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Phil Spencer, head of Microsoft Xbox, at E3 2018. (Microsoft photo)

COMMENTARY: The Xbox One, it must be said, is doing OK. Microsoft hasn’t released official sales numbers since 2014, but the generally accepted theory is that there are about 30 million Xbox Ones in circulation. In conjunction with the 59 million active Xbox Live subscribers that Microsoft claims it has, it’s a story of reasonable success.

That being said, in the greater marketplace, it’s getting trounced. The PlayStation 4 has sold roughly two-and-a-half times as well, as far as industry analysts can figure (although Microsoft, as you can see in this Variety piece, disputes those numbers), and the Nintendo Switch is on track to catch up to the Xbox One by the end of 2018. The Xbox has a beachhead in the marketplace and it’s probably profitable, but Sony has a dead lock on roughly 70 percent of the console market right now and that gap is only getting wider.

This largely comes down to a question of exclusivity. Both the PlayStation 4 and Nintendo’s various consoles have the advantage of a healthy lineup of titles that simply will not appear anywhere else. If you want to play God of War or Uncharted, you have to own a PlayStation. If you’re a Mario or Legend of Zelda fan, you better buy a Switch. Part of the reason why the original Xbox succeeded in the first place was due to a strong lineup of titles that could not be played on any other platform, such as the first two Halo games, Dead or Alive 3, Jade Empire, Breakdown, and the Project Gotham Racing series.

With the Xbox One in particular, there aren’t more than a handful of games for it that aren’t also available on the Microsoft Store that’s packed in with Windows 10, as noted in this previous commentary of the broader PC games market. Microsoft has a robust lineup of exclusives for its platforms, but one of those platforms is an operating system that runs a large number of the computers on the planet … and the other’s the Xbox One.

(GeekWire Photo)

Microsoft has effectively made its own console irrelevant, because even with the Windows Anywhere initiative, there’s no particular reason for a dedicated enthusiast to own an “Xbone” if you already have a PC. There are certainly advantages, such as ease of use, simplicity of play, and couch gaming, but the same money you spend on the Xbox could be going to tune up your computer so you can play the same games in a higher resolution.

As such, there was a lot of soft pressure on Microsoft going into this year’s E3 to, if not right the ship entirely, at least show signs of life. After all, the Xbox has the advantages of brand recognition, several big franchises, marketing muscle, and Microsoft money. There’s no particular reason why it couldn’t regain some of its lost ground.

Microsoft acquires four game studios, including Forza maker Playground Games, and creates ‘The Initiative’ 

Instead, what we got was essentially a greatest-hits album, the kind of thing that a company might produce when it’s already confident it’s in the lead. None of what Microsoft showed off at its briefing this year was a bad idea — a new back-to-basics sort of Halo (although it’s pure dumb bad luck that both Halo and Doom have a new forthcoming sequel subtitled Infinite), new Gears of War (with a female protagonist, which is not something I ever thought I’d see out of that franchise), new Forza, the new Ori and the Will of the Wisps, and an actual release date for the long-delayed Crackdown 3 — but none of it was what’s needed.

In fact, since these games still aren’t Xbox exclusives, it’s simply more of the same problem. Every new Microsoft blockbuster is likely to be a fun game, polished to a mirror sheen, but they won’t be reasons to own an Xbox.

That being said, the list of Microsoft’s acquisitions announced Sunday — Playground Games, Undead Labs, Ninja Theory, and Compulsion Games — includes some smart choices. One of Sony’s primary advantages as a publisher has traditionally been its strong bench of third-party exclusive developers, such as its various internal studios, Naughty Dog, and the Bellevue, Wash.-based Sucker Punch. Microsoft needed to generate its own comparable studio network about four years ago, and any movement forward on that is a good idea.

In particular, Ninja Theory has been out in the third-party wilderness working without a net for some time, ever since it made the well-liked but underselling Heavenly Sword as a launch title for the PlayStation 3. It recently scored its first original hit, both commercially and critically, with Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, and picking it up as an exclusive developer was a smart move by Microsoft. I’m genuinely excited to see what Ninja Theory can do with some serious muscle behind it, and hope that Microsoft is smart enough to sign the checks and leave NT alone to do its thing. By the same token, Compulsion Games is a brilliantly weird developer (their We Happy Few is an experience much like having someone else’s fever dream), and there’s always room for a few more games that have the courage to be unique and insane.

That offers some degree of hope for the future, if you happen to be a dedicated Xbox One fan for some reason. However, as of right now, Microsoft has provided a healthy lineup of interesting games that all utterly fail to give the Xbox One what it so desperately needs: a reason to continue to exist.

If Microsoft seriously intends to continue to participate in the worldwide console market, it has to make the Xbox One worth owning in its own right, and not just as a satellite product for Windows 10, or else it’s playing internal product kumite against itself. If there’s a real way forward here, it’s to come up with a few brilliant titles in the next couple of years, real classics in the making that need to be experienced by any serious fan of the medium … and let them stay on the Xbox One, for better or for worse. Otherwise, this generation of the Xbox will struggle to keep up with its competitors.

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