Microsoft launched its next-gen Xbox Series X and Series S consoles back in November, and both of them as well as Sony’s PlayStation 5 remain in very short supply at the beginning of 2021. While neither Sony or Microsoft have shared any informations about their respective console sales so far, DigiTimes recently reported that Sony shipped 3.4 million PS5 consoles in just four weeks, with PS5 shipments to reach up to 18 million in 2021.
If we believe the words of Xbox head Phil Spencer, Xbox's biggest rivals are now Google and Amazon with their new cloud gaming services ready to reach billion of gamers. However the exec would be wrong to dismiss the long-lasting competition with Sony and Nintendo, the latter having a true best-seller with the Nintendo Switch. The PlayStation 4 was also a massive success for the Sony with over 110M units sold worldwide, and the company's internal studios also managed to release hit after hit with the critically-acclaimed Uncharted 4, God of War, Marvel’s Spiderman, The Last of Us Part 2, or Ghost of Tsushima.
During the previous console generation, Sony also managed to negotiate some really important marketing deals with game developers for games like Destiny 2 or Call of Duty, giving PlayStation gamers a variety of exclusive content. Sony also continues to claim time exclusivity deals on blockbuster games like the Final Fantasy VII Remake, or the next-gen version of GTA Online which will be available for free exclusively for PlayStation 5 players during its first three months.
Microsoft may have the most powerful console on paper with the Xbox Series X, but that doesn’t mean much when Sony’s machine has better exclusive games and a much bigger user base ready to jump from the PS4 to the PS5. With Halo Infinite being delayed to Fall 2021, Microsoft is mostly relying on third-party developers to do the heavy lifting, but so far most cross-platform games like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Dirt 5, or Cyberpunk 2077 run just as good, if not better on the PS5.
It’s still early days for the Xbox Series X and Series S, and so far this console launch has been much smoother compared to the disaster that was the Xbox One launch back in 2013. Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass subscription service also continues to make its mark and crossed 15 million subscribers, though it has yet to become Xbox’s true killer app.
Overall, I believe Microsoft still has a lot of work to do to make the Xbox ecosystem more attractive to the billions of gamers across the world. It all starts with the games, but there are also many thing Microsoft can do on the platform level to make playing games on Xbox better compared to other platforms. Here are five areas where Microsoft needs to really make a difference in the coming months and years.
Improve Xbox Live social features or partner with Discord asap
If Xbox Live made it really easy to use voice communication on consoles back in the day, Discord has now become the place where PC and console gamers stay in touch. It’s a better solution than Xbox Live for voice chat thanks to features like noise suppression and echo cancellation, and it’s also a great app to build a community, whether you're a developer or a video games enthusiast streaming on Twitch or elsewhere.
Microsoft itself is a heavy Discord user, having set up official servers for the Xbox brand, the Xbox Ambassador Program, as well as various first party studios and gaming IPs like Halo or Minecraft. In comparison, the company's Xbox Live Clubs are slowly but surely becoming virtual ghost towns, and they also remain completely absent from the new Xbox apps for Windows 10, iOS and Android.
Many Xbox gamers have been asking for a while for a full-fledged Discord app on Xbox consoles, though there’s still nothing on that front. There’s already the possibility to link your Xbox account to your Discord account to share your Xbox Live game presence on Discord, but that’s pretty much it for now. Discord is probably the one social app that Microsoft needs right now to appeal to more gamers and consumers in general, and Xbox consoles having deep integrations with Discord would definitely make them more attractive.
Discord is currently growing very fast with over 140 million monthly active users and 800,000 downloads a day. With the company now being valued at $7B after a latest funding round, it will be interesting to see if Discord can continue to grow independently or if it will end up being acquired by a bigger company. If I was Phil Spencer, I’d go ask Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella to acquire Discord asap before Google, Facebook, or Amazon try to do the same.
Build Twitch, other live streaming services into the Xbox OS
This is an obvious one, but since Microsoft shut down Mixer back in July 2020, using the Twitch app is now the only way to stream games on Xbox One and the process is quite cumbersome, to say the least. While Mixer streaming used to integrated right into the Xbox Guide, starting a stream on Twitch currently requires to leave your game and open the Twitch app, which isn’t preinstalled on the console. Once the app is installed and you’re logged in with your Twitch account, you’ll need to go the Broadcast tab, check your settings, and then hope for the best.
I wouldn’t be surprised if most Xbox gamers don’t know how to stream games on Xbox consoles. Sony nailed game streaming on the PlayStation 4 by making it as easy as pressing the Share button on the PS4 controller, with Twitch and YouTube streaming being natively integrated in the PS4 OS. The new Xbox Series X controller finally caught up and added a Share button for taking screenshots and recording videos, but you can’t use it to start streaming on Twitch yet.
