Looking back, it’s difficult to gauge how much if at all the Xbox One’s almost universally thankless reveal four years ago has hexed the platform since. The subsequent reversal immediately thereafter of the console’s most inflammatory design bedrocks—persistent internet connection, inability to play used games, forced purchase of the Kinect sensor—together with Microsoft’s induction of fan favourite Phil Spencer as head of its Xbox division, certainly salvaged the brand some register of goodwill lost on first impression.
So, over time, has backward compatibility.
In June 2015, at the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo, Spencer announced that select Xbox 360 games in digital and/or physical copy would become functional on the One as their respective logistical and licensing challenges were resolved; and this year, under the same lights, revealed likewise for the original Xbox to symmetrical enthusiasm.
Yet whatever welcome these features pocket for Microsoft, not to mention the sentiment it brings players, the Xbox One, Xbox One S—and soon to be released enhanced ‘Xbox One X’—will live or die on the newly minted exclusives it generates as all games platforms necessarily do. Not only exclusive games, and ideally those which delineate the platform’s unique strengths, but the prospect of their accumulation. Right now, especially in the wake of ‘X’, we have the prospect of strength and little with which to exercise it. Stalwarts Halo and Gears of War, owing to long overdue innovation or perhaps even arrest, are no longer the gushers they once were critically or by cachet, and the One has yet to harbinge a title with the cultural reckoning and galvanizing revenue Master Chief brought the original Xbox and Marcus Fenix, to a lesser extent, its successor.
In the absence of this third generation flagship, Microsoft may need to intensify the backward approach to brand promotion backward compatibility has set in motion. Not only for publicity’s sake, but to address what is, ironically, the One’s glaring missing feature: identity. Though PC players no doubt welcome Microsoft’s belated swing into simultaneous release for the majority of their first-party content across Xbox and PC (for example, upcomers Ashen, Sea of Thieves, and Ori and the Will of the Wisps), as well as interfacing options between the two such as cross-play and the “Xbox Play Anywhere” cross-buy program, it has only further provided reason to eschew the console. Xbox may not have the warchest of IP Playstation and Nintendo sport, in part because neither rely on just one “Halo” to preserve a fingerprint generation on generation, but it does have a widely underappreciated back catalogue with which to test potential genuflection.
Reviving properties which potentially elicit equal association across these platforms and audiences would serve both as an organic continuation and exit ramp from the present dual-platform approach. Microsoft recognized this potential in the Halo Wars series, which began on Xbox alone but migrated to a simultaneous launch on PC for the sequel; the latter stance increasingly becoming a global fact of their exclusives. This capitulation towards the otherwise benign inclusion of more players makes sense for properties such as Halo Wars, whose genre, for example, renders their exclusion from PC unintuitive given the experience intended; it does not make sense, from a console business standpoint, to share the library beyond this, particularly in cases where the work of association as Xbox exclusive is already done.
Are Bloodwake and Blinx: the Time Sweeper revivals going to excite the purchase of Xboxes in the millions? No, but they may inspire confidence in the brand’s future upon material reminder that it does, in fact, have a past; the implication of such experiments being Microsoft’s willingness for experiment, which in the wake of major cancellations has never been more in question. Neither Breakdown nor Otogi are console dependent experiences, but this has never been the precedent for exclusives anyway. We accept exclusivity as the basic kinetic premise of a games platform, and the reason we do not anticipate revivals of bygone Playstation properties on PC, despite there being no technical barrier, is because Sony’s objective is appropriately unambiguous: to sell Playstation 4’s and distinguish its platform.
Resonant new IP in “only on Xbox” dressing is imperative, however belated at this point, and must be Microsoft’s solitary aim. This article recommends a reverse and not alternative means to this end by way of precipitate remakes, remasters, resurgences generally, and a much intensified backward compatibility effort. The closer the One can come to constituting its brand in triplicate, the nearer to its original if foggy conceit of being “one device that addresses all the entertainment that you want,” albeit narrowly. The Xbox One X, despite the fact it is mere iteration and mere power, has the potential to right the ship simply for the fact it is a rebrand; that third, stray ‘X’ still symbolically flexible at this stage.
This would not be the One’s first makeover, as mentioned: Microsoft reneged on draconian restrictions concerning used games and offline play essentially over night, and repositioned Kinect as merely accessory to the Xbox experience after a failed bid at synonymization. The ‘X’ meanwhile has the potential to be a new model for the brand in a broader sense than tech, and Microsoft has indeed entertained the legacy aspect of this, at least esoterically. With mid-generation hardware iterations such as the ‘X’ and ‘Playstation 4 Pro’, the “game” of the home console race has changed, and in lacking the pedigree of portfolio which empowers Sony to fill auditoriums and theaters with bated breath for what is ultimately an inflated sizzle reel, Xbox may now only be able to move forward by optimizing the wind at its back.
To this end, Microsoft would be wise to use the games medium itself as a sail chart; a basic tenet of which is, of course, the ability to put the experience one earns to use.
The One’s original sins appear all but forgotten now, yet unlike its competitors—between whom the market lead generally rotates—Xbox has always subsisted comfortably, even favorably, somewhere in the middle, and thus until now has never learned to lose with consequence. It may be that its identifying strengths have always as a convenience been its competitors’ weaknesses, but no longer outwardly unmatched as an online service or beacon for feature rich local play, parities or their impression have rendered it invisible; it may be Microsoft has realized too late that when games hardware becomes outmoded, the library is what resists obsoletion despite its age—in part, as with any library, for its age.
“New Game Plus”, sometimes dubbed “New Game Ex”, is a compelling but seldom offered game mode in which the player restarts a completed file while retaining the abilities and plunder earned on first playthrough, at worst offering little but the same sights and a smoother journey (depending on whether the game’s challenge responds to the player’s deepened skillset) and at best, the opportunity to discover what was previously beyond reach and thus experience the game more completely. The console race, or “war” in forum slang, responds similarly, and Microsoft—through its many discardments—is ill-equipped.
Again, new flagships represent the only surefire here, but with those still somewhere over the horizon, optimistically speaking, the Xbox must enlist its former fleet. Some of which, to be sure, will not hold up as remembered; probably most will not, or not without new sails. All guesswork aside, however, the fact is the more Microsoft continues on this course the likelier backward compatibility will be, whatever its extent, all that sets the Xbox One apart in retrospect. All the better to have been great, then.