Unity and Brand Awareness

When we talk about games we occasionally tend to talk about the graphics, the audio, gameplay, but we rarely think about what’s behind all of that: the engine. We hear about Frostbite, EA’s proprietary engine that’s been largely advertised and is responsible for most of their projects, Unreal, behind a lot of some of the biggest AAA releases, and the CryEngine, known for being the driving force behind Crysis.

 

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Battlefield 1 is an example of the power of Frostbite

 

But last week, a controversy surrounding Unity brought to the discussion the image of these engines. A consumer on steam claimed that he wouldn’t buy a game specifically because it was built using Unity. And many wondered why would anybody give up playing a title simply because of the engine used. The answer is brand awareness.

Every decision a company makes, from the color of the product, specs, sounds it does, to the strategy used to advertise it, all of that aims at brand awareness. That basically consists of the image that a company or a product has on the market. The sound the Xbox does when it boots wasn’t chosen by accident, after all, they use at E3, in trailers, all to create a connection with consumers, an identity, a sound that becomes synonymous with the brand, that it doesn’t matter where you are, you recognize it.

Apple is a master at that, from the aspect of the stores, with a clean look mainly composed of glass and a minimalistic approach to its layout, to the box, that according to Steve Jobs should be an experience when opened. The design of their products, focusing on round shapes, the OS that has a friendlier user experience, the integration of the systems, to create the idea of an ecosystem that works perfectly in conjunction. All of that to change or create the perception of the consumer.

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A clean and sophisticated design, a characteristic that Apple cherishes

And when it comes to brand awareness, Unity has a very negative reputation. In part because of poor decisions from management, but mainly because of the games that use the engine. The simplest of the most famous, Unity has made their name as the easiest to use, allowing a user without much game development experience to create a game with less technical hurdles than Unreal and CryEngine.

However, an irresponsible use of assets by developers and an association with low-quality early access games have tarnished the image of not only the engine, as well as the company.

The abusive use of assets from their store has also been responsible for their image problem, with many cases in which we can see the same models and problems in various different games that use Unity.

Developers have used them indiscriminately, with a lot of them using the free license, that requires users to attach their logo to the game, so whenever you start a horrible, poorly designed game and you see their main source of recognition in the splash screen, you relate it to a bad experience.

Many of these titles proliferated through Steam Early Access, and even though we can find many using CryEngine and Unreal, Unity has been the most linked to them.

Another factor is that whereas the other engines appear to be used mainly on AAA games, we rarely see that happening with Unity. The most high-profile project using it is Hearthstone, that is not the kind of game that feels like AAA. Just look at some famous games powered by these engines.

Hearthstone
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CryEngine
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Unreal

 

From what we’ve seen, this situation apparently won’t change that quickly, as the company doesn’t appear to be all that bothered about it. And that could quickly result in a bad ending for them, particularly after the backlash it has suffered recently.

If they are responsible, working on a rebranding focused on attaching their product with quality games, looking to sway the notion gamers have of them, everything can change quickly. If no action is taken, they can either accept that they will never be among the best engines or even worse, become another company that died due to irresponsible management, that didn’t take the market’s viewpoint seriously.

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E3 Expectations: Microsoft

On a new day, Sunday afternoon, Xbox has their most important press conference of the past few years, in what it looks like a make or break one. Looking to reveal the highly anticipated Project Scorpio, address the lack of first-party titles and the assumption that there are no real meaningful games on the platform. And unlike last year, no leaks have surfaced regarding their revelations. So, what can we expect from the Xbox this year?

Project Scorpio

Scorpio Chip

First things first, the moment that can help define the brand for the next year, Project Scorpio, or the most powerful console ever made. We’ll probably see the final design of the console, that according to reports may have a similar one to the One S. We’ll find out the release date, I’d guess September, to be launched with Forza 7, and the tricky part, the price.

If it’s 499,00 it shows a company that’s thinking about differentiating it, displaying to the market that it is a premium product. However, it creates a space in which PlayStation could lower the price of the PS4 Pro to 349,00, in a situation impossible to compete, given the price difference. If I were them, I’d eat the loss, and would bring it at 399,00, being a powerful demonstration to the market that they are here not only to compete, but to win. But a Ferrari isn’t anything without gas, and a console isn’t anything without games.

