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Microsoft celebrates Xbox One at XO18 – but sets sights on the future
Microsoft heads to XO18 to celebrate Xbox One – but reveals its gaze is fixed on the future Sixteen new additions to the Game Pass subscription service were the backbone of the show
Fortnite may be the biggest game on the planet right now, but surely there were better ways to open an Xbox livestream than with a montage piece of various people in freefall. Optics are everything, after all, and this was, we assume quite unintentionally, a bit on the nose. Still, Microsoft will feel like it left this event having stuck the landing. Insofar as the company has ever had a coherent set of goals for Xbox One, it at least had a core message here, and it drummed it in relentlessly. You could sum it up in two words, were it not repeated so often. Game Pass, Game Pass, Game Pass.
Notionally the first event of its kind, XO18 was in fact a rebadging of the Xbox Fanfest in Mexico City, which has been running since 2014. It’s easy to see why Phil Spencer and crew are drawn back here year after year, and it’s not just because of Spencer’s belief that Latin America is a real growth opportunity for Xbox. No, the real draw is the crowd. They come, shall we say, to party.
The presenters – Inside Xbox stalwarts including Graeme ‘AceyBongos’ Boyd, Julia Hardy and Larry ‘Major Nelson’ Hryb – were rapturously received. Whenever Spencer was on camera the masses chanted his name. Matt Booty, the wondrously named head of Microsoft Studios who was the day’s headline act, his announcement of two new acquisitions trailed repeatedly throughout the show, was eventually welcomed as if a god. Like an ailing demagogue holding rallies to boost his fragile ego, XO18 gave Microsoft a break from the harsh realities of a generation it has long since lost. A place where thronged masses chant your name with evangelical fervour, and the most mundane of announcements is met with a cacophony of noise.
And we do mean mundane. Sixteen new additions to the Game Pass subscription service were the backbone of the show, announced two or three at a time in between VT pieces and on-stage interviews. Few of the titles unveiled would have had non-believers scrambling for their credit cards, but the games themselves were not really the point. Game Pass itself is.
There is logic to this. Spencer’s claim that Game Pass introduces players to games they might otherwise ignore (“We want as many kinds of games to be successful as possible”) certainly holds water, but Microsoft’s obsession with subscriptions is about more than that. With the current generation clearly lost, the company is instead focusing on building an ecosystem and a customer base that is portable.
The rumour mill indicates that Microsoft will be first out of the blocks, announcing a new console at E3 2019 and releasing it before the year is out (we hear Sony is keeping its powder dry until 2020). Backwards compatibility has been one of Microsoft’s few true success stories this generation, and so it is unthinkable that Xbox One games will not be compatible with the console’s successor. Using the fag-end of a difficult generation to lay the foundations for the next is smart thinking, even if it doesn’t make for much of a show.
At times it made for a maddening one, in fact. Hryb wheeled out his Crazy Larry alter ego, a cheeky local-TV salesman character that has apparently been a thing since the 360 days, to announce some Black Friday game discounts. Then he reminded us, lest we’d somehow forgotten, that your first month of Game Pass now costs a dollar. Yes, you could get Sea Of Thieves for half off. But remember! Every single firstparty Xbox game launches day and date on our subscription service, so ignore all that other stuff we just said.
Elsewhere this was,
like E3, the work of a company treading water while waiting for the next-gen rescue helicopter. There was news of updates to
State Of Decay 2 and Sea Of Thieves. There was a welcome reminder that
Crackdown 3 is a thing that exists: on stage to discuss its cloud-powered online features, Joe Staten was visibly blindsided by the cheer that met his use of the phrase “It’s multiplayer, the Crackdown way”. Microsoft squeezed one final round of headlines out of PUBG before the end of its console exclusivity (it’ll be on PS4 by the time you read this) by adding it to, yep, Game Pass.
And of course there were the acquisitions. The additions of Inxile Entertainment and Obsidian are savvy indeed, the former bringing considerable CRPG kudos and the latter a particularly tempting prospect, since it has always felt as if the only thing holding Obsidian back from true greatness is money and support from an understanding publisher. It will be years, no doubt, before we see the first fruits of either deal. But that’s just fine for Microsoft, which knew long ago the current-gen jig was up and has been building towards a brighter future ever since. If it pays off, it will no longer need to decamp to Mexico to be cheered to the high heavens.