Xbox One - Three Years Later

By Mark Delaney, 1 year ago
It seems that the past week has been full of milestones for the Xbox name. Just days ago, we celebrated the fifteen year anniversaries of both Xbox and its poster-space marine series, Halo. The milestones just keep coming as this week marks the three year anniversary of the Xbox One's launch. November 22nd, 2013 saw the birth of a new generation. In the 1000+ days since then, the console has had its share of incredible highs and controversial lows.

With three years in the books, we decided to look back on the initial promise of the machine, compare it to what it looks like now, and consider its future prospects as Project Scorpio looms large for 2017.

xbox one RC

Breaking Promises For The Better

The Xbox One had one of the most infamous console reveals of all-time, up there with the PS3's "five hundred ninety-nine US dollars" and the Sega Saturn's flash launch. Don Mattrick's vision for the console as a Kinect'd do-it-all home entertainment system was met with backlash from the core people who would consider investing in the system -- the gamers. The focus on television and apps, the consumer-unfriendly DRM policies, and the boxed-in Kinect that was shooting up the price were all major points of contention for the console. People wanted a committed gaming system and instead got a massive black box that was looking to invade and imperialize our living rooms. As one of the lead Xbox One developers and the face of their public conferences, Don Mattrick's vision was either ahead of its time or maddeningly off target, depending on who you ask.

Sony smartly took all of this consumer unrest and turned it into good will for their own competing console, the PS4. They catered to gamers first and foremost at E3, showcasing games above all else. By July, the backlash had reached a fever pitch, just months away from launch. Mattrick was out and headed for Zynga's uppermost hierarchy. In his place stepped Phil Spencer and a renewed, maybe even reinvigorated Xbox team. The Xbox One's bold picture of the future, where all homes played host to a single Xbox One device that acted as a hub for all they wanted in entertainment, was on hold. Instead, Spencer doubled down on games as well, a blatant reaction to Sony's maneuvering. Soon so much of what was driving people away from the Xbox One in the promotional pre-release stage was rescinded upon, replaced with policies and plans that more closely aligned with what Xbox's core gamers sought.

The damage had been done, however. The team's controversial message was replaced by their inability to correct their message. They had righted the ship in many ways, but try telling that to a consumer base that wasn't paying close attention, as is the nature of a global market of potential buyers. When you hold an event to unveil a product that upsets so many, that becomes the narrative. Erasing that version of the product from the minds of all who saw it, judged it, and moved on is no quick fix. It's a problem that they created, of course, so there's no need to feel sorry for them, but you have to wonder what this generation would look like had Microsoft stopped the problem before it started.

Despite some amazing exclusives, the Xbox One is still feeling the sting of its fumbled reveal event.Despite some amazing exclusives, the Xbox One is still feeling the sting of its fumbled reveal event.

In the three years since, the PS4 has dominated sales almost without exception. While Sony boasts their precise figures of units sold -- currently the number sits at almost 50 million -- the Xbox One figures are no longer shared publicly. The move signals a distant second place for Xbox, who is figured to have sold roughly half that number in the same time period.

Games and Innovations

With each new generation, expectations are raised regarding what our consoles can do and what we can play on them. The jump from the seventh to the eighth console generation was never billed as a quantum leap. Graphically, Xbox One launch titles were about on par with the power and visual prowess of the latest Xbox 360 titles, but three years later we're starting to see the new generation pull away from its predecessor. As developers learn to better utilize the technology, the games really reflect that. Recent games like Battlefield 1 and Forza Horizon 3 display imagery unlike anything that the Xbox 360 could ever muster, while Quantum Break highlights some of the best in-engine facial scanning and emoting that the industry has ever seen.

Although Remedy's shooter is one of a handful of interesting new properties that were born during the Xbox One's run, the current generation has lacked the inventiveness of the last generation overall. After three years into the 360's run, we had seen games like BioShock, Mass Effect, Assassin's Creed and Gears of War. Currently, the AAA space is dominated by remasters and sequels to these exact series, and there's no shortage of examples. Sure, there are other examples at which to point when looking for fresh new games on the One -- Sunset Overdrive comes to mind -- but their numbers are far outweighed by these massive sequels and re-releases. Perhaps it's just indicative of the industry, but if so, who's steering that ship?

Are we as consumers yearning so greatly to replay with slight visual improvements the games that we loved just a few years ago, or have publishers gotten so gun shy, so scared to invest in unknown commodities, that they cling to giving us more of what we know? If that really isn't what we want, shouldn't we say so by not buying them? And whatever the games are, might we not have been able to play pretty much all of them on the last generation, too? These last two cycles have blended together in so many ways that such a point might be lost on us, but think about previous generations.

