In 2013, a Don Mattrick-led Xbox team launched into what it deemed to be the true next generation for gaming consoles: an entertainment-focused offering, with a Kinect bundled in for good measure. Games? They took a back seat.
Mattrick infamously proclaimed that the Xbox One was “over-delivering” on value, which justified the $100USD higher price than the PS4. That would have been a fair comment to make if the console actually gave gamers what they wanted.
A strange deviation from the Xbox base automatically put the Xbox One on the back foot. For starters, the pre-launch campaign was staunchly anti-consumer: the console prioritised voice and motion controls, forcing Kinect onto gamers and thus increasing the entry price for the hardware.
On top of that, the console had a forced always-only connectivity mantra, which tied into Mattrick’s tyrannical anti used-game sentiment. When the outcry came — and boy was it an outcry — Mattrick only added fuel to the fire.
“Fortunately, we have a product for people who aren’t able to get some form of connectivity. It’s called Xbox 360.”Don Mattrick on Xbox One initially requiring a constant internet connection
“It’s important that people share their ideas,” he said in 2013, “but people are imagining outcomes that we believe are worse than what it’s going to be like in the real world.”
In essence, he was rolling his eyes at widespread media, gamer and industry backlash. The response to Kinect wasn’t positive, nor was the Xbox One’s always-online focus, and what was effectively a ban on used games.
Add in a high price point, and an in-your-face focus on media and TV offerings, and the Xbox One was doomed from the start.
That wasn’t even the worst of it, however: the Xbox One just didn’t appear to be a fully-fledged, ambitious, innovative, fun gaming console. It just didn’t have enough first-party software.
The Xbox One’s launch was solid — just — with AAA titles in the way of Forza, Ryse, and Dead Rising, but it was padded with forgettable entries like LocoCycle and Crimson Dragon, a Killer Instinct entry that lacked content on day one, and your stock-standard range of third-party cross-generational games.
From a launch perspective, it was arguably quite good, but console launch games rarely if ever blow gamers away. In terms of sheer volume, it did the job to introduce people to the console. But it dried up after that.
There’s a reason for that: in 2013, there were four Xbox first-party studios. Four. Under the Xbox Game Studios brand sat Halo developer 343 Industries; Gears of War‘s The Coalition; Rare; and Forza‘s Turn 10.
It was never going to be easy to come back from that. The outlook looked grim for a console that launched slowly and was brutally — convincingly — smashed by the competition on the sales front, right from the get-go.
In early 2013, Don Mattrick rode a wave of excitement into unveiling the Xbox One. In mere hours he went from being a symbol of hope for gamers, to a symbol of despair. This wasn’t really a Mattrick issue, though: he was arguably ahead of his time. People simply weren’t ready — and probably still aren’t — for a console shaped and promoted the way he did the Xbox One.
“My goal, first and foremost, is to make sure that everybody understands that Xbox is a gaming brand …”Phil Spencer in 2014
A digital-only focus. A shift away from physical media (slowly but surely). More entertainment options. More independent developer support. These were all part of the vision Mattrick had for Xbox One, and Xbox moving forward. But the messaging was off, and by a long shot.
By mid-2013, Mattrick was on his way out of Microsoft, to effectively be replaced by long-term Microsoft employee Phil Spencer as Head of Xbox by mid-2014.
The Xbox One vision quickly changed from Mattrick’s “entrainment box”, to being one specifically, definitively about games.
Shortly after his appointment, Spencer said that the Xbox name was first and foremost a gaming brand. At the time, this was a philosophy that appeared at odds with Microsoft’s initial “ultimate, all-in-one home entertainment system” direction, as weird as that may seem.
“My goal, first and foremost, is to make sure that everybody understands that Xbox is a gaming brand and it’s going to be gaming first,” Spencer said back in 2014. “That’s a leadership principle that I will bring to the program from day one. It’s not that it hasn’t been there in the past, but if you put the studio guy at the head, you kinda know what you’re going to get.”
When Microsoft announced the Xbox One, it honed in on the console’s entertainment abilities, a direction some gamers felt left them in the dark as games seemed to take a back seat.
