Microsoft’s E3 press briefing was the one we needed, the one we deserved, and arguably their best one ever. They came into E3 2018 with fan confidence, perhaps, at an all-time low. Sure, the Xbox One X is a fantastic piece of hardware, but less-than-glowing review scores for Sea of Thieves and State of Decay 2 did nothing to change the negative narrative surrounding the quality and especially quantity of Xbox’s first-party output. In unleashing 50 games total at E3 — including 18 with exclusivity — and five new first-party game studios, Phil Spencer and the Xbox team made it clear that while the current-generation battle with Sony may be lost — at least in the hardware installed base department — Microsoft is playing for the next round and they’re playing to win.
We’ve seen this from Microsoft before. Look at the original Xbox. Microsoft had no realistic expectation of dethroning Sony on their first try, but they were playing the long game. They lost money on every console they sold, but they were getting their foot in the door. And they did, and we all know what happened with the Xbox 360. So here we are again, though in this case Microsoft probably wasn’t expecting to finish in such a distant second place, but nevertheless their reaction is the same as it was in the original-Xbox era: focus and get ready for the next round.
Let’s look at Halo first. Halo: Infinite was curiously not given any release year, let alone a specific date — despite the fact that Halo 5: Guardians shipped three years ago. It’s also being built on the all-new Slipstream engine with a new art direction, suggesting Halo is, from a technical perspective, starting over and gearing up for a new platform. Even developer 343 Industries, in a blog post, says that, “We still have a long way to go until we ship the game” and, “We are taking the time we need to make the right game and are making changes to how we approach things this time around.” Neither of these suggests that Halo: Infinite is anywhere close to release. Furthermore, what better way to get the next Xbox console off to a great start, particularly in the first-party department, than to pull a Nintendo Switch and launch with your biggest game? The original Xbox was the only Microsoft console to launch with Halo. It makes a ton of sense for Microsoft to go back to that well for Halo: Infinite, even though, in Xbox’s compatibility-first ecosystem, it will still be playable on current-generation hardware.
What better way to get the next Xbox console off to a great start than to launch with your biggest game?
Next, consider the five new studios Microsoft announced. Only one of them (Compulsion Games with We Happy Few) is set to ship anything even remotely soon, outside of Playground’s already-in-motion Forza Horizon 4. Phil Spencer wouldn’t confirm that Playground’s second team is working on Fable, as heavily rumored, but he did say it was an open-world game and, given the timeline in place, it makes sense that the new Fable would be aligned to the launch window of the next Xbox as well. Darrell Gallagher’s new Santa Monica studio, The Initiative, will likely look to draw from the same Southern California talent pool that has produced God of War, Call of Duty, Sunset Overdrive, Spider-Man, The Last of Us, etc. But as they are only hiring now, there is simply no possible way they’ll be ready to ship a game before the Xbox Next is ready. Ninja Theory only shipped Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice a year ago. Undead Labs just released State of Decay 2 a month ago. Clearly, these are all long-term, next-generation plays.
And then of course there were Spencer’s own words near the end of the Xbox briefing. He confirmed the development of a new Xbox console — a bold move considering that Microsoft just shipped “the world’s most powerful console,” as they truthfully marketed it, barely seven months ago. This suggests it’s on the way sooner rather than later; I’d bet fall of 2020, which will either beat Sony’s PlayStation 5 to market or at least match it. Even the other initiatives discussed at the briefing — Game Pass and the FastStart streaming improvement that will get games fired up twice as fast — point towards core features of a new next-generation console.
The last time we saw Xbox this singularly focused as an entire business unit — in other words, on both hardware and software — was the Xbox 360. And we all know how that went. Everything about Microsoft’s moves this week suggest a clear and definitive strategy aimed at dominating the next hardware cycle. Today is what it is and there’s no changing that now, but Xbox’s fight for tomorrow has already begun.
Ryan McCaffrey is IGN’s Executive Editor of Previews and Xbox Guru-in-Chief.Follow him on Twitter at @DMC_Ryan, catch him on Unlocked, and drop-ship him Taylor Ham sandwiches from New Jersey whenever possible.