The 360 birthed many remarkable new properties, while the One has mostly been content to deliver pretty sequels.The 360 birthed many remarkable new properties, while the One has mostly been content to deliver pretty sequels.

Plenty of times we'd see a new game on the Nintendo 64, for example, that we simply couldn't have had on the Super Nintendo. New consoles are meant to bring wholly new experiences, birth new genres. It's not exclusively an Xbox One problem, but to this point we've largely been given prettier games; new and unseen types of games are not the majority. New IP and genres in the AAA space have been a rare experience on the Xbox One, and on this console generation collectively.

On the brightside of this reach into the past with which the Xbox One, and perhaps society as a whole, is obsessed comes the post-launch backwards compatibility feature. One of the most wanted features was severely lacking from the Xbox One back in 2013 and it remained absent until June 2015, where Phil Spencer shocked their consumers and competitors alike by introducing the console's ability to emulate Xbox 360 games.

With the go-ahead given by publishers, Microsoft is able to offer past-gen games on the Xbox One, including digital and disc-based versions, while retaining all purchase history so that no one needs to buy games again if they already own them. On top of that, all Games with Gold offerings as of November last year are now mandated to be made backwards compatible, so Xbox One owners get four games with their membership each month. All of this comes in addition to the already 800+ games that have hit the Xbox One store, according to stats here on TA, along with another nearly 100 apps.

This was a monumental win for the Xbox team, as it was always stated how difficult the task would be. The PS4 will likely never offer this feature due to Sony having invested nearly 400 million dollars to buy and promptly shut down Gaikai so that their PlayStation Now streaming service could be free of its main competition. With all of that money tied up into charging their players to stream games, PlayStation has no incentive other than good will to offer such a feature. The good will that they gained from the pre-launch period by focusing on games has turned them into the far and away leader of this console cycle.

Now, like their lackluster PS Plus offerings each month also exemplifies, their refusal to offer a competing back-compat feature signals how little they care about such good will now. Xbox, on the other hand, has so much ground to gain that their Games with Gold titles have been noticeably better for most of the generation, including yet another excellent month ahead in December to end the year.

Independent Hearts and Minds

Perhaps one of the Xbox One's greatest attributes is its commitment to indie titles. ID@Xbox was born on the One, allowing indie developers access to dev kits, free title updates, and the Xbox ecosystem, like achievements and Kinect. Such moves complete a 180 from the last gen's much discussed poor relationship that Xbox had with these smaller teams, which led some studios to avoid working with the brand entirely. Many of those teams have come back around, in addition to a massive influx of similarly sized games.

The program has played host to some of the console's greatest achievements like The Banner Saga, SUPERHOT, and 2016 Xbox Game of the Year contenders Inside and Rocket League. The indie games scene has changed greatly in the past ten years and the Xbox One's drive to deliver more of the great smaller scale games to their player base has been one of its smartest moves.

Other developer friendly moves have been made as well, like the Xbox Game Preview. Like Steam's Early Access, Game Preview allows games to hit the store in early stages of development to both create dialogues with their consumers and obtain some additional revenue flow to help advance their works-in-progress. Most of the games that have come to the program have benefited from it, and have released within a reasonable amount of time, although one of its debut titles is still being worked on as a pre-release game.

If innovation is what you seek, the ID@Xbox program has no shortage of material.If innovation is what you seek, the ID@Xbox program has no shortage of material.

It's not just the game makers that have been given more toys during this generation, either. As the players, we have seen numerous additions to the entire sphere of the brand that shouldn't be overlooked. Challenges joined achievements as a new form of digital rewards for us to chase. Although most games haven't utilized them, Xbox's first-party games, as well as those from their close friends at EA, typically do. Those same games, along with some others, can now be played while they install, which is something that I did just a few hours ago with Horizon 3. Those ID games and other indies, the equivalents to what would have been XBLA format games, are all 1000 gamerscore-enabled now, too. This has led to some easy completions for massive gamerscore boosts, but on the whole has made those once 200 or 400 G type of games more enjoyable, especially for anyone in this community.

Play Anywhere, Microsoft's bold new strategy for game sales, now lets players cross-play and cross-save their games across Xbox One and Windows 10 -- one purchase grants you the game on both platforms. This means that more people have access to games that would have been Xbox One exclusives, like Gears 4 and ReCore. While this is good from a selfless power-to-the-people sort of way, some staunch Xbox supporters feel betrayed by this move as it makes the Xbox One somewhat redundant if you have a gaming PC. This decision has been touted by the Xbox brass as one of their boldest and most important in years, but it's definitely left a bad taste in the mouths of many of their faithful buyers.

What's Your Sign?

