The Xbox One has its first birthday tomorrow, and so we took the chance to cast our eyes back over the first twelve months of Microsoft's latest console to reflect on how it's performed after a rocky release, in a year where there's been a personnel change at the top and the competition has raced ahead to an early sales lead. Has the Xbox One managed to turn things around?
Phil Spencer bared his fangs and proved his mettle this year.
The new head of Xbox inherited a disaster in the making. Don Mattrick had totally sabotaged the Xbox brand, rolling out an insanely expensive media centre with functionality most devices and smart TVs already made obsolete, packing an admittedly excellent peripheral that nobody really wanted, stacked to the gunwhales with microtransactions and controversial features. The Xbox One sold modestly well on the strength of its fanbase, some decent launch titles and Titanfall, but it soon became apparent that the bloated "entertainment system" was a sitting duck as Sony and even Nintendo started pulling ahead. Spencer faced an impossible situation.
There's only one thing you can do in an impossible situation. Triage. Save what you can, then let everything else burn.
What followed was a ruthless, desperate and frankly magnificent campaign of revisions, U-turns and scorched-earth decisions as the new guard dismantled Mattrick's monstrosity into a console that might actually sell. Kinect was thrown under the bus. The RRP was hacked down to undercut the PS4, margins be damned, followed by some ludicrous bundles. Xbox Live Gold was declawed, and permanent free games were rolled out. Firmware updates weren't delivered annually, they were delivered every single month come what may.
More importantly, though, Microsoft realised that consoles are only as good as their games. After leaving Titanfall to pick up some embarrassing slack for several months, they went in hard and heavy. All four Halo games were crammed onto a single disc rather than peddled separately. Forza Horizon 2 is superb. Sunset Overdrive is excellent. Titanfall is still a multiplayer masterpiece that's directly responsible for all the increased mobility and gameplay freedom we see in most current shooters. And the performance disparity versus the PS4, while cringe-worthy, didn't hugely translate into noteworthy practical differences in multiplatform titles, due to developer deadlines and Microsoft's willingness to dispatch teams of engineers to Blizzard and others.
This year of crazy power plays and radical decisions was remarkable in and of itself, but more remarkable still is the fact that it seems to be working. The Xbox One is now a true contender, delivering a killer set of compelling exclusives and extra functionality at an affordable price, and finally starting to outsell its rivals on a weekly basis.
Next year might be a different story, of course. Boasts about the massive Christmas 2015 lineup ring slightly hollow when you consider the dead months beforehand, while Sony still sits pretty on gargantuan sales, incoming heavy-hitters and the ability to offer a price cut whenever they choose. But for now, you can have a very merry Christmas on Xbox One.
Last Christmas was a slaughter. Microsoft, reeling from a mess of their own making, released the Xbox One in fewer markets than its direct competitor, and at a higher price point, bundled in with a camera that only Microsoft thought was fundamentally necessary. Microsoft might have had the better lineup, but the Xbox One spluttered out of the gates, weighed down by its confused focus, superfluous peripherals, and weaker specifications.
But what a difference a year makes. Phil Spencer taking the reins has been the best thing to happen to Xbox. Out went TV! TV! TV! and in came the games. Titanfall is still the most impressive new IP of the year and remains a bona fide system seller, but it's been followed up this winter with key properties such as Forza Horizon 2 (joining the best racing game of new-gen in Forza 5), Sunset Overdrive (pinching Insomniac for an exclusive of Microsoft's own), and Halo: The Master Chief Collection. We've already suggested that, for the second year running, it's Microsoft boasting the stronger Christmas lineup, a statement given added weight by Driveclub's hideous launch, the absence and delay of The Order: 1886, and Sony's first-party sluggishness.
Sony have been resting on their laurels, and Microsoft have capitalised, gaining momentum towards the end of the year when it really counts. For the past three weeks, Microsoft has been comfortably outselling the PS4 here in the UK, largely thanks to Spencer's hefty price cut, the removal of Kinect as a mandatory pack-in, and bundles cultivated from an already fairly rich library of games.
They need to be careful, though. Halo: MCC's online troubles have been worrying, and Microsoft will hope that next months' Halo 5: Guardians beta goes off without a hitch. Xbox LIVE as an online multiplayer service remains the benchmark for the PSN to try and reach, but Games With Gold and the value propositions therein could still really use some work.
That said, Microsoft are making it very difficult not to buy an Xbox One right now. The bundles we've been tracking ahead of the consumer insanity of Black Friday week have been ludicrous, and one can only imagine what we're going to see in the week to come. I don't need another console. I have a Wii U, a PS4, a gaming rig, and no time. There's simply no space for an Xbox One in my life as it stands, and yet I want one, I really do. As those bundles get bigger and better and cheaper, the tipping point is drawing closer and closer.
It'll be interesting to see how Microsoft plan to capitalise on this next year outside of Halo 5 and timed exclusivity on Tomb Raider, but this Christmas, given the games and pricing and the improved services, it's going to be hard to say no to the Xbox One.
Even though I opted not to get an Xbox One for the time being, it’s hard to deny that Microsoft have pulled it back after a disastrous launch. The inflated price thanks to the Kinect camera, and the insistence on making the focus on television instead of a games machine made it a tough sell. Add to that how, despite having a larger number of games available, there was a lack of any true must-have titles at launch, and the options of “I’ll wait for Halo 5” or “I’ll go get the other one” seemed the better course of action.
But as I said, times have changed. The dis-Kinect-ed version (you’re welcome) has proven popular with punters, Titanfall become a stand-out console exclusive, and the recent splurge of bundle deals has helped close the gap with the PS4 in terms of sales. With titles such as Sunset Overdrive, Forza Horizon 2, and The Master Chief Collection proving that when the big hits arrive they get the job done in style, it looks like the Xbox One will be a strong contender in this year’s Black Friday and Christmas sales.
You could say that the PS4 has the advantage in terms of big titles in the future, but that’s not the case. Quantum Break, Rise of the Tomb Raider (in all its timed-exclusive bafflement) and Halo 5 ensure there will be a reason to get one in the future. That, for me, is the problem though – as someone who owns a PC and a PS4, the urgency to get an Xbox One isn’t there. Sure, I’ve had moments where I’ve gone “Man, I wish I was playing Halo right now” but I can always plug my 360 back in if I get really desperate.
At the end of the day, Microsoft – or more to the point, Phil Spencer – has turned around the fortunes of a console that fell over when the starting gun was fired for the current generation, but they’re catching up. Come next year, I’m pretty sure that there will be an Xbox once again taking its place below my TV, but for now I’ll be waiting.
Unless a ridiculous deal turns up. God damn you, Black Friday…