Even the most talented creators struggle to end a trilogy. Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, the Wachowski sisters, David Fincher. By the third entry, a project is established, and the audience expects both more of the same and also that spark of newness that originally attracted them to the series.
The trilogy is a useful template for Microsoft’s video game consoles. The original Xbox introduced Microsoft to the gaming world. The Xbox 360 established the tech company as a legitimate competitor. Then, like so many trilogy endings, the Xbox One struggled to find balance between expectation and ambition.
And like a trilogy, these three consoles will be remembered not only as individuals but as a unit. The future of Xbox will take a different approach to the brand, a creative reboot of sorts of the very assumptions of how we play, buy, sell, and share our experience with video games.
To critique the Xbox One without including its predecessors would be like analyzing The Godfather Part III without mentioning The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. It would be critical negligence, ignoring the unfortunate confluence of ambition, creative freedom, critical expectations, and fan entitlement that comes with the conclusion of something that’s been a meaningful part of people’s lives — for some, from childhood into early adulthood.
The Xbox One has been a messy, disappointing, often frustrating gizmo, but it also, in hindsight, it’s an exciting misfire that inspired brilliant ideas across the gaming and tech worlds. And it has bridged the gap between the past and the future of the medium.
Perhaps the better comparison is Return of the Jedi, a film that had to follow a masterpiece and set up a universe that extended far beyond film. The Xbox One will be remembered for bridging the hardware era of the brand to something much bigger, less predictable, and potentially revolutionary.
And so, without further ado, my eulogy.
The big (bad) reveal of the Xbox One
The Xbox brand is in such an awkward spot in 2020 that it’s a challenge to remember the overconfidence of Microsoft’s leadership team on the eve of the Xbox One. This was 2013, a different time, and the band of execs were riding the high of the Xbox 360, a gargantuan success that had helped to popularize online multiplayer, downloadable indie games, and streaming video services.
For the Xbox One, Microsoft’s designers and executives envisioned something even bigger. They’d bestow upon the world a video game console that transcended video games, becoming something more ambitious and more profitable. Their rectangular black slab would become the centerpiece of our living rooms. It would feed us our games, but also our films, live television, sports scores, and social media. The console would ship with a disc drive, but the marketing emphasized internet connectivity and cloud computing, making it clear that the Xbox One would be a digital-first machine. Players would have access to everything they could imagine, so long as it could enter their home via Wi-Fi. Sales of downloadable video games were climbing, high-speed broadband was more available than ever before, and Microsoft had a console that was conceptualized for this precise moment. On paper, the company had a home run.
The reveal was a disaster.
The hourlong presentation is infamous, best remembered for focusing on practically anything but video games: apps, Skype, the NFL, the future of television, and brand partnerships. So many brand partnerships.
Fans were furious, and not just about the lack of video games. Many of them despised the very philosophy of the Xbox One. As they saw it, Microsoft intended to control how players bought, shared, and played their video games. Or, to phrase it another way, where Microsoft had seen features, fans saw flaws.
Take, for example, the presentation’s emphasis on Xbox One owners amassing massive libraries of digital games rather than bookshelves full of boxes and discs. To allow players to still enjoy their own digital games on a friend’s Xbox One, Microsoft decided that every console would need to be perpetually monitored via an internet connection to Microsoft’s servers to confirm that the person logged in had legal ownership of the intangible games. Even before the official reveal, social media was aflutter with rumors of opaque rules for sharing games with friends, perhaps prohibiting the sale and resale (and further resale) of used games. And rumor had it that Kinect, the motion-control camera that watches you watching TV, would be mandatory.
These issues had been rumored even before Don Mattrick, then the president of the Interactive Entertainment Business at Microsoft, took the stage at the console reveal. He didn’t answer any of these questions; hell, he didn’t even acknowledge the rumors. Instead, he and a smorgasbord of suits from across Microsoft corporate spent the majority of the presentation talking at exhausting length about apps, brand partnerships, and HDMI ports. They showcased the new and more powerful Kinect, the hands-free motion controller that would siphon power from the console. And they made all sorts of promises about the cloud, making it sound like a panacea for all of our entertainment woes.
Only one member of the Xbox squad mentioned new, exclusive games, a segment that got confined to a brief window in the presentation’s back half.
Fans and reporters spammed social media with questions:
- What will happen to the used-games industry?
- What about folks with poor internet connections?
- What if internet service providers enforce data caps?
- Why do I need to own a Kinect?