Games

Talking about games, we expect to hear more about the exclusives promised by Phil Spencer. And here I’ll try to separate some possibilities and some guesses regarding First, Third-party and Indie titles that may appear in the conference.

First – party

343 Industries – Halo Spin-off or Perfect Dark Reboot

They have announced that they won’t show the new Halo, but instead they’ll show something else. Maybe it is a 10-year anniversary edition of Halo 3. But I prefer to think that it may be a spin-off title of the Halo series, something like Halo Reach, but in another genre, maybe a third-person shooter.

There’s been rumors regarding the possibility of 343 creating a new IP or a Perfect Dark for the Xbox One. Personally, I find it a great idea, it could become a way to use something from their back catalogue to become another staple for the brand. A female-lead FPS is very rare to find in the market, and 343 has proved to be able to produce quality titles, and they could change the setting so it won’t overlap with Halo. But in the end, I think they’ll just talk about Halo Wars 2 DLC.

Rare – Sea of Thieves and New Banjo, Possibly

Sea of Thieves looks like one of the most promising titles for the platform, after all, it could become a profitable game as a service, something that Phil Spencer has been talking a lot about in the media. The team-based structure with a strong multiplayer focus could reap benefits to the console, representing the resurrection of Rare as we used to know: an innovative and beloved company.

Tests have been happening and from what can be seen around the web, the reception has been very positive. It could become of a surprise, if it manages to keep players engaged for a long time, with a robust update strategy, producing new content, missions, places to explore. But most multiplayer centric titles have failed to do that, with the vast majority becoming ghost towns after a few months.

Few games like Destiny had legs for years, and who knows, Sea of Thieves could become a tentpole franchise for the brand, however it’s facing an uphill battle. Another project is currently being developed at Rare, and there’s been talks that it is Battletoads, but I can think of another studio more suited for it, that I’ll talk about a little later. Rumors of a return of Banjo have surfaced after a tweet from the creator of the franchise hinting at a possible reveal, but at least this year we might not hear much, only a teaser, as it wouldn’t make sense to overflow the audience with Rare projects, as it could confuse the audience.

Turn 10 – Forza Motorsport 7

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Another year comes and another Forza will be revealed, and unless a surprise happens, Forza Motorsport 7 will likely come out this year. In a very different situation than when 6 was unveiled, as the smaller brother of the Horizon spin-off, that received critical acclaim and sold extremely well, being regarded as one of the best games of last year, and one of the best racing games ever.

Mainly because while the spin-off series always brings innovations, rain, snow, interesting DLC’s as the Hot Wheels for Horizon 3, the Motorsport series seems to be always one step behind. I’d guess that the biggest innovation will be more racers online, 4K, and snow, and if that is all, they will continue as the inferior Forza game.

Reagent Games – Crackdown 3

Crackdown 3

The one game that can become their main Fall game is Crackdown 3, and after years of silence around the game, it looks like they’ll come with guns blazing at E3. A franchise that received some love in the 360 generation, but never reached the stratosphere, Crackdown comes back with the original director, and a promise to use the power of the cloud, fast-paced, heroic action.

It will work as a gamble for them, and I’d say that it will be the game which they try to push as the face of Scorpio. A beautiful open-world, a gameplay based on destruction is perfect to show the power of the machine, and if successful, can be instrumental to the success of the platform. I wouldn’t be surprised if they came with a new name, either removing the 3 or with a subtitle, looking to release it with a clean slate.

The Coalition – Gears of War 4 DLC

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They will make an appearance, but unless they bring a new IP this will probably be about DLC for Gears of War 4, maybe a story one, looking to develop on the story told, maybe enhancing some side characters. But other than that, it doesn’t look like it will blow people away, but we can always hope.

Undead Labs – State of Decay 2

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Even though it comes from a second-party studio, State of Decay 2 is being treated like first-party, set to be much bigger and expansive than the first entry in the franchise. The studio has more employees now, a bigger investment from Microsoft, appearing to be a bet of the company as a Fall lineup title. With a more complex world, mechanics and moving towards a AAA level, expecting to repeat the success of the first one and improve on it.

