Head of Xbox, Phil Spencer, promised that Microsoft’s 2016 E3 Press Conference would deliver four things to the consumer: “more choice, more exciting hardware, more innovation on Xbox Live and more exclusive games.” But how does their presentation stack up against each of these claims? Let’s find out!
When we talk about choice, the big news coming out of Microsoft is their sheer commitment to breaking down barriers between different devices. Their vehicle for doing so is called Xbox Play Anywhere. Essentially, on Play Anywhere supported software, you only need to buy one digital copy of a game to be able to play that game on both Xbox One and Windows 10. Additionally (and more importantly, as I’m not sure there were many people running around buying multiple copies of the same game on different devices), cross-play cooperative is being introduced on supported software.
So finally, you no longer have to worry about splitting your friendship groups asunder just because of the device you play on. I can’t for the life of me work out why this has taken so long to implement, but the fact that it’s here is a big deal. Of course there are questions still to be answered: for example, will this be implemented retrospectively on existing games? Which games? How long will this take? And worryingly, how are they going to console (heh) all those sad Xbox players that I rek in Overwatch? Regardless, this is definitely a step in the right direction, and is going to reduce a lot of frustration and anxiety some gamers feel at the inflexibility of their hardware/software options. 10 points to Microsoft!
A point of difference for Microsoft vis-a-vis other developers at E3 was a clear focus on hardware. Not only did they open the conference with their .5 console in the Xbox One S, they chose to round it out with their next generation Project Scorpio. However, with rival developer Sony choosing to set aside hardware for the most part and instead focus on pumping out game after game, did this prove to be a worthwhile departure for Microsoft?
On the whole, I’d say no it didn’t. While I applaud Microsoft for bringing a diverse set of announcements to the table, the individual offerings left a lot to be desired. The Xbox One S looks like a perfectly capable mid-generation update, and while I enjoy the styling, there are no game-changing new features that would make me want to rush out and get one. Instead view this as a nicer option for new entrants into the Xbox One space. As I mentioned in a news piece earlier in the week, the presentation of Project Scorpio was disappointingly detail-free, with Phil Spencer instead opting to say the word teraflops a lot of times. However, the direction of the project in terms of the pursuit of 4K gaming and enhanced VR was on the money, and particularly exciting when coupled with what they’ve just kicked off with Xbox Play Anywhere.
Finally, and dipping back into player choice for a moment, was the announcement that players can create their own controller colour palettes through Xbox Design Lab. Although this is a bit of a gimmick, I can see that it could be a fun novelty to break away from the sea of black controllers and come up with something totally unique. On the whole, Microsoft hardware didn’t set my world on fire, but at least highlights their commitment to creating an all-encompassing gaming experience outside of just the software itself.
At some point somewhere in the middle of the conference, aligning perhaps not entirely coincidentally to the exact moment where the crowd started to get bored, Microsoft announced a slew of minor updates to the functionality of Xbox Live. These seemed more like quality of life improvements rather than the innovation that Phil Spencer promised, although I do believe the introduction of cross-play, assuming a large percentage of uptake from developers is true innovation. Examples included background music (surely this should have been standard?) and Language Region Independence, “allowing players to pick any language, regardless of where they are” (definitely should’ve been standard).
Furthermore Xbox Clubs and Looking For Group are primed to absorb all the worst aspects of existing social media (and the worst people) just for your gaming pleasure! Xbox Arena has slightly more potential as it enables a strictly competitive gaming environment, however may also require a lot of nurturing from Microsoft to get off the ground. Even large developers such as EA said they will bring FIFA to Arena in coming years which is certainly not going to build the Xbox Live community in the short-term.
But E3 is meant to be all about the games, and for Microsoft especially, exclusive games to continue to draw new gamers to their devices. The lineup didn’t start strongly for me, with existing franchise updates such as Gears of War 4, Killer Instinct and Forza: Horizon 3 not really being games in my wheelhouse. In fact I had never even heard of Killer Instinct before, and the presentation looked genuinely awful – who are the 7 million who apparently play this game? I have to give some credit to Forza though: it started with some astonishingly beautiful visuals of various Australian landscapes, and it had me hooked right up until the moment I realised it was a car game. Even then, the ease at which they presented the fun and fast co-operative experience across a range of devices was really appealing – they might have made a car gamer out of me yet!
Some of the non-exclusive franchise updates seemed to fare a little better, with decidedly strong showings from Battlefield 1, Final Fantasy XV and The Division. It’s hard to view these as a win for Microsoft per se, although across quite a number of these titles they have managed to at least secure first play rights/beta opportunities. Surprisingly, it’s Microsoft’s brand new exclusive titles that seem to be the real winners in the software department. Recore has had a whole cast of new characters added to your cute little team of cyber-adventurers since it was announced at E3 last year, and the gameplay is looking ready for a successful September 13 release date. Sea of Thieves continues to impress with some outrageously fun gameplay footage of some online team-based pirate mayhem. Finally, Microsoft’s ID@Xbox program, which is designed to give game developers the tools and support required to self-publish their own games seems to bearing fruit with We Happy Few, a psychological thriller that presented around 5 minutes of absolutely chilling game play.
“What impressed and surprised me was that Microsoft are clearly no longer relying on their existing big titles to carry them through”
Of course there were plenty more games and exclusives to look forward to from Microsoft over the next couple of years. What impressed and surprised me was that Microsoft are clearly no longer relying on their existing big titles to carry them through, and have instead invested time and money into developing an array of alternatives, something that we as the gamers will benefit from. Something that jumped out at me in particularly was how much was on offer for PC gamers especially, who usually play second fiddle to their console counterparts at E3. I started to wonder whether I really need a console at all…
How do they stack up?
Microsoft’s E3 was by no means perfect. Their hardware news was fairly vague, their Xbox Live updates fairly mundane, and some of their exclusive games fairly unexciting. Yet at various times during the conference they were able to present true innovation, not just in the fresh new games they brought to the table, but looking across the whole player experience, providing new and better ways to play. It has created that anticipation for the future which is really what E3 is all about, so from that perspective, Microsoft was a success in 2016.