Microsoft have been playing catch-up since the Xbox One was revealed in early 2013. The strategy was wrong, the launch event was baffling, and consumers promptly voted with their wallets. The PS4 went on to sell over double the number of units, Sony’s first-party studios delivered a string of quality titles, and the Xbox One never managed to shake off the whiff of that Kinect-mandated, TV-centric, DRM-filled early vision. And so, the launch of a new generation presents Microsoft with a huge opportunity and no shortage of pressure. There’s a lot riding on it, and on Thursday’s Games Showcase in particular.

Looking Back to Look Forward

Optimists and loyalists might look to the fact that pretty much everything has changed since the launch of the Xbox One. The built-in DRM that required an online connection and led to complicated and easily-mocked explanations of how to share your games didn’t even make it to the console’s launch. Kinect was then quickly de-bundled (you’re right, probably not a word), sidelined and, finally, taken out the back and turned into glue. Similarly, TV and movie integration went from a “one box to view them all” strategy and ambitious cross-media projects like Quantum Break to the much more conventional app support that we see today. 

The leadership has also changed. Just like his trade-in-killing DRM, Don Mattrick was surgically removed before the machine had even made it to market. He’d follow up his role as Xbox’s head honcho with two largely anonymous years as CEO of social gaming giant Zynga (no, me neither) before disappearing off the face of Wikipedia like the Wile E Coyote figure I imagine him to be. After a brief period of transition, Phil Spencer took over with a mission, explicitly, to put gamers “at the heart of it all.” And while he’s probably neither the messiah nor “a very naughty boy,” I think he’s done a lot right, even if much of it has gone unnoticed. Instead, gamers have been too focused on Sony’s machine and their portfolio of fantastic first-party games to pay too much attention.

However, during that time, Spencer and the Xbox team have been beavering away on a series of plays that I think could lay the foundation for the upcoming generation. On the hardware side, the One S and One X represented a massive upgrade in design from the original unit, and these new machines were joined by subtle but welcome revisions to the controller too. The Xbox UI has also changed dramatically over the generation, improving performance and becoming highly customisable. Things like cloud game saving, even with xCloud, are seamless. It’s telling to me how so many of these elements look like they’ll be carried over into the new generation—it may represent an incremental step for the current Xbox experience, but it’ll share next to nothing with that launch Xbox One. It’s like the team have been getting ready for the Series X for the past five years.

Another example is the backwards compatibility programme, which made a huge library of Xbox 360 and original Xbox games playable (for free, if you already own them—or purchasable, if you don’t) on Xbox One. It was a current-generation move, but it also allowed Microsoft to commit very early on to doing something similar with the Series X. Widespread support, free enhancement patches, and clever software jiggery-pokery make this more than just the ability to play old titles. For example, the Series X version looks to build on this work by adding a way to automatically add HDR to even original Xbox titles. Sony, of course, have also announced backwards compatibility for PS5 but we are yet to hear details of how this will work. I’m hopeful, but not confident, that it’s something similar.

And though backwards compatibility feels like the most obvious example, there are other ways you can see Spencer’s vision taking shape. It’s clearly central to the next-generation Xbox but also, hopefully, something that can drive Sony to improve too. The vocal support for cross-saves and cross-play may have been tactical but it’s something I value highly and think you should too. It means being able to play with friends on different platforms or to move platforms and be able to pick up where I left off. I understand that Game Pass is not for everyone, but it’s perfect and presents great value to me. “Xbox Play Anywhere” and the soon-to-be-renamed Project xCloud mean that gamers can buy a game once and play it where and how they choose. Yes, it’s easy to champion these ideas when you occupy a role that one could generously call “runner-up,” but pair them with a more compelling machine and some decent first-party games and Microsoft finally might be back in the race.

Oh yes, about those games…

No Time Like the Present

Which brings us back to Thursday and what feels like a moment when Xbox needs to deliver. 

For all the good work over the past five years. For any positive reaction to the Series X so far. For all the excitement about whatever “Lockhart” turns out to be. Xbox needs to show that it finally has its own portfolio of exclusive and exciting AAA games. It’s the one thing that has not yet improved since Phil Spencer took the reins. And it’s the most important.

Xbox’s May event was a serious misstep in what had been a strong showing since the Series X reveal at the 2019 Game Awards. A lack of gameplay made it hard to see much that was “next-generation” about many of the games they revealed. The decision to have their first stream focus on mainly smaller, third-party titles was a total bust when the biggest gap between Xbox and PlayStation this generation has been their exclusives. Sony’s June reveal heaped on more pressure, largely nailing what a “games showcase” should be, even if some of the more impressive titles seemed to be a rather long way out. The reaction was insane and it demonstrates the scale of the challenge that Microsoft has to overcome.

So, what am I expecting later this week? 

First off, there are only a couple of things that we know for sure. Number one: it will be all about the games, with Aaron Greenberg, GM of Xbox Games Marketing, tweeting that it’ll have one focus, “No business, devices, or similar news, just games. A whole show about an hour long focused on games.” Number two: we’ll get the first-ever look at campaign gameplay for Halo Infinite, just under five years after the last and rather disappointing entry. Set to be a launch title, those Spartan shoulders will have a lot of heavy-lifting to do—needing to act as a showcase for the Series X hardware and to revive the franchise’s slightly-dented reputation.

The only other thing that we know for sure is that Microsoft’s new family of 15 Xbox Game Studios are hard at work on a collection of new titles. Thanks to a post on Xbox Wire, we also know that the stream will feature some first looks and announcements from at least some of these studios. But we can make some fairly educated guesses as to what these are, with updates from Ninja Theory’s Hellblade 2 and Rare’s Everwild being likely candidates. After an uncharacteristic year off in 2019, it also seems fair to expect a new Forza title from Turn 10 and we know that both Gears Tactics and the gorgeous looking Flight Simulator are heading to consoles, so I expect to see them both feature too. 

But the real fun and impact will come from whatever surprises Microsoft has up its sleeve. Can they show that they offer more variety than just Halo, Gears, and Forza? What is Obsidian up to? Will Playground Games confirm that they have been developing a new Fable, just as everyone in the industry seems to think they are? Just what is the “AAAA” (shudder) title that the Avengers-load of talent at The Initiative are working on? Will we see a Perfect Dark reboot? How about a new Banjo developed by Double Fine (thanks to IGN’s Ryan McCaffrey for putting that delicious idea in my head)? Anything of any substance about Elden Ring? A WB Games buyout announcement even?

Well, in just a few days’ time, we’ll know it all. We’ll know what at least some of the Xbox Game Studios have been working on. We’ll know more of what we can expect when the Xbox Series X launches. And perhaps we’ll know if Microsoft could be finally back in the console race. 

But what about you? What are your predictions for Thursday? And is there anything Microsoft could do to win you over or back, or are you holding on for that PS5 pre-order page regardless? Let us know what you think.