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Where are the Xbox One's exclusives?

Scalebound's cancellation draws attention to this year's anaemic Xbox line-up; is this Scorpio's rain shadow, or a more worrying trend?

As with many game cancellations, it's likely we'll never know exactly why Platinum Games' Xbox One exclusive Scalebound has been dropped by Microsoft. For a game that's been in development for several years at a top-flight studio, helmed by one of the most accomplished directors working in the industry today, to be cancelled outright is a pretty big deal. Even acknowledging that most of the cost of launching a game lies in marketing budgets, not development costs, this still represents writing off a fairly huge financial investment - not to mention the hard-to-quantify costs to the image and reputation of the Xbox brand. This isn't the kind of decision that's made rapidly or taken lightly - and though the reasons remain obscure, we can guess that a mix of factors was considered.

For one thing, it's fairly likely that the game wasn't living up to expectations. Scalebound was ambitious, combining unusual RPG aspects with a style of action Platinum Games (usually masters of the action genre) hadn't attempted before, and throwing four-player co-op into the mix as well. There are a lot of things in that mix that could go wrong; plenty of fundamental elements that just might not gel well, that might look good on paper but ultimately fail to provide the kind of compelling, absorbing experience a AAA console exclusive needs. These things happen, even to the most talented of creative teams and directors.

For another thing, though, it's equally likely that Microsoft's decision stems in part from some issues internal to the publisher. Since Scalebound went into development in 2013, the Xbox division has been on a long, strange journey, and has ended up in a very different place to the one it anticipated when it inked its deal with Platinum three years ago. When Microsoft signed on to publish Scalebound, it was gearing up to launch an ambitious successor to the hugely successful Xbox 360 which would, it believed, expand upon the 360's audience by being an all-purpose entertainment box, a motion-controlled device as much media hub and high-tech TV viewing system as game console.

"In terms of reasons for a player to choose Xbox One over the more successful PS4, or indeed for an existing PS4 owner to invest in an Xbox One as a second console (a vital and often overlooked factor in growing the install base mid-cycle), things are very sparse"

By the time Scalebound was cancelled this week, much of that ambition had been scrapped, PS4 had soared off into the sunset leaving Microsoft trailing in a very distant second place, and Xbox One has become instead one link in a longer chain, a single component of an Xbox and Xbox Live brand and platform that extends across the Windows 10 ecosystem and which will, later this year, also encompass a vastly upgraded console in the form of Scorpio.

It only stands to reason that the logic which led to the signing of a game before this upheaval would no longer apply in the present environment. While quality issues around Scalebound cannot be dismissed - if Microsoft felt that it had a truly great game on its hands, it would have proceeded with it regardless of any strategic calculation - the implications of Scalebound's cancellation for the broader Xbox strategy are worthy of some thought. Actually, it's not so much Scalebound itself - which is just one game, albeit a very high profile one - as the situation in which its cancellation leaves the Xbox in 2017, and the dramatic defocusing of exclusive software which the removal of Scalebound from the release list throws into sharp relief.

A quick glance down 2017's release calendar suggests that there remain only two major Xbox One exclusive titles due to launch this year - Halo Wars 2 and Crackdown 3. The console remains well supported with cross-platform releases, of course, but in terms of reasons for a player to choose Xbox One over the more successful PS4, or indeed for an existing PS4 owner to invest in an Xbox One as a second console (a vital and often overlooked factor in growing the install base mid-cycle), things are very sparse. By contrast, the PS4 has a high profile exclusive coming out just about every few weeks - many of them from Sony's first-party studios, but plenty of others coming from third parties. Platinum Games' fans will note, no doubt, that Sony's console will be getting a new title from the studio - NieR: Automata - only a few months after Scalebound's cancellation.

The proliferation of multiplatform games means that Xbox One owners won't be starved of software - this is no Wii U situation. Existing owners, and those who bought into the platform after the launch of the Xbox One S last year, will probably be quite happy with their system, but the fact remains that with the exception of the two titles mentioned above and a handful of indie games (some of which do look good), the Xbox One this year is going to get by on a subset of the PS4's release schedule.

That's not healthy for the future of the platform. The strong impression is that third parties have largely abandoned Xbox One as a platform worth launching exclusive games on, and unlike Sony during the PS3's catch-up era, Microsoft's own studios and publishing deals have not come forward to take up the slack in its console's release schedule. This isn't all down to Scalebound, of course; Scalebound is just the straw that breaks the camel's back, making this situation impossible to ignore.

