Nearing the end of its life, the Xbox One feels less like a box for spinning video game discs and more like a platform for selling digital subscriptions. The pitch of a mostly-digital future that blew up in Microsoft’s face the year the Xbox One launched is now mostly here in 2019 and it’s not terrible.
In fact, it’s one of the most convenient and economical ways to play games not made by Sony or Nintendo. That’s another way of saying that Xbox One has grown into a blockbuster gaming service that has everything going for it except blockbuster first-party games.
While the Xbox One X still exists and remains the most powerful gaming console currently on the market, it doesn’t feel like the company’s flagship Xbox One product anymore. The only time Microsoft really talked about it on stage at E3 was in reference to how much more powerful Project Scarlett, its upcoming console, will be. New Xbox One X graphics enhancements for existing games are still coming out, but some big games like Remedy’s Control launched without them, and the big 4K update for Minecraft was cancelled.
When the Xbox One X came out in 2017, Kotaku’s Mike Fahey said in his review “It’s a really good console that’s also a really hard sell.” While that calculus hasn’t changed, Microsoft did try to put its thumb on the scales this year by re-introducing its All Access subscriptions which treats owning a console more like a smartphone.
For $31 a month for 24 months, people who subscribe get an Xbox One X and free Game Pass and Xbox Live Gold during that period. In addition, there’s the option to upgrade to Scarlett after 12 months of payments, extending the subscription by another year. That’s about $100 cheaper than the program when it was introduced in August 2018, and the savings are the same if you choose the Xbox One S. It amounts to a silent price drop for all of Microsoft’s console in exchange for agreeing to pay for Gold and Game Pass.
Prioritizing these services over the hardware that supports them is in keeping with Microsoft’s announcement earlier this year of the Xbox One S All Digital, a disc-less version of the console which lowers the barrier of entry for console gaming. The pitch is: who needs an optical drive to play new or used games when you have access to over 100 digital ones on Game Pass? Prior to the Xbox One’s launch in 2013, Microsoft announced it was reversing course and wouldn’t make the console require players to go online at least once every 24 hours or put DRM in place to restrict second-hand game use. In 2019 Microsoft has repackaged a version of that future as its budget console tier following the phase out of new Xbox One base models.
And it’s a good deal, not because always online requirements doesn’t still leave a bad taste in people’s mouths but because Microsoft has made the medicine optional and sweetened it with cheap access to a large backlog of games with Game Pass.
Last year, Microsoft transformed Game Pass from a pricey way to play old games into arguably the best subscription in video games. It did that by building out the service’s library with great games both big and small, including new Microsoft-published games as they were released. This year continued that trend with both Crackdown 3 and Gears 5 and also saw more third-party games come to the service day and date like Outer Wilds and Blair Witch.
This year Microsoft also extended the service to PC games on Windows and bundled it with Xbox Live Gold at $15 a month. Games like Metro Exodus and Stellaris are available to play through Game Pass on both console or PC and some, like Gears 5, even support Play Anywhere, allowing players to share their progress back and forth between PC and Xbox One.
Game Pass for PC, which is still in beta, is just one of the ways Microsoft has liberated the Xbox One experience from the physical hardware that enables it. The other is xCloud, the company’s video game streaming service. It’s also still in early access. Microsoft rolled out the beta earlier this year and has been slowly inviting more and more players to try it out through the fall. Currently, the service lets you play a library of 64 games on your phone by streaming them from Microsoft’s servers. While its performance feels slightly below Google’s Stadia at the moment, it has more games and, most importantly, benefits from letting you bring over your save data for ones you’ve already played like Halo 5.
“We designed [Project] Scarlett with the cloud in mind as well, and just as you’re going to see our console product family evolve with that next generation, the cloud is going to evolve along with it,” Microsoft’s VP of Cloud Gaming, Kareem Choudhry, said in an interview last month. When xCloud eventually includes Project Scarlett games, it’s possible some people will forgo upgrading to the next Xbox entirely, content to play the latest Gears or Halo on their phone or streamed to a PC.
That doesn’t mean Microsoft has turned its back on the core Xbox One console experience entirely. The home dashboard continues to go through revisions, though most are still in the experimental phase. Earlier this year Microsoft tried getting rid of the tab section at the top of the screen for some Xbox Insiders, before eventually reverting the changes after testing had concluded. Still, it remains a relatively streamlined user interface with most key features and menu options just one or two button presses away. While Microsoft’s continued tinkering shows that the Xbox team still not sure what it wants the console’s homepage to ultimately look like, it’s intuitive and functional and getting more so as each year passes.
