Well, that’s a wrap! You’ve got to hand it to Microsoft, that was a great E3 press conference. Full of big announcements and spectacular games, their conference had something for everybody to get excited about — regardless of their genre tastes.
It was the much-needed boost the Xbox One needed. Even the most ardent fan of the console knows that it hasn’t been a blockbuster generation for Microsoft. Where the Xbox 360 was the clear leader in its battle against its main rival, the Sony PlayStation 3, this generation has been a different story.
The Xbox One and PlayStation 4 released within a week of each other back in November 2013. Since then, Sony has more than doubled Microsoft’s sales. Sony’s success nothing to do with the quality of the console or the playing experience — it’s thanks to the games.
With its varied and large cast of first-party developers, Sony has been able to consistently — almost on a monthly basis — release exciting, triple-A, exclusive blockbusters across the full breadth of genres. This consistency extends to the virtual reality and mobile space. Microsoft, on the other hand, has been plagued by sporadic announcements and cancellations.
As it currently stands, Sony has 15 first-party studios producing games. What about Microsoft?
Microsoft’s Recent Acquisition Was Long Overdue
Before the E3 2018 press conference, Microsoft only had the six first-party studios but has since almost doubled that. Five new studios have joined Microsoft’s first-party armada: Undead Labs, Playground Games, Ninja Theory, The Initiative, and Compulsion Games. Now, the company has twice the creative talent to contribute to the Xbox ecosystem.
These studios will not only be committed to working on their own games, but also to helping Microsoft’s existing franchises see more frequent releases. The purchases come with IPs and industry know-how. It’s also important to note that in acquiring these studios, Microsoft has also acquired their in-house technology. This should lift the quality and resources available to all in-house studios.
It’s the announcement that Xbox most needed. In conjunction with Xbox boss Phil Spencer’s reveal that the company is indeed working on an Xbox 5, the acquisitions showed that despite the relatively lacklustre performance of the Xbox One, Microsoft is committed to the games industry. Rather than fading away as we’ve seen with the likes of Sega and Atari in the past, Microsoft is spending money to fix its biggest market weakness: exclusive gaming content.
Let’s take a closer look at the studios who have now joined the Microsoft family and what they will bring to the future of Xbox.
Despite only forming in 2010, Playground Games has quickly established itself as one of the industry’s truly premier developers. Over the course of its four Forza Horizon titles (the fourth was just revealed at E3 2018), the studio has shown its ability to create complex, gorgeous open-worlds without sacrificing under-the-hood attributes like physics that are key to great gameplay.
Back in February, the studio announced it was branching out from the racing genre, with work commencing on an open-world action-RPG. Following the news of its acquisition by Microsoft, rumours have already begun surfacing that the title could be a rebirth of the Fable series. While that remains speculation, it’s hard not to get excited by the idea.
Hot off the success of open-world survival-horror sequel State of Decay 2, Undead Labs is also a popular property. Conveniently based in Seattle, not far from Microsoft’s headquarters, Undead Labs comes equipped with its veteran founder Jeff Strain. Strain has a storied history in the MMORPG space. He was the lead programmer on World of Warcraft during its initial development, before departing to form ArenaNet and create the Guild War series.
With only two games in its eight-year lifespan, Undead Labs hasn’t managed to deliver the quantity to match its innovation, so it will be exciting to see what the studio can deliver with more significant backing and resources.
Perhaps the most surprising of the acquisitions, Compulsion Games is a relatively small indie studio with only one released game to its name in nine years. Furthermore, that game was the PS4-exclusive Contrast. It was a serviceable indie experience — a quirky, atmospheric adventure — but certainly didn’t turn the industry’s head.
Since then, the developer has been working on We Happy Few, which is far bigger in scale and a hard-hitting genre title hoping to make a more significant splash. Clearly, the bigwigs at Microsoft have seen enough in the title to transition Compulsion Games from indie developer to the world of triple-A blockbusters.
There are some interesting questions that remain unanswered, however. As recently as April, Compulsion Games was touting We Happy Few as a multiformat game heading to PS4 and Xbox One. Not only would this suggest the acquisition was only a recent deal, but it casts doubts on the PS4 release of the game ever happening.
We’re also not sure where this leaves the game’s publisher Gearbox Software, who would have already invested in the title’s development and release. Was Gearbox paid out for services rendered? Or are things with We Happy Few proceeding as planned. After all, Microsoft owns developer Mojang, who continues to release Minecraft on new formats.
It may be all moot to Australian gamers anyway, with the title refused classification due to its glorification of drug use.
Perhaps the acquisition we’re most excited about, Ninja Theory has an established 18-year history of delivering great games. It’s true the studio has never been far from controversy. The team received death threats after it meddled with the series’ beloved combat in DmC: Devil May Cry. Plus, in order to dodge bankruptcy in the mid-2000s, it traded all its tech to Sony in a deal that saw the game Heavenly Sword funded to competition.
But Heavenly Sword was great. So was the underappreciated gem Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. And while the studio’s debut game, Kung Fu Chaos, and its take on Devil May Cry may not have been uniformly loved, they continued the developer’s reputation for pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved in conventional genres.
More recently, the studio was brought onboard the Disney Infinity series to level-up the combat from pedestrian to engaging. A job which ultimately helped fund Ninja Theory’s breakout hit, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, which arrived noticeably late to Xbox One this past April — eight months after its PS4 debut.
So what’s next? It remains a mystery, but we can’t wait to find out. All we have to go on is a quote from founder Tameem Antoniades, which revealed how the Microsoft deal has been structured.
“We want to be free from the AAA machine and make games focused on the experience, not around monetisation. We want to take bigger creative risks and create genre-defining games without the constant threat of annihilation. We want to make our own games our own way, and not be told what to make and how to make it.”
The final studio is an unknown. Founded only recently in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, we do know that The Initiative has begun work on a game, but not what that game is. We can expect a triple-A experience, however. That much can be anticipated following the appointment of Darrell Gallagher to lead The Initiative.
Gallagher was poached from Activision, where he was senior vice-president, and he has a long history in the industry that includes time with THQ, Rockstar Games, Square Enix and Sony. Most notably, he worked with Crystal Dynamics and then Square Enix to successfully reboot a number of key franchises, including Tomb Raider, Deus Ex, and Hitman.
Whatever it is that The Initiative is working on, it will be an announcement you don’t want to miss!