Indies

My personal bet would be that the indie exclusives will be part of a sale highlighting them, like what Summer of Arcade would do. My bet would go on a lineup with Below, Tacoma, We Happy Few, Cuphead and a Battletoads reboot. Going a little further, I’d say that their indie highlight reel will be composed of games present in the sale.

Moon Studios – Ori 2 or Battletoads

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Here’s where Battletoads comes to me, and it may sound strange, but bear with me. Can you think of any other studio with better credentials to do it? Ori and the Blind Forest was a beautiful platformer, that had a Metroidvania structure, was just stunning, recognized for its quality and difficulty. I can’t think of better of better characteristics for any studio to work on it, it doesn’t even have to have a Metroidvania structure.

Let’s face it, the Battletoads franchise isn’t as important as people like to remember, it’s not a juggernaut. And releasing it as a 2D platformer with 3D elements is the safest and most reasonable way to do it. It would be a nice answer after Phil Spencer’s E3 shirt. And if that doesn’t happen, we can get a new Ori.

The Fullbright Company – Tacoma

Tacoma

The second game of The Fullbright Company, Tacoma, has the hard task to follow Gone Home, a revered indie game that reached the mainstream through its remarkable storytelling. An exclusive for the Xbox One, it would fit beautifully in the summer.

Set in a space station, it shows some unique gameplay elements, and a heavy focus on storytelling. It was scheduled to be released in 2016, but was delayed in order to change some areas the developers weren’t happy with. We can expect the final release date this E3.

Compulsion Games – We Happy Few

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The biggest surprise of last year, We Happy Few might come back with a gameplay demo, or a trailer of the story mode. After being part of the preview program, we’ll probably find out the release date of this long-awaited indie game.

Capybara Games – Below

Below

Dark Souls with an isometric view, that’s how Below has been defined. From the studio behind Super Time Force, Below has had a troubled development, with several delays. To the point that the studio has announced that they would only talk about a date when they were certain. And I think this E3 will be their last chance to garner some attention to their title, without the fear of tiring the consumer, that has heard about it for years. Sometimes you just must release it and don’t think about it.

StudioMDHR – Cuphead

Cuphead

Cuphead, an indie darling, that received a lot of attention not only from the media, but also by fans, mainly due to its unique visual style, is scheduled to return to the Microsoft stage. Although the hype has certainly decreased, as what happened to Below, due to a prolonged exposure, Cuphead should be released in the next few months.

Third – party

Splinter Cell (Exclusive?)

Splinter Cell

This is a guess that for some reason looks very feasible, mainly due to a fairly recent history of the franchise. Splinter Cell: Conviction was a console exclusive for the 360, and I believe this story could be repeated here. Blacklist wasn’t an overwhelming success, with the franchise ever since being dormant, so if Microsoft decided to finance a sequel, that could become a real possibility. And it would fill a void in the company’s catalogue, something that Phil Spencer always talks about. Who knows a reboot might be coming.

Ninja Gaiden (Again, exclusive?)

Ninja-Gaiden

Another dormant franchise since 2014, the Ninja Gaiden series has a history the brand before, with 2004’s Ninja Gaiden being originally exclusive to the OG Xbox. After Nioh’s success, Microsoft must be paying close attention considering bringing a hack n’ slash to their audience.

An alleged leak of this year’s conference referred to a title from the franchise coming exclusively to the console. Spencer himself acknowledged on Twitter his awareness of the desire of the Xbox audience earlier this year. Although it’s all circumstantial, it wouldn’t really come as a surprise if it happened.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War

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With the marketing agreement, we’ll probably see an extended gameplay of the first game announced to the Scorpio. We should find out more about the story and the Nemesis system in the demo.

Assassin’s Creed Origins

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As reported by the reliable insider Shinobi, Microsoft closed a marketing agreement with a massive IP, and this looks like the most probable choice. It would be a great stage to show the comeback of the franchise, that skipped a year, in order to further polish the title, in what looks like a reboot.

Cyberpunk 2077

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CD Projekt Red claims that they are focusing on Gwent, but a teaser wouldn’t hurt anybody, only make them go crazy.

Borderlands 3

Borderlands 3

Rumors say that it will have a significant appearance at Microsoft’s conference, and it does feel like the right time to do it.

