Can the Xbox Brand Rise from the Ashes of Destruction?

I’m presently seated in a hotel room in Los Angeles, toiling away on my laptop with my back against the window. Behind me, an atmospheric river is pouring rain down the glass, flooding the streets below. Simultaneously, on my laptop screen, part of an online gaming community is lighting its torches and grabbing its pitchforks, prepared to burn the Xbox brand. The community’s confidence in Xbox is apparently at a low not observed in over a decade, ever since the Xbox One’s online check-in requirements and TV-first messaging immediately negated all of the progress that had been meticulously and brilliantly established over the Xbox 360 generation.

This predicament comes down to an existential inquiry about the Xbox platform itself: particularly, why should gamers continue to invest in it? Because now, the implication is that many of the things that make Xbox valuable could potentially show up on competing consoles. It started with murmurs of last year’s surprise rhythm-action hit Hi-Fi Rush being moved to Nintendo Switch and possibly even PlayStation 5. Subsequent rumors suggested the same about the long-running live-service hit Sea of Thieves.

The hardcore community’s confidence in Xbox is seemingly at a low not seen in over a decade.

To be honest, these didn’t really bother me the way they irritated many in the Xbox community. Hi-Fi Rush is excellent, without a doubt, but it isn’t a AAA blockbuster release that draws new players into the Xbox ecosystem. If it crosses over to other platforms, that’s okay. Xbox players have had access to it, for “free” (as part of their Xbox Game Pass subscription), since it launched. And they’ll continue to do so. Switch players will have to pay for the privilege of playing it.

As for Sea of Thieves, well, that’s a six-year-old game, live-service or not. It’s hard for me to get too worked up about that one.

But these latest rumors, if proven true, have the potential to shake the very foundations of the Xbox brand. They indicate that everything might be up for grabs for possible PS5 porting: Starfield, Indiana Jones and the Great Circle, and perhaps Gears of War. These are rumors which, by the way, seem to have some truth to them, given that Xbox boss Phil Spencer took to X to respond to the chaos, saying, “We’re listening and we hear you. We’ve been planning a business update event for next week, where we look forward to sharing more details with you about our vision for the future of Xbox. Stay tuned.”

The entire thing exudes some serious “resigned to third place” energy from Microsoft, and it’s left long-standing Xbox fans – individuals who have invested thousands of dollars over multiple console generations – pondering why they should still support Xbox when they can simply go buy a PS5, enjoy the numerous outstanding exclusives that Sony has spent the past decade-plus developing, and get whatever Xbox has to offer over there eventually. In short, consumers have demonstrated loyalty to Microsoft, but now it feels like it’s not being reciprocated.

Genuinely, Xbox Game Pass is indeed the “console” now, not the Series X or S. It’s been trending in this direction for some time, and it’s admittedly a strange concept to wrap your head around. However, it’s intriguing to witness it actually occurring. You’ll still get that good Game Pass deal and get it first on Xbox, but will that be enough to draw people into your ecosystem?

There’s a potential winning strategy here, which I’ll discuss momentarily, but there’s another significant problem that’s exacerbating all of this for Microsoft – and for gamers – right now: communications. I’ve been covering Xbox for a long time, and to be honest, I don’t think its communications has ever been this terrible. Frequently, it’s difficult to decipher what the company is trying to convey. Last year, Phil Spencer told Eurogamer that “we think our games should be available in more places,” but provided no concrete parameters regarding what that means. Is it more places in the physical realm, with Game Pass going quite literally everywhere via phones and other portable devices? Or, as the rumors suggest, do more places equate to rival consoles? Poor communication around what Microsoft perceives as a place for Xbox has done nothing but damage to the fears and discourse surrounding the brand.

On top of that, Xbox’s messaging is almost always reactive rather than proactive. The brand is in a constant defensive state. It’s been this way since 2013, and it makes Microsoft look weak, honestly. Sony and Nintendo aren’t like this. But anytime Xbox takes a step forward, there’s seemingly a rake on the ground that smacks it in the face and causes it to stumble backwards. And it’s always self-inflicted!

Case in point: already in 2024 we’ve gone from “Yay! The Developer Direct was great!” to…this whole mess now. Last year, they had a killer start to the year with the first Developer Direct and the shadow drop of Hi-Fi Rush…until they failed to see the train wreck that was Redfall until it was far too late, hyping its first-ever $70 first-party game to be the next big thing from renowned developer Arkane instead of seeing what was really about to ship and resetting community expectations accordingly. That constant one step forward, one step back is, as much as anything, why I think Xbox fans are simply exhausted.

As a hardware manufacturer and first-party publisher in the industry and one of the biggest companies in the industry overall (now more than ever!), Xbox just needs to be better. That’s it. Tell people what’s awesome about the platform and then prove it. Show some confidence!

What if, in the end, Microsoft is right?

Which brings me to that possible light at the end of the tunnel. What if, in the end, Microsoft is right? Sony has masterfully built its PlayStation walled garden and Nintendo continues to successfully march to the beat of its own drum for better and for worse (see: Wii U immediately followed by the Switch), but console growth is not accelerating. Mobile growth is. If Xbox is everywhere – on consoles, PCs, and phones – is that the winning long-term strategy? Does Gen Alpha (aka the 14-and-under crowd) even care about platforms? Do they just want games on all devices but especially whichever one is closest to them at that moment?

But even if Microsoft is right, it sure could do a better job telling everyone why it’s confident it’s right. Instead, Spencer’s message of, in effect, “We hear you. We’ll get back to you next week!” is not particularly reassuring. The future of Xbox is likely to look very different from both its past and its present. But in this present, we are watching a monolith of a company attempt to rewrite the rules of engagement in real time. It might work – but will Microsoft throw away 20 years of hard-earned brand loyalty in the process? Stay tuned next week.

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