Feature Article

Xbox One's Eventual Recovery Paints Hopeful Future For Xbox Series X|S

With the launch of the Xbox Series X|S, let's look back at the Xbox One and how Microsoft managed the Xbox brand in the previous console generation.

The Xbox Series X|S is now out, officially transitioning Microsoft into the next console generation. Granted, Microsoft plans to support cross-gen for the first few years of the Xbox Series X|S lifecycle, but we're likely not going to suddenly get a brand-new iteration of the Xbox One--that chapter of Xbox has come to a close. So with that in mind, we figured it's time to take a look back at the Xbox One and dig into how Microsoft handled its third console, from its bumbling beginnings to its more assured end.

There are plenty of fond memories when it comes to Xbox: late-night sessions of SWAT on Halo: Reach's Sword Base, lunchtime conversations about the latest indie darling to be promoted on Xbox Live Arcade, and lazy summers spent unlocking Achievements. But even we were left bewildered by how Microsoft tried to initially pitch the Xbox One as an entertainment hub. Plenty of us still bought one, of course (I mean, c'mon, did you see that Titanfall reveal trailer? Freakin' dope is what it was), but Microsoft's initial pitch led to a rather poor start for the Xbox One. It's a mishap that we're still not wholly convinced the Xbox brand has completely recovered from--going into next gen, it still feels like Xbox has work to do in order to become truly competitive with PlayStation again.

Despite that poor start (or perhaps, because of it), Microsoft pursued new ways to put games into players' hands and made several excellent strides with the Xbox One in the final few years of the console's lifespan. Ultimately, the Xbox One still trailed behind Sony's PS4 and the Nintendo Switch in terms of popularity for the entire console generation, but the Xbox brand has grown in favor in recent years. There have been missteps, the biggest being the continued overall lack of noteworthy first-party titles and console exclusives in comparison to PlayStation and Nintendo, but Xbox has at least made an effort to address these concerns going into next gen.

New Iterations, But Little Choice

Beyond the standard Xbox One that launched in 2013, Microsoft released three other versions of the console. 2016's Xbox One S is a smaller version of the original console that supports 4K video playback, sees a minor improvement in game performance (though not for all games), and upscales games from 1080p to 4K. It isn't true 4K, though. That would come the following year with 2017's Xbox One X, which does support true 4K and buffs the overall hardware of the Xbox for a more substantial improvement in game performance. In 2019, Microsoft launched the Xbox One S All-Digital Edition, which is basically a standard One S without a disc drive.

New iterations of the Xbox One produced mixed results. Releasing the relatively cheap Xbox One S All-Digital Edition was a nice step forward in terms of affordability, though the console came out way too late in the Xbox One's lifecycle for it to be an inclusive option for low-income households that may struggle to buy next-gen consoles within the first year.

Additionally, though having claim to the most powerful console on the market (Xbox One X) is a nice position for advertising--and games do look really good on One X--Microsoft didn't have many first-party titles to show off just how powerful the console is. It's also a bit unfortunate that Xbox One X seemingly became the new standard for the Xbox One console, instead of acting as a higher-end option for those looking to take advantage of their 4K televisions. Though the original Xbox One and One S can run most games just fine--just at a much lower pixel count and frame rate than the Xbox One X--there's still a noticeable drop-off in performance for certain titles. Somewhat recent examples are 2017's Prey and 2019's Control, which, on an original Xbox One, will usually stutter when there's a hectic fight or a lot of debris is being thrown around, but performance is much improved on Xbox One X. Similar to the situation we see with PS4 and PS4 Pro, it often feels as if the lower-powered consoles are not up to snuff, leaving only those with the more expensive hardware to have something approaching an ideal experience.

As a result, several of the larger games from the past few years have rendered the original Xbox One outdated. This practice screws over early adopters who can't afford to upgrade multiple times in a generation--a practice that is more common on PC (though, admittedly, becoming more common in the console space). Consoles have traditionally been the affordable and approachable option for people looking to get into gaming. This console generation was a shift in that line of thinking for Xbox, as upgrading to the Xbox One X felt like the only way to play certain Xbox One games and have an ideal experience. Whether this becomes a new trend for Microsoft remains to be seen. It pushed out two next-gen consoles at once, one of which is more powerful than the other, but we won't know for a while whether the weaker Xbox Series S fails to keep pace with new games. And Microsoft might handle console upgrades differently in this console generation anyway.

