A bet­ter to­mor­row


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.

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