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Xbox’s big bets are finally paying off

Microsoft spent years building the future, and now it’s the present

artwork from Starfield of male and female astronauts and a mech, all surrounding a spacecraft lifting off from a red planet
Artwork from Starfield, the first new IP from Bethesda Game Studios in 25 years, which will be released next year exclusively on Xbox Series X and Windows PC.
Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks
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.

Microsoft invested a fortune in Xbox, and now we’re finally seeing why. It only took half a decade.

Let’s be real: For nearly five years, Xbox has been pretty boring. While Sony invested gobs of time and money into cinematic showpieces like God of War, Spider-Man, and The Last of Us Part 2, Microsoft filled its press events with news about studio acquisitions, familiar entries in established franchises, nascent subscription services, and cloud streaming platforms.

Microsoft was making big moves; they were just happening behind the scenes. Satya Nadella became Microsoft’s CEO in 2014, and immediately invested in the company’s video game group. That same year, Microsoft acquired Minecraft developer Mojang for $2.5 billion, and that was just the beginning. In the following years, Microsoft has bought up video game developers like they’re used furniture on Facebook Marketplace, culminating with the recent acquisition of video game publisher Bethesda Softworks for a whopping $7.5 billion, one of the most expensive acquisitions in the history of entertainment.

In Sunday’s Xbox and Bethesda E3 showcase, we saw Microsoft’s big bets pay off. The publisher of iconic franchises like The Elder Scrolls and Fallout will be bringing its next two new projects — including the highly anticipated Starfield — exclusively to Xbox and Windows PC. Dozens of new video games, both exclusive and not exclusive, will be available on the subscription service Xbox Game Pass on their day of release. And many of these games (presumably all of the exclusives, like Halo Infinite and the newly revealed Redfall) will be playable through Microsoft’s cloud streaming service, which will be available on Android, iOS, and web browsers by the end of the month. Whether or not people can find the latest console in stock will become less and less relevant when a truckload of new games can be streamed at Xbox Series X quality on your phone, your laptop, or your TV.

It’s fitting that this push began with Minecraft, a video game available on practically everything with a screen and a tiny amount of computing power. In 2015, Phil Spencer, the head of Xbox, told me that “an acquisition like Minecraft makes so much sense because Minecraft is so pervasive both as a service, as video, obviously, as the game across so many different devices — it really is a manifestation of what I think gaming can be.”

Now Minecraft isn’t what gaming can be; it’s just another example of what gaming is. Today, you can play the Sony-published MLB The Show on a Google Pixel through an Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription. How long will it be before we see the Game Pass app appear on competitors’ consoles?

This isn’t the end for Sony or Nintendo. Sony will continue to find success making a limited number of visually unparalleled blockbusters, and Nintendo will flourish with its iconic characters and its unflinching and timeless approach to video games as “toys.”

But if we don’t see legitimate competition from them soon when it comes to studio acquisitions, streaming services, and subscription plans, then Xbox will have a cakewalk to becoming the Netflix of video games. Where Sony and Nintendo will specialize in the occasional breakout hit, Microsoft will routinely be expanding Game Pass with all sorts of titles, from established franchises to games-as-service experiences to quirky indies you can enjoy in a weekend.

Microsoft may fall even further behind in raw console sales, though that will be because consoles are now just one piece of the Xbox puzzle. And Xbox might not always have the best games, but damned if it won’t have the best deal.

To return to the streaming comparison, everybody has Netflix. There’s still room for everything from the Hulus to the Criterion Channels, but they’re the second and third and fourth and fifth options. And soon enough, everybody may have Xbox, too — even if they don’t own an Xbox.