The initial reveal and subsequent launch of Xbox One was less than ideal for Microsoft. Marred by DRM concerns, a shoddy Kinect-focused interface, and inferior hardware, Xbox relinquished its last-gen lead to largely play second fiddle to PlayStation this generation. While PS4 has continued selling well, delivering an inarguably stronger lineup of exclusive titles, the Xbox team has slowly improved its standing and won back the Xbox faithful by listening and reacting to its community in a way never before seen in the console space.
Recovering From Early Tumult
The signs that Microsoft would need to listen to its community more came early, as the company quickly backpedaled unpopular announcements prior to launch. Xbox One’s initial reveal fostered overwhelming hostility surrounding restrictions of offline play and used games while making players buy a Kinect with their console and carrying a higher price point than the competition. With such a groundswell of negativity, Microsoft had no choice but to roll back those announcements.
Sony further shined a light on Microsoft’s blunders during this time by producing a short sketch at E3 2013 starring PlayStation executives Shuhei Yoshida and Adam Boyes, which showed how easy it is to share used games on PlayStation 4. This dunk was seen as one of the ultimate mic-drop moments in E3 history, and further served to crystalize the problem in a meme-friendly way. From there, Microsoft knew that real transformation had to take place to salvage its upcoming console.
Microsoft began pivoting, rolling back its controversial stance on always-online requirements and used-game restrictions. It proved too little, too late for Xbox One’s launch later that year, as Sony pulled away to an early and decisive sales lead it has maintained to this day. Former Xbox president Don Mattrick departed shortly thereafter. His replacement, current executive vice president of gaming Phil Spencer, had the task of rebuilding the relationship with the Xbox faithful.
Upon his appointment to this spot, Spencer told us his primary focus was to reassure Xbox’s hardcore base in the wake of a launch that centered more on entertainment apps than actual games. “My goal, first and foremost, is to make sure that everybody understands that Xbox is a gaming brand and it’s going to be gaming first,” Spencer told us in 2014. “That’s a leadership principle that I will bring to the program from day one.”
Spencer also committed to listening to the community to right the wrongs that led to the rough launch. In a 2014 interview with Xbox Live’s Larry “Major Nelson” Hryb, Spencer explained the importance of interacting with the hardcore fans and paying attention to things like social media and internet forums. “That two-way dialogue between us and the fans will be important as we drive this product forward,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a foundational element to the culture of this organization. I want the two-way dialogue. We hear what fans say. They have great ideas, and we should use that as an input to how we build our product.”
While many executives make similar declarations, the actions the Xbox team has taken since show these words were not empty. Microsoft quickly abandoned the unpopular Kinect peripheral and began selling a cheaper version of the system that was in line with the pricing of the PlayStation 4. The Xbox One S console revision in 2016 added HDR support – something PlayStation 4 featured in its base models – and 4K support for Blu-rays and video streaming, which are still not offered by Sony even on the PlayStation 4 Pro. In addition, new Xbox One controllers added features like Bluetooth integration and a built-in headphone jack. The platform adjustments didn’t stop there, as Microsoft’s ultimate vision for the Xbox One was yet to come.
Playing With Power
Throughout its history, the Xbox brand has prided itself on power; the original Xbox was more powerful than the PlayStation 2, and multiplatform games often ran better on Xbox 360 than PS3. With Xbox One, PS4 had a noticeable advantage in both categories, and Microsoft wasn’t satisfied with that. Early reports hinted at a more powerful console, but when Xbox finally revealed the initial details of its console revision, codenamed “Project Scorpio,” it packed an impressive amount of oomph.
“For me, and for the fans and for the developers, Xbox has always meant innovation and the latest technology and delivering the world’s most powerful console – something we absolutely want to do,” Xbox corporate vice president Mike Ybarra said in the E3 2016 reveal video for Project Scorpio.
“Two years ago when we started this journey, you told us you wanted certain things from us. You wanted power; you wanted community; you wanted choice,” Phil Spencer said in that same video. “This […] is absolutely the culmination of all of your feedback and something that we think will truly move Xbox forward.”
In addition to dwarfing the PlayStation 4 Pro in terms of raw power, Xbox One X added to the 4K video offerings of the Xbox One S by delivering true 4K gaming capabilities. According to several Xbox figureheads, this was in response to fulfilling fan expectations of Microsoft often delivering the most powerful systems.
These hardware updates not only served to close the gap between Xbox One’s initial design and what PlayStation 4 was already offering but expand beyond it. Through an iterative approach with its operating system and feature set, Microsoft has improved on the software side as well.
Making Your Xbox Work For You
Sony’s lead on the sales charts hasn’t discouraged Microsoft from innovating; if anything, it has pushed the gaming division to explore new features that differentiate its offerings from Sony and recapture its reputation as a worthy gaming platform. Throughout the Xbox One’s five-year history, Microsoft has continually reworked the system to give fans features they want.
From early updates like revamping the home screen’s layout to be more usable, to more recent additions such as allowing players to create custom groups for their games and apps, the Xbox One operating system has received numerous overhauls and facelifts. Microsoft has worked to deliver things like a customizable home screen and a more usable party system more in line with the popular features present on Xbox 360. Microsoft’s reactive approach has gone hand-in-hand with its community’s requests.