Microsoft’s own messaging nosedived after the presentation, when a variety of Xbox reps gave a confusing mix of responses to some of these big queries. No, the Xbox One wouldn’t need to be online all the time, but it would need to connect every 24 hours. You could give your games to a friend, but only once, and you might need to pay a fee. Within days, Microsoft had walked back all of these decisions. Like a student writing their thesis paper on the night before the deadline, Microsoft’s public relations strategy got revised and revised again, though rarely in a way that added clarity.
Some members of Xbox leadership appeared publicly irritated by their own fan base, culminating at E3 2013 with this hysterically petty chunk of an interview between Mattrick and GameTrailers host Geoff Keighley:
Don Mattrick: I think people are going to love it, and they’re going to understand what we’re trying to create, and how it links games and entertainment, the functionality of the box, some of the advantages that you get of having a box that is designed to use an online state. So that, to me, is a future-proof choice, and I think people could’ve arguably gone the other way if we didn’t do it. And fortunately, we have a product for people who aren’t able to get some form of connectivity — it’s called Xbox 360.
Geoff Keighley: Right. So, “stick with 360”? That’s your message if you don’t — if people don’t like it?
Mattrick: Well, if you have zero access to the internet, that is an offline device. I mean, seriously, when I read the blogs, and thought about who’s really the most impacted, there was a person who said, “Hey, I’m on a nuclear sub.” And I don’t even know what it means to be on a nuclear sub, but I’ve got to imagine that it’s not easy to get an internet connection.
Keighley: Probably not playing Call of Duty multiplayer on the sub.
Mattrick: Well, it’s — it’s — yeah. But, I mean, hey, I can empathize with — if I was on a sub, I’d be disappointed.
Microsoft was losing its matchup with competitor Sony entirely from “own goals.”
Of course, that didn’t stop Microsoft’s rival from taking easy jabs at its dazed opponent. Sony used a considerable portion of its E3 press briefing not only to tout its cheaper PlayStation 4, but to mock the limitations of the Xbox One. At one point during the event, two Sony executives demonstrated how PS4 players would share games — by showing a video of one man handing a video game box to the other. So simple!
By the time Microsoft launched the Xbox One that fall, the company had walked back many of its biggest plans. The Xbox One would no longer have to connect to the internet unless a game required it. Players could play, trade, sell, and buy all the used games they’d like. The Xbox One would be like the Xbox 360, just more powerful and more expensive.
Within a few months, Microsoft had managed to upset fans not only by adding features to its new console but also by taking features away. The Xbox 360 had established massive goodwill in the games community. Seemingly overnight, that goodwill vanished.
In November 2013, the pistol fired for the eighth generation of video game consoles, and splat! Microsoft stumbled off the starting line.
What’s in the box?
Here’s the irony of the Xbox One reveal: Microsoft’s console — with all of its big, irritating, unpopular ideas — was ahead of its time. Unquestionably, exceptionally, self-destructively ahead of its time.
I’m not saying “it was ahead of its time” in the wistful, pseudo-apologetic way. I’m saying “it was ahead of its time” in the Apple Newton way. In the years since that notorious Xbox One presentation, the ideas that were lampooned or ignored by players and press at the time have been cribbed by competitors, only for them to be newly praised.
An incomplete list:
Voice controls. Talking to your machine felt silly and clunky when the Xbox One debuted, but now it’s confounding that my expensive video game console doesn’t have voice control when my phone, tablet, PC, and Alexa devices do.
Tandem apps. At any time, the Xbox One allowed you to “snap” apps so that they could run alongside games. Years later, a nearly identical option was seen as a revolutionary addition to the iPad.
Face recognition. If the Kinect camera saw you set down your Xbox controller, it would trigger the controller’s low-energy state and save precious battery life. If the camera recognized you sitting on the couch, it would automatically sign you into the system, prepping all your games and saves and preferences. The iPhone does the same thing today, except worse, and with adulation in response.
Interactive sports services. In the Xbox reveal, Yusuf Mehdi showed an NBA game with pop-ups displaying scores and stats updates. The feature is now included inside of individual sports apps, like NFL Sunday Ticket, along with push updates on smartphones.
The merging of streaming apps and live television. The original Xbox One included an HDMI-in port that could redirect your cable box’s feed into the system so that live television could exist alongside the rest of the console’s entertainment options. It was a blunt fix, dragging old-school companies into your streaming device through some clever hardware tinkering. Today, live television is more naturally integrated into apps like Hulu, YouTube, and CBS All Access. And devices like Roku and Apple TV boxes curate the entertainment from all of your apps (including your cable provider’s app) into a single place, no cable box or funky HDMI routing required.
