Microsoft has a very real problem on their hands. They are soon to release what’s purported to be the most powerful home videogame console in human history, but if the current system’s software lineup is anything to go by, all these champion-lineage horses will risk pulling a pitifully empty cart. The Xbox brand seems to have lost something of itself over the course of their last two hardware transitions, and it is something fundamental to the strategy employed when the original Xbox pushed Microsoft into the console business. In 2017, we are dealing with a much different company with a much different focus, and I think that focus is what is threatening to make the Scorpio a very expensive mistake for manufacturer and consumer alike.
When the Xbox platform first launched in 2001, it carried the momentum and mission of the Sega Dreamcast, a console that was well ahead of its time in some pretty major regards — and it had paid dearly for this prescience. The Xbox was meant to address many of the Dreamcast’s weaknesses, upgrading not only its horsepower under the hood and its chosen format for its disc-based media (switching from proprietary GD-ROM to the then-current and universally utilized DVD format), but it also one-upped the Dreamcast’s 56K modem by shipping with an Ethernet port onboard. Heralding its status as the successor to the ambitious SegaNet, this hardware decision would preempt the advent of Xbox Live, which would become the online service that set the first definitive standard for online play and functionality — a standard that other manufacturers would be forced to match in later years. But the most important thing that the original Xbox had going for it was not something as simple as a mere technological advantage, nor was it as blatant as a hardware upgrade.
The magic edge that the Xbox had was being a console with a lot of great, quirky games for it from a ton of publishers around the globe, especially when it came to system exclusives. The original Xbox had some truly great games that no other console’s lineup could boast: Sega’s Jet Set Radio Future, From Software’s Otogi, Capcom’s Steel Battalion, Team Ninja’s Ninja Gaiden and Microsoft’s own Phantom Dust, just to name a few. When it came to multiplatform titles, the Xbox had a clear advantage in many of the versions released for it versus the versions that shipped for competing consoles, notably the Nintendo Gamecube and PlayStation 2. Games like SoulCalibur II, Psi-Ops and the original Mercenaries had the luxury of a distinctly superior port on the Xbox, and it also boasted the definitive versions of that generation’s Grand Theft Auto games (III, Vice City, San Andreas). Having strong multiplatform ports made the system an easy purchase for those looking to have access to franchises that had been lighting up competitor systems’ libraries, but having stronger hardware running it meant getting better, more technically-impressive versions of that software.
Without the games that would set the system apart from the pack, the Xbox was going to be a very expensive failure, and Microsoft couldn’t afford for that to happen. The strange thing is that the grip on that ethos weakened as the 360’s time progressed, culminating in the Xbox One’s reliance on Western titles and a fair degree of genre homogenization in terms of its library’s offerings. Not only are games like Cuphead and Crackdown 3 longstanding promises without product in hand, but the Fable franchise has all but flatlined, and hardcore hype engines like the Phantom Dust reboot and Scalebound are likely forever relegated to the annals of vaporware. Some would certainly believe that this does not constitute anything resembling fairness, and really, those people would not be wrong for feeling that way. If Sony can stick by The Last Guardian for nine years and wind up with a solid product, albeit one that was unable to fully live up to a near-decade of hype in all of its various forms, then Microsoft could stand to let something have a chance to take root, instead of yanking out the plant when it does not produce fruit on a speedy timetable.
If a company is looking to do something different in 2017, they will need to think about what has not been done — or done in a “different way” — to death. In order to accomplish that, Microsoft needs to start thinking like they are in 2001 again, or else the Scorpio will risk being the most powerful car on the road without a set of tires on it. It will not matter what kind of magic lives under the hood when the system is not capable of showing the audience anything truly new. It absolutely cannot clone its predecessor’s limited bag of tricks, as the Xbox One’s sales — while strong enough to survive — are not matching up to the competition, and software options drive hardware sales. Being a machine for shooter fans might give it a fair degree of sustenance, but that strategy will not guarantee it true success, and it will not live up to the legacy that enabled the Xbox brand to establish a wide Western foothold, Halo, Gears, Fable and Forza aside.
The Scorpio needs exclusives from developers who are out to push that envelope, and Microsoft as a company needs to offer better support to beleaguered projects, not swift and sudden deaths. Nintendo will likely have relevance for a long, long time to come, thanks to a massive stable of franchises they have cultivated over the course of multiple decades. The Xbox brand itself is nearing twenty years old, and Microsoft only has three current major franchises to show for it. Releasing an expensive system without a strong lineup of software is risky as it is, and while Nintendo bet big on Zelda‘s singularity to carry the Switch in the early days of release, the Scorpio has no such blue-chip stock to fall back upon. Because of this, the Scorpio is on target to be twice as expensive to purchase — never mind produce — with very little to actually show for it, at least in the here and now.
It is in Microsoft’s best interests to reveal something truly mind-blowing at E3, and that will require something outside of shooters and racing simulators. If they fail to address this, they risk the Xbox brand echoing Sega’s legacy in all the wrong ways.