It’s been 12 months since Microsoft launched their Series X and S brand of consoles. Coming off of the Xbox One generation which was by nearly all accounts a disappointment, they were looking to rebound with a family of consoles which would revolutionize the Xbox brand and in many ways change the way in which we play and purchase video games. Led by Head of Xbox Phil Spencer who would be spearheading his first true console launch (not counting the Xbox One X mid-gen upgrade), they had a bold vision for the future, and with the position that they found themselves in after the previous generation, it was time for big swings and Hail Mary passes.
The new consoles debuted on November 10th 2020, and on top of the usual challenges of a new hardware launch, they (and rival PlayStation) had to content with launching during the midst of a global pandemic. Manufacturing issues meant that the consoles would be in short supply (and still are one year later) and there was the questions of whether or not the public would even have an appetite for expensive new hardware when so many people were still out of work due to Covid-19. With so much at stake and unforeseeable challenges in their way, it was a console launch unlike any other. So let’s look back at the past 12 months. The hardware, the games, the reception, and the new philosophy behind the Xbox brand.
The one area in which Microsoft could comfortably be the most confident going into this generation was definitely the hardware. At $499 the Xbox Series X is an absolute beast and the most powerful gaming console on the market. Delivering true 4K gaming, Ray Tracing, Variable Rate Shading, and up to 120 fps, games on the Series X look absolutely stunning (provided you have a tv capable of taking advantage of those features). The Series X and S are also the only consoles on the market to support both Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos sound. So if you’re the kind of gamer who wants the absolute best visual and audio presentation, Xbox has got you covered.
If you haven’t yet taken that leap to 4K though, you could go for the Series S which features all the great games and features as it’s big brother, but at a resolution of 1440p. At $299 it’s the cheapest way to get into next gen gaming and has become a very popular choice for those who maybe don’t spend most of their gaming time on Xbox or are looking for a second Xbox console for their home. Both choices for Xbox this generation include new features like Quick Resume which gets you instantly back into your game right where you left off, and Smart Delivery, a feature which may have seemed like a silly buzzword at launch but has since proven to be a great addition which ensures that you’ll never struggle with cross gen saves or having the right version of a game.
As someone who currently uses each of the console platforms available, I can easily say that hardware is where Xbox has distanced themselves from the pack the most this generation. With the most power, the best options for players, and the easiest way to get right into your games, Xbox has delivered one of the best pieces of console hardware I’ve ever used.
As much as Xbox knocked it out of the park with regards to hardware, their lineup of 1st party and exclusive titles has had a much bumpier road during the first year. When the Series X/S launched last November there weren’t very many reasons to upgrade other than the technical improvements to games that many had already played such as Gears 5, Forza Horizon 4, and Sea of Thieves. While these improvements were great, that’s not the best incentive to drop hundreds of dollars. The one new game on the list was Gears Tactics, a really solid title, but also a port of a PC game and there just aren’t that many players getting excited about a turn based tactics game being their big launch title. The next several months were equally underwhelming for Xbox players, with a scattering of interesting games here and there, but as the year went on things would start to turn around and the narrative of “Xbox doesn’t have any games” would finally be put to rest.
In the later half of the new Xbox’s freshman year we would see numerous quality games that were console exclusive to Xbox. There were indie titles like The Artful Escape, The Ascent, Echo Generation, Twelve Minutes, Sable, Lake, and The Last Stop. As far as first party titles go, in July we saw the console debut of one of the best reviewed games of the year, Microsoft Flight Simulator, and this month we received the stellar racing game Forza Horizon 5. And let’s not forget about one of the best games of the year, Psychonauts 2. While that game was published by Microsoft Game Studios, it wasn’t exclusive to Xbox due to commitments made prior to Microsoft acquiring developer Double Fine. Xbox owners though got to play the game for no additional cost thanks to the next topic on our list, because you can’t talk about Xbox in 2021 without mentioning their MVP program, Xbox Game Pass.
