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This Was The Best Xbox Showcase In Years (And The Hardest To Root For)


A Call of Duty: Black Ops 6 campaign that looks like Mission: Impossible by way of an Adam Curtis documentary, a Gears of War prequel that shows fans E-Day and the birth of the series’ iconic “Lancer” chainsaw gun, and a trailer that showed Perfect Dark isn’t just still alive, it’s potentially thriving. Microsoft’s 2024 summer showcase was the best that Xbox has looked going back to the Xbox One years. But it’s come at a huge price, and one the company doesn’t seem ready to acknowledge publicly.

Insiders had been hyping the showcase for days, in part due to the fact that its full list of reveals and announcements had already leaked to some in the media and beyond. Fans have been burned before, expecting Xbox to finally turn a corner only to have the football pulled once again and realize the platform is still in another one of its inescapable “rebuilding” years. The proof is always in the games themselves, and how successful they are can only really be determined once they get into players’ hands. For now, though, the showcase delivered.

There was over sixty minutes of games big and small, offering everything from zombie survival to nostalgic teen hangout, punctuated by massive first-party franchises and third-party teases. If you own an Xbox Series X/S there will be plenty to play this year and next. Xbox game studios head Matt Booty’s perennial promise for a steady cadence of quarterly Xbox games worth showing up for might finally come true. The only thing missing from the event was any accountability for what, and who, Microsoft has sacrificed to get here.

It’s been just over a month since the company announced it’s shutting down three studios and reshuffling a fourth. One of the casualties, Tango Gameworks, and its 2023 hit Hi-Fi Rush, seemed to symbolize the best of Xbox in the Game Pass era: a hyper-stylized passion project from a newer team that wowed critics and won awards and wouldn’t have been possible without the “let a thousand flowers bloom” strategy behind the platform’s pivot to a Netflix-like subscription library. In a crushing reversal, however, the deep-pocketed tech giant cut the team, along with storied immersive sim makers Arkane Austin and others. According to internal comments from Booty and the head of parent company Zenimax, there just wasn’t enough bandwidth for one of the three most valuable companies in the world to manage so many studios.

The bad news and bullshit explanation might not have gone down like a lead balloon if Microsoft hadn’t announced mass layoffs just months earlier across several departments, including newly acquired Activision Blizzard. The cuts hit everyone from the Overwatch 2 team to Call of Duty makers Sledgehammer Games, and included the cancellation of Odyssey, a survival crafting fantasy game that might have become the first new franchise from Blizzard in nearly a decade. Microsoft spent $69 billion on the acquisition, Microsoft Gaming CEO Phil Spencer toured the Activision Blizzard King offices shortly after the deal was finalized last fall, and then in early 2024 the mask came off.

Microsoft Gaming CEO Phil Spencer blamed the heel turn on a combination of investor pressure and the stagnation of the console gaming market in interviews with Game File and Polygon. In other words: capitalism. But the complete closure of Tango Gameworks, originally founded by Resident Evil director Shinji Mikami to train a new generation of creatives, seemed especially capricious. The Xbox team didn’t mention the developers it’s laid off and their contributions in its remarks to a live audience ahead of the showcase today, or during the pre-recorded event itself. (Even after learning its fate, Arkane Austin worked hard to push out Redfall’s much-needed final update.)

Instead, Spencer opened the showcase by promoting Black Ops 6 and the company’s desire to bring one of the most popular franchises to even more players through the power of a $17-a-month subscription. It maybe wasn’t surprising given the billions Microsoft paid to acquire the series, but the choice to open the show this way underscored the new reality of an Xbox brand that now needs to make a return worthy of all of those investments. “I haven’t been talking publicly about this, because right now is the time for us to focus on the team and the individuals,” Spencer told IGN later in the day, away from the hundreds of thousands of fans tunning into the showcase.

He continued:

It’s obviously a decision that’s very hard on them, and I want to make sure through severance and other things that we’re doing the right thing for the individuals on the team. It’s not about my PR, it’s not about Xbox PR. It’s about those teams. In the end, I’ve said over and over, I have to run a sustainable business inside the company and grow, and that means sometimes I have to make hard decisions that frankly are not decisions I love, but decisions that somebody needs to go make.

The showcase, meanwhile, didn’t even clear the bar set days prior by Geoff Keighley at the Game Awards host’s own showcase. Xbox president Sarah Bond, who responded with corpo word salad when asked about studio closures last month, closed out the Xbox showcase by pointing to the future instead of dwelling on the recent past. “It’s our mission to make Xbox the best place to play, by including our own studios’ games on Game Pass at launch, by bringing your games into the future with our commitment to game preservation, by pushing the boundaries in our future hardware, and to empower you to play your games wherever you want on Xbox console, PC, and cloud,” she said. “This is what defines Xbox today and in the future, and we’re hard at work on the next generation.”

It was a commitment aimed at reassuring fans still recovering from the shock of the brand’s recent pivots. But the future is built on the past, and every shiny new Xbox game now comes with the question of what will happen to the teams Microsoft has purchased or partnered with, once it no longer feels like they serve its bottom line.

Update 6/9/2024 9:10 p.m. ET: Added comments from Spencer’s post-show interview with IGN.

 



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