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Xbox is the games publisher of 2021 | Opinion

Microsoft has been a star performer over the last six months, which bodes well for the years ahead

There was a candid quote that Xbox's head of studios Matt Booty gave us back in 2019.

I was fascinated to find out what impact Game Pass might have on Xbox's willingness to cancel or delay games. Because Game Pass needs regular content to keep people happy, and because there is less of a focus on that $60 upfront price tag... could we see Xbox be more forgiving with some of its titles? Could games like Fable Legends and Scalebound -- which Microsoft cancelled during the early days of Xbox One -- have survived in a Game Pass world?

This is what Booty said: "Right now, quality and curation is so important to us. I don't want Game Pass to become the place where half-finished or lower-quality games end up. Given some of the challenges we've had with some things coming out of Xbox Game Studios that may not have been at the quality level that we'd want, I think for the time being we're going to stay very focused on improving our execution and the quality of games that we make."

There's been a lot of focus on Microsoft's recent spending spree and how it will mean more games coming to Xbox than ever before. But 'more' is only one part of the conversation. Xbox also needed to deliver better games.

Microsoft has been the top performer in a quiet year for video games, but 2022 promises so much more from everyone

Xbox One had its fair share of great first-party games. I am very, very fond of Sunset Overdrive, Forza Horizon, Ori and the Blind Forest and Sea of Thieves. And the Rare Replay collection is a retro fan's dream. But Booty's comments acknowledges that there have been a number of misses -- games like Crackdown 3, Halo Wars 2, State of Decay 2... and even regular favourites such as Gears of War weren't quite reaching the critical heights of their forebears.

It was all the more noticeable when its chief competitor, PlayStation, spent the entire generation knocking out 10/10 hits.

It's why I've not got too excited about Xbox's recent acquisitions. It all counts for nothing unless they deliver great games.

As a fan of football, I liken it to your club buying an expensive superstar striker. There's a good chance they'll be incredible, score loads of goals and make a big difference to your team's performance. But they could also struggle under a different manager, they might not fit in with the team, or worse, they could get injured and struggle for form.

I remember back in 2002 when Microsoft bought Rare. Back then, the UK developer was touted as Microsoft's major console studio, and it was working on a string of significant games, including Kameo: Elements of Power and a new Perfect Dark. Both of those games were delayed and neither would go on to be particularly defining releases. It was actually the significantly cheaper Bungie that would prove to be Xbox's star signing (at least in those early days).

Halo Infinite caps off a six-month stint of acclaimed releases for Xbox systems

So maybe Bethesda will continue its run of delivering excellent games, and Starfield will receive huge acclaim. Or maybe they'll misfire. Maybe it'll be Compulsions Games who will create the next big Xbox exclusive. Or maybe none of them will.

It may have taken a few months to get going, but Xbox is starting to deliver on the promises it's been making

There's no doubt we will be seeing more Xbox exclusives this generation, but it's not certain we'll see better ones. And until they start releasing games, Microsoft's recent acquisitions are just that... acquisitions.

This year was less about Microsoft's new teams and new projects, but rather its classic franchises, developed either by established internal teams, or partner studios. And here we are seeing Matt Booty stay true to that promise of improving the execution and quality of its games.

Microsoft launched the Xbox Series X and S with one of the weakest line-ups of exclusive games we've seen. It may not have mattered a great deal considering the stock situation, but it certainly didn't look great stacked up against what PlayStation had to offer.

Halo: Infinite's delay felt like a real shame at the launch of new consoles, but 12 months on it simply looks like Booty doing what he said he would. From Microsoft Flight Simulator to Psychonauts 2 to Age of Empires 4 to Forza Horizon 5 to Halo: Infinite, Xbox has finished 2021 as the year's top games publisher, and made Game Pass look even more irresistible in the process.

Most of these games have 85+ Metacritic scores, and that's without counting Deathtloop, which was made by a Microsoft-owned studio, albeit as a PlayStation console exclusive.

Sticking with the football metaphor, there's an old soccer adage that gets mentioned a lot: 'Form is temporary, class is permanent'. Microsoft has been the top performer in a quiet year for video games, but 2022 promises so much more from everyone.

Sony has a new God of War, Horizon and Gran Turismo in their final stages of development, while Nintendo is teasing more Splatoon, Kirby and Zelda. For fans of exclusive games, 2022 is shaping up very nicely (at least until the delays get here).

And we know about plenty coming from Microsoft. Not all of these are likely to release in 2022, but Xbox's many studios are already hard at work on Fable, Perfect Dark, Everwild, Forza Motorsport, State of Decay 3, Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2, Red Fall (currently planned for 2022), plus Obsidian's double whammy of The Outer Worlds 2 and new fantasy IP Avowed. And there's Bethesda's hotly-anticipated Starfield, confidently announced for November 11.

So the job for Microsoft's studios now is to continue this run of form. To stand toe-to-toe with some of these big sequels, and for its new acquisitions to deliver on their potential.

It may have taken a few months to get going, but Xbox is starting to deliver on the promises it's been making.

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Christopher Dring avatar
Christopher Dring: Chris is a 17-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who
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