I have little faith that Call of Duty can critique war without glorifying it. It's the old Gundam problem: war is bad, but there are models to sell, and the models are cool. Honestly, I'm not sure why Call of Duty is even bothering except as a marketing stunt.
- I completed my first official run through Slay the Spire this week, which is due out on Switch later this week (see above). It's a tremendous game, and I can't wait until it's available on a portable platform.
- Axe of the Blood God: E3 2019 is just a week away, and Axe of the Blood God is here with a full preview of all the major storylines and announcements from this years show. What can we expect from the new Xbox? Will Fable put in an appearance? What about that rumored George R.R. Martin game? Nadia and Kat talk about all these, plus Final Fantasy 7 Remake, Cyberpunk 2077, and more! Subscription info here!
First successful Slay the Spire run! Ironclad with Gambling Chip (mulligan for opening hand), Snecko Eye (potentially super cheap power options), Demon Form, Barricade, and Flame Shield. By the end I consistently had like 80 armor and was doing 30 or 40 damage per hit :)— Kat Bailey (@The_Katbot) June 3, 2019