Xbox Game Studios overview: blow by blow on what to expect at the E3 2021 showcase

Laurent Giret

Xbox Game Studios by Playbox36

We’re now just a couple of days away from Microsoft’s Xbox and Bethesda games showcase, where the company will showcase the latest project from Xbox Game Studios, Bethesda, and other third-party studios. After a somewhat disappointing Xbox Games Showcase last year, it’s safe to say that Microsoft has a lot to prove this year, especially as Halo fans are expecting to see a much more mind-blowing show than last year’s controversial gameplay trailer.

Microsoft may have launched its next-gen Xbox Series X and Series S consoles a little more than six months ago, early adopters who managed to get their hands on the consoles are still waiting to be truly blown away by true next-gen games. With Halo Infinite being delayed to Fall 2021, Microsoft’s Xbox Series X|S consoles still have no real system seller to this day. The same can’t be said for Sony’s PlayStation 5 consoles, which so far have benefited from a much more substantial lineup of quality next-gen experiences including Spiderman: Miles Morales and the freshly-released Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart.

So far, Microsoft has relied on third-party developers to do the heavy lifting, though timed-exclusive games like The Medium are apparently coming soon to PlayStation 5. Xbox gamers may soon have a new exclusive game to play with the Microsoft Flight Simulator port developed by Asobo Studios, but Microsoft’s Xbox Game Studios division has a lot more projects in the pipeline following the acquisition of ZeniMax Media/Bethesda.

Xbox Bethesda

This blockbuster deal provided Microsoft eight talented video games studios including Bethesda Game Studios (Fallout 4), id Software (Doom), MachineGames (Wolfenstein), and Arkane Studios (Dishonored). Bethesda will continue to operate independently and publish future games through its Bethesda Softworks arm, however, all new Bethesda games will launch on Xbox Game Pass on day one and follow what Microsoft has been doing with all of its first-party games since January 2018.

We’re still not sure how much of Microsoft’s ongoing game projects we’re going to see at the June 13 game showcase, which should be a pretty fast-paced 90-minutes show. In the teaser for the event, Xbox marketing exec Aaron Greenberg promised a live stream “packed with everything you want to know about the epic gaming lineup coming out of this partnership, the incredible games coming to Xbox this holiday, upcoming releases on Xbox Game Pass, and more.”

We’re not going to try predicting all the projects Microsoft could reveal on Sunday, but now seems like a pretty good time to take a closer look at Microsoft’s growing Xbox Game Studios Division. If you’ve been following Xbox news on Twitter, you may know about Klobrille, a long-time Xbox fan from Germany who regularly shares high-quality infographics and images about Microsoft’s Xbox Game Studios division.

The Xbox watcher published the following Xbox Game Studios & Bethesda infographic a couple of weeks ago, and it’s probably one the most comprehensive pieces of information about Microsoft’s gaming activity you can find on the Internet today.

This great infographic inspired me to do our own overview of Microsoft’s Xbox Game Studios division, which has become pretty massive after a regular streak of new acquisitions. I opted early on for a boxing metaphor, because let’s get real, it’s time for Microsoft’s first-party studios to hit hard and put an end to the “Xbox has no games” memes that have kept flowing during the Xbox One/PS4 generation.

The established heavyweights

Microsoft currently owns various AAA and AA studios which already have multiple hits under their belts. 343 Industries (Halo), The Coalition (Gears of War), Turn 10 (Forza Motorsport), Mojang Studios (Minecraft) remain some of Microsoft’s most important studios which have managed to successfully iterate on a single IP over the years.

Of course, there have been some bumps on the road along the way: Despite an undeniable talent, 343 Industries’ Halo 4 and Halo 5: Guardians have both failed to reach the same level of momentum and critical acclaim as the original Halo games from Bungie. The same can also probably be said for the Gears of War franchise, with the fourth and fifth episodes made by The Coalition somewhat missing the magic from the original trilogy made by Epic Games during the Xbox 360 era.

Halo Infinite, one of the most-anticipated games of the year, will launch later this fall, and 343 Industries still has a lot of pressure on its shoulders to deliver the next-gen Halo game hardcore fans have been waiting for many years now. For the first time in the history of the series, Halo Infinite will launch with a free-to-play multiplayer mode, and that should really help to bring the 20 years old franchise to the mainstream.

