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.