So why didn’t these plans work for the Xbox One?
The answer is simple and, it turns out, spottable from day one. The ideas at the core of the Xbox One were creatively undercooked and technologically still out of reach. From our original review:
To be clear, Kinect isn’t a fully realized product yet. Gesture support is functionally non-existent, and there’s a lack of good examples of how Kinect can contribute to games. There are certain elements of Microsoft’s strategy that are missing at launch, like support for Twitch streaming and HBO Go. And the console’s television functionality impresses … if you watch television.
Microsoft also scrapped other grand ambitions that other brands wisely chose not to imitate.
Soon after the Xbox One’s launch, Kinect was no longer mandatory. Not so long after that, even finding the motion and voice controller became a challenge. Without Kinect, a number of the Xbox One’s futuristic features were inoperable.
A year after the Xbox One launched, Microsoft closed Xbox Entertainment Studios, the creative heart of its entertainment ambitions — itself ahead of its time, foreshadowing the surge of mega-brands getting into the streaming entertainment space, like Apple, WarnerMedia, and, most recently, NBCUniversal. With Xbox Entertainment Studios shuttered, the original vision for the Xbox One as the center of the entertainment universe had ended with a whimper.
The Xbox One that was promised in 2013 never materialized. Deterred by fan outrage and flagging sales, Xbox leadership rapidly found their console far behind the PlayStation 4 in sales. To compete, they would have to devise a new strategy and execute it in real time, already having conceded a year to their biggest rival.
Exclusive games, and the lack thereof
Maybe the Xbox One was doomed from the start, in the way so many trilogies feel doomed by expectations.
Perhaps Microsoft officials understood, even during the Xbox One life cycle, that they’d doomed themselves. That this would be a lost generation.
Nearly every person who took the stage at that ill-begotten console reveal made unceremonious departures in the coming months and years. The executive in charge of Xbox, Don Mattrick, announced the new Xbox One in May 2013 and left Microsoft in July of the same year. In 2014, Marc Whitten, who “defined and delivered the product plan for the ambitious Xbox One program,” exited the company. In 2015, corporate vice president Phil Harrison left as well, while corporate vice presidents Yusuf Mehdi and Kudo Tsunoda moved into other roles within Microsoft.
Only one Microsoft employee who appeared at the Xbox One reveal is still with the Xbox division. Phil Spencer was then the corporate vice president of Microsoft Studios, and now he’s the head of Xbox. Remember how I said that only one Microsoft employee in the hourlong presentation of the Xbox One reveal spoke at length about video games? Spencer was that person.
With Spencer at the helm, Xbox messaging began to shift. First, Spencer made a bunch of public mea culpas. Then he and a new squad of leaders refocused all messaging around video games. Messaging solidified: The Xbox One wasn’t the best entertainment hub; it was now the ultimate gaming console.
Unfortunately, Microsoft’s video game strategy wasn’t faring much better than its previous entertainment approach. At least not at first. Video games take many years to create, so while Spencer planted some seeds, it would be a long time before any of those plans began to bear fruit.
For some of the Xbox One’s problems, leadership could blame the previous playbook. Microsoft had assigned the iconic studio Rare — best known for creating Donkey Kong Country, GoldenEye 007, Perfect Dark, and Viva Piñata — to make remakes and reboots, along with a doomed sports series built for the doomed Kinect peripheral. The studio wouldn’t launch an original franchise for the Xbox One until 2018’s Sea of Thieves.
But many of the issues with the Xbox One’s game portfolio spanned its entire run. Between 2013 and today, a considerable number of Microsoft’s projects with both internal and external game studios were canceled, including Project: Knoxville, Ion, Phantom Dust, Scalebound, Stormlands, and the Black Tusk Project. Games like Fable Legends made it within inches of release, only to be canned at the final moment. Project Spark quietly exited its beta in 2014 only to be shuttered in mid-2016. A few other projects made it to store shelves, only to fall far short of fan expectations, like ReCore and Crackdown 3.
The games that survived production largely were new entries in franchises that had gone stale, so we got the uninspiring Halo 5: Guardians, the middling Dead Rising 3 and Dead Rising 4, the forgettable Gears of War 4, and the good-but-not-great Gears 5.
