It’s a common insult thrown by those who are less than fond of Microsoft’s console: “The Xbox 360 doesn’t have any games!” While I would have vehemently disagreed with this sentiment after the release of Gears of War back in 2006, I’m not so sure any more. With the Halo “trilogy” being expanded by a new development team, the Gears of War franchise done and dusted for the foreseeable future, the Fable series rapidly deteriorating in quality, and interest in Forza paling in comparison to Gran Turismo, it seems that Microsoft has effectively dried up the proverbial well of must-have exclusive titles. What’s left for the next Xbox to make it a must-buy console on launch day?
Where did things go wrong? How did once-great franchises suddenly die out, and how did Microsoft let its successful IPs run their course without acquiring others in the meantime?
Although it’s quite likely that circumstances will change come this June’s E3, Microsoft’s lineup is looking remarkably lackluster for the holiday season, with Halo 4 being the only noteworthy exclusive on the horizon. What happened? The Xbox 360 once featured a wealth of quality exclusive titles, all of which sold exceptionally well despite being new IPs when they first launched. With few first-party studios to rely upon, Microsoft looks to be in a bit of a bind. Where did things go wrong? How did once-great franchises suddenly die out, and why did Microsoft let its successful IPs run their course without acquiring others in the meantime? Let’s break it down, beginning with the now-defunct or dying franchises.
I love to point to Fable as a prime example of how NOT to expand your franchise over time. As much of a visionary as Peter Molyneux can be, the guy has absolutely no idea what his target demographic wants from his creations. The first Fable was an enjoyable, fluid, and unique RPG that delivered on at least half of the promises Molyneux gave us before launch, which still resulted in a damn fine game (to be fair, Peter practically promised us the moon with Fable 1). Fable 2 was an illogical expansion with some poor design decisions that trimmed legitimate gameplay mechanics and any semblance of difficulty from the title. Despite this, it sold quite well, and although I didn’t die a single time, I found it to be a gimped, but enjoyable experience. Fable 3, on the other hand, massacred the franchise. Lionhead Studios continued their ill-directed trend of making games unnecessarily easy, and completely alienated their core demographic with overly simplistic gameplay and numerous steps backward from a design perspective. Add in a few poorly conceived Fable knock-offs, and the franchise no longer carries any weight with core gamers.
Who’s to blame? While Microsoft certainly had a hand in developing and producing the Fable series, it’s likely that Lionhead was forced to follow Molyneux’s dream of ultimate accessibility at the expense of meaningful depth. This mentality was evident in nearly every facet of each Fable game after the first, and the team that once held great promise for the Western RPG became the laughing stock of the genre. Entrusting such a weighty responsibility to Peter Molyneux was Microsoft’s first mistake, and while sales may have reflected otherwise, the Fable series has become a joke.
2.) Project Gotham Racing
PGR3 was one of my all-time favorite racing games ever created, and when Bizarre Creations announced that it would become a subsidiary of Activision, Microsoft lost one of its best first-party developers. Geometry Wars practically sold the XBLA platform in its earliest days, and PGR3 was a perfect showcase of the Xbox 360’s power at launch. Microsoft seemed to care less and less about Bizarre’s ideas as time went on, as is made abundantly clear by the poor marketing and sales behind Project Gotham Racing 4. A mere 450,000 copies of PGR4 have been sold to date in the U.S., with just under 2 million units worldwide. While the game likely generated a small profit, the well of creativity had dried up for Bizarre. After being acquired by Activision, the studio left all rights to the PGR franchise behind and the studio released two half-baked titles, The Club and Blur, which performed abysmally and all but sealed the once-prosperous developer’s fate.
Who’s to blame? Both Microsoft and Bizarre Creations were responsible for the death of the studio, as a deadly combination of poor marketing and reduced creativity caused one of Microsoft’s best first-party developers to gradually faze itself out. After being acquired by Activision and releasing an uncharacteristically poor title (likely as a result of pressure from the mega-publisher), the studio dissolved. It could be argued that Microsoft made the right decision in letting Bizarre go, given the turn of events that transcribed afterwards, but who knows what could have happened had the popular studio stayed with Microsoft Game Studios.
3.) Rare, In General
For a studio with such an impressive track record, one would imagine that Rare would have been an incredible acquisition for Microsoft. As it stands, the venerable developer has provided a very hit and miss set of services for the Xbox 360, and although the family-friendly side of things has been adequately filled by the studio, the hardcore community is crying out for sequels to the classic Rare games of yesteryear. Perfect Dark Zero launched to mixed reactions (I was a fan), and Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts sold poorly, despite being a pretty enjoyable and creative title, but the studio hasn’t touched older franchises since. Currently, Rare’s creative talents have been relegated to Kinect titles and Avatar clothing, which seems like an extraordinary waste of valuable assets. When gamers around the world are screaming for a sequel to Killer Instinct or a new, mature IP, it’s hard not to wonder what the hell Microsoft is thinking by putting Rare on casual duty.
Who’s to blame? Microsoft, for one. After Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts sold poorly, the company opted to restructure Rare to better fit its upcoming Kinect and casual line of games. While titles such as Viva Pinata and Kinect Sports have performed well, they aren’t so much selling points for their respective platforms as they are filling a gaping hole in the Xbox 360’s primarily shooter-dominated library. While this is all good and well, the added diversity has come at the expense of truly memorable Rare titles, which the studio is more than capable of developing when it doesn’t feel the pressure from Microsoft to create titles for all ages. For the next Xbox, Microsoft needs Rare to be working on a killer app that harkens back to the old Rare, and in a big way. Although Rare has, surprisingly, accepted its new duties with oddly placed pride, the developer needs to remember its roots, and that it built its reputation as a hardcore developer, not a casual one. We get it, you’re a multi-faceted developer, Rare, but seriously, it’s time to reminisce a bit and get back the old spark that turned you into such a hot commodity in the first place.
Now, not all of Microsoft’s franchises have gone astray, with the likes of Halo and Gears of War delivering timeless experiences as a matter of habit. Still, these titles have run their course over the entire generation of the Xbox 360, and with the exception of the new “Reclaimer Trilogy” for the Halo series, there isn’t much else in the way of exclusive content for Microsoft in the years to come. Where Epic Games goes from here is yet to be announced, the future of Kinect is uncertain, and how 343 Industries handles the Halo franchise is still to be determined. Things are looking a bit shaky for Microsoft, and although multiplatform titles tend to sell better on the Xbox platform, that trend may change in the next generation of consoles.
Where things go from here is completely up in the air, but one thing’s for sure: Microsoft needs to start building an all-star catalog of titles to push the next Xbox into as many homes as possible, or risk losing its strong foothold in the industry. With a few extra additions as well, Microsoft could be poised to take the world by storm come launch day. Let’s just hope we see some exclusive titles in the pipeline before then.