Ditching Bad Gimmicks

Players weren't afforded many opportunities to use Xbox One's Kinect all that much. Personally, I think the only time I regularly used it was for yelling at the Netflix app that, yes, I was indeed still using it to watch She-Ra and the Princesses of Power even though it had been three hours--quit judging me, Netflix. However, with most games forgoing any Kinect support, pretty much the only reason to keep the accessory connected to your Xbox One was to scan in DLC expansions and digital games--it was far easier to just hold up a QR code to a camera than type in a bunch of random letters and numbers. But that's really it; the Kinect was abandoned after only a few years. It was an expensive add-on with little purpose, despite Microsoft making it mandatory to include the Kinect with every Xbox One. Gosh, do you remember that? How, once upon a time, you couldn't even buy an Xbox One without getting a Kinect too?

Which is our long way of saying that Microsoft did well to ditch the Kinect in the end. Though it was packaged with all original Xbox One consoles, the Kinect was dropped when it came to the Xbox One S, One X, and One S All-Digital Edition. The camera seemed to be primarily tied to Microsoft's early message for Xbox One: that the machine was a media center for the family as opposed to a gaming console. The non-gamers in the family could use hand movements or just talk to the Xbox One to watch movies and TV, navigate the console's UI, and turn the machine on and off. And gamers could easily talk to their in-game party without the need for a headset. Sony has since run with the idea by putting a mic directly into the PS5's DualSense controller, which could inspire Microsoft to do something similar and bring back elements of the Kinect with future Xbox Series X|S controllers.

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In the years since the Kinect was dropped, Microsoft did a much better job in terms of accessories. The focus realigned on traditional console gaming, but providing players with more options of how to play. Adding mouse/keyboard support and developing the Xbox Adaptive controller were promising means of improving accessibility, while the Elite and Elite Series 2 controllers are ideal for players looking for that competitive edge, especially in shooters.

All of those accessories are solid, long-term investments--especially since Xbox Series X|S will support all of them--whereas the Kinect felt like Microsoft chasing the trends of voice activation and motion controls. It all adds up to a Microsoft that feels more confident in doing what it knows it's good at, instead of chasing a pipe dream at the expense of what should have been the foundation of a gaming console all along.

Struggling To Deliver A System Seller

Despite having the most powerful console, Microsoft never really delivered on a powerhouse library of first-party console exclusives to sell it. True, I bought the Xbox One to play Titanfall, and the Xbox One has a killer console exclusive in Sunset Overdrive, but both of those games were released in 2014. What seemed like a promising start was never maintained throughout the Xbox One's lifecycle.

Since 2014, there haven't been many first-party games or console exclusives for Xbox One, and very few of them stack up to what Sony was exclusively putting out on PS4 or Nintendo on Switch. Games like Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Sea of Thieves, Ori and the Blind Forest, Forza Horizon 4, and Gears 5 are good, but they're not prestige quality--it didn't seem like any were inspiring people to go out and buy an Xbox One if they didn't already have it. If anything, they all seem like Xbox Game Pass sellers (which we'll get into in a bit), not console sellers.

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Granted, in August 2020, Xbox head Phil Spencer said that selling consoles is no longer the company's main concern. Instead, Microsoft is aiming to permeate as many devices as it can, getting players invested into the Xbox brand with Xbox Game Pass and xCloud. But that doesn't change how much it feels like Xbox has dropped the ball in comparison to Nintendo and PlayStation when it comes to curating a library of first-party exclusives this generation. Where PlayStation and Nintendo have reaffirmed their roles in the gaming industry (single-player blockbuster movie-like games for PlayStation, and enjoyably approachable and elegantly designed games for Nintendo), Xbox has meandered through this console generation with little in terms of an identity.

But Microsoft managed to make big changes in this regard in the final years of the Xbox One's lifecycle. Because of numerous acquisitions, the Xbox Series X|S is launching with triple the number of Microsoft first-party studios in comparison to what the Xbox One had upon release. Between inXile Entertainment, Obsidian Entertainment, and Bethesda Games Studios, Microsoft can reclaim the Xbox's identity as the go-to console for RPGs--a nice change of pace given that Microsoft's only true attempt to recapture that identity on Xbox One, Scalebound, ultimately ended up getting canceled. And ID@Xbox has already helped Microsoft recover its platform in the indie game scene since the removal of Xbox Live Arcade from the Xbox marketplace. All good stuff, though admittedly a bit too late to act as system sellers for Xbox One. We'll have a much better idea as to whether these acquisitions and push to promote indie titles ultimately comes through for Microsoft after we get a few years into the Xbox Series X|S's lifecycle.