During the Xbox One life cycle, Microsoft’s biggest franchises mutated into costly albatrosses. While many of Sony’s biggest studios were trying new things as the company handed giant franchises to new caretakers, Microsoft’s teams were becoming even more entrenched. Studios named after Halo and Gears of War made more Halo and Gears of War, suggesting these teams would never fully escape the shadow of their own successes.
The biggest Xbox One release wasn’t a game; it was another Xbox One. In November 2017, Microsoft released the Xbox One X, the most powerful game console of this generation. But that power seemed to exist to make other companies’ games — those also available on PS4 and Windows PC — run smoother, rather than allow for a grand visual leap with Microsoft’s own exclusive titles. The most powerful console never had a clear reason to exist, an obvious differentiator from the competition.
And so, the Xbox One was the perpetual runner-up of this generation. The Nintendo Switch had far less power, but it was portable and had incredible entries in iconic Nintendo franchises. The PlayStation 4 had comparable graphical horsepower, plus it had new exclusives throughout each year — many from external studios, like Atlus’ Persona 5 and Team Ninja’s Nioh.
Looking back on the Xbox One era, I can comfortably argue that Microsoft’s biggest and most important original video game hasn’t yet appeared on its console. Today, Microsoft Flight Simulator, a game that leverages Microsoft’s broad array of technologies to recreate the entire planet, is only available on PC. The game still doesn’t have a release date for consoles, but I suspect it won’t appear before the Xbox Series S and Series X hit store shelves on November 10, marking the beginning of the next generation.
That such an important release didn’t debut on the Xbox One could be damning, I suppose, but I prefer a more generous interpretation: The decision to debut the biggest Xbox game not on an Xbox console gets at the audacious pivot that Microsoft has made over the past five years, deemphasizing its current hardware to lay the foundation for the future.
In movie lingo, we’re living in the cliffhanger.
The quiet (invisible) reboot of the Xbox One
The evolution of the Xbox brand has been a gradual, nearly imperceptible process spanning the past six years. And yet, I can tell you the exact moment the shift from the old guard to the new guard began, truly launching Phil Spencer’s own “big plans.”
In November 2014, Microsoft acquired Minecraft and its studio Mojang for $2.5 billion. It may prove to be the best investment the company has made in Xbox and gaming at large.
Unlike nearly every major exclusive franchise from a platform holder, Minecraft is ubiquitous, available to play on practically every major modern computing device. This grants players the freedom to play their favorite game when they want, where they want, with whomever they want.
Rather than change Minecraft to match Xbox, Microsoft changed to be more like its grand acquisition, using the game as a blueprint for the future of its gaming strategy. A year after the deal, Spencer told me, “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.”
This vision aligned with Microsoft proper. In April 2015, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said that Windows 10 “will be a service across an array of devices and will usher in a new era […] where the mobility of the experience, not the device, is paramount.”
Publicly, Spencer continued to lean hard into the message that Xbox focused above all else on video games, and his squad of producers and studio heads devoted themselves to bringing more games to market, quickly. They refocused the scope of first-party games, producing more small- and medium-sized projects, shirking the expectations of the AAA formula. We got the janky but inventive zombie sequel State of Decay 2 and a follow-up to the best new platformer in a generation with Ori and the Will of the Wisps.
But none of the Xbox One’s games became pop culture touchstones. None of them took over the “discourse.” Even the biggest Xbox One exclusive struggled to match the public enthusiasm for Sony’s lesser originals, like the recently released Ghost of Tsushima.
This is purely a gut reading, but I get the sense that Spencer has been cool with a dimmer spotlight.
The most interesting moves in Spencer’s tenure haven’t been about giving the world exclusive new games, but about making all games more readily available and accessible. Spencer has been, in many ways, the anti-Mattrick, envisioning Xbox not as a piece of hardware that centralizes the various arms of Microsoft in your living room, but as the opposite: a video game service that extends itself practically everywhere.
In 2016, the Xbox team launched Xbox Play Anywhere, which allows customers to buy a game on PC or Xbox and play on either platform at no additional cost, sharing a save file between the two. In 2019, the company brought its gaming subscription service to PC. Throughout this year, entries in Microsoft’s most iconic series, Halo, have been ported to Windows. And this fall, Microsoft will launch xCloud, a cloud gaming service allowing subscribers to play games on Android smartphones and tablets.
