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Microsoft’s Xbox gaming division is closing the year on a strong note. Unlike the holiday season of 2020, the company is not relying solely on new hardware to continue its momentum. Xbox Game Studios is on a hot streak when it comes to software, and that’s a strong indicator that Xbox is on the right track. And it’s indicative of the broader Xbox strategy that’s working for the company.
But what is that strategy? At a glance, it’s easy to assume that Microsoft is using an “Xbox Game Pass” playbook at all costs. The reality is more nuanced than that, and it’s something 343 Industries studio boss Bonnie Ross explained well in a roundtable meeting with former Xbox executives today.
“For us, [the Xbox initiative is] It’s really about having a diverse set of content, meeting players where they are and bringing those experiences to the fore,” Ross explained to moderator and former Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime. “It’s really about putting the player first.”
The point here is that the Xbox team is not working backwards from a single product. Microsoft has a console, it has a PC operating system, and it has the cloud, and the company is going to use those tools to achieve its real goal. Ross reiterated what that goal actually is.
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“How do we meet the player where they are,” she asked. “It’s not just about the console anymore. It’s really thinking about how we can make sure the games they want to play… are there for them to play.”
Xbox reaches players wherever they are
If the goal is to bring games where people are already playing, what does that mean for games? Well, it means that every Xbox Game Studios team needs to make the right decisions to fit their projects into this overall game plan. Halo is a good example of this.
With Halo Infinite, Microsoft and 343 Industries are not taking half measures. We live in a world where the biggest games are often free-to-play shooters that fans everywhere can play. So when 343 built Halo Infinite’s multiplayer, the team decided early on to design it for that business model. Microsoft didn’t step in to force 343 to find a way to force Halo multiplayer fans to buy an Xbox or subscribe to Game Pass.
It makes sense that Halo multiplayer is free to play on as many platforms as possible, so it is.
This reveals a subtext showing Microsoft’s current push with Xbox. By doing what it takes to find players where they are, you’ll likely be doing what’s right for the games.
Forza Horizon 5 is proof that this works. That game has had 10 million players since its debut on November 5, according to the in-game leaderboard. Microsoft probably hasn’t even sold 10 million Xbox Series X/S systems. But that doesn’t matter, because the game is in the cloud via Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, on Xbox One and on Steam.
This doesn’t mean Microsoft is forgetting Xbox hardware. Instead, it means Xbox Series X/S is part of a wider ecosystem that is thriving, based on the success of Forza Horizon 5.
Xbox invests in variety
Ross also referred to a need for diversity, and she means that in a multifaceted way. She means diversity in terms of the experiences creators choose to center. But she also means it in terms of a variety of content that appeals to different types of people.
“When you think of Halo and then the other games in our portfolio, it’s also about having a diverse world and a diverse set of characters,” Ross says. “And we’ve taken over a lot of studios — I think we’ve got 23 — which is really about having content for everyone.”
While those 23 studios continue to run, Microsoft has relied on third-party partners to bring several releases to its Xbox Game Pass service. That worked well, but now it’s up to Xbox Game Studios to bring that variety while also raising and raising the bar on quality.
And until then, 2021 has proven that Microsoft can do just that.
Xbox invests in quality
In her explanation to Fils-Aime, Ross also mentioned highlighting experiences as a third pillar for Xbox. That means Xbox has to release games that are so good or so fascinating that they move the medium forward. This is something Xbox shied away from. During the Xbox One generation, the company made safe bets on well-known software to the exclusion of almost everything else.
But over the past year, thanks in large part to the acquisitions, Xbox Game Studios has released one critical and fan hit after another. And while some of those are well known, Microsoft has shown a willingness to invest extra to make sure these come out in the best condition possible.
Since August, Xbox Game Studios has released Psychonauts 2, Deathloop, Forza Horizon 5, and Halo Infinite’s multiplayer. The first three of those have all been nominated for awards at The Game Awards and Halo came out after the eligibility period.
Xbox quality can’t come from a single game release – or even a good year. The company must demonstrate a consistent pursuit of excellence. But that’s exactly what it showed with its 2021 releases. After acquiring Double Fine and Arkane (through Bethesda/Zenimax), Microsoft paid and provided support to polish up Psychonauts 2 and Deathloop. That’s in addition to delaying Halo Infinite for an entire year to do the same with that game.
This institutional determination to do whatever it takes to release good games is the last thing Xbox needs. And with that, the other pillars of the strategy have to take care of themselves. If Microsoft provides games that people want to play, yes, they will play them wherever they are. And if Microsoft gives developers the time, money, and support they need to execute on their ideas, then the diversity and variety should also come.
And if 10 million show up for Forza Horizon 5 this year, how many will show up for a Starfield, Avoced, or Perfect Dark?
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