Following the sunsetting of Mixer, Xbox head Phil Spencer said that “we absolutely want to give gamers the choice of where to stream from Xbox.” Well, it’s really time to get this done, as the lack of built-in streaming solutions on Xbox is becoming quite embarrassing. Mixer may have been a ghost town, but it did the job pretty well with actually less latency compared to other streaming services.
Yes, we absolutely want to give gamers choice of where to stream from Xbox.
— Phil Spencer (@XboxP3) June 23, 2020
Be less greedy?
I’m being a bit provocative here, but I’m probably not the only one to think that some of Microsoft’s practices on the Xbox platform are a bit anachronistic. Let’s start with Xbox gamertags: As of today, Microsoft lets Xbox gamers change their nickname on Xbox Live once for free, but all subsequent changes will then cost $9.99. You don’t need to pay anything to change your username on Twitter, Twitch, or many other online services, and I'm not sure how Microsoft can still get away with this $10 fee in 2021.
Xbox gamers have also been complaining for years about Microsoft requiring an Xbox Live Gold subscription to play free to play games like Fortnite or Rocket League. Sony and Nintendo don’t require any subscriptions to play free to play games on PlayStation or Nintendo Switch, and it’s really weird to see Microsoft, a company that made some pretty great moves to make gaming more accessible still putting F2P games on Xbox behind a paywall.
It has been rumored for quite some time that things could finally change with the launch of Halo Infinite and its free-to-play multiplayer mode, though it doesn’t look like Xbox Live Gold is going away time soon. I can only imagine what would happen if Xbox was the only console platform where online multiplayer is completely free for all gamers. For now, though, Xbox Live Gold likely remains a big revenue source for Microsoft, even more so than Xbox Game Pass which only has over 15 million subscribers.
Another thing that keeps surprising me on Xbox is that not all first-party games support Xbox Play Anywhere. For those unfamiliar, Xbox Play Anywhere allow consumers to buy a game once on the Microsoft Store and and get both the PC and Xbox versions for free with cross-save support. Microsoft pioneered Xbox Play Anywhere with games like Forza Horizon 3 and Gears of War 4, and most Xbox Game Studios have since followed with some notable exceptions.
For some reason, games like Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Minecraft, Minecraft Dungeons, or Wasteland 3 don’t support Xbox Play Anywhere, meaning that the PC and Xbox versions are separate purchases. I’m aware that Minecraft and Halo are some of Xbox’s biggest cash cows, but when a game like Halo: MCC already supports cross-save, cross-play, and shared achievements across PC and Xbox, I’m not sure why this game doesn’t support Xbox Play Anywhere in the first place.
Microsoft did many other things that surprised me over the years, like selling a $49.99 Season Pass with very little value for Gears of War 4, adding lootboxes to its biggest games, or keeping Minecraft for Windows 10 off Xbox Game Pass for PC, for some reason. I'm also not a big fan of selling an Xbox Adaptive Controller for people with disabilities at $99, with accessories for it also being really expensive.
Raise the quality bar for Xbox Game Studios
Microsoft purchased several new studios in recent years, and the company will soon own 23 game studios in total once the acquisition of Bethesda/ZeniMax Media is completed. The company is likely not done with big studio acquisitions, and with the video games industry now generating more revenue than Hollywood, it’s safe to assume that Amazon, Google, and other companies are also interested in growing their gaming divisions in the near future.
Last week, Microsoft published a list of 30 games coming exclusively to Xbox in 2021, but besides Halo Infinite, Flight Simulator, and Psychonauts 2, it’s an overwhelming majority of third-party games. Hellblade 2, the new Forza Motorsport, Fable, or State of Decay 3 are not coming in 2021, though Microsoft may still have some unannounced games coming later this year.
Creating AAA games is requires many years of hard work, and the new Perfect Dark game from The Initiative is being envisioned as Microsoft’s first “AAAA" title. In the meantime, Microsoft had some success with "second-party" titles like Ori and the Will of the Wisps and Microsoft Flight Simulator, two games developed by external studios that received critical acclaim and multiple awards this year. Having Flight Simulator as a launch title for the Xbox Series X would have been really great, but the game is now coming to Series X|S consoles this summer and it will hopefully be one of the best-looking games to play on Xbox this year.
It's been nice to see Microsoft work with talented third-party developers over the years, though other second-party games like Crackdown 3 or Battletoads seemed to have received very little traction since launch. The same could be said about Ninja Theory's Bleeding Edge, a side project that probably was a waste of time and resources, or Microsoft's timed exclusivity deal for PUBG, a game that launched in beta for a year on Xbox and had horrible performance all along.
In the past, the Xbox division had the guts to cancel ambitious projects like Fable Legend, Scalebound, or the remake of Phantom Dust, an OG Xbox game you probably never heard about. I don’t think anybody would have missed Crackdown 3, a game that clearly was in development hell for many years. Now, 343 Industries' Halo Infinite is making many people worried after many management changes a general lack of excitement for the first gameplay demo from July. It doesn't inspire confidence that 343 Industries is committed to release Halo infinite on Xbox One consoles, even though we’ve all seen Cyberpunk 2077 launch with horrible performance on the base Xbox One and PS4 consoles.
