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Monday, February 26, 2024

The Xbox Games Showcase’s biggest reveal is that Microsoft’s now the PC publishing monster it always should have been

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The biggest software company on the planet has, for most of its history, treated games as something of an afterthought. But then Microsoft’s business in its first couple of decades was, well, mostly business. Not just B2B sales and office productivity software but the kind of pack-in deals that saw most every PC after a certain point bought alongside a copy of Windows, a focused drive on getting its software running everywhere on everything. Bill Gates may have gotten addicted to Minesweeper, but games were a secondary consideration for Microsoft for a long time.

Tonight’s Xbox Game Showcase felt like the culmination of years of work changing that. It made Microsoft feel like a publishing monster, arguably bigger than ever before, and had within it the fruits of decisions made years before.

The history in brief is that there were various ’90s initiatives before this, but Xbox marked a huge change in Microsoft’s strategy, though one that oddly enough took it outside of the existing PC market. Xbox’s story is one of ups and downs, while along the way there were some PC disasters like Games for Windows Live. But as it built a successful console business, and expanded its own game development strength, mainly through high-profile acquisitions, Microsoft eventually ran into a wall. Off the back of Xbox 360 Microsoft launched the Xbox One, perhaps the most infamously tone-deaf and derided E3 moment of all time, and went into crisis mode.

Such was the blowback that Don Mattrick was out, and soon Phil Spencer was in. Spencer had been with Xbox since 2001 and under Satya Nadella oversaw a total change in course for Xbox’s strategy, with less focus on the box itself. Under Spencer Xbox slo-o-owly pivoted from from being a traditional console manufacturer with a razor-and-blades model into a more all-encompassing ecosystem of PC, cloud, the console as an entry point, and an overwhelming focus on the future importance of subscriptions.

Microsoft builds strength through acquisitions. Xbox has done this from day one. And at tonight’s Xbox Game Showcase, we saw the spectacular results of Microsoft’s huge acquisition spree of the mid-to-late 2010s. That spree began with Mojang and Minecraft in late 2014, but went to the next level in 2018 with the acquisition of Ninja Theory, Playground Games, Undead Labs, Obsidian Entertainment and inXile Entertainment, as well as establishing the Initiative in Santa Monica. 2019 saw Double Fine but the voracious appetite returned with 2020’s still-stunning acquisition of Zenimax for over $7.5 billion in cash.

I want it all

Over nearly two hours, this show delivered it all. Big games, small games, and then the sheer confidence (or perhaps foolhardiness) of ending with a deep-dive on the hugely anticipated Starfield. 

The show began with a charming showing for Fable by Playground Games (acquired in 2018). Then an atmospheric change of direction into South of Midnight with impeccable vibes, from Compulsion Games (acquired 2018). Then a third-party one for a change, but a biggie: Ubisoft’s Star Wars Outlaws.

We’re three games in and so far have had two big first-party exclusives, and the exclusive on a new Star Wars game. 

Then in quickfire succession came 33 Immortals, from Thunder Lotus, then the first gameplay trailer for Payday 3, with a release date of September 21, 2023. Persona 3 Reload, from third-party Atlus, the excellent-looking Avowed from Obsidian Entertainment (acquired in 2018). Sea of Thieves from Rare (acquired 2002, an old-timer) over-delivered with a free Legend of Monkey Island tie-in.

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2024 next, again from Asobo (still a private company), alongside the announcement of a Dune tie-in of all things for the existing game. Then it was time for a look at Seuna’s Sacrifice: Hellblade 2 from Ninja Theory (acquired in 2018).

Sega’s Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth, before a trailer and a song for Fallout 76’s Atlantic City update, the exclusive on Kunitsu-Gami: Path of the Goddess, a new Capcom game. Forza Motorsport from Turn 10 (established by Microsoft in 2001), a trailer for The Elder Scrolls Online’s next update, then right back into it with Overwatch 2: Invasion from Blizzard (which has not yet been acquired by Xbox Game Studios), then Persona 5 Tactica from the third-party Atlus.

A Starfield tease, Jusant from Don’t Nod (independent), Still Wakes the Deep from Sumo (a public company), and Dungeon of Hinterberg from Microbird (independent). The Summer Games Fest had Nic Cage, so Xbox then whipped out Keanu Reeves and our first proper look at Cyberpunk 2077’s Phantom Liberty expansion, alongside a release date (September 16 2023).

Cities: Skylines 2 next from Paradox, which looked amazing and came with a date (24th October 2023), before the premiere of Metaphor: ReFantazio from former Persona creators. Then there was Towerborne from Stoic Studio, before one of my highlights with Clockwork Revolution from inXile (acquired in 2018). All on Game Pass.

The Xbox part of the show ended with the reveal of a new Xbox Series S with a 1TB SSD, before it was into the deep-dive on Starfield from Bethesda (acquired 2018), which of course is on Game Pass from release.

Who could pass

I may have killed you with repetition. My point is that this running order consists of 19 games, plus five big expansion announcements, almost all of which outside of the likes of Phantom Liberty is on Game Pass day one. Of those 19 game announcements nine came from first-party studios, five of whom have been acquired since 2018. The rest were a mix of third parties and indies, including some really big-hitters like Cyberpunk and Overwatch 2, and everything was topped-off with the biggest game and the most in-depth look.

Your mileage may differ but, for me, that is what a showcase is all about. Xbox Game Studios showed off incredible strength-in-depth as well as range here, and the overwhelming focus was on not just its firstparty efforts but at those as the core of Game Pass, with all these fan favourites like Persona and Yakuza coming in around the edges. It was such a strong showing that the reveal of a brand-new third-person Star Wars game, which looks promising albeit just in cinematic form, was put third in the running order.

This felt like the showing of a publishing monster, and Microsoft beginning to flex the incredible amount of development muscle it’s piled-on over the last five years. The Game Pass offering looks more and more like incredible value, and what should scare the competition most (particularly Sony but also those third parties vulnerable to takeover) is the breadth Microsoft’s going for in what it highlights. There are some pretty old-school games mixed-in among the slick big-budget loveliness, and for every Star Wars that’ll have mega mainstream appeal there was something like Towerborne, which may not set the world alight but looks like it might deserve to.

Ask yourself this: is anyone talking about Gears or Halo not being there? Nary a peep. Even five years ago, that would have been dominating the chatter. Those series remain a big part of Xbox but are far from the totems of old.

This showcase was fresh, this showcase was brash, and it almost feels like we ain’t seen nothing yet. Microsoft’s strategy over the last decade and particularly since 2018 is now beginning to show the first fruits, but this is just the beginning of Microsoft staking out a huge long-term position at the heart of videogaming. Xbox Game Studios is already one of the most important publishers on the planet and, if the Activision Blizzard deal does go through, it’s going to have an awe-inspiring arsenal of top-tier development studios all tied-into that same goal of putting Microsoft front-and-centre of gaming across all platforms.

This was an amazing showcase, and one that made you wonder just how much of gaming’s future Microsoft is going to own. With showcases like this, it’s hard to see a bigger beast out there.

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