This week, Microsoft revealed the Xbox Adaptive Controller, a new peripheral to help make gaming more accessible. It includes two large, programmable buttons and works in conjunction with a mix of joysticks and other devices like the Quadstick, a controller designed specifically for people living with different forms of paralysis. It’s just the latest in a number of unusual but really neat Xbox One-related projects that are helping the console evolve far beyond what originally launched in 2013.
It’s no secret Microsoft has been struggling in some important areas this generation. The company stopped releasing Xbox One sales data in October of last year, but estimates relayed during a recent EA earnings call put them far behind the PlayStation 4's. It’s also had a hard time bringing big exclusives to its platform. Long after the release of Halo 5: Guardians and Gears of War 4, Scalebound was canceled and Crackdown 3 remains MIA. But while Xbox One might not have Horizon: Zero Dawn or God of War, Microsoft has continued to roll out interesting new features for the console over the last year that have showed the company is still hungry for areas it can continue to innovate in—UI overhauls, backward compatibility, and more.
Take Mixer, for instance. The streaming video service was called Beam before Microsoft bought it in 2016 and rebranded it the following year. It’s nowhere near as widely used as Twitch or YouTube, but its smaller audience has also afforded it certain unique opportunities. Back when Twitch outlined a vague new dress code (something it has since backpedaled on), many streamers pointed to Mixer’s much more transparent guidelines as a refreshing alternative. Even if they didn’t always agree with them, people knew exactly where the boundaries were.. Microsoft’s platform also offers some unique features like co-streaming, where multiple people can combine their feeds on a single channel. Overall the smaller audience and investment by Microsoft has led to a more curated and less trolly atmosphere according to some streamers who use it.
Microsoft has also made a big show of its investment in backward compatibility. A far cry from the “digital-only” future it was talking about prior to the Xbox One’s launch, you can now play many Xbox 360 and original Xbox discs on the system. And as new games are continually added to the library, it’s helped unify the entire ecosystem unlike the fractured ones Nintendo and Sony have tried to mend with PlayStation 2 classics, streaming services like PS Now, and the Virtual Console. The technology runs so deep that lots of older gamers can even take advantage of the Xbox One X to run at better frame rates with sharper graphics.
Game Pass has been another big deal for the console. It’s the closest thing to a Netflix for games out of all the current subscription services available on console, and has been helped by supporting big games right when they launch, including Sea of Thieves in March and now State of Decay 2 when it releases next week. It was nice when it started in early 2017, but a year later it’s grown into one of the biggest reasons for turning my Xbox One on.
The Xbox One UI has also continued to evolve, mostly for the better. While I still wouldn’t call it pretty, it’s become way more functional and feature complete than what the console launched with. Almost everything from games to apps and friend lists are one click away from the home screen while the home button on the controller now first pulls up a shortcut menu that makes messaging, accessing the store, or digging through video game capture on the fly much faster. Microsoft also recently added the ability to gift games to other players, something Xbox One is currently the only console to allow.
Today, Discord was also half-integrated with Xbox One so that your friends list from the app can be shared across both platforms and show you who’s playing what even when you’re not on your PC. It’s a small move that makes a lot of sense given how Discord has become the central meeting place for people looking to play online together or just exchange info and news.
And then there’s Microsoft’s repeated push toward cross-play with other consoles. When Rocket League’s next big update arrives this summer, it’ll be possible to party up with people from across Xbox One, Switch, and PC, something that’s long overdue and hopefully a sign of things to come.
At this year’s DICE Summit, head of Xbox Phil Spencer gave a keynote address in which he stressed the importance of diversity and inclusivity in gaming, and the need for companies like Microsoft to take responsibility for the community around their games. It was a nice speech but didn’t come with many particulars. The Xbox Adaptive Controller, a grassroots project within the company, is one of the more visible signs that the sentiment was more than just words. None of these initiatives are likely to work as a substitute for a player-base anxiously awaiting word of the next Halo, but it shows that, off to the side, Xbox One has only been getting better with age.