In 2018, Microsoft made some big moves, such as acquiring seven different studios and launching an initiative to release all first-party titles on Xbox Game Pass. It painted a hopeful future for Xbox, one that seemed to promise the final years of the current console generation would be greater than a whimper for the Xbox One.
As 2019 comes to a close, Microsoft has largely met those expectations. There have been rough patches, of course–the year hasn’t been perfect for Xbox. But Microsoft continues to corner both subscription-based game services and backwards compatibility with Xbox One and has begun to deliver on the promise of more first-party titles. It all inspires a cautious optimism going into 2020, as Microsoft prepares to release its next-generation console–codenamed Project Scarlett.
So as we say goodbye to 2019, let’s look back at the type of year Microsoft and Xbox One had.
Game Pass Boosted Smaller Developers
When it comes to creating a subscription service for games, Microsoft is leaps and bounds ahead of both Sony and Nintendo with Game Pass. It certainly helps that Game Pass continues to deliver popular titles that arrive the same day they are released. The Outer Worlds is the most noteworthy of the lot, but Gears 5 and several others are solid additions as well. That said, the larger success in 2019 is in how Microsoft used Game Pass’s more noteworthy games to advertise the smaller ones.
Game Pass’s monthly fee essentially pays it forward–in terms of publicity–when it comes to indie games, marketing them by prominently featuring them on the service when they’re first added. Players may buy-in for the triple-A titles, but it allows them to download and try indie games for “free” so to speak as well.
This incidental marketing for indie games is the closest the Xbox One has come to featuring something akin to the Arcade section in the Xbox 360’s online store–a feature that helped catapult certain indie games to the popularity they have today. As more online stores (ranging from Xbox Live and PSN to the Nintendo Eshop and Steam) continue to clutter with a rapidly growing market of indie games, a more limited library of rotating titles is an excellent way of promoting select creators and ensuring specific indie games aren’t completely buried by major releases.
Additionally, in June 2019, Microsoft released Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, a service that packaged together Xbox Game Pass, PC Game Pass, and Xbox Live Gold into one, discounted subscription. It’s a wonderful bang for your buck if you play on both Xbox One and PC. And it’s only going to get better, as, during X019, Microsoft announced Project xCloud would be rolled into Xbox Game Pass Ultimate in 2020–allowing subscribers to try out Microsoft’s take on cloud gaming “for free.”
Recent Studio Acquisitions Are Paying Off
Microsoft acquired several studios in 2018 and acquired another, Double Fine, this year. As stated in GameSpot’s 2018 Microsoft report card, we didn’t expect first-party games to come from those studios in 2019. We did hope we’d at least get announcements–a guarantee, so to speak, that the future of Xbox would contain more first-party games than Microsoft has delivered in the past few years. And in this regard, Microsoft met expectations.
Microsoft is going into 2020 with 12 first-party titles scheduled: Battletoads, Bleeding Edge, Everwild, Flight Simulator, Gears Tactics, Grounded, Halo Infinite, Minecraft Dungeons, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, Psychonauts 2, Tell Me Why, and Wasteland 3. At the very least, it’s a varied list, and that’s nearly as many first-party titles as Microsoft released between 2017 and 2019 (14 games within those three years).
It’s encouraging to see that Microsoft isn’t wasting the potential of its recent acquisitions–even more so that it’s allowing those studios to create games outside their relative comfort zone. Whether most of those investments pay off in 2020 remains to be seen, but this is the best Xbox’s future has looked in years.
First-Party Lineup Still Lacks Single-Player Experiences
That said, even though we expected it, Microsoft still struggled on the first-party front for Xbox One in 2019. Granted, 2019 saw a sequel to the Gears of War franchise, Gears 5, which transformed the linear, cover-based shooter and gave it a more open-world-like twist. It’s a good game; Phil Hornshaw wrote as much in GameSpot’s Gears 5 review. But the only other first-party game Xbox One got this year is Crackdown 3–described as mediocre by Chris Pereira in GameSpot’s Crackdown 3 review. So it’s disappointing that Gears 5 is the only positively received first-party game Microsoft released on Xbox One this year.
And although several first-party games were announced in 2019, Microsoft hasn’t done much this year to waylay any concerns players might have when it comes to delivering single-player first-party titles. As impressive as it is that Microsoft’s studios continued to support their games-as-a-service titles in 2019, like We Happy Few and Sea of Thieves, it’s disappointing to go another year without concrete evidence that a Microsoft first-party studio is creating a more story-driven, experimentative single-player game.
Instead, we heard more about 343 Industries’ Halo Infinite, Mojang’s Minecraft Dungeons, Ninja Theory’s Bleeding Edge, Obsidian Entertainment’s Grounded, and inXile Entertainment’s Wasteland 3–several of which look good, but most of which are multiplayer-focused or encourage co-op play. Wasteland 3 is really the only exception, featuring co-op play but designed first and foremost as a single-player RPG.
