Microsoft's Xbox team has been in a tight position over the last couple of years. Sony has been doing tremendously well with high quality PS4 exclusives and so far, while Microsoft has been unable to answer back with anything of its own outside of the usual Forza/Halo/Gears releases. Fortunately, for the first time this generation, things seem to finally be looking up for Xbox, in large part due to a huge investment in new first-party studios.
Microsoft has been making promises to do better at various intervals since Phil Spencer first took over, but now, it looks like Xbox finally has the tools at hand to deliver. While much of this year's Xbox conference was still focused on third-party announcements, there is a storm of first-party content brewing, as Microsoft has added five new studios to its first-party lineup.
For starters, Microsoft is forming a brand new games studio over in the US known as ‘The Initiative'. This studio will be headed up by Darrell Gallagher, who was one of the leaders behind the Tomb Raider 2013 reboot, and its sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider. Microsoft has also acquired Undead Labs (State of Decay) and Playground Games (Forza Horizon), that last one is very significant, as it is rumoured that they are also working on an open-world Fable reboot.
While Undead Labs and Playground Games were obvious acquisitions for Microsoft, two much more surprising studios were also picked up. Compulsion Games is now a Microsoft Studio, this team has been working on We Happy Few since Kickstarting the game, and while its original focus was to be a survival game, it has since been reworked to focus more on story.
The biggest acquisition of them all however, has to be Ninja Theory. Despite having a close relationship with Sony for Heavenly Sword on the PS3 and Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice being a PS4 timed console exclusive, Ninja Theory has now joined Microsoft's ranks. Hellblade was a fantastic story-driven action game, and with the backing of Microsoft, that studio will be able to create bigger and better games going forward.
All of this is incredibly exciting news both for Xbox and PC gamers. There has been a growing feeling that the Xbox has been ‘coasting' so far this generation, but it looks like Microsoft is ready to take gaming seriously again, with big investments in future IP. However, while this is good news, it is far from being an overnight fix, so lets temper some expectations.
Many of these acquisitions are very recent, and in the case of Compulsion Games, their future Microsoft exclusive work will need to be put on hold while development wraps up on We Happy Few, which will still be a multiplatform release published by Gearbox. Microsoft isn't ready to even say the word ‘Fable' out loud, so that game is still a few years out and The Initiative is still in the hiring phase. Undead Labs only just released State of Decay 2, so their next game will also be some ways off. Ninja Theory could potentially be the furthest along with a new project, as the studio has been very quiet since launching Hellblade almost a year ago.
While we wait for these five new studios to get the wheels turning, Microsoft does have some promising games for next year. In 2019, we'll see the releases of Crackdown 3, Battle Toads and Gears of War 5. Halo Infinite may even see the light of day in 2020.
It has been frustrating waiting for Microsoft to pull some new exclusives out of the bag, and while there will still be a bit of a wait ahead, the future is looking brighter than ever. With all of these extra studios now under Microsoft's belt, I think we can reasonably expect at least two exclusives a year from 2020 onward, if not three. If one project is falling behind schedule (Crackdown 3, Scalebound), then Microsoft now has the fire power to ensure that there is something else on the way to pick up the slack.
The best part is, all of these future games will also be heading to the PC, so Microsoft has its bases covered on both fronts.
KitGuru Says: As much as I enjoyed seeing Spider-Man gameplay at Sony's conference, and Smash Bros at Nintendo, Microsoft's conference this year had me the most excited by far. A lot of games were third-party, but that shouldn't detract from the fact that it was a solid show all around. Exclusives are coming, it will take time, but it looks like Microsoft has found its fighting spirit again.