The Best Deal In Gaming

Xbox Game Pass Ultimate is the best deal in gaming--it's a monthly subscription that provides access to over 100 Xbox and PC titles for a fraction of their total retail cost. The subscription also includes Xbox Live Gold, allowing you to play Xbox games online and get a couple of free games each month via Games with Gold, as well as Microsoft's cloud-based game streaming service, xCloud. Xbox Game Pass Ultimate also nets you EA Play at no extra charge, giving you early access and discounts on select games published by Electronic Arts, as well as its Game Pass-style Vault of older games. Plus, all Microsoft first-party games appear on the service the day they release. The subscription also gets you a month of Disney+ and two months of Funimation.

Simply put, neither Sony nor Nintendo have anything close to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. Sony has at least announced that it intends to compete with Game Pass, but has given no indication as to how. So, for now anyway, Microsoft is the only major player in the console space with a deal like this. And it's worth repeating: Xbox Game Pass is a really, really, really good deal--it's the biggest selling point for having an Xbox One or Xbox Series X|S at this point. Plus, it makes gaming more accessible (people with disabilities can more easily try games without worrying about paying for something they ultimately find out they can't play) and affordable, both of which are always a good thing.

Looking Back While Moving Forward

The Xbox One was the only family of consoles to offer true backwards compatibility this past console generation, with all Xbox One consoles being able to play a ton of Xbox 360 and original Xbox games. Select Xbox and Xbox 360 games are also enhanced on Xbox One X, which means they get improved performance and faster loading times, and the console both recognizes and upscales the game's resolution to a higher quality image (sometimes up to 4K) for an improved visual experience.

Funnily enough, Microsoft began the console generation with a similar stance to Sony and Nintendo in regards to backwards compatibility--originally, the Xbox One was a clean cut from the Xbox 360 and did not support backwards compatibility. But Microsoft backpedaled on this stance during its rebranding of Xbox One, when it was transitioning the machine away from an entertainment hub towards a more traditional gaming console.

It was a smart move too, as backwards compatibility is now one of Xbox's biggest selling points for both the Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S. The Xbox One's success in backwards compatibility seemingly informed Microsoft's plan for the future--backwards compatibility is one of the core pillars of the Xbox Series X|S, transforming Xbox into an evolving ecosystem that's both easy and relatively affordable to join, and (more importantly for Microsoft) hard to leave.

Next Gen: Xbox Series X & Xbox Series S

We've already touched on this a bit in the previous sections, but it's worth diving into all the ways that Microsoft spent this past console generation preparing for the current one. All things considered, the platform holder is in a decent place, but it could be a lot better.

Though preorders for Xbox Series X|S went a bit more smoothly than PS5, securing a console for launch was still a pretty rough process. And yes, this isn't really Microsoft's fault--the company has no control over how retailers handle preorders. But at what point does Microsoft decide to try and work with partnered retailers to find a better solution, or at least ensure a smoother process on its own online store?

There are also just a few things about the Xbox Series X|S that we just don't know, despite both consoles already having launched. For instance, will Xbox's next-gen games continue to cost $60 USD or will the price for certain ones rise, as they have for several PS5 launch titles? And with the only Xbox Series X|S console exclusive scheduled for 2020, The Medium, being delayed to 2021, how else does Microsoft plan on garnering excitement for its new consoles in the early months of its release?

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Despite certain aspects of the Xbox Series X|S's future remaining unclear, Microsoft has already made some pretty good moves with its new hardware. Payment plan options through Xbox All Access has been a welcome sight. For too long, gaming has been an expensive hobby--implementing a payment plan welcomes in a new demographic of gamers to jump into the new gen at launch. It's a far better form of accessibility and affordability than releasing a cheaper disc-less version of the console nearly six years after the new gen has started.

