Riding the bus of video game fandom should come with a seatbelt warning. To wit: Last month, it seemed like everyone was losing their minds over Microsoft gobbling up half the industry. Now, in the wake of some major delays, it’s all “Dead console!!!” this and “Xbox has no exclusives!!!” that. Hope you’ve buckled up!
There is, to be fair, some precedent for observers to fret about Xbox’s forthcoming slate. Throughout the Xbox One’s life cycle, players (rightly) criticised the platform for having few lightning-rod exclusives, particularly during its initial launch window. But over the past few years, Microsoft has been on a bit of an acquisition spree, burgeoning the ranks of its first-party studios as one console generation waned and another began.
By the November 2020 launch of the Xbox Series X/S, close to two dozen studios were under Xbox’s first-party umbrella. Last March, regulators approved Microsoft’s then-seismic $US7.5 ($10) billion acquisition of ZeniMax, the parent company of Bethesda and the grandparent company (yes, that’s a technical term; no, don’t fact-check it) of a number of other prestigious studios, including Arkane, the makers of Dishonored. Then, the big one: In January, Microsoft stated an intention to buy Activision Blizzard, despite its well-publicised woes, for the price of a European nation’s defence budget.
In the immediate wake of the deal — which has been approved by Activision shareholders, who stand to gain a lot, but still needs the green light from regulators — a lot of attention was given to just how many studios Microsoft had acquired. Gaming influencers breathlessly shared splashy infographics about how many legacy franchises were now technically first-party Xbox games, the implication being that Xbox had the sturdiest lineup of exclusives. Outlets like The Verge and The Guardian ran trend pieces wondering whether or not Microsoft was monopolizing the games industry.
But the winds have shifted. Last week, Bethesda announced that it would delay Starfield, its massive spacefaring RPG that had been planned for release on November 11, 2022. In the same breath, the company also said it was pushing back Arkane’s vampire shooter, Redfall, that had initially been planned for a summer release. Both are now slated for an indefinite date in the “first half” of 2023, essentially leaving Microsoft’s fall slate — historically the busiest time of the year — void of any hot-ticket exclusives.
“Shit,” the Twitch streamer KidSmoove, whose bio notes that “Xbox is the best box,” said on Twitter. Some people pointed fingers at Xbox head Phil Spencer. Others called it a “bad look,” a “PR nightmare,” and used the word “sucks” a lot. Even social media users with accounts named after Xbox — gamers who’ve derogatorily become known as “Xbots” — expressed disappointment.
Observers have pointed out this sudden sea change through the internet’s favourite form of communication: memes.
Since the days of the Xbox One, public opinion on Microsoft has swayed like a pendulum; so far this generation, the company has accrued a wellspring of goodwill. The Xbox Series X/S was a head-and-shoulders improvement on the Xbox One, and has only gotten better since launch, thanks to a steady wave of updates and quality-of-life improvements. Last fall, the console’s release calendar was anchored by Halo Infinite and Forza Horizon 5, two hotly anticipated new entries in marquee Xbox series. (Both smashed series records.) And this is to say nothing of Microsoft’s enormously popular games-on-demand service, Xbox Game Pass, which regularly adds some of the best games around to its rotating library. Redfall and Starfield were highly anticipated additions to Microsoft’s ecosystem, so the joint delay has dinged that goodwill a bit as a result.
Some fans, however, have taken the hit in stride. Plenty recognise that a delayed game is better than “another Cyberpunk,” to use a phrase reportedly attributed to some Bethesda developers. (That said, there’s some sentiment out there that can basically be summed up as, “Starfield better be fucking amazing, OR ELSE.”) One common joke: Bethesda, in lieu of having a brand-new game for the fall, could simply release Skyrim again for the 71st time. (Deserved.) The award for “Best Bit,” though, goes to this tongue-in-cheek video from Twitch streamer TheGladihater:
Jokes aside, it’s not like the Xbox lineup is entirely dry this fall. It’s just not as stacked as it was last week. Several Xbox “console exclusives” are planned for this year, including cyberpunk platformer Replaced, the horror game Scorn, and the post-apocalyptic shooter S.T.A.L.K.E.R 2. Those games don’t currently have release dates set in ink yet — for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which can be attributed to developing games in the middle of a damn pandemic — but are nonetheless still slated for 2022. (Of course, any one of them could get delayed.)
And then there are the unknown variables. Microsoft’s June showcase, which, despite the cancellation of E3, is still going ahead as planned. It’s unclear what’s going to show up there or what other potential pressers Microsoft has planned for the year. Representatives for Xbox did not respond to a request for comment.