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Microsoft failed Xbox gamers – there can be no excuses now

OPINION: The Xbox Series S/X generation has delivered a pitifully paltry number of top first-party games. Now, with Activision and Bethesda under the Xbox umbrella, Microsoft must deliver.

Microsoft has finally got the Activision Blizzard acquisition over the line, 21 months after agreeing the purchase. The Xbox maker survived objections from competition watchdogs around the world, and made a few concessions along the way, but ultimately rubber stamped the $68.7 billion deal.

Regardless of how you feel about whether the merger will have lasting effects on the health of the gaming industry, it’s certainly an exciting prospect for those loyal to Microsoft-based gaming hardware. And boy, do they need some excitement.

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The company now has an incredible wealth of gaming pedigree beneath the Redmond, WA, umbrella. While that creates an extraordinary opportunity for Microsoft Gaming boss Phil Spencer, it also brings pressure to deliver.

I believe Microsoft has failed gamers throughout the Xbox Series X and Series S generation. There hasn’t been anywhere near enough top-level first-party games to justify splashing out on the new hardware. That’s partially due to the ubiquity of Game Pass and now Xbox Cloud gaming, but it’s also just a numbers issue. 

2022 was a self-professed bad year for Xbox. After the understandable delays and impact of the pandemic, once things returned to relative normality, Microsoft failed to deliver on the first-party exclusives that defined the previous generation in PlayStation’s favour.

In 2019, Spencer said the goal was for a new first-party game on Game Pass every three months. He has reiterated that goal plenty of times since.

Spencer promised 2023 would be better, but has it been? Forza Motorsport is a reboot, Bethesda’s Redfall was a massive flop and Starfield – while earning plenty of critical acclaim – won’t be for everyone. Bethesda RPGs… you’re either into them or you’re not. It’s been the same since time immemorial. The surprise hit of the year has actually been HiFi Rush, which was surprisingly released without even a hint it was in development.

However, it’s clear those who gave the Xbox hardware another chance – after the Xbox One was drubbed by the PS4 – have not yet been rewarded for the optimism. 

Starfield planet

Four games a year? At least!

Back in August, Spencer said the goal to release at least four first-party games a year is now the actual plan for 2024. He told IGN: “We have talked about it as an aspiration, now we talk about it as our plan.”

Let’s bloody hope so, because there really can be no excuses now. Microsoft has the talent and know-how, the track record, and the hit franchise names to ensure Xbox gamers are fully stocked with incredible new releases for years and years to come.

It’s undoubtedly the greatest and most varied array of gaming properties ever brought under the same roof. There’s no reason Xbox can’t rival Sony for exclusives and have these games coming out far more often.

Microsoft must also foster a culture of innovation and experimentation, rather than encourage the continuation of bland slate of annual releases or reskins of old formulas. Gamers are entitled to new and exciting IPs that remind them gaming can still surprise, innovate, and invigorate beyond visual enhancements.

Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2

If Game Pass is the business model, rather than revenue from outright game purchases, there’s no reason Microsoft can’t take a more holistic approach. Netflix for example, invests in more than just AAA smash hits and is endlessly experimenting, because it is serving everyone and can afford to take a few chances.

Just think of the franchise names Microsoft now has on the home team. From the Activision Blizzard division there’s Call of Duty, Diablo, Crash Bandicoot, Tony Hawk, Destiny, and Guitar Hero. Bethesda has already brought Fallout, The Elder Scrolls, DOOM, and Wolfenstein. The in-house Xbox Game Studios franchises include Halo, Forza, Gears of War, Psychonauts, Minecraft, Age of Empires, Flight Simulator, and plenty more.

Microsoft has now had plenty of time to get its feet under the table at Bethesda. The next years of releases should have Microsoft’s fingerprints all over them. No more work-in-progress drops like Redfall that require months of updates before they remotely approach the billing.

IGN’s scorn-filled review of Redfall stayed with me. It concluded: “Redfall is a bafflingly bad time across the board. Plagued with bland missions, boneheaded enemies, and repeated technical problems, Redfall simply wasn’t ready for daylight in this state.”

It’s just not good enough if you’re only delivering a meagre handful of top releases per year that you can only play on the Xbox Series S/X.

There’ll need to be a similar getting-to-know-you process at Activision, now the deal is done. Xbox gamers have every right to expect a reinvigorated Call of Duty franchise to headline an absolutely loaded line-up up in the next few years.

If not now, then when? When Microsoft has used its incredible wealth to purchase Electronic Arts and Capcom too? I jest, but who’s to say the company won’t just keep buying when out-of-touch regulators were appeased by simply keeping CoD on PlayStation.

Agree with the deal being permitted, or not, Microsoft has been granted huge grace as a custodian of gaming’s past, present, and future with this acquisition. It must do fans justice.

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