With the Xbox name stagnating behind Sony’s flourishing PlayStation 4, Microsoft appeared committed to reestablishing its place among gamers.
“If you’re going to be an incredible consumer electronics device in the home today, you’re going to do multiple things,” Spencer once explained. “We have always been, since the beginning, all about games at Xbox. I want to make sure that shows up not only internally, but also externally.”
Spencer’s comments represented perhaps the number one problem Xbox One had at the time: a lack of identity.
That was strange, because Xbox had always been known as a gaming brand, but it strayed from the vision with an entertainment-focused philosophy that was mocked by Sony and blasted by gamers.
When he joined in his new role at Xbox, Spencer insisted that the focus will be on making sure “everybody understands that Xbox is a gaming brand.”
The comments, however, were comical: how did Microsoft stray so far off the mark with the Xbox brand that it needed to reeducate people that it’s about gaming? Spencer’s comments at the time represented a stunning transformation, one that had gone from an “entertainment first, gaming second” ideal, to a “we’re all about gaming” direction.
The Xbox name needed more than just a strong stream of exclusive single-player offerings: it needed to realign itself with gamers, just as it did with the first Xbox, and as it did with the 360.
That’s not to say that its entertainment offerings needed to be diluted: its capacity to act as an entertainment hub was and still is part of its defining features, and will continue to be so with the Series X. But there was initially a clear disconnect between the vision Microsoft wanted to project about Xbox One, and how those that were buying it connected with the Xbox name.
Spencer was doing more than just confirming that Xbox is about games: he was steering the brand back to games. For him, ensuring the Xbox affiliation with games — “internally” and “externally” — is strong is something he was (and clearly still is) focused on. It’s strange that it wasn’t already like that from day one.
It’s no surprise that Xbox has landed where it is today: the little things Spencer focused on in those early days are now key selling points for the Series X.
Case in point: at its launch, the Xbox One’s game install times had caused much angst for gamers, and Spencer said improving the speed of installs was “high on [his] priority list”.
“The change to having to deal with an offline-only state meant that all the install code-flows weren’t as perfect as they could be,” Spencer admitted. This was the double-edge sword many in the industry saw, some predicted, but no one really prepared for. As damaging as Mattrick’s vision was — or may — have been, it actually set the console up with a positive stream of quirky features. With that change in vision, however, came what was effectively a change in the console’s architecture, literally and figuratively.
Spencer was at the time of course referring to Microsoft’s last-minute backflip on DRM and online requirements, which changed the console’s development philosophy, and clearly had an adverse effect on install times. Mattrick sold always-online to the people at a high level, but without truly unpacking it, no one really understood the potential benefits. Spencer was left to pick up the pieces.
Spencer explained how the Xbox team would compare the install times for third-party games on the Xbox One and PS4, and in some cases the Xbox One actually installed games faster. However, when the PS4 installed a game faster, the Xbox One was “significantly worse.”
“Are there systemtic reasons for that? Our drive’s obviously the same speed, moving stuff into memory takes the same amount of time; hard drive speed’s basically the same, so what’s going on?” he said. “I’m capturing the data. I want to be state-of-the-art in install times so people can start playing games as soon as possible. It’s high on my priority list.”
We can already see remnants of that that vision embedded in the Series X experience: early hands-on previews of the console paint the picture of ridiculously quick load times, and seamless transition between games utilising the Quick Resume feature. Six years on, that pain point for gamers isn’t just being addressed: it’s being almost eradicated completely.
Fast forward more than six years since Spencer’s appointment, and his vision hasn’t just taken shape: it’s morphed into a gaming behemoth. What was once only four first-party studios is now 22, thanks to the recent purchase of ZeniMax media and its subsidiaries, including Bethesda.
There’s a lot of talk coming from Xbox, and plenty of walk, but consumers will ultimately have the final say on November 10. So far, things look promising, and well on the pathway towards success.
What do you think of the Xbox transformation since the Xbox One launch? Sound off in the comments below!