The Xbox Games Showcase proves that exclusivity wars are far from over

Microsoft’s exhibition was seriously impressive, but it also showed that Xbox might be pivoting away from past ambitions

I really thought Microsoft wasn’t interested in the boring, drawn-out console wars, and that the games company was moving in a totally different service-led direction to Sony, which has dug its heels into the mud in order to create a singular platform for prestige AAA games. But the Xbox Games Showcase (which took place on July 23) surprised me with its laser focus on exclusivity.

To be fair, the exciting cross-play and platform-agnostic wave in the games industry feels like a blur now given the unrelenting speed with which it arrived. I remember how promising it was to see Reggie Fils-Amie, Shawn Layden and Phil Spencer take the stage at The Game Awards in 2018, talking about new ways for everyone to play, regardless of whether they had a Nintendo, PlayStation or Xbox console.

In the years to follow, we’ve seen massive games like Fortnite, Minecraft and Call Of Duty: Warzone embrace cross-play and break down the barriers of exclusivity.

Epic Games' Fortnite
Fortnite. Credit: Epic Games

Microsoft, in particular, has made some great strides towards that ambition, ensuring PC players would be able to play first-party Xbox exclusives at launch via Game Pass, and teasing that it would be bringing the Xbox Game Pass library to Nintendo Switch and PlayStation in the future. Unfortunately, Phil Spencer has now downplayed that ambition in a recent interview with GameStar. “The thing about other gaming console platforms is we’re not able to bring a full Xbox experience on those platforms,” Spencer said.

Were the industry titans unable to agree, or is Spencer simply pivoting to a more console-focused strategy? It’s not clear just yet, but regardless, I’m left disappointed that the industry is unwilling to deliver upon its promises after talking a big game about its platformless pro-consumer ambitions.

And no, I’m not completely naive. Console-makers need exclusive games to sell consoles. The PlayStation 5 has Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales and the Xbox Series X has Halo Infinite. These publishers don’t buy or fund studios just for the fun of it, they do it so that they can provide games that players can’t get anywhere else.

PS5
Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales. Credit: Insomniac Games

But last week, the Xbox Games Showcase introduced a new piece of jargon: the ‘Console Launch Exclusive’. This is just a fancy name for what are essentially timed exclusives, with most of them likely arriving on PS4 or Nintendo Switch later down the line.

Beyond Xbox’s first-party games such as Everwild and Forza Motorsport, which will probably never arrive on PlayStation or Nintendo platforms, the event also announced that interesting titles such as Stalker 2, The Medium and Warhammer 40,000: Darktide will launch on Xbox Series X first.

This is made even more confusing by the fact that most of the Console Launch Exclusives listed that they were coming to PC as well, due to Microsoft’s cross-platform Xbox Games Pass strategy. Does this mean games like Stalker 2 will hit PC and Xbox Series X at the same time? Surely the point of the Console Launch Exclusive is to bring the game to consoles first, to drive up the value of the Xbox Series X upon its launch? If the game is on PC too, doesn’t that hurt the exclusivity strategy?

Stalker 2
Stalker 2 trailer. Credit: GSC Game World

Despite thinking that Xbox was streamlining its approach, I’m now more confused than ever. Games like State Of Decay 3, Avowed, Fable and The Medium did not include Xbox One as a launch platform at the end of their announcement trailers.

Given that most of these games featured purely CGI trailers, it’s fair to say that they might be quite far off, but even so, I remember when Xbox promised that players wouldn’t be “forced into the next-generation”. “Xbox Game Studios titles we release in the next couple of years – like Halo Infinite – will be available and play great on Xbox Series X and Xbox One,” the blog post read. “We won’t force you to upgrade to Xbox Series X at launch to play Xbox exclusives.”

That last part is particularly confusing. Phil Spencer says that he doesn’t want to force current-gen players who maybe can’t afford a new console to upgrade at launch… but most of the Xbox Games Showcases’ titles were billed as Console Launch Exclusives, and some of the most exciting titles didn’t list Xbox One as a platform.

So, are these particular games not releasing in “the next couple of years”, or are they already walking back Spencer’s promise? Spencer was even recently quoted saying that generational exclusives are “completely counter to what gaming is about”. The lack of clarity is damaging after such a good showing.

Fable
Fable trailer. Credit: Xbox official YouTube

The final word we’ve had on this comes from Xbox marketing head Aaron Greenberg, who clarified on July 24 that “Future [first-party] titles are developed for Xbox Series X first. Not saying those games won’t ship on Xbox One, only that we are leading with Series X and each studio will decide what’s best for their game/community when they launch”.

So while Console Launch Exclusives will be timed reasons to pick up an Xbox Series X, first-party titles such as Forza Motorsport and Fable will be dealt with on a case by case basis, and might not appear on Xbox One, after all, depending on the developer’s approach.

I was blown away by the games on display, but I’m left thinking that Xbox has yet to commit to its past promises in the next generation. Is it going down the pro-consumer, cross-gen route, or is the promise of porting its future exclusives to old hardware harming their potential, forcing them to renege and double down on platform exclusivity? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

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