Why Cross-Generation Games Make Sense For Microsoft

Halo-Infinite-audio-file-hidden-in-E3-trailer

The closer we get to the launch of the next generation of game consoles later this year, the more it looks like Microsoft is stepping outside the box of what console users traditionally expect. Its latest controversial announcement is that none of its first party games for Xbox Series X will be exclusive to that system for a year or two.

Personally, I don’t think Microsoft stands to lose a whole lot by making games like Halo Infinite or whatever else it has in store for 2020 and 2021 still support the original Xbox One (not to mention PC). It makes sense when you consider what kind of company Microsoft is compared to Sony or Nintendo, as well as what really happens when new console generations start. And when you think about it, how important are next-gen launch exclusives today really?

The most important reason for Microsoft to make cross-generation games for a while is Game Pass. At least as far as the digital versions are concerned, games like Halo Infinite will be just one license across Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and Windows 10. This may indeed be the fate of all cross-gen games this time around — buy (or subscribe) once and play across the whole range of systems. Making Halo Infinite or any other game exclusive to Xbox Series X in that launch period makes it almost useless for Game Pass, as a minority of subscribers will be able to play it.

You simply can’t expect the entire Xbox user base or Halo fanbase to transition to Series X right away. It’s physically impossible because Microsoft simply won’t be able to manufacture enough of the consoles during the launch period — consoles always launch with supply constraints. Obviously price is a concern too — the majority of people who buy a console don’t do so when it’s $400 or $500. Microsoft is just accepting the same realities third party publishers always have when it comes to new console generations.

Sure first party publishers want some games to essentially act as tech demos for their new consoles, but for Microsoft Game Pass supersedes this, because Microsoft’s primarily goal isn’t actually selling Xboxes. This is the crucial difference between it and its competitors, Sony and Nintendo.

Microsoft mainly wants to sell games, Xbox Live subscriptions, Game Pass subscriptions, and Windows installations (and Office 365 subscriptions). Hardware sales aren’t as important to Microsoft as they are to Sony and Nintendo. Microsoft is and has always been mainly a software and services company. The Xbox is just one vehicle by which to get those services onto televisions. Sony is an appliance company and PlayStation sales are a bigger part of its business than ever. Nintendo wouldn’t be Nintendo without its hardware.

The way Microsoft is handling Xbox games isn’t unlike how streaming companies and TV companies handle shows. They produce original content exclusive to their services. The main difference with exclusive console games is they’re typically locked behind and identified with singular pieces of hardware that cost hundreds of dollars. Microsoft is trying to get around this with a family of Xboxes at different price points, a hardware-agnostic PC operating system, and xCloud, to make its exclusive content more accessible. Series X isn’t a new platform, it’s just a new part of an existing platform.

With this, the main reason to get an Xbox Series X will be to play all that stuff with the best performance possible. And really, that’s increasingly becoming the reason to buy more powerful consoles at all.

Over the first year of the PS4’s lifespan its top-selling games were mainly games people had already been playing on PS3: Annual sports games, Grand Theft Auto V, the first DestinyMinecraftThe Last of Us, etc. The same will probably happen this time around. People will mainly get the Series X and PlayStation 5 in its first year in order to keep playing Call of DutyThe Last of Us Part 2MinecraftOverwatchRainbow Six SiegeFortniteRed Dead Redemption 2, and other already-out games with better graphics and performance. It just remains to be seen whether they’ll even actually pay for those games again. If anything, free “next-gen patches” for people who already own those games on current-gen systems would offer more incentive for them to upgrade. Many already treat new consoles like simple hardware upgrades, so I don’t think exclusive “killer apps” are as important as some think they are.

Back in the day when console transitions were a lot more stark and each new system was indeed its own distinct and exotic chipset and brand name, launch exclusives like a new Mario, the original Soul CaliburSuper Smash Bros. Melee, and Halo: Combat Evolved, were important in selling systems. Each console was its own platform, so they had to build distinct software libraries immediately (and even then, the new Madden or FIFA was still a major pillar of each new launch).

Now consoles exist as parts of ecosystems, and that feeling will be even more acute as backwards compatibility is looking like an expected standard feature now. I’d wager these days Nintendo is the only hardware manufacturer that really needs killer apps when it launches a new console, and two of its most recent killer apps have actually been cross-gen games. What if Halo Infinite becomes Microsoft’s Breath of the Wild (this is coming from someone who spent 200 hours playing Breath of the Wild on the Wii U.)?

I’m not trying to knock Sony, but think it’s improbable that any day-one PS5 exclusives it has will turn heads away from MaddenFIFA, COD, FortniteSiegeRed Dead 2, or even its own Last of Us and Ghost of Tsushima. They might be great games and might even sell a couple million copies, but they might also be largely forgotten in another year, which is sort of what happened with Killzone Shadow Fall and Infamous Second Son. I haven’t played either of those games and they’re probably fine, but were they really killer apps? Did they really sell PS4s on their own? These days most launch exclusives for next-gen consoles are ultimately just neat tech demos — something for people to play on the shiny new consoles rather than a reason to get those consoles. Sure it’s possible Sony could break out a Combat Evolved-level hit for the PS5 on day one, but it’s unlikely.

Microsoft is treating this console generation transition like the soft launch all console launches probably should be. It’s putting the console out there but not trying to forcefully push its userbase onto it or forcefully kill the old console. Game Pass changes Microsoft’s calculus so it’s better to follow where its users are.

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