Halo Infinite hud with sniper

It would also be interesting to see what a developer like iD software, which managed to successfully reboot the cult-classic Doom series could bring to Microsoft’s most popular shooter franchises. There are perspectives of some truly exciting crossovers between, the Halo and Gears of War universes, though such projects could still remain wishful thinking for quite some time.

Rare and Turn 10, two of Microsoft’s oldest internal studios are also two forces to be reckoned with. After launching in a pretty barebones state, Rare’s Sea of Thieves has become a very successful live service game for Microsoft, recently crossing the 20 million players milestone as of March 2021. In addition to ongoing development on Sea of Thieves, Rare is also working on Everwild, a brand new IP revealed in beautiful cinematic trailers, but details about its gameplay are still unknown.

As for Turn 10 Studios, the next Forza Motorsport game that was revealed last year could be one of the best-looking games to be released in the beginning of this new console generation. In recent years, the Forza Horizon franchise developed by PlayGround Games has probably reached higher levels of momentum and critical acclaim, though we hope that the older Forza Motorsport series can get back to the spotlight during this new console generation. Moreover, the developer better learned its lesson about the controversial micro-transactions system in Forza Motorsport 7 that didn’t really fit right in an AAA game.

Minecraft developer Mojang is another key pillar among Microsoft’s first-party studios. Mojang was the first big Microsoft acquisition since Satya Nadella became CEO of Microsoft back in 2014, and it has managed to maintain a high level of independence since then. This has probably helped the sandbox game to remain of the most popular video games of all time, and Microsoft would have been wrong to turn it into an Xbox exclusive game.

However, Mojang operating independently may have some negative consequences for Xbox gamers. Minecraft still isn’t a game that plays best on Microsoft platforms, and it has yet to be optimized for Xbox Series X|S consoles, although the Windows 10 version recently got an impressive ray-tracing update. The Minecraft Dungeons spin-off also launched without cloud saves and Xbox Play Anywhere support, which showed that Microsoft’s internal studios can sometimes have very different standards.

Microsoft now owns another juggernaut with Bethesda Game Studios, which is the home of four different studios based in Austin, Dallas, Rockville, and Montreal. Fallout and The Elder Scrolls remain Bethesda’s flagship franchises, but the company has an exciting new IP with Starfield, a mysterious space adventure game that was first announced back in 2018. We may finally get more details about it during the June 13 Games Showcase, as the teaser image for the event seems to be using some Starfield imagery.

Other great studios sitting under the Bethesda Softworks publishing arm include Arkane Studios, the creator of the Dishonored series which is currently working on the PS5 timed-exclusive game Deathloop. Wolfenstein developer MachineGames is also working in tandem with Lucasfilm Games on a new Indiana Jones game which currently has no release date. It’s not clear yet if the game will be exclusive to the Xbox ecosystem, but we hope to get a bit more information about it during the Xbox & Bethesda Games Showcase.

The Xbox Game Studios family also includes established smaller studios such as PlayGround Games, the developer of the critically-acclaimed Forza Horizon series now working on the much-anticipated Fable reboot. It will be interesting to see how a studio with no prior RPG experience can bring this beloved franchise back to life, but Playground Games is also expected to stick to basics this year: According to various reports, Forza Horizon 5 could launch later this Fall and be set in Mexico, and it will likely get revealed this Sunday.

Obsidian Entertainment, known for its previous work on Star Wars: KOTOR 2, Fallout: New Vegas, and Pillars of Eternity was another great acquisition for Microsoft. The Outer Worlds, one of the studio’s latest projects received critical acclaim for its immersive world and excellent writing, and Microsoft is reportedly now in control of this promising new RPG franchise. Additionally, Obsidian Entertainment is still working on Grounded, a new sandbox game that launched in preview on Xbox and PC last year and the official launch could be announced pretty soon.

The promising middleweights

Microsoft’s recent studio acquisitions also include smaller but promising developers that often punch well above their weight. A good example is Ninja Theory, the UK-based studio currently working on the sequel to Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice as well as the experimental game Project Mara. Microsoft chose to officially reveal its Xbox Series X console at The Game Awards 2019 with the first trailer for Hellblade 2, which was an impressive cinematic trailer entirely recorded in-engine.

