You know the strange thing about my eight years with the Xbox 360? Despite the fact that I played it most days, I often felt kind of alienated by it.
The ads it was serving me, the language used on the dash and the games that Xbox always chose to highlight made me feel distinctly like I was not the target audience; I was perhaps playing something that was not actually intended for me. The Xbox One reveal, with its heavy emphasis on TV, sports and military shooting – three things that, if I’m honest, I struggle to muster much personal enthusiasm for – did little to alter the overriding impression that Xbox was aiming for a very specific demographic that did not include me. If it happened to have things that I wanted to play as well, that would be a happy coincidence.
The trailer for the newest instalment in the Call of Duty series, Advanced Warfare.
In the early days of the Xbox One, leading up to its reveal and launch, it looked like Microsoft was doubling down on the sports and shooter consumer, spending what must have been gigantic money on timed DLC exclusivity deals with EA and Activision. Meanwhile, Sony set about tending to its diversity garden, wooing the non-sports, non-shooter types with an attractive array of indie and off-beat games. But since then, things have changed. Xbox is under new leadership in Phil Spencer, and we’re starting to see different kinds of games featuring in Xbox’s presentations: games like Below, D4, Inside, Superhot, Ori and the Blind Forest and, yes, Tomb Raider.
Microsoft is making a conscious effort to diversify, says Phil Spencer, whose background in the studio side of the Xbox business means he has a different approach to what he wants to bring to the platform. “I don’t know if I’ve said this publicly, but I’m actually not the biggest first-person shooter fan,” he tells me at Gamescom. “I’m playing Valiant Hearts right now, I loved Max: Curse of the Brotherhood, I loved Brothers last year, Limbo is probably my favourite game of the last five years. These are the kind of games I play. I don’t want it to be only about what I play, but I’m definitely going to have a flavour of games that I want to show up on our platform in addition to the things that traditionally shoot to the top.”
The kind of game that shoots to the top has itself diversified in recent years, though – on PC, most noticeably, but also on console. “When I think about who the gamers are on Xbox and what’s at the top of the list on Live, FIFA is up there, sports is up there, COD is up there, but there’s also this crazy thing called Minecraft that does really well on 360 and which I think will shoot right to the top on Xbox One when it comes out there,” Spencer points out. “That says to me that there is some diversity. The sports gamers tend to be a little different to the FPS gamers - [I couldn’t say] whether or not that’s necessarily ‘bro,’ there may be a gender difference there that’s not showing up, but in terms of what people like to play were seeing a diverse set of things.”
Trailer for light-hearted prison-escape game The Escapists.
Spencer feels that although the early Xbox One adopters are likely to be what we’d imagine to be the traditional “core” gamer, the console is already starting to move past the “shooterbox” image that stuck to the Xbox 360 for years. “It’s interesting - from a first-party standpoint we haven’t really had a great shooter on the box yet,” he says. “We’ve got Master Chief Collection, which you could either say is four old games or re-imagined Halo depending on your cynicism on it. One of the things I would applaud Sony on in their [Gamescom] presentation is the diversity of games that they showed… it’s something that we strive for as well.”
The limiting factor here, of course, is money: even Microsoft does not have unlimited money, and must choose where to invest. If Microsoft previously chose to invest in big third-party partnerships, like the COD map packs and FIFA Ultimate Team, that means that it isn’t investing in a variety of smaller projects for the platform. But it’s not necessarily a case of one versus the other, says Spencer; rather, it’s a question of balance.
Screamride is an example of the more quirky side of the Xbox One’s new game catalogue.
“I don’t at all have infinite money,” he says. “The smaller stuff isn’t as expensive, so you can do more of it...the industry isn’t all that large. It’s really about relationships with people, and sometimes those people work at big studios and some of them work at small ones. And on the small studio side you’re probably going to invest in more things at a lower cost. I think they co-exist really well. The console business is great because it can support the big and the small. The diversity of what we see on console should be a strength. Can it be challenging? Yes, but I think we have to succeed at that as a platform owner.”
“My goal is to have a very diverse portfolio, more diverse than we had on 360 certainly, and that’s the kind of stuff we’re going to invest in.”
Realistically, Xbox is never going to stop courting the players (and makers) of probably the two most lucrative genres in gaming, sports and shooters. There’s too much money in it. But the change in Xbox’s public attitude to other kinds of games in the past year or so is encouraging - and though it’s easy to see it as a reaction to Sony’s clever positioning since the PS4 reveal, I believe there’s a genuine desire to diversify the Xbox’s image, and make it appealing to a greater cross-section of people. Xbox will always serve its core demographic, but it’s also starting to feel a little less alienating to everyone else.