Smart Delivery has also proven to be a surprisingly wonderful feature. Both Xbox Series X|S and PS5 upgrade certain games, but Smart Delivery has ensured that players on Xbox are always playing their games in an ideal way. Players have expressed difficulty in making sure that their PS5 is, in fact, playing the PS5 version of a game and not the PS4 version. No such confusion has popped up on Xbox Series X|S--the console just knows you probably want to play the best version of a game, automatically upgrading your Xbox One games to their next-gen versions. It's quick and easy.

What's quick but not always easy is Quick Resume, a feature for Xbox Series X|S that keeps your games suspended so that you can switch between multiple games without having to go through a title screen. But it's not immediately clear which games support Quick Resume, and Xbox Series X|S doesn't tell you whether a suspended game is going to be kicked from your Quick Resume queue because you have too many other games open.

Though a smaller complaint, there's also the issue with Xbox Series X|S launching with the same UI and a similar controller to its predecessor. On one hand, it's nice because there's no learning curve from jumping from Xbox One to Xbox Series X|S. But it mostly just makes the Xbox Series X|S feel very same-y to what's come before and less next-gen in comparison to PS5, which is entirely different from the PS4 in terms of shape, color, UI, and controller. The PS5 feels new, while the Xbox Series X|S feel like a better variation to what we've already had.

As far as the lack of console exclusives and first-party games at launch go, Microsoft's new studios and ID@Xbox should help going into 2021 and beyond. We are a bit concerned that Microsoft may be trying to fix the complaint a little too literally and is aiming for sheer quantity--acquiring numerous studios and churning out games to increase chances that more hit big--but Microsoft is buying studios known for excellent games, so our worries may be unfounded.

Other Matters In Brief

  • User Interface: The Xbox One UI wasn't all that great for much of the console's lifecycle and Microsoft didn't implement a popular fix for it until the final year of the generation, 2020, with the current one (which is also being used for Xbox Series X|S). Having a bad UI isn't a huge issue, but it did make navigating the online console store and finding new games to play more difficult than it had to be, and seeing all those ads pop up on the home screen when booting up the Xbox One wasn't a popular sight. The first UI tied into Xbox One's original role as an entertainment hub (snapping multiple pages, navigating via hand motions, etc) while the current UI is something you'd expect of a more traditional gaming console, putting what you've been playing, what's new in the store, and what's new to Xbox Game Pass front and center.
  • xCloud: Cloud-based game streaming is beginning to take off, with several other corporate giants like Google even getting in on the fray. Pairing xCloud with Xbox Game Pass Ultimate is a smart move on Microsoft's part, as it fixes the two biggest problems cloud platforms face: cultivating a fleshed-out game library and convincing players to buy in. Xbox Game Pass Ultimate already has a huge library of games and the addition of xCloud is free.
  • ID@Xbox: Microsoft lost its prominent position as a spotlight in the indie game scene going into the Xbox One. However, the ID@Xbox program has helped reestablish Microsoft as a good partner for indie games, especially since many of those partnerships lead to indie games getting prominent spots on Xbox Game Pass.
  • Big Phil: Xbox has flourished under Phil Spencer's leadership. Obviously, the success of a company is never the result of one person, but Microsoft's decision to afford Spencer a great deal of agency in how to shape the Xbox brand and focus the company message around backwards compatibility, affordability, and accessibility is a big contributing factor to the growing success of Xbox One in the latter half of the previous console generation.

Verdict

If the Xbox One proves anything, it's that coming off of a popular console does not guarantee your next one will be similarly received. As much as players' opinions have turned around on Xbox One, Microsoft cannot afford to simply ride out on the good will it has managed to attract.

To that end, the Xbox Series X|S's lack of first-party games and console exclusives at launch is a bit worrisome, as it feels like a repeat in history, one where Microsoft's new hardware doesn't have many noteworthy games in the first few years after its release. Microsoft needs to address that gap in its next console generation plan as soon as possible--even if it's something as simple as providing players with more insight into what they can expect in the next year. Sure, Xbox Game Pass Ultimate is the best deal in gaming, but Microsoft will likely still end up pulling up the rear in this console race if customers think that Xbox's new hardware doesn't have games that can compete with what PlayStation and Nintendo are offering.

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jordanramee

Jordan Ramée

Associate Editor for GameSpot, Jordan grew up wanting to be an anime protagonist, then a Pokémon Master, then the Hero of Twilight, then a Spectre, then an Assassin, and then finally a Titan Pilot. But he ended up in the lousy position of writing about those amazing jobs instead.

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