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Making The Grade: How Microsoft Can Improve Its E3 Performance

by Mike Futter on Jun 04, 2015 at 09:35 AM

Over the past four days, you've read our predictions for the big three platform holders (Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo) and third parties. Beginning today, we reframe the conversation to look at what the companies need to do to lift their grade over last year's performance.

We kick things off with Microsoft. As is often the case, our post-E3 issue featured report cards for each of the companies.

We noted that Microsoft's Phil Spencer (new to his position as head of Xbox at the time) took a humble approach on stage. He noted that community feedback helped shape the Xbox One updates that had rolled out since launch and were planned for the coming months.

We liked the presentation of Halo: The Master Chief Collection, were mixed on Fable Legends, and pleased to see Conker's face (though maybe not as a Project Spark add-on). Rise of the Tomb Raider was certainly a surprise, but since we wouldn't find out until Gamescom that it is a timed exclusive, the impact on Microsoft's stage at E3 was lessened. 

Here's how we summarized Microsoft's presentation last year:

Microsoft’s performance is a step up over last year, but it still failed to make a good case for its new hardware. With all of the cross-generation and cross-platform content, the reasons to own an Xbox One specifically are still few. Yes, plenty of good games are coming to the system this year, but the most memorable moments of the press conference came in the post-2014 section.

That means that Xbox One owners will have had their consoles for over a year before the compelling, exclusive games start releasing with any regularity. The long-term projects look interesting, but that doesn’t do much good if the console’s immediate future hinges on a bunch of Halo games you’ve already played.

Microsoft's final grade for its E3 2014 presentation?

There's certainly room for improvement, as the Xbox team inched just above "average." Let's see how Microsoft might boost that a bit.

First-Party Exclusives

Last year, Microsoft featured Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Halo 5: Guardians, Sunset Overdrive, Crackdown, Fable Legends, Scalebound, and Phantom Dust. Had we known then how The Master Chief Collection would turn out, it's safe to say that C+ would have taken a hit.

This year, Gears of War will be at E3 in some fashion, and the big marketing push for Halo 5: Guardians will likely begin. With many unknowns for this holiday, if Microsoft wants to raise its grade, here's what we need to see:

Give us an open beta window for Fable Legends.
This title was first announced at Gamescom 2013. If it's not ready yet, we have concerns that it won't ever be.

It's time to dish substantial information about Crackdown.
It's been teased for long enough. It's time for Microsoft to show us how this series is going to be reimagined for the Xbox One.

Halo 5: Guardians needs to impress jilted fans.
343 Industries has some ground to recover. The Master Chief Collection made a mess out of masterpiece. Halo 5: Guardians can't just have a good showing. It needs to win back those who feel like the series should have ended when Bungie left.

Tell us what Scalebound actually is (with gameplay footage).
Last E3 brought a flashy cinematic trailer for Platinum's Scalebound. It wasn't clear exactly what the game is or how it's played, which doesn't give us much to legitimately get excited about. Microsoft and Platinum need to wow us.

Show us what Rare has been working on.
The Rare name carries a lot of weight with gamers. If the studio is working on something for core gamers (its last title, Kinect Sports Rivals, was a flop), go big. Fans want to see Rare attached to a game they want to play...with a controller.

Extra Credit

Keep Phantom Dust alive.
After reports that the original vision for the Phantom Dust reboot was scrapped, we were left wondering if it's still a property Microsoft is exploring. If we don't hear anything about it, we'll assume it's dead and a significant announcement from last year has fizzled. That'll hurt when the marking period closes.

Announce a Fable game that honors the series' legacy.
Despite Peter Molyneux's lofty and often unfulfilled promises about the Fable series, the franchise has earned a following. Fable Legends might be set in Albion, but it isn't the action-RPG diehards are looking for. News about a traditional Xbox One Fable game would go over well.

Deliver a Gears of War remaster done right.
The concept of a remastered Gears of War collection has been shot down, but an April 2015 report indicates that the first game in the franchise might be getting a coat of polish. But to win points with a definitively weary audience, it had best be loaded to the gills and much more than just Gears of War 1 all over again.

The Xbox One Console

Every retail Xbox One can be a devkit, but when?
In July 2013, before the Xbox One launched, we broke a story that Microsoft would offer a way for every retail console to serve as a developer kit. Almost two years later, very little has been said about that. If this is still a plan in process, Microsoft needs to start putting a timetable around it. This promise is starting to feel empty.

Microsoft needs to stop losing the power race.
If Microsoft has something positive to say about giving developers more horsepower from the Xbox One, it would be a good idea to mention it at E3. We're 18 months into the console life cycle and the Xbox One is regularly being outperformed by the PlayStation 4 in terms of resolution and frame rate.