This Xbox generation won’t be defined by their hardware lineup, it won’t even be defined by 1st party titles like Halo or Gears of War, this generation is all about Xbox Game Pass. The subscription service has been around since 2017, but with the launch of the new consoles Microsoft fulfilled their vision of Xbox’s future by going all in on Game Pass. For $9.99 per month you can gain access to an impressive catalog of 100s of games on either console or PC, and for $14.99 you can get Game Pass Ultimate which includes both as well as other perks. And unlike the early days of the service, you aren’t just paying for a collection of older releases (as great as that is).
These days you get access to every single 1st party release from Xbox Game Studios on day one. Games like Halo Infinite, Sea of Thieves, Starfield, Perfect Dark, and more. There have also been loads of smaller titles and indies launching day one on the service. Those exclusive indies I mentioned before? Every one of them launched on Game Pass. And major 3rd parties have gotten in on the action recently with big games like Outriders, Back 4 Blood, and even Sony’s own MLB: The Show debuting on Game Pass. The value included and the amount of great games being added every month is absolutely bonkers. In my opinion, Xbox and Game Pass are now inseparable. If you own an Xbox console, there’s simply no reason to not be a member. And in my opinion the service is reason enough to own an Xbox… if you want.
And that’s where Microsoft is really thinking outside of the box (or Xbox I guess), you can enjoy nearly everything that Xbox has to offer, without ever buying an actual Xbox. That sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. Microsoft has begun offering nearly all of their 1st party releases on PC as well, that means that if you have a beefy enough computer at home you can play the next Forza, Gears, Halo, or Fable. Doing this has opened up the Xbox catalog to millions more gamers than they’ve ever had before. And if you’re a Game Pass Ultimate subscriber, you won’t a console or a PC to play these games. Thanks to Xbox Cloud Gaming you can access that catalog of games on your phone, tablet, and very soon a dedicated Game Pass app on Smart TVs. They’ve even recently added the ability to stream next gen games on your Xbox One console. It flies in the face of the way companies have sold their games for years, but if they can pull it off it’ll explode the Xbox brand in ways never thought possible.
So what does the future of Xbox look like? There are a number of challenges that they need to overcome for their new vision to be a success. First of all they need to be able to get more Xbox consoles to those that want them. A large portion of their audience is still going to want to play their games on dedicated hardware and one year after launch those are still incredibly hard to find. Manufacturing challenges and Covid complications have led to console shortages like we’ve never seen. They also need to find ways to grow their Game Pass subscription numbers beyond their traditional audience. The last publicly stated number they gave was 18 million subscribers back in January, that number is rumored to be somewhere near 30 million now, but a recent report stated that the growth hasn’t been quite as large as they had projected internally.
Then there are the games. They absolutely have enough 1st party releases coming in the future, with an absolutely stacked calendar of releases like Avowed, Everwild, Contraband, Fable, Hellblade II, State of Decay 3, Perfect Dark, plus Bethesda’s 2022 one-two punch of Redfall and Starfield, and next month’s return of Master Chief with the highly anticipated Halo Infinite. The real challenge is going to be ensuring that these games deliver the kind of high quality experience that players are looking for, after all the Xbox One had quite a few exclusives during it’s run, but so many of them were games that scored in the 6-8 point range. Xbox owners want the same level of prestige AAA games that PlayStation owners have become accustomed to. They want the 10’s, the game of the year contenders, they want the kind of games that people absolutely must play. And while things look promising, the proof is in the pudding and we won’t know how great these games are until we get hands on controllers.
It’s been an incredible first year for this new generation of Xbox. They have spent years getting all of the pieces into place and their new philosophy is bold and ambitious. They’ve got the hardware, they’ve got the programs, and they have a stable of talented developers creating a bunch of great looking games. Now they just need to keep up the pace and deliver the kind of games that will make people rush out and subscribe to Game Pass. I truly believe though that we are entering the golden age of Xbox, and that the best is yet to come.