Xbox Series X: How does Microsoft come out swinging against Sony?
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Xbox Series X: How does Microsoft come out swinging against Sony?

Lloyd Coombes
23 June 2020

Why showing just first-party titles in July might be a mistake.

Xbox Series X is still expected this year, and it could make your Xbox One, Xbox 360 and original Xbox games much better than you remember them - with framerates of up to 120FPS and new HDR implementation.

While PlayStation 5 backwards compatibility is limited to PlayStation 4 titles (as far as we know), Microsoft is touting the Xbox Series X as the "most compatible console ever".

It's been a week since Sony finally pulled back the curtain on the PlayStation 5, and the company's new console has been on the tip of gamer's tongues ever since. Divisive design aside, the general consensus is that the Japanese firm has come out swinging after what felt like a lengthy silence.

While Sony has now shown the box itself, they've moved ahead of Microsoft's Xbox reveal strategy by showing first and third-party gameplay and revealing two versions of the console. In one fell swoop, they've turned the tables on their competitor, who had long been trumpeting consumer-focused strategies like Smart Delivery, Backwards Compatibility, and Xbox Game Pass.

How does Microsoft recover?

While the Seattle-based firm has been loudest for the majority of 2020, arguably not everything they've said has been worth shouting about. May's "Inside Xbox" event, intended to be the starting line of sorts for a series of events leading up to the console's launch, promised much.

Fans around the globe (and likely PlayStation fans disappointed by Sony's silence) tuned in for a peek at next-gen gameplay, something that Microsoft had touted leading up to the event.

What followed was an entirely avoidable example of ill-adjusted expectations based on marketing speak.

Many of the third-party titles shown looked great, but arguably none offered significant wow-factor to draw the kind of breathless moments many had hoped for. Even Assassin's Creed: Valhalla, undoubtedly the headline game of the presentation, was a bizarre mix of cut-scene and in-engine footage.

The current Coronavirus pandemic undoubtedly plays a part, but for a big "coming out" party such as this, it felt akin to being promised a sports car and finding out you only get to drive it around a track once. We were left wondering where the "wow" was, that indescribable feeling that next-gen had arrived.

Contrast that with Sony's big reveal event, which opened bizarrely with Grand Theft Auto 5 but soon found its footing with the likes of Ratchet and Clank and Spider-Man: Miles Morales. Yes, Xbox only promised third-party titles, but would it not have been worth waiting until it had something significant from first-party, too?

The trouble is that despite Xbox pushing the next-gen narrative for much of the last two years (understandable given Sony's dominance), they've been crushed underfoot yet again.

That's not to say the Series X is doomed to repeat the same mistakes of its predecessor (no mandatory Kinect is a great start on that front), but the company's insistence that it doesn't believe in console generations makes it look increasingly likely that many people will pick up an Xbox One this Christmas to accompany their PlayStation 5.

Consider the exclusives situation, with Xbox undoubtedly beaten down by Sony's stable of PlayStation 4 first-party titles.

Fans on the blue side of the fence have been able to play Marvel's Spider-Man, Horizon: Zero Dawn and God of War, and that's to say nothing of The Last of Us Part 2 and Ghost of Tsushima. Any of those games could be considered system-sellers, and Sony is wisely leaning into that with Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Horizon: Forbidden West that'll only be playable on PlayStation 5.

On the other side, Microsoft has committed to supporting the Xbox One for at least eighteen months or so after the Series X launches. Halo: Infinite has a lot to prove (both for the franchise and for the system), but it'll be playable on a 2013 Xbox One console, albeit with fewer bells and whistles. Trying to convince gamers to upgrade to the Series X without offering a true exclusive as an incentive is a tough sell, but it isn't impossible.

For one, Xbox's secret weapon is inarguably Game Pass. Over the last few months during lockdown, anecdotally I've had multiple friends ask me about the service and who have signed up.

Subscriber numbers continue to rise, and that's great news for die-hard fans already waiting to pre-order Series X. Imagine ordering the Xbox Series X, knowing the next Forza, Gears 5, Halo: Infinite and more are already available for you almost out of the box.

It's a tantalising prospect and could negate any potential price disparity between the consoles. If PlayStation 5 launches at £600 and Series X at the same price point, being able to jump into dozens of titles from the get-go could be the decider.

Of course, those games aren't going to sell themselves. For every Halo fan salivating over the prospect of Infinite, there's another thinking back to Halo 5's messy campaign.

Gears fans may love Gears 5, but it's also a current-gen game that's being updated for Series X. Forza hasn't been announced yet and will sell well to a hardcore audience, but that audience might be wondering why it's worth jumping into on Series X rather than the Xbox One X, currently the world's most powerful console.

With that in mind, Microsoft needs the event in July to do a lot of heavy lifting, and restricting it to first-party titles might actually hamper it. Imagine an Xbox event that shows why you should care about those games, introduces a couple of new, promising exclusives, and ends with something along the lines of a new Rocksteady game.

The third-party title wouldn't need to be exclusive, but we've seen how marketing a game alongside a single platform can make a huge difference to its perception (see PS4 with the original Destiny).

The company could also do with clearing up some of its messaging surrounding the "Inside Xbox" shows. While the May event was due to kick off a monthly cadence of new information, a June event hasn't materialised as many expected.

That's led some to speculate the event has been pushed back or rescheduled, but Microsoft has confirmed there never was a June event, suggesting it was always the plan to release blog posts about the Series X instead. While we'd have undoubtedly loved to see another event, taking their time to get the July event right is undoubtedly the smart play.

The Xbox Series X's success could be ultimately decided by its price in comparison to its immediate competitor, and Microsoft has been bullish in its public comments about the value proposition of its latest box.

Could they essentially "buy back" their market share by taking a loss on each Series X sold? With Sony betting big on clearly defined console generations, The House That Windows Built might have to convince people why their console isn't just an upgrade in comparison to the big, shiny and new PS5.

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