This week brought disappointment to the world of Xbox. Nearly three years after its announcement, Microsoft has canceled its collaboration with Platinum Games, Scalebound. You are not going to play a game about a guy named Drew who wears red headphones and rides dragons to fight massive bosses. There are to be no exclusive co-op hack’n’slash games on the Xbox One this year.
To add salt to the wound, the Scalebound news comes right after the release of the demo for Platinum’s other big release of 2017. That would be Nier: Automata, which is not coming to the Xbox One. It is, however, wonderfully smooth, a blast to play, and one of the most promising games of the year. Platinum also had a string of exclusives for the WiiU. Some were well-regarded (The Wonderful 101, Bayonetta 2), some were not (Star Fox Zero). Platinum has worked with a lot of companies over the years, but Microsoft’s demands proved beyond their abilities.
Shooters and Cars
Platinum is not the first company to struggle with Microsoft. The library of Xbox exclusives is pretty barren. Microsoft spent years trying to earn the trust of gamers to show that the Xbox can be a platform for more than just shooters and cars. They sunk millions into a large investment in Japanese games and bought several prestige studios like Lionhead and Rare. Yet today their exclusive games list is down to mostly Halo, Gears of War, and Forza, which are just shooters and cars. What’s happening to this platform?
Scalebound is not the first disappointment for Xbox players in recent years. Just last year, the once-mighty Lionhead Studios was shuttered along with Fable Legends, the last hope for the once-mighty Fable franchise. Microsoft mismanaged both Lionhead and Fable into the ground, forcing on them Kinect and Free-to-Play buzzwords until both were dead. There was also the planned sequel to the 2004 game Phantom Dust that bit the dust after a year. An HD remake of Phantom Dust might also have quietly run into trouble behind the scenes.
It’s hard not to feel a bit depressed right now after the Sony exclusive The Last Guardian finally broke out of development hell last month. It took Sony years and years to get that project completed, and even with some problems, that game was completed. The Last Guardian is a unique artsy game that does not instantly cross off blockbuster checklists, and it is doubtful that Microsoft would ever produce anything like this. Where is the “games as a service” element that Microsoft demanded for Fable Legends?
There is also the problem of Microsoft’s direction with the platform. The Xbox One already abandoned its most unique features such as multimedia tie-ins and Kinect motion controls. Other exclusives came to nothing. Quantum Break was a victim of Xbox’s aborted attempt at making a television-game hybrid. ReCore was released too early and with missing features. Project Spark was sent out to die. Meanwhile, Halo, Gears of War, and Dead Rising are all starting to grow long in the tooth. They’ll always have rabid fanbases, but can their success last forever?
What Exclusives Are Left?
Xbox still has a slice of games in development. Microsoft exec, Phil Spencer, expressed regret for the fate of Scalebound, but he quickly reminded us of what was left on his platform’s plate. That would be games like Sea of Thieves, Crackdown 3, State of Decay 2, and Halo Wars 2. He did not mention the indie side of things which is arguably more exciting. There’s the Silly Symphonies platformer Cuphead, which looks great, and let’s not forget the dark action game, Below, the hilarious turn-based strategy game, Pit People, and the artsy sci-fi narrative, Tacoma. PlayStation 4, however, has a list of exclusives many times longer than this.
With Scalebound’s fate sealed, can we be certain of any Xbox exclusive coming to market anymore? Halo Wars 2 can be considered a certainty for release. Microsoft would never do anything to hurt their most golden of geese in the Halo franchise, and like clockwork, you can count on a Halo 6 arriving in a few years. But other games are a lot less certain. We have not seen anything from Crackdown 3 in years; the developer promised a beta but never delivered. Cuphead has been delayed over and over. Below has been MIA for two years.
Sea of Thieves?
If some fans had their way, Rare would probably only make ’90s platformers like they did back in their Nintendo heyday. But Sea of Thieves is Rare’s most interesting game in years, which makes it a huge gamble. Should we be worried?
Sea of Thieves is an ambitious multiplayer pirate game where you and a team of friends travel together on your boat, exploring the waves and… honestly it is not entirely clear what happens next. You need tight cooperation to make Sea of Thieves work. Only one player can have a map for example. This is all cool and unique, but what exactly is this game? Sea of Thieves is like a No Man’s Sky for the ocean blue. Much of its cool factor comes from not really knowing what the game is, but it has seemingly unlimited promise.
The game is also very far from completion, and the 2017 release date is probably optimistic. There have been playable alphas of Sea of Thieves ever since its announcement, but none available publicly. Fable Legends was also playable but never came together. We saw plenty of gameplay from Scalebound, which blew up into nothing in the end. Does Microsoft have the patience to take the time to let Sea of Thieves reach its full potential?
Does it Matter?
Maybe this discussion ultimately does not matter. Exclusivity is increasingly irrelevant to the console market as most major releases in 2017 are going to be multi-platform. The WiiU has built up a crazy list of unique games that are exclusive to it, but the WiiU is a sales failure. Nintendo is living in almost its own little world outside of Microsoft, and no amount of excellent exclusives are going to live up to missing out on the great HD multi-platform games that are the industry’s best right now.
More importantly, Microsoft’s strategy is to eliminate the concept of exclusives altogether. The new mandate over there is that all games playable on the Xbox One must also work on the PC. That is not a terribly strenuous change since most consoles these days have PC architecture anyway. “Xbox” is starting to feel like an outdated concept. In the long run, does Microsoft need the headache of competing directly with Sony? Considering that in ten years who knows if we’ll still be using consoles?
If you have an Xbox One, you can still play The Witcher 3, Overwatch, Metal Gear Solid V, Dark Souls 3, Hitman, DOOM, and many others. You are not starved for games without Scalebound or the other Xbox exclusives. The Xbox One is still a great platform, and its Project Scorpio future might make it the most powerful console on the market. Maybe Microsoft cannot personally direct companies to make great exclusive gaming experiences like Sony and Nintendo can. Maybe it does not need to.