Why have things ended up this way? There are two possible answers, and the reality is probably a little from column A and a little from column B. The first answer is that Microsoft's strategy for Xbox has changed in a way which makes high-profile (and high-cost) exclusive software less justifiable within the company. That's especially true of high-profile games that won't be on Windows 10 as well as Xbox One; one of the ways in which the Xbox division has secured its future within Microsoft in the wake of the company's reorganisation under CEO Satya Nadella is by positioning itself as a key part of the Windows 10 ecosystem.

"Seamus Blackley, Ed Fries, Kevin Bachus and the rest of the original Xbox launch team understood something crucial all the way back in the late nineties when they were preparing to enter Microsoft into the console business; software sells hardware"

Pushing Xbox One exclusive software flies in the face of that strategic positioning; new titles Microsoft lines up for the future will be cross-platform between Windows and Xbox, and that changes publishing priorities. It's also worth noting that the last attempt Microsoft made to plug the gap in its exclusive software line-up didn't go down so well and hasn't been repeated; paying for a 12-month exclusivity window for the sequel to the (multiplatform) Tomb Raider reboot just seems to have annoyed people and didn't sell a notable number of Xbox Ones.

The second answer, unsurprisingly, revolves around Scorpio. It's not unusual for a console to suffer a software drought before its successor appears on the market, so with Scorpio presumably being unveiled at E3 this year, the Xbox One release list could be expected to dry up. The wrinkle in this cloth is that Scorpio isn't meant to be an Xbox One replacement. What little information Microsoft has provided about the console thus far has been careful to position it as an evolution of the Xbox One platform, not a new system. What that means in practice, though, hasn't been explained or explored. Microsoft's messaging on Scorpio is similar to the positioning of PS4 Pro - an evolutionary upgrade whose arrival made no difference to software release schedules - but at the same time suggests a vastly more powerful system, one whose capabilities will far outstrip those of Xbox One to an extent more reminiscent of a generational leap than an evolutionary upgrade.

The question is whether Microsoft's anaemic slate of exclusive releases is down, in part, to a focus on getting big titles ready for Scorpio's launch window. If so, it feels awfully like confirmation that Scorpio - though no doubt sharing Xbox One's architecture and thus offering perfect backwards compatibility - is really a new console with new exclusive software to match. If it's not the case, however, then along with clearing up the details of Scorpio, this year's E3 will have to answer another big question for Microsoft; where is all your software?

2017 needs to just be a temporary dip in the company's output, or all its efforts on Scorpio will be for naught. Seamus Blackley, Ed Fries, Kevin Bachus and the rest of the original Xbox launch team understood something crucial all the way back in the late nineties when they were preparing to enter Microsoft into the console business; software sells hardware. If you don't have the games, nothing else matters. Whatever the reasons for 2017's weak offering from Xbox, we must firmly hope that that lesson hasn't been forgotten in the corridors of Redmond.

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Latest comments (14)

Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 6 months ago
Microsoft has delayed many Cbox One features, and we can also assume game reveals to the Scorpio launch. This isn't an upgrade for them, it's a relaunch of the entire brand. So yes, they're holding back.

If they're smart, they'll have some kind of preview event soon, as the perception issue on not having any exclusives is a big one. They're going for the jugular, and that requires a lot of troops
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Pete Thompson Editor 6 months ago
I had Scalebound pre-ordered as soon as it was announced, but, after last years E3 presentation where even the lead lead dev couldn't make the game the game look like it played very well i'm glad it's been canned, especially as the game engine was cited as one of the reasons for it's cancellation.
Phil Spencer has already mentioned that XB has as yet unannounced games and IP's and I like the quality over quantity approach that Microsoft have, which Sony clearly do not..

As a gamer who games for around 30hrs+ a week (mainly on Xbox One) I'm not even slightly worried about MS cancelling Scalebound..

I live in hope that one day GI.Biz hire's a pro Xbox journalist..
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Ben Link Video Game Enthusiast and Graphic Artist 6 months ago
Anaemic lineup? You must not be looking at the same Xbox One I am. They still have 4-5 exclusive in 2017. And been hinted at more unannounced ones. Sony had 2 big exclusives last year. Uncharted and Last Guardian. Stop with the Xbox hate for no reason.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Ben Link on 13th January 2017 6:51pm

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Show all comments (14)
Dan Pearson Internal Business Editor, Square Enix West6 months ago
@Pete Thompson: We don't hire anybody specific to a system, Pete.
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Tom Keresztes Programmer 6 months ago
Halo Wars 2 and Sea of thieves ?
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 6 months ago
@Tom--you beat me by an hour. I'm not sure how the writer of this piece could miss the fact that Microsoft has four(Halo Wars 2, Crackdown 3, State Of Decay 2 and Sea Of Thieves) announced Xbox One/Windows 10 exclusives this year(as well as other unannounced games to be revealed in the future) when it's stated in the Scalebound story that's linked at the very beginning of this article.