Some of 2019’s improvements include the Xbox One’s wishlisting feature notifying you when a game you want is discounted, the A-Z sorting option no longer getting tripped up by titles that start with an article, and friends lists showing whether someone is logged in on Xbox One, PC, or through the Xbox app on their phone. By far one of the more useful new features is that the console now recommends games to be uninstalled when your hard drive is full. And while Xbox players have been able to change their Gamertags for some time, Microsoft implemented a new suffix system that allows multiple people to choose the same name with a subtle string of numbers on the end to differentiate it.
The biggest change to the Xbox One dashboard is the addition of icon that links directly to the Mixer app, making it quick and easy to go directly from turning on the console to watching someone else play a game. Microsoft spent the second half of this year signing exclusive deals with three big name streamers, most notably Tyler “Ninja” Blevins in August. It hasn’t turned Mixer into a streaming platform that rivals Twitch, but it has gotten a lot more people to think of it as a serious alternative built off of the Xbox One ecosystem that boasts unique features like co-streaming and a gamified-progression system. Those systems encourage people to actively and positively engage with streamers. These things help Mixer feel less like a social media platform broadcasting to the world and more like a communal space for hanging out with other Xbox One users.
Where Xbox One has shown the least progress is with its game library, especially in terms of first-party games and exclusives. It started the year off with Crackdown 3 in February, a fun throw-back that would have likely exceeded more people’s expectations were it not burdened with carrying the console through to the fall. And despite a fun campaign, its multiplayer mode was already a ghost town by May.
Gears 5, the console’s only other exclusive in 2019, was much more solid, taking the series’ gritty cover shooting formula and injecting some beautiful open world spaces into the middle of it. And thankfully its multiplayer lives on, as it should given the excellent new class-based spin on horde mode. But it’s still not quite a God of War or The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. In an era where big, bold games tend to make a lot of noise, the Xbox One often feels like its too quiet. Microsoft snatched up a number of game studios last year, and continued the trend in 2019 by purchasing Double Fine, but the fruits of those labors will require more time to mature. Games that previously were Xbox One console exclusives, Cuphead and Ori and the Blind Forest, actually made their way onto Switch. Meanwhile, Gears 5 released on the Microsoft Store competitor, Steam.
The exclusive games Xbox One does have, like Forza Horizon 4 and Sea of Thieves, continue to live on, bolstered by a steady stream of new updates. State of Decay 2, which came out in the first half of 2018 plagued by weird glitches and game crashing bugs, has grown into a much better, more stable game, with this year’s big expansion revisiting the setting of the first game with new stories to tell. Halo Reach was just added to Halo: The Master Chief Collection, another game notable for its post-launch redemption arc, on both Xbox One and PC. But as good as Halo Reach is, especially in 4K at 60fps, it’s not Halo: Infinite.
Though the Xbox One has spent the last few years getting everything about subscription services and user experience mostly right, it’s still missing the spark of a generation-defining first-party exclusive. The annual Game Awards are not a scientific measure of quality, or the last word on the critical consensus, but it’s hard not to notice that in the last six years since they started, Microsoft is the only console manufacturer without a first-party game that’s even been nominated for Game of the Year.
It’s exciting to think about the future of Xbox One because it’s now unbound in many ways from specific hardware. The Xbox One player has access to more good games on their console and PC through Game Pass than they have time to play. In the not too distant future, xCloud seems set to bring that library and more to everyone with a smartphone. Streaming radically changed how we consume TV, movies, and music in the last decade, and gaming finally feels ready to follow.
More definitively, the Xbox One’s future lies in the hands of Scarlett, due out next holiday season, and Halo Infinite, set to launch alongside it for both the new and existing hardware. The company also has a larger slate of exclusive games coming out before then, starting with Ori and the Will of the Wisps on February 11, followed by Ninja Theory’s Bleeding Edge on March 24 and Obsidian’s Grounded later that spring. Dontnod’s mystery adventure game Tell Me Why and the time looping indie game 12 Minutes are other exclusives set to come to Xbox One sometime next year. Rare’s new game, Everwild, and its remake of Battletoads, are also in development.
Matt Booty, the head of Microsoft Studios, told Gamesradar in an interview last month that the publisher’s goal is to release a game “every three to four months.” The first half of 2020 looks like a solid attempt to do just that. What kind of generational leap Scarlett will be, and whether Halo Infinite will convince people who haven’t already bought into Microsoft’s growing ecosystem to sign up, is the bigger question. Game Pass is set to get every single-player Final Fantasy from VII to XV early next year, and the Kingdom Hearts remasters and the Yakuza series, previously console exclusives on PlayStation, are also set to get ported to Xbox One starting then. But many of this console generation’s best games will remain locked away on PS4 and Nintendo Switch.
The Xbox One has spent years successfully rebuilding its platform after a fraught launch. Easier and more affordable to play on than ever before, the last test of the Xbox One is whether it can deliver exclusive games worthy of everything the console’s team has accomplished in the last six years.