This console generation, sales for the Xbox One are estimated to be around 47 million units behind sales for the PlayStation 4. That’s a huge gap that Microsoft isn’t likely to close before we learn more about the next generation of consoles next year, but it isn’t because the Xbox One failed to innovate, or come up with a series of great, pro-consumer programs. It seems like Sony has focused on big, blockbuster first-party games like God of War, Spider-Man, and Uncharted 4, while Microsoft has focused on accessibility and value-related initiatives. PlayStation’s exclusives have been pretty incredible and I’m glad we have them, but I think they’ve lead a lot of gamers to undervalue the competition. So, here are some of the most underrated moves Microsoft made this console generation.
(Note: You can watch the video version of this essay above.)
You probably already know that since 2015, we’ve been able to play Xbox 360 games we already own on the Xbox One, and in 2017, Microsoft added a handful of games from the original Xbox library to the Backwards Compatibility program. In both cases, the Xbox One manages to emulate the software of the hardware needed, and download a relicensed version of whatever game you’ve inserted the disc for. The only reason that’s really worth mentioning is to point out that the reason you can’t play every single Xbox 360 or original Xbox game is because of whichever publisher holds the licenses to those games, not because of any engineering problem on Microsoft’s behalf, or because they don’t want you to. There’s no plan for them to charge you for some of the games you want as part of the backwards compatibility program at a later date because Microsoft knows they’re popular like we’re used to in modern gaming—it’s actually just the law.
According to IGN, Backwards Compatibility program started back in 2007, before the Xbox One even had a name, with a completely confidential, 25-person team within Microsoft. Part of the team intentionally being so isolated meant that all the complications had to be revolved by that small group of people who knew about it—and, of course, there were a lot of complications. For example, because save files were incompatible on new hardware, the team had to play all of the games they were testing for the program manually, by themselves, just to get data. There was one game that, for some reason, only played at one frame-per-second initially, but their tester finished it anyway. This is virtually unheard of. Basically, every time the team at Microsoft describes working on the program, it sounds a lot like a labor of love for a really passionate group of people, rather than a huge, profit-driven, corporate move. Because it’s not—where are the profits?
Yeah, it’s completely free to play an Xbox or Xbox 360 game on your Xbox one if you own the disk. Basically: we get to play games we bought for a longer period of time, which sounds simple, but in the digital age, it almost seems like a selfless win for all of us. There’s no downside for gamers, and honestly, not that much of a benefit for Microsoft, who has had to employ people full-time just to work on making sure our old games run.
In a year where subscription services are ever-prevalent, Game Pass is a stand out. It’s hard to talk about Game Pass without just reciting marketing points, but that’s because their marketing points are very good, and also completely accurate. Right now, Xbox Game Pass Ultimate includes Xbox Live Gold, Xbox Game Pass, and Xbox Game Pass for PC for $1 a month. That’s a limited time deal—it’d usually be $15 a month—but WOW, is that a good deal. For those who don’t know, with Ultimate, you have access to over 100 games on Xbox, over 100 games on PC (with both platforms including early access to Xbox exclusives), plus, you get even more free games with Xbox’s Games With Gold. There’s not much else that needs to be said, except that, when compared to the competition, Microsoft is charging the least. If we’re wading into a streaming-only, subscription-based future for gaming, this one is the friendliest for gamers with low incomes, and works out to a hundreds of games for less than the price of one.
One factor I think is especially underrated is Game Pass’s support for PC gamers, which leads right into the next thing...
Play Anywhere is probably so criminally underrated because of the general sentiment that Xbox doesn’t have enough high-selling exclusives to draw people to it, but that doesn’t make it any less pro-consumer. With Play Anywhere, if you buy a game on the Xbox One or Windows 10 digital store, you’ll get the same game on the other platform, including cloud saves, cross-play, and achievements. Basically, Play Anywhere lets you repeatedly, without any extra subscription, get two games for the price of one. Aside from the obvious value in that, letting people who own both Xboxess and gaming PCs jump between the two so seamlessly is a blessing, and, for the first time in Xbox’s history, it also lets people who don’t own a console play Microsoft exclusives with their friends who do.
So, not only are people who own both types of hardware always getting one free game, but it has also completely stopped people from needing to buy an Xbox just to play first-party titles. I’ve seen Microsoft criticized for this as though bringing PC players into their ecosystem devalues the Xbox and may have contributed to its lesser sales (when compared to the PlayStation 4), but I feel like that’s misguided criticism. If it’s bad for Microsoft as a company, that isn’t the problem of the consumers, and it shouldn’t be. Fact is, PC gamers now get access to games that would normally be locked behind a $500ish box, at least for the Xbox One X, and that’s a step in the right direction. Despite how well marketing in the games industry has lead a lot of people to have brand loyalty so strong it’s tied to their identities, platform-exclusive games are only good for the people selling them, not for anyone who’s playing them.
Microsoft’s Accessibility program is leading the industry right now. First up: the Xbox adaptive controller, which is designed to meet the needs of gamers with limited mobility. Microsoft describes it as a “unified hub for devices that help make gaming more accessible,” and it allows you to connect external devices like switches, buttons, mounts, and joysticks to create a custom controller. There’s also fully customizable button mapping for regular Xbox controllers, more detailed and customizable controllers with more options like the Elite 2, closed-captioning and narration options for the entire dashboard, speech to text, game transcription, American Sign Language support via video calls, and more stuff you probably haven’t heard of if you aren’t one of the thousands and thousands of people who need those features. Put simply: Xbox is giving people the ability to play games, where otherwise, they may never have been able to at all.
A website called caniplaythat.com also recently gave Gears 5 a full 6/6 score for playability for deaf gamers, with their cons listing “not a single thing”. Their opening paragraph says “What follows isn’t so much a review as it’s a series of “Look at all the things they got so very right.” Because what they got right is everything. There’s not a single thing I can say needs improving in terms of Gears 5’s Deaf/hoh accessibility.” It’s a glowing review that adds to an ongoing chorus of praise towards Microsoft for their efforts in allowing more people to play games.
So, there you have it. Letting you play games you bought well over a decade ago on brand new hardware for free, a subscription service that actually feels like incredible value for money, free games for people playing on two sets of hardware, a step away from the money-hungry attitude that you need to buy expensive consoles to experience games that could run just fine if you already own a PC, and a whole lot of effort being put into making sure more, different kinds of gamers can… play games.
While it may feel like Microsoft has been lagging behind Sony this generation because of their lack of big, exclusive games, we shouldn’t ignore all the good they are doing just because of that. The more we praise all of this good, the more likely it is that Sony and Nintendo will take note and hopefully follow suit.
Of course, thanks for watching and reading Kotaku, and let us know what you think in the comments below.
Alanah Pearce has been writing and making videos about video games for almost a decade, which is very financially at odds with her life goal; to go to space. Please tweet her words of encouragement here: https://www.twitter.com/Charalanahzard