Moon Studios’ Ori and the Will of the Wisps and Dontnod Entertainment’s Tell Me Why are, currently, the only Microsoft first-party games scheduled for 2020 that are entirely single-player. Rare’s Everwild could be as well, though its announcement trailer seems to suggest otherwise. None of Microsoft’s planned first-party titles offer something similar in scope to the cancelled Scalebound or match the creativity in the design seen in PS4’s Death Stranding or Switch’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Current Hardware Is Pulling Too Far Away From The Old
With Xbox One X, Microsoft still possesses the most powerful console. As impressive as the Xbox One X continues to be, however, the original Xbox One console has begun to struggle in 2019.
Though the original Xbox One can still run most games just fine–admittedly at a much lower pixel count and frame rate than the Xbox One X–Microsoft’s first Xbox One hasn’t been able to keep up with its younger siblings when it comes to certain titles. For example, if you’re playing Control on the original Xbox One, the gameplay will usually stutter when there’s a hectic fight with a massive amount of moving debris being thrown around. The original Xbox One also sees delays when going through menus in Borderlands 3 while playing co-op. The already long load times in Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order are also significantly slower on the original Xbox One in comparison to Xbox One S and Xbox One X.
To put it bluntly, if you bought an original Xbox One and can’t afford to upgrade, then you’re in for a less ideal experience when it comes to certain games that released in 2019. It’s likely a problem that’s only going to be exasperated with newer, bigger games in 2020 as well. This isn’t likely a problem Microsoft plans on addressing, as it would need to expense on QA’ing and specing individual games to ensure each one is optimized for multiple hardware revisions. Microsoft isn’t alone in this either–Sony is facing a similar issue in the differences in performance between the original PS4 / PS4 Slim and the PS4 Pro.
New Tech, More Ways To Play
In May 2019, the Xbox One S All-Digital Edition released at a retail price of $250 USD / £200 / AU $350. Possessing a 1TB hard drive, it included all the features of a normal Xbox One S, minus the disc drive. The Xbox One S All-Digital Edition is the first of its kind: a home console that’s completely reliant on downloaded games. For those who exclusively play this way, it presents an ideal way to save a little bit of money–a notion reinforced by Microsoft’s decision to base the new console on the cheaper Xbox One S as opposed to its much stronger but pricier counterpart, the Xbox One X.
Releasing in November 2019, the new Xbox Elite Series 2 controller may be Microsoft’s best controller to date. Sporting the same overall design as most Xbox One controllers, the Elite Series 2 is, like its predecessor, designed to appeal to players looking to up their game in competitive multiplayer–featuring numerous methods of customization. Like other Xbox One controllers, the Elite Series 2 will be compatible with Project Scarlett as well–removing the risk of buying a new controller a year before the release of a new console.
Other Matters, In Brief
- Microsoft revealed the first concrete details about its next-gen console, codenamed Project Scarlett, this year. It’s still far too early to make any definitive comparisons between it and PlayStation 5, but–so far anyway–Project Scarlett seems like it will have similar specs to Sony’s next-gen console. If true, then the battle between the two systems will mostly come down to brand loyalty, first-party exclusives, and services offered (such as Game Pass).
- Xbox One is still the only current-gen console to offer backwards compatibility. In 2019, Microsoft continued to add numerous games to its list of supported backwards compatible titles, though the latter end of the year saw the initiative slow and eventually cease.
- In October 2019, Microsoft released 23 chapters of accessibility guidelines that it wants all developers to consider when creating games scheduled to release on an Xbox platform. The Xbox Accessibility Guidelines are suggestions, but they’re all good ones–ranging from options to change the size of the in-game text to the implementation of difficulty adjustments that go beyond the traditional formula of an easy, normal, and hard mode.
- Also in October 2019, Microsoft launched the Project xCloud beta. Several companies have begun investing in cloud gaming–including Google, which released Stadia to mixed reviews. It remains to be seen whether Microsoft learns from these other services and how the company plans to implement Project xCloud into Project Scarlett.
2019 has been the best year for the Xbox One in a very long time. Both the Gears of War and Crackdown franchises got their long-awaited sequels, even if one was far more positively received than the other, and Game Pass continued to impress with the addition of noteworthy third-party titles like The Outer Worlds and Outer Wilds. Microsoft also set the stage for an exciting 2020, announcing the scheduled release windows for over a dozen first-party titles.
All that said, Microsoft needs to come out and have a great year in 2020. 2019 felt too much like a better version of 2018, with the Xbox One excelling primarily via Game Pass. Game Pass is a great service–one that’s promoting smaller creators in a way Sony, Nintendo, and Steam aren’t–but Microsoft still needs a flagship single-player title for Project Scarlett to rally behind. After 2019, the stage is set for Microsoft to make big moves with Project Scarlett in 2020. It’s just a matter of whether the company will deliver on the goodwill it’s earned this year.
|The Good||The Bad|
|Xbox Game Pass Ultimate is the best game-based subscription service on both PC and console||Microsoft goes another year with only one noteworthy first-party title for Xbox One|
|Xbox One X is still the most powerful console||The original Xbox One is showing its age and struggling to play certain games|
|Xbox One is still the only current-gen console to support backwards compatibility|
|Sending the Xbox Accessibility Guidelines to developers is an excellent follow-up to the 2018 release of the Xbox Adaptive Controller|