Microsoft, as they have for the past several years and already mentioned by Pete, will continue to take a quality over quantity approach. This works extremely well when you factor in all the third party games their console also gets. They may have less exclusives when compared to the competition but not to the extent where there will ever be literally nothing to play. And I also agree that they are most likely holding some of their future game announcements for the Scorpio reveal.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paul Jace on 14th January 2017 9:42am

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Craig Page El Presidente, Awesome Enterprises6 months ago
In GamesIndustry.biz's defense, I think Sony just has INCREDIBLE PR people. All of their broken promises get forgotten, all of their bad behavior gets forgiven. Not that Sony is any worse than any other big company, but their PR people somehow cleanup the messes really well.
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 6 months ago
@Craig Page: I think it's more that they don't have an active hate brigade chasing them around, who also never seems to notice when Apple,Google etc do exactly the same things they started hating Microsoft for.
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Craig Page El Presidente, Awesome Enterprises6 months ago
That could be it too.
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Adam Campbell Game Production Manager, Azoomee6 months ago
I don't think a perceived lack of exclusives makes the author an Xbox hater. Is this really what goes through your minds when someone has a perspective on software library that doesn't match up to yours? Do you really think Rob's priority in life is hating Xbox?

That being said, whilst I may not be following Xbox One as closely as some other platforms at the moment, I would struggle to name off the top of my head what's coming out for it exclusively. Perhaps this is a matter of messaging and PR. Also, maybe its my mindset, but I don't count a game coming to Microsoft Windows as an Xbox exclusive. I can easily buy such titles for my PC.
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 6 months ago
@Adam Campbell: PC doesn't matter, as no one is collecting royalties off every sale. It's simply an acknowledgement that Eastern Europe and Asia don't buy Xboxes, but they love PC.
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Guy Technologies, Plarium6 months ago
@Craig Page: I'm not sure it's all Sony's PR.
I mean yes, they're very good at cushioning their lineup with games that are actually long in the horizon (Kojima's upcoming game will be out when? 2019 most likely?), but that shouldn't affect how a professional website reviews other key players in the industry. When an article headline asks about an upcoming console lineup for the coming year but neglects to mention half of the already announced lineup (something that a basic wikipedia lookup could verify) ... that seems very unprofessional.

Sure, the Playstation lineup for 2017 is a bit more padded right now. But once you realize that the major games were actually targeting 2016 release and slipped away (Horizon: Zero Dawn, Gran Turismo Sports) it shows a whole different story.
Looking back at 2016 confirms that: both Sony and Microsoft had a pretty similar output of retail titles released, either internally or through external cooperation with other devs/publishers. and while Sony's lineup again contained titled that slipped multiple times (The Last Guardian was announced around when? 2009?), Microsoft had multiple big games (Dead Rising 4, Forza Horizon 3) that were not even formally announced until mid-year at E3.

Are we to assume that the cycle will not repeat itself? That MS will not announce new titles later this year, especially considering how they have the Scorpio launch to promote? Is there anything that we don't already know and GI can share?
I was expecting to read here at least some official comment from Microsoft on their 2017 plans, not to mention investigative journalism with inside information from people in the know - something that can address any concerns about the planned lineup. That is the added value a proper industry oriented should provide, because highly speculative and borderline clickbaity opinion pieces cashing on a cancelled game we can read anywhere else.
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Adam Campbell Game Production Manager, Azoomee6 months ago
@Jeff Kleist: PC does matter, because I the consumer can buy games on it. The value proposition of an exclusive is not just about publisher royalties, its about what differentiates the console from its competition. That said, the PC platform makes a lot of money for games across the globe so I don't really see your point.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 6 months ago
PC does matter, because I the consumer can buy games on it. The value proposition of an exclusive is not just about publisher royalties, its about what differentiates the console from its competition
See: SFV releasing on PS4 and PC, but not XBox. 1) It's not an exclusive, though the pedantry of the games-industry has now created the term "console-exclusive", for just such a case. 2) It gives the consumer an alternate route to purchasing a game, and the publisher an alternate revenue stream. And 3) it differentiates both PS4 and PC from XBox - "If you want to play the new SF, you can't if you own only an XBox."

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 17th January 2017 7:56am

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