Hellblade 2 is one of the few next-gen titles that is being developed with Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 5, and it still has no release date. Even though we still don’t know much about the game, it has the potential to become one of the few defining games of the Xbox Series X|S generation, playing in the same ball as Halo Infinite and the next Forza Motorsport.

InXile Entertainment is another smaller studio that Microsoft acquired in recent years that has a real talent for crafting immersive role-playing games. The studio’s latest release is Wasteland 3, a post-apocalyptic squad-based RPG that did a really good job at scratching the old-school Fallout itch.

Wasteland 3 shipped on multiple platforms including PS4 and macOS as it was in development well before Microsoft acquired the studio. It’s the same situation for Psychonauts 2, the next game from Double Fine Productions that joined Xbox Game Studios two years ago. Psychonauts 2 initially entered development following a successful Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, but Double Fine Productions delayed the game after being acquired by Microsoft to use the company’s additional resources to implement graphical improvements and add back boss fights and other things that had been cut due to budget restrictions.

The original Psychonauts game from 2005 quickly reached cult-classic status and expectations for its sequel are pretty high. Psychonauts 2 currently has a 2021 release date, and it’s guaranteed to make an appearance at Microsoft’s game showcase this Sunday.

The challengers that have yet to hit hard

Microsoft acquired in recent years a couple of small developers that have yet to have a breakthrough success. The first studio that comes to mind is Undead Labs, which has been exclusively working on the State of Decay survival horror franchise and is currently developing the third game in the series.

State of Decay 2, which was the first game in the series to use Unreal Engine 4 launched with a myriad of bugs that required a long series of patches to get the survival horror game to a better state. The sequel also introduced a new co-op mode with cross-play support on Xbox and PC, but it did so without dedicated servers and this is just not acceptable for a game published by the Azure company.

State of Decay 3 will be the first episode developed with the expanded resources of a first-party project, and we hope that it will finally push the franchise forward. We’ve only seen a brief cinematic trailer last year featuring a monstrous zombie deer, but maybe we’ll get more details about the game on Sunday.

Compulsion Games, the Canadian studio of the dystopian survival horror game We Happy Few is another new Microsoft acquisition that has yet to release a hit. Just like State of Decay 2, We Happy Few launched in a pretty rough state, though its writing and artistic direction received praise. Compulsion Games is currently working on an unannounced project, and we hope to soon learn what the studio has been cooking after being acquired by Microsoft 3 years ago.

Last but not least, Microsoft formed a new studio named “The Initiative” in 2018 to work on exclusive AAA first-party games. The studio’s first project is the Perfect Dark reboot that was officially at The Game Awards 2020, but the game still has no release date.

For those unfamiliar with it, the original Perfect Dark game was developed by Rare for the Nintendo 64. It was a spiritual sequel to the cult-classic Goldeneye 007 game, which created a new standard for first-person shooters on consoles before Halo: Combat Evolved changed everything a couple of years later. The original Perfect Dark was a great game, but it was followed by the forgettable Xbox 360 game Perfect Dark Zero in 2005, and the franchise has been dormant since then.

It’s quite risky to bring back from the dead a franchise that no gamers under 30 have probably heard about, though we hope that the veteran video game makers at The Initiative know what they’re doing. It’s also worth noting that Drew Murray, the former Design Director at The Initiative left the studio earlier this year for personal reasons to join the now Sony-owned Insomniac Games. “The team has the vision and talent to knock the game and franchise out of the park,” Murray said when he announced his departure from the studio, and we really hope he’s right.

2 more days to wait

Microsoft’s Xbox and Bethesda games showcase will kick off at 10 AM PT on Sunday, June 13. The 90-minutes event will be streamed in 1080p at 60fps on Twitch and YouTube, and a 4K replay will be available on the Xbox YouTube channel once the premiere is over.

What are your expectations for Microsoft’s big E3 event this year? Do you expect to be blown away by new games announcements, or do you think Microsoft will play it safe and not reveal its games under development too early. Let us know in the comments below, and stay tuned to OnMSFT on Sunday as we’ll be publishing a big recap of everything the company will show during the showcase.

Feature image credit: Playbox36