The next generation of video games took a big step closer to reality Thursday, with Microsoft’s unveiling of the Xbox Series X. The new machine, previously referred to as Project Scarlett, is a different take—aesthetically, at least—on home video game systems, and with it, Microsoft hopes to regain the lead in the console wars.
That’s an ambitious goal. Sony, this generation, has sat comfortably in the leader’s position since the very beginning. And that momentum has a way of carrying forward. But Microsoft has already checked off some of the necessary boxes with Xbox Series X, incorporating a “Share” button onto the controller (allowing players to take screenshots and gameplay videos), supporting games from previous Xbox systems and touting the system’s technical advances (with features like instant level loading and cloud compatibility).
Sony, though, is likely to make many of those same claims when it starts talking about the PlayStation 5, which could begin as early as next month at CES. And key details for the Xbox Series X, such as price, launch date (beyond the vague 2020 window) and specific technical specifications won’t be announced for months. To lure back gamers who passed on the Xbox One, Microsoft will need to walk carefully in some areas and charge ahead in others. Here are a few things the company can do to better its chances of usurping Sony’s title in 2020 and beyond.
Keep a broad audience in mind
The meme makers are having fun with the non-traditional design of Xbox Series X already. Instead of the usual rectangular shape of consoles (and DVD players and pretty much everything that hooks up to TVs that’s not a dongle), the Series X is a square tower, that’s seemingly noticeably taller than a full sized Amazon Echo.
Memes aside, that shouldn’t be an issue, assuming the Series X fits well on a mantle and appears unobtrusive. The shape might actually be a draw for some.
Where Microsoft could find trouble is in the name. Xbox Series X is a mouthful — and when you add in a widely expected second version of the console, which is rumored to launch next year as well, that could be confusing for consumers.
Broadening the audience is key to the next generation of gaming. And that starts with people knowing what they want when they make the decision to buy a system. Obviously, Microsoft isn’t going to change Xbox Series X, but how it names other systems and the lessons it learned from the myriad of Xbox One offshoots will be worth watching.
Take advantage of exclusives
Microsoft has been on a buying binge for the past 18 months, grabbing up studios at a breathtaking pace. Among its acquisitions since last June are inXile Entertainment (The Bard’s Tale, Wasteland 2), Obsidian Entertainment (The Outer Worlds, Fallout: New Vegas), Ninja Theory (makers of Hellblade and Heavenly Sword), Forza Horizon developer Playground Games, Compulsion Games (We Happy Few) and State of Decay creator Undead Labs. Beyond that, the company launched a new studio headed by Darrell Gallagher, who formerly headed the studio behind the relaunch of Tomb Raider.
That’s going to bear fruit in the next generation, giving Xbox a number of exclusive titles, something that’s become increasingly important in the industry. Sony has several highly regarded teams of internal game makers (whose work includes Spider-Man, The Last of Us and God of War) and Google is looking to muscle in on the game development field with a studio headed by industry veteran Jade Raymond, but Microsoft has the opportunity to outshine its competitors with a regular stream of “Only on Xbox” titles.
The company seems confident in its pipeline. Otherwise, it would likely not have announced plans to launch the next Halo game in conjunction with the Xbox Series X.
Set the tone for game distribution
Video games are on the precipice of a significant change. Just as the days of physical media are giving way to digitally downloaded games, the heyday of the $60 (or more) game seems to be on shaky ground. Microsoft has a chance to position itself as a leader in this new paradigm, helping the industry break through to both game streaming and new subscription models.
Xbox boss Phil Spencer, in a blog post introducing the Xbox Series X, notes the system “is … designed for a future in the cloud, with unique capabilities built into the hardware and software to make it as easy as possible to bring great games to both console and elsewhere.”
With programs like Xbox Game Pass (a broad subscription program that lets people play one of hundreds of games, including new releases, for a set amount per month) and Project XCloud, a cloud-based game streaming service akin to Stadia, Microsoft can take introduce these concepts to a broader audience—and lure in people who felt video games were too expensive at the same time.
That’s the golden ticket. If Microsoft can widen the audience of players through new distribution methods, it not only helps itself, it gives the video game industry a big shot in the arm at the same time.
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