Spencer’s tenure continues to treat Xbox as software, something that can exist on any system rather than be the system itself. Which is smart, because software is where Microsoft has always excelled. We don’t buy Windows-brand computers, but Windows is installed on millions of PCs and laptops produced by dozens of companies. Those intermediaries have to worry about all the headaches that come with manufacturing, while Microsoft gets the glory (and the cash). Slowly and with increasing confidence, the Xbox brand has been paddling toward this approach.
In the first half of the Xbox One era, I was certain that the Xbox would become a glorified computer: a console that did everything, bringing the power of the PC to our living rooms. The opposite has happened. The Xbox One isn’t your computer; your computer is now an Xbox. And soon, your phone, your tablet, and any other screen with a Wi-Fi connection will become an Xbox, too.
The Xbox One was an expensive but important mulligan
The Xbox One era has served as a rough draft, a safe space for a billion-dollar brand to learn what does and doesn’t work. In the past, Microsoft had rushed its grand experiments to market, only for Kinect and HoloLens to fizzle when exposed to sunlight. The more gradual, less spectacle-driven approach to Xbox Game Pass, the Play Anywhere initiative, and the early betas of xCloud have found success through a mix of quiet experimentation and corporate humility.
For this upcoming generation, members of Xbox leadership seem confident, but not cocky. They’re back to being the underdog, beginning something new. Compare Microsoft’s rollout of xCloud, for example, with Google’s grand reveal of game-streaming competitor Stadia, in a presentation that echoed the previous Microsoft strategy. (Fittingly, Stadia is overseen by Phil Harrison, who was a Microsoft executive during the Xbox One launch.) Despite an initial swell of hype, Stadia has nearly disappeared from the gaming landscape.
Looking at the current Xbox playbook, I see dozens of adjustments inspired by past failures. The company’s biggest franchises — Halo, Forza, Fable — appear to be dropping numbered titles and getting overdue creative reboots. Kinect at its best was a play for accessibility, but it was too complex. Now we have the Xbox Adaptive Controller and the Xbox Elite Controller, providing choice across the spectrum of player needs.
The original Xbox One pitch demanded that players be “always-online.” This go-around, Microsoft won’t force people to be always-online. Instead, the company incentivizes the habit with xCloud. Similarly, Game Pass and Play Anywhere encourage people to buy games through the Microsoft Store, so they can play them on whatever compatible hardware they’d like. Though if folks would rather buy their Xbox games on Steam, that’s an option too.
Choice. It’s a hell of a thing.
I watched the Xbox One reveal again the other night. If I had to characterize the difference between the Xbox leadership then and the current regime, it would be this simple change.
At the beginning, time and again, Microsoft centered itself. Everything needed to be done on Microsoft’s terms. Execs wanted players and developers to play by their rules, rather than meeting players and developers where they’re comfortable.
The new Xbox strategy, by comparison, is designed with its audience, for its audience. I’m not saying the team is altruistic; they stand to make plenty of cash. But their messaging is clever, patient, and comparably humble.
As a result, Microsoft no longer needs to care about owning your living room, or even being your default console. Nor does it need to rely on a business model in which each game must be a mega-seller. This shift would feel disorienting were it spontaneously forced upon the market, but instead, it has been introduced through a calming drip.
The evolution of the Xbox One to the new era of Xbox reminds me in many ways of Nintendo’s evolution from the Wii U to the Switch. Nintendo had confidence coming off the Wii, so it released a console that tried to be the Wii but now tied to your cable box, streaming apps, and everything else in your living room. The Wii U’s big idea — a tablet! — was executed in the least user-friendly way, only working when near the console plugged into the wall.
Nintendo received lots and lots of feedback, and leadership took the notes. Rather than try to salvage a clearly doomed console, they took the mulligan and moved forward. The result: maybe the greatest video game console in history.
The Xbox team has been getting feedback for nearly a decade, and we’re already seeing positive results. Unlike the Switch, we won’t see the next Xbox console launch as a game-changing event, because that’s no longer Microsoft’s style. Instead, the Xbox team will continue to chart the future of the games industry, with constant tiny updates to software that, when taken together, will change how, what, and where we play.
The company will continue to release hardware, but I suspect the Xbox One marked the end of the Xbox console trilogy. A messy, complicated, irritating conclusion that sets up whatever comes next.
Xbox is dead, long live Xbox.
Correction (April 8, 2021): An earlier version of this story claimed Project Spark was never completed. The text has been updated to describe the game’s release and closure.