Last week, Microsoft made it clear that it's finally looking to boost its first-party output. This follows criticism that their roster of top-tier exclusive titles has been relatively bare in recent years, a Forza or two aside. Indeed, the Xbox One X launched last week with only platformer Super Lucky's Tale, which seems like a huge missed opportunity given that nothing drives interest in consoles better than exclusive games.
Still, on PC, that's not really our problem. An upswing in Microsoft-published games is potentially exciting news, though, since all of the Xbox One's games come to PC now—but they've got a long way to go to reach the heights of the 360's early days. At that time, Microsoft seemed to find the right match of big-budget series, great developers and slightly offbeat projects (only some of which made it to PC, during the dark days of GfWL). Meanwhile, the announcement of Age of Empires 4 shows that Microsoft's looking at ways to revive its '90s/'00s back catalogue on PC.
Here's what we'd like to see next on PC.
More Microsoft-funded digital release 'seasons'
Samuel: Microsoft used to be great at this on the Xbox 360, steering the likes of Shadow Complex and 'Splosion Man onto the platform (while not always bothering to bring them to PC) as part of mostly indie-themed release 'seasons'. I don't want to buy this kind of game on the Windows Store, really, but the idea of Microsoft discovering and then bankrolling this kind of game is appealing. Ori and the Will of the Wisps looks like a step in this direction. Providing the games in question can come to Steam and GOG too, it'd be good to see Xbox using its deep pockets for more of this.
Give existing series to interesting developers
Wes: I practically shouted "yes!" when you wrote this one down, Sam. I'm hot off a viewing of Thor Ragnarok, my favorite Marvel movie in I don't know how long, and I think that's largely because you can feel the director's spirit shine through so brightly. He even voices one of the funniest characters! Even Guardians of the Galaxy still felt restrained somewhat by the corporate overlords, but Taika Waititi channeled his goofy charm into Thor so damn well, I'd love to see big game publishers follow that playbook.
Microsoft has some great properties in its vaults, and I'll give them props for handing Halo Wars 2 to Creative Assembly. Even if the game wasn't a smash hit, that was a smart hand-off. But it was also a safe one. I'd love to see more surprises. What would a Halo led by Nier creator Yoko Taro look like? What about a new Crimson Skies from, I don't know, Vlambeer, the developers of Luftrausers and Nuclear Throne? Be bold. Make unexpected decisions. It definitely won't always work out, and it won't be as safe as triple-A studios typically play things. But I can't think of a better way to get people talking and create memorable games.
Samuel: I agree, Wes, more esoteric creators in the mix can only be a good thing. But I don't think they even have to take big risks in doing this. The reason I put this entry here is because at some point, Microsoft was sounding out Runic for a Fable game. What a shame that this didn't happen! It's been seven years since the last full Fable, and Legends was nixed some time ago.
The question is, of course, who has the expertise to make a full-scale Fable. Like The Coalition, who were making something original for Xbox One before being drafted to make Gears of War games, it's possible they need to create a studio from scratch to make a full Fable. Xbox needs its open world action RPG: Nintendo and Sony both have this box ticked with Zelda and Horizon Zero Dawn respectively, and this genre has never been bigger after the likes of The Witcher 3 and Skyrim. Fable is a vivid, characterful universe that's crying out to return in grandiose form. This should be a priority for Microsoft.
But to get all backseat game designer one more time, what about finding more inventive ways to use existing series? What does a Halo RPG made by Obsidian look like? We could do this all day, but Microsoft needs more games, and experimentation is important.
Publish loads of stuff even if it doesn't all work, like in the early days of the Xbox 360
Samuel: Microsoft wasn't afraid to see what worked during the early days of the 360, presumably to great expense. This led to a bunch of duff products like Too Human and Shadowrun (the boring FPS one that also came to PC), but also some wins, like cult classic JRPG Lost Odyssey, N64 successor Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts 'n' Bolts and co-op superhero hit Crackdown.
Where's the Microsoft capable of actually creating big new series? That's what's missing right now, and it was spotlighted by the demise of Scalebound, an original game from a well-regarded, offbeat creator (it was reportedly stuck in development hell for a long time). Sea of Thieves feels like one of the only big, new things on the horizon.
Right now it doesn't feel like they're trying to create the next Halo, Fable or Gears of War when it comes to new series—and that absence is noticeable, while Sony scores wins with the newer likes of Horizon and Bloodborne.
Understand the game-buying experience on PC
Wes: I've complained about the Windows Store many times before, and no criticism of the store is news to Microsoft. They know it's not a great experience for buying games. Unfortunately, the company has, so far, been slow to make improvements, and I'm afraid that will continue to have a negative impact on how well their games sell on PC, and thus how much justification Microsoft has to keep supporting the platform. I'm afraid that releasing Age of Empires: Definitive Edition exclusively on the Windows Store, for example, would be sending it to die.
I'm not saying the solution is necessarily releasing every game on Steam. Microsoft's cross-buy initiative is a really nice perk for Xbox owners. But right now the Windows Store just isn't cutting it, and for Microsoft-published games to make money, they need as many PC gamers as possible to at least consider buying them.
Samuel: Yeah, I don't know why this has taken so long to improve, considering Quantum Break arrived well over a year ago. Maybe they're waiting until they have enough core games to fill out a store screen? Either way, it's long overdue.
Embrace mid-sized games
Wes: We see EA and Activision and other triple-A publishers all following the same path: new games need to be bigger and more expensive and more profitable every year, and that means business models to support that kind of development. Like loot boxes. Microsoft has already done a good job embracing indie developers with ID@Xbox, and it has its own massive budget games with Halo and Gears of War. But those aren't the juggernauts they were a decade ago. Instead of chasing more crazy-expensive properties, I'd love to see Microsoft fund games in the mid-tier that all but vanished in the Xbox 360 generation. Games made by teams of a few dozen rather than hundreds.
There's so much potential there. Look at Hellblade. Look at PUBG, an insane runaway success story.
More PC-only games
Samuel: Age of Empires 4 is exciting because it's not being made for consoles—just PC. That shows some genuine confidence in the platform, which is exciting. Microsoft, of course, used to be a more prolific PC publisher, with the Flight Simulator games, the Links games and other things that were laser-targeted at dads. But they also published the likes of Midtown Madness and MechWarrior 4 before they focused on Xbox. It's great seeing console titles come over to PC, but Microsoft's gaming legacy comes from PC—and they'll only score points by getting that right again.