So where does all of this leave us today, three years post-launch? Has the Xbox One been a success? It's tough to measure, sometimes. If you measure it according to its initial promise, you'd have to say no, but it seems that no one but Don Mattrick would call that initial vision a missed objective. Spencer's leadership has been a great thing for Xbox. He's rerouted the ship, course-corrected, and has done about as well as anyone could expect to pull the brand and the machine out of the depths to which it fell during the PR disaster of 2013.

Still, next fall will determine the Xbox One's ultimate legacy. We wrote at length not too long ago about what Project Scorpio may be. The PS4 Pro was once rumored to be Sony's next quantum leap, but after the reveal and launch, it's now apparent that the console is the market equivalent to a slightly upgraded Xbox One S. That leaves the Scorpio as something either wholly and dangerously unnecessary or, what may be worse in some minds, the birth of a new generation.

It makes sense for Xbox to lick its wounds, retreat on the eighth generation and get a jump on the next life cycle. Their extra year during the 360 generation helped solidify that console as the last gen's most popular. Maybe they've run the numbers, have decided to admit defeat, and are now seeking to kick off the ninth generation solo with next fall's powerful codenamed console.

How will you feel if the Scorpio isn't meant to co-exist with the One, but instead will be the dawn of a new generation?How will you feel if the Scorpio isn't meant to co-exist with the One, but instead will be the dawn of a new generation?

If you can accept that the seventh generation was uncharacteristically long compared to usual console lifespans, the Xbox One being replaced next year by a new console after four years fits roughly with the usual cycles that these things have had over the past few decades. It'll sting for many who grew accustomed to their systems lasting nearly a decade on the market before being usurped by the next big thing, but look back on the industry's history and you'll find that the 360 was the exception to the norm.

There's one more issue that comes from that, too. Spencer, for all his great efforts that he deserves, emphatically promised that the Scorpio and One would co-exist in a market where the former gets no exclusive titles -- all games for the Scorpio will run on the One, or so he says. Frankly, given the specs that they've already revealed, that seems either impossible or sounds like the promise of terribly watered down Xbox One versions of future games. If the Scorpio really is going to be such a leap for the Xbox name, why restrain the system by tying it to a generation that it seems to far supersede? It sounds like the sort of thing that you'd say to not instill panic in those that just bought or may soon buy an Xbox One. If that's what's happening here, then we're being lied to and that's not good for anyone.

After a launch marred by poor policies and mixed messaging, Spencer and company can't fall into the same traps that ousted the previous regime. If next June brings with it the rescinding of that promise of "no games left behind" then it might not be the worst thing. Sure recent buyers will be upset, but ultimately many will forgive Xbox's comments from this past summer if they release a must-own console next fall.

If the Scorpio and One do co-exist, what will that mean for multiplayer games?If the Scorpio and One do co-exist, what will that mean for multiplayer games?

Most of this community bought into the Xbox One according to statistics drawn up by site owner, Rich, also known as TrueAchievement himself. Of the 422,882 gamers being tracked with platform data on the site, nearly 398,000 of them are considered to have owned (for the purposes of these stats) an Xbox 360 -- measured by having two or more tracked games on the console that aren't backwards compatible. Additionally, of that same 422K, 292,248 gamers own an Xbox One. Lastly, more than half of the tracked users on site -- 276,151 -- own both.

It's evident that brand loyalty didn't totally disappear when the Xbox One reveal let down so many. Surely plenty did "defect" (for the console warriors) to PS4, but others stuck with the green team or, like myself, bought both. What will happen to that brand loyalty if next year's console relegates the Xbox One to dreaded last-gen status? Will that be a bridge too far for the otherwise Xbox-faithful?

Measuring Success

Like a downtrodden but hopeful sports team, you take the small victories where you can get them. The past few months have seen Xbox One's social stock increase. The Xbox One S, 40% smaller than its predecessor and with a number of visual upgrades, has been quite a success, or at least we can infer that it has because the Xbox One has outsold the PS4 for four consecutive months at time of writing.

November's figures will be hotly contested as the PS4 Pro, counter to the Xbox One S, is entering its first month in stores. Still, the Xbox One had never won three -- never mind four -- consecutive months at any point in the past three years. However much longer the streak goes on, it's something on which to build for anyone working on or rooting for the green team. The future is up in the air because of Scorpio looming so large.

Has the Xbox One been a success in your mind? Knowing all that it has done and has not done, knowing what's ahead, but also recognizing where we began back in 2013, how do you measure the system's merits? Where do you think the One goes from here? If we check back again in another three years what will consensus opinion tell us? What story will the Xbox One leave with us?
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is one of three voices on the TA Playlist podcast. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his fiancée and son. He almost never writes in the third person.