Microsoft at E3 2017 – Confusing Message but Reasons to be Positive

I held off commenting here about E3 2017 long enough to really form up in my mind what E3 meant for me. Overall, it turned out to be a fairly tame year, but there were a few significant moments that seemed to rally Xbox, PlayStation, and Nintendo fans alike. Microsoft, however, hit me with some mixed messaging that left me cool on their short-term strategy but a little more confident for their long-term direction.

In what felt like a tweaked echo of the Xbox One reveal, Microsoft was really beating hard on a single drum. At the Xbox One launch, it was all about “entertainment” and how the XB1 was set to become the “one” device for your movies, music, social sharing, and if you had time for them, video games. That messaging, combined with a high price tag, really hurt Microsoft as Sony’s simple “video games first” messaging won over the majority of gamers. Well, as Microsoft unveiled the Xbox Scorpio, they seemed to be hyper focused once again. This time, the drum beat to the tune of “horsepower.”

The Xbox Scorpio, which officially has been named the Xbox One X, is going to be the world’s most powerful gaming console, which is poised to bring 4K resolutions and higher framerates to games in a more consistent way than the PS4 Pro or the Xbox One S have managed to do. While 4K has yet to take hold as the dominant standard, Microsoft wants to be ready for that demand, and they’re not shy about showing their confidence that demand will eventually be quite strong.

In the short term, however, I have doubts about this strategy. First of all, the Xbox One X is going to cost $500, and it’s not going to have any exclusive software over the Xbox One S, making the choice to upgrade purely a vanity-driven choice. On top of that, Microsoft’s internal game development is shamefully weak, which means that they’ll be relying on 3rd parties to take advantage of the Xbox One X’s additional power in the most meaningful ways while still only charging the same amount for their games. With no added financial benefit, it will be really interesting to see how many developers care to put in the extra development time and cost to fine tune stuff for Microsoft’s lower install base platform. It’s confusing to me that Microsoft would talk about how confident they are in needing to put out a console with such amazing power under the hood, but they’re barely supporting the platform with their own internal efforts. It rings a little hollow, but we’ll see how things evolve over time.

But while I have doubts about what Microsoft is doing in the short term in regards to internal development and the Xbox One X, I do really like the things that Phil Spencer is saying about the Xbox brand and the vision he’s projecting for the future of Xbox. Phil Spencer is more than just a good speaker and savvy presenter; he’s an avid gamer that has a real passion for what video games can be in the future. Early in his tenure at the head of Xbox, Phil recognized that many mistakes had been made with the Xbox One launch and messaging and it’s his focus to make gaming the central function of the Xbox brand.

Looking at Microsoft this E3, it really looks like Phil Spencer is genuine in his desire to make the Xbox platform a gaming-first experience. While they’re coming at things from well behind Sony at this point, I do think by the end of this generation and going into the next that Microsoft will resemble the Microsoft of the late Xbox 360 days (the good days) more than the early Xbox One days (the dumpster fire days). Regardless of what was announced or shown off this year, knowing that a shift in attitude is taking place, I feel good about Microsoft’s direction.

So what about the games? Well, I actually didn’t come out of E3 feeling super great. I’m excited for Crackdown 3, but it looks like a MASSIVE downgrade from how it was pitched at its unveiling. Graphically it looks pretty rough, and the environmental effects seem to have been majorly toned down, but the tone of the game looks to be on track. It might not be pretty, but if it’s closer to Crackdown 1 than Crackdown 2, I’m sure it will end up as a fine experience.

Sea of Thieves looks like it has a lot of potential to be great. While it misses this year’s holiday window, it might be a game worth the wait.

The Forza series has never managed to grab me more than for a few hours at a time, but Forza 7 looks impressive. Racing fans have to be happy that the series continues to show improvement and continual attention to detail.

Metro Exodus looked stunning, and so far it has only been announced as an Xbox One/Windows 10 exclusive. Always a graphical showcase, the Metro series continues to push the shooter genre into new spaces.

Overall, I think that Microsoft had a bit of a tame showing at E3, but there’s some momentum there that feels far better than the duds they’ve had in recent years. Hopefully things continue to pick up for Microsoft and 2018 can give us more reason to be optimistic for the Xbox brand going forward.

Stay tuned for reactions to Sony and Nintendo’s E3 performance.