Introduce the first major Dashboard revision.
The Xbox One Dashboard is designed around voice commands. Some features, like snapping apps, have certainly become easier with the controller thanks to regular updates, but it's time for a clean slate. The Xbox One Dashboard (like the Xbox 360's before it) is destined for improved usability. The user interface needs to reflect a post-Kinect reality.

It's time for more storage to become standard.
Let's be honest here. We have no idea how Microsoft and Sony could have figured that 500 GB was enough storage for this generation. Especially since the Xbox One only supports external storage, it's time to bulk up what's in the box. A 1 TB standard for all consoles moving forward adds value without a price drop.

Extra Credit

Get off the fence with Kinect.
Kinect is the Xbox One's vestigial tail. Originally envisioned as an integral part of the ecosystem and not a separate peripheral, Microsoft has erased as many of its early positioning statements as it could. Unfortunately, that leaves the company in a strange position. If the Kinect still has merit, Microsoft needs to embrace it. If not, it's time to pull the plug on the hard-of-hearing device.

Give us a close release window for the Dashboard revision.
If Microsoft is able to let us know we'll have a whole new Xbox One experience this summer (potentially with an overhaul that gives developers more power), it would be a major note ahead of the holiday season. If that allows developer to tweak existing releases to take advantage of that added power? Even better.

Don't let Hololens become the next Kinect.
In the Xbox 360's senior years, Microsoft spent far too much time on stage at E3 talking about Kinect. That can't repeat with Hololens, a device that few have tried (and even fewer truly understand). There might be a bright future for the device, especially with the acquisition of Minecraft creator Mojang. If so, the presentation needs to be brief and focused.

Third-Party And Indies

We need a Rise of the Tomb Raider blowout that addresses the elephant in the room.
Microsoft locked up timed exclusivity for Rise of the Tomb Raider to compete with Uncharted 4: A Thief's End. With that competition out of the way, Microsoft needs to leverage the game to sell consoles. We expect a bundle announcement (with a 1 TB hard drive as mentioned above). There's one problem with timed exclusivity: what's to stop the eventual PlayStation 4 release to be a "Game of the Year" style all-inclusive edition? Xbox One fans aren't going to be happy if they are sold a game and add-on DLC only to find out that waiting for a release on the competition's platform would have been more cost-conscious. 

It's time to go big with select indies instead of a rapid-fire montage.
Microsoft is working to close the indie gap with Sony thanks to the ID@Xbox Program. Last year, the company featured Cuphead (Studio MDHR), Below (Capybara Games), #IDARB (Other Ocean), and Inside (Playdead). If Hello Games' No Man's Sky has taught us anything, it's that the long-held assumption that indies can't make a big impact is dying. Titles like No Man's Sky aren't a dime a dozen, but Phil Spencer and his team have a knack for finding important games like Braid and Limbo.

Continue the "first on console" trend.
Microsoft has been smart about focusing primarily on its console competition. For console-only gamers, it doesn't matter if something releases simultaneously on PC. For Microsoft, it's a win either way, because most gaming PCs run Windows (Microsoft is also presenting at the PC gaming conference). Exclusivity for Microsoft isn't about building a wall, it's just keep-away. That's not to say that making the Xbox One the exclusive place to play a hot game is bad, but that's an expensive card to play every time.

Extra Credit

Completely lock up another big game for holiday 2016.
Nabbing Rise of the Tomb Raider for this holiday was a smart move, even if it was motivated by competition that no longer exists in that window. Tying up a major third-party game once is a bonus, twice becomes a trend (and a powerful one at that). 

Give publishers a way to offer Xbox 360 games to Xbox One owners.
PlayStation Now is off to a slow start, but for those that switched platforms from Xbox to PlayStation this generation, it has huge potential. A streaming service or some way of instituting backward compatibility through emulation would give more comfort to those looking to go from PlayStation to Xbox. Remasters are nice, but with huge libraries available inexpensively, give publishers a way to monetize legacy titles.

Let free-to-play games exist in front of the Xbox Live paywall.
With Daybreak Games now an independent entity, there is huge potential for an existing library of free-to-play games to make its way to Xbox One. PlanetSide 2, DC Universe Online, H1Z1, and EverQuest Next could find homes on Xbox One. Requiring users to have an Xbox Live subscription for free-to-play titles is a competetive disadvantage. Not only does Sony not require PlayStation Plus for these games, but Microsoft is walling off titles from a portion of the user base that have the potential to bring in big money via in-app transactions. If free-to-plays are all an Xbox One gamer is interested in engaging with online, let those microtransactions be the way Microsoft monetizes those customers.

It's time to improve Xbox Live Games with Gold.
Games with Gold has certainly gotten better, but there's only one new Xbox One title each month (a second is carried over from the previous period). Adding even a second new title brings the program on par with Sony. Microsoft is closing the sales gap, and this will help nudge things along. These two titans are playing a game of inches now, and minimizing competitive disadvantages matters immensely.