With Bethesda about to join Xbox Game Studios, Microsoft will soon have various talented team of developers capable of creating high-quality solo games. It remains to be seen if the next Fallout, The Elder Scrolls, or the recently announced Indiana Jones game will be Xbox exclusives, but this is still very exciting news for the future of the Xbox division. Microsoft now releasing all of its new first-party games on day one on Xbox Game Pass remains a very compelling reason to join the Xbox ecosystem, though I also have many things to say about the company’s popular game subscription service.
Xbox Game Pass also needs more quality, not quantity
Xbox Game Pass definitely remains one of the best deals in gaming these days, especially now that the $14.99 Ultimate tier gained the EA Play catalog and Xbox Cloud Gaming on Android at no additional cost. As of this writing, Xbox Game Pass Ultimate provides access to 356 games on console (including 88 games from the EA Play catalog), 233 games on PC, and 210 games available on Android via Xbox Cloud Gaming, and Microsoft keeps adding new games every month.
It may not get as much attention as Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass, but Sony’s PlayStation Now cloud gaming service has a catalog of over 700 PS4, PS3, and PS2 games that are playable on PS5, PS4, or Windows PCs for $9.99/month or just $59.99 a year. Just like Xbox Game Pass, Sony also has many AAA games on the PlayStation Now catalog such as Fallout 4, the BioShock trilogy, Red Dead Redemption, as well as several games that are also available on Xbox Game Pass such as Final Fantasy XV, Injustice 2, or PUBG.
If both services have plenty of quality AAA games, there’s also a lot of filler content on the catalogs. The “Most Popular” section of Xbox Game Pass currently shows games like Minecraft, Forza Horizon 4, Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege, Halo: MCC, and Destiny 2, and the only non big-budget games I found in that list are Descenders, Subnautica, and the beta game Totally Accurate Battle Simulator.
I currently have no way to verify this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if most Game Pass subscribers stick with the blockbuster games and ignore all the indie games they probably never heard about. Having some variety in the catalog is good, but the “small” games that really matter seem to be missing from Xbox Game Pass. Among Us, one of the most popular games of 2020, has yet to be released on Xbox after launching on the Nintendo Switch in December. Yesterday, the developer of Fall Guys, another game that truly exploded last year said that it had “no plans” to come to Xbox Game Pass despite the Xbox team teasing it on social media.
If Xbox Game Pass remains great value overall, I think Microsoft can do even better to bring more value to Ultimate subscribers. I wish this Ultimate tier also included all DLCs for Xbox Game Studios titles, something Microsoft does for Gears 5 but not for other games like Minecraft Dungeons, Forza Horizon 4, or Flight Simulator. A recent rumor suggested that Ubisoft+ games could also join Xbox Game Pass Ultimate next year, and this would nicely complement the EA Play catalog.
In the meantime, there are also many frustrating things with Xbox Game Pass, especially on the PC side. Too many games that are available both Xbox Game Pass for Console and PC lack support for cross-saves, and many PC games actually have no support for Xbox Live features including achievements. It’s also quite frustrating for PC subscribers to see that the best Xbox Game Pass titles are usually only available on Xbox, as it was the case for GTA V, Red Redemption 2, or The Witcher 3. This is something Microsoft can address by bringing Xbox Cloud Gaming to Windows PCs, though streaming the Xbox One S version of games in 720p is probably not something most PC gamers want to do.
Microsoft brought Xbox Game Pass games to Android devices last year, and it's time for the company to bring its Xbox Cloud Gaming technology to other platforms. Google Stadia didn't waste any time by launching on PC, Android, and TVs with Chromecast streaming sticks, and Google announced at CES that Stadia would come to new LG TVs later this year. Microsoft really has some catching up to do, especially on the technical front: While Stadia supports streaming games in 4K, the current Xbox Cloud gaming technology is limited to 720p with really slow loading times due to Microsoft using Xbox One S consoles in server blades.
In the future, I wish that all Xbox games consumers purchase on the Xbox store will be cloud-enabled on day one. This would mean that consumers could play these games on Xbox consoles or stream them on any device, similar to how Stadia games work. This could be the next evolution of Xbox Play Anywhere, with Microsoft making "buy once, play anywhere" a reality.
We still don't know when Microsoft will bring Xbox Cloud Gaming to PCs and other platforms, but a Windows 10 app leaked last year and is hopefully coming very soon. Microsoft has a good opportunity to be an early leader in the cloud gaming market, but the company will also need to replace the Xbox One S consoles in its server blades with newer Xbox Series X hardware. That may take more time than expected considering that the new consoles still remain very hard to find in most Xbox markets.