With each update, Microsoft doubles down on customization, allowing players organize their home screen and game collections how they want. These changes and new features stand in stark contrast to the vanilla layout of PlayStation 4’s home screen, which offers minimal customization options outside of downloadable themes and limited folder options. This level of customization has substantially improved the Xbox experience.
Plays Well With Others
Xbox has improved the digital-game experience through other avenues as well. One such push has been its Play Anywhere campaign. Play Anywhere takes Xbox’s first-party lineup and makes it playable on Windows 10 PCs. While this has essentially cut Xbox One’s lineup of true exclusive games to nothing thanks to the nature of the program, it ultimately benefits the players by letting them choose if they want to enjoy these games on the couch or at their desk without having the purchase them two times.
Microsoft has also vastly increased its player-base options through working well with other companies. In 2014, Electronic Arts launched EA Access on Xbox One in collaboration with Microsoft. The service offers subscribers access to more than 60 Electronic Arts games, as well as trials of new games before they launch. Sony passed on bringing the service to PS4, saying it, “does not bring the kind of value PlayStation customers have come to expect.” However, unless there are other unspoken factors at play, it would have been nice of Sony to allow its customers to make that judgment call for themselves as Microsoft did.
In a similar fashion, Microsoft has worked with first- and third-party developers to bolster the lineup of its Netflix-like subscription service, Xbox Game Pass. This monthly fee subscription service is like EA Access, but it spans multiple publishers and even grants subscribers access to first-party games from day one.
Xbox has also demonstrated its willingness to work with perceived competitors by beating on the drum of cross-platform play. Xbox users can play popular titles like Fortnite, Rocket League, and Minecraft with Switch and PC players. Meanwhile, Sony has come under fire for its unwillingness to cooperate with developers and competitors on crossplay initiatives.
Just last month, Bethesda’s Todd Howard expressed his team’s desire to make its upcoming game Fallout 76 work between multiple platforms, but lamented that, “Sony isn’t being as helpful as we want them to be.” This isn’t the first time it’s been suggested that Sony has appeared uncooperative in this regard. This became even more apparent during E3, when Fortnite players attempting to transfer their Epic Games accounts linked to PlayStation 4 over to the Switch version of the game, only to be denied.
Microsoft representatives have expressed interest in working with Sony to allow games like Fortnite to work across platforms, but Sony CEO Shawn Layden says that they’re trying to, “get to a solution which will be understood and accepted by our gaming community, while at the same time supporting our business.” Former Sony Online Entertainment John Smedley says it’s a money issue for Sony.
Regardless of the reason its primary competitor has not embraced cross-platform play, the fact remains that Microsoft is being accommodating. As long as it continues expanding its crossplay library while Sony remains stagnant, Xbox will continue looking like a shining example of a platform holder working for the larger gaming community.
Old Is New Again… And Done The Right Way
All these improvements have given Xbox’s player base plenty to be happy about in the years since the system’s launch, but perhaps the biggest example of Xbox listening to its fan base came in 2015 with the introduction of backward compatibility. Microsoft’s approach to backward compatibility isn’t a streaming service like Sony’s PlayStation Now or a system that requires you to re-purchase games like Nintendo’s Virtual Console; Xbox One’s backward compatibility is the feature done right.
The list of games available, which started at around 100 Xbox 360 titles, has steadily grown each week and now features more than 500 games across original Xbox and Xbox 360. Even better than the continually growing library is that if you own the game already, it automatically works on your Xbox One either by redownloading your digital copy, or by installing the files off your physical disc.
While new games are always paramount, this has given players the ability to go back and re-play an incredible game like Red Dead Redemption before its sequel launches or experience the magic of the Mass Effect trilogy for the first time. For collectors, it’s also satisfying to see the complete run of favorite series like Assassin’s Creed sitting in your library ready to be played. This oft-requested feature was implemented correctly and continues to add community-requested titles every week. The best part is that Microsoft shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon, even stating intent to carry this philosophy into the next stages of the Xbox brand.
Microsoft’s commitment to backward compatibility goes beyond looking to the past. In 2016, Spencer told me the plan is to make sure fans have the peace of mind that they’ll be able to play the games they buy today in the future. “When I’m building something today, I know that it will be playable 10 years from now because I’m building on a platform that a company like Microsoft is out there supporting,” he said. This intention sets the standard for how platform holders should view their catalogs in terms of future-proofing, but until Sony or Nintendo commit to similar plans or Microsoft makes good on this statement, there’s no way of knowing if the industry will embrace this idea.
Microsoft’s dwindling first-party software lineup remains the most glaring weakness of Xbox, and the biggest concern among fans; the Xbox One simply can’t compete with the breadth and depth of Sony and Nintendo’s exclusives, and there isn’t a quick solution to the problem. However, Microsoft has taken a step in the right direction with the recent acquisitions of studios like Ninja Theory, Playground Games, and Compulsion Games. Bulking up its first-party development now, Microsoft will not only improve its offering on the Xbox One, but also safeguard against the same mistakes and backsteps for its next console.
Already, the rumors of offering a choice between a streaming console and a traditional console shows Xbox is being flexible and making sure it doesn’t alienate the core as it did with the initial Xbox One reveal. Though it ultimately strayed from that initial Xbox One vision, Microsoft has listened to its players to come full circle and accomplish the primary goal of the system as laid out in the 2013 reveal: to be an outstanding place to enjoy games and entertainment.