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Crackdown 3 - Commander Jaxon dodges a giant enemy Sumo Digital/Xbox Game Studios

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Crackdown 3 could be the future of Xbox games, for better and worse

Microsoft’s latest exclusive hints at how it could design games for the Xbox Game Pass service

Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 and is now editor-in-chief. He co-hosts The Besties, is a board member of the Frida Cinema, and created NYU’s first games journalism course.

Crackdown 3 is nothing like the game Microsoft promised fans in 2014.

Back then, the company’s leadership earnestly believed that humongous, everlasting AAA games would buoy the Xbox One. The announcement trailer suggested a sprawling metropolis in which every building — from cottage to skyscraper — could be destroyed, thanks to secretive cloud computing technology.

By comparison, the final product is unambitious and familiar. The campaign in particular feels like a true sequel to the original Crackdown, which isn’t a compliment. It feels exactly like an open-world game from 2007.

While playing through the game, I’ve been tempted to read Crackdown 3 as a colossal missed opportunity, the latest example of Microsoft failing to deliver on its creative ambitions. But the more I think about this game, the more I believe it’s a not-so-subtle hint at the future of the Xbox catalog. Crackdown 3 is the quintessential Xbox game in 2019, for the worse, sure, but also for the better.

Crackdown 3 - jumping toward an explosion on a street Sumo Digital/Microsoft Studios

Crackdown 3’s open world is small and uncrowded, and reminds me of the simplicity of a genre that’s been larded with busy work over the years. In the early days of the Xbox 360, open-world games often gave players tools to make their own fun, rather than hand them an infinite to-do list.

Loitering in Crackdown 3’s sickly neon city of New Providence is like visiting an old friend from college who still lives in the same apartment, still smokes the same pot, and still listens to that one Fiery Furnaces album on loop. It’s comforting and familiar, disturbing and intoxicating.

Each time I play Crackdown 3, I sense that even though the series hasn’t changed, I have. I know of countless better ways to spend my limited time than this. And yet, there’s a part of me that doesn’t really want to do anything other than throw cars at goons and fire rockets into the ocean. The total lack of change becomes the selling point.

Not that I would spend my money on Crackdown 3. But I would spend my time.

There’s a precedent for this brand of disposable entertainment, the kind I wouldn’t purchase directly but will consume constantly and irresponsibly if it appears in front of me for the low, low price of free: I call it “almost everything on Netflix.”

I have a list of roughly 300 films and TV shows that I want to watch, but most of them require a serious investment of my time, my emotional energy, or both. So maybe I rewatch some episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine or The Simpsons. Or I try something familiar and easy, like the next season of Nailed It or Queer Eye.

Xbox Game Pass Microsoft

Crackdown 3 is the video game equivalent of this streaming-era comfort food: a brand I know that demands practically nothing of me. In the world of AAA games, it’s totally anachronistic, flagrantly at odds with the world of free-to-play multiplayer shooters like Fortnite and bottomless cups of coffee like Destiny 2. I can devour it in a weekend and move on to what’s next on my list.

And it’s this nomadic style of play that seems to be what Microsoft wants from its millions of Xbox Game Pass subscribers. While its competitors measure success on how long players lock into their one mega game, Microsoft has begun flaunting data on how Game Pass players don’t just play for more hours than the average Xbox owner, but play a greater variety of games.

With that goal in mind, it’s easy to imagine Microsoft taking some of the hard lessons of Crackdown 3 to heart in unexpected ways. The game’s development required many more years and development studios than initially expected, and the project shed both big-name talent and design ambitions along the way. What exists today is a game that could have been made with fewer people at a lower cost, and had “more of what fans liked about the original Crackdown” from the start. For Game Pass, maybe “more Crackdown” is all Microsoft really wants anyway.

Sold as such, it doesn’t justify a heavy price tag, but it does work as a Game Pass exclusive. For the fans, the expectations are low — a subscription costs $9.99 a month and comes with dozens of other games. And for Microsoft, a new subscriber may be more valuable than a one-time purchase.

Crackdown 3 - Wrecking Zone Sumo Digital/Xbox Game Studios

Of course, this wasn’t the plan for Crackdown 3. It would have been hard to convert a game with active pre-orders into a Game Pass exclusive. But I won’t be surprised if this E3, Microsoft reveals a game or two, announcing from the beginning they will only be available to subscribers. After this project, ReCore, and the canceled Scalebound, maybe delivering smaller games with a different goal than racking up GameStop pre-orders is a wiser strategy.

Last summer, Microsoft acquired five new studios. Three of those teams are best known for making creative but deliberately scoped games: Ninja Theory with Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Undead Labs with State of Decay, and Compulsion Games with We Happy Few. Initially, I assumed Microsoft needed more talent to deliver new games in its established brands and launch a few more big AAA properties. But now I suspect the company acquired these studios with the expectation that they will continue to do what they do best: Make medium-size games with a few creative hooks that last a weekend or maybe a week, before making room for what’s next. With ambitions scaled back from AAA, the teams might make more games more regularly, creating a Netflix-style cadence on Game Pass.

For some game creators at Microsoft, this could be thrilling, freeing them to iterate and experiment without the pressure of a $60 release. But I do wonder if it will come at the cost of the wild risks only a company of Microsoft’s size can afford to take. In 2014, Microsoft was designing games driven by the technology of the future. In 2019, what if it begins designing games driven by the future of the marketplace?