Studio Gobo – Not Yet Known

The studio behind the Disney Infinity playset announced a partnership with Microsoft for an exclusive game, and some job openings gave us some hints regarding what the project could be about. A third-person AAA action game, that may be a free-to-play based on a famous IP. Could it be a Halo game, Gears, or based on a property from other medium? There are no real hints, but it is the most mysterious and exciting project we may see.

Some Predictions and 1 Crazy Thing I’d Like to See

  • One or two free games given, as what happened in the past few years.
  • Sunset Overdrive 2 announced, will be released February 2018.
  • Skate 4 on stage following reveal at EA’s conference.
  • OG Xbox backwards compatibility announced.
  • Marvel announces an exclusive game for the platform, my bets: Iron Man, Captain America or The Avengers.
  • Dino Crisis reboot or exclusive Capcom game.
  • Possible Obsidian AAA exclusive.
  • thatgamecompany’s new game announced.
  • Dino Crisis reboot exclusive for Xbox.

1 Crazy Thing I’d Like to See: Phil Spencer with an IO shirt revealing they bought the studio and the Hitman Franchise.

What’s Behind the Sale of IO Interactive

Last week, Square Enix in a release to investors announced that they were parting ways with IO Interactive, looking for possible buyers for the talented Danish studio. What ended being a surprise, given that they announced record net-sales and an increase in profit driven by the releases of Final Fantasy XV and Rise of the Tomb Raider to the PS4.

What no one could expect was the decision to sell the studio behind the Hitman franchise. Especially after the good reception from critics, being nominated for several game of the year awards. But what could motivate the company to sell a well-regarded studio, especially if they are not in a dangerous financial condition? Let’s talk about it.

Hitman Needed to Be Bigger

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The first reason behind this decision could be one that may not be that pleasant, but the truth is that the Hitman series isn’t as big as it needs to be. The studio doesn’t really have a juggernaut in their hands, at least not commercially. Their two main franchises, Kane & Lynch, is now defunct for years after the Dog Days debacle, and Hitman, never reached the same height that other games in the same genre did.

Whereas Splinter Cell managed to sell several millions of copies, the Metal Gear series is one of the most important, successful and influential in the industry, Hitman always seemed to be smaller, more focused on a niche, never rivaling with the bigger players. Efforts like the movies also didn’t elevate the status of the franchise, with both movies underperforming, failing to reach the $100 million mark at the box office.

It has a faithful following, with passionate fans that love the more open-ended nature of the title, something that became its trademark. But sales never reached the 5 million mark, slowly decreasing with every launch, with Absolution being heavily criticized by fans due to a simplification of the stealth system, despite posting respectable sales numbers.

The Stealth Genre Has Seen Better Days

Hitman

The genre in which it is part of is also going through a crisis, the Splinter Cell series is currently on hiatus since the release of Blacklist, that failed to meet Ubisoft’s expectations, selling 2 million copies despite a significant investment of the publisher.

Franchises like Assassin’s Creed went on to grow after it started to abandon its stealth roots, Dishonored 2 had underwhelming sales even though critically it was extremely well-received. Other Square Enix franchises with a heavy focus on stealth are struggling, like Thief, that went through a failed reboot, being critically panned and with weak sales, essentially killing it.

The Deus EX franchise is on hold after Mankind Divided failed to attract attention in the market, again with a good critical reception, but a lukewarm from the public. Something that seemed to happen with the 2016 Hitman reboot, that innovated using an episodic model for an AAA title.

With each new level showing the quality of the studio, managing to find an audience, and accruing praise, being nominated for game of the year awards by several outlets. But unable to translate it to significant sales. Feeling like it was part of a bubble, that adored the game, but never reached the mainstream awareness to be considered successful.

Square Enix’s Strategy is Changing

Avengers

Even though it remains as an important publisher in the industry, the company has been taking some hits in the past few years, with interesting titles that look as if they never reach their full potential. As the aforementioned franchises,  Just Cause appeals to a smaller audience, even their biggest ones like Tomb Raider, struggled  to compete with its release on Xbox One with Fallout, despite being an amazing game, and Final Fantasy XV looked like a last try to bring the franchise to its golden years, that fortunately worked.

In the same release, the company revealed its plans to focus on 1-2 AAA titles per year, multi-platform games, remasters, showing a more conservative approach to the market. Their partnership with Marvel to produce an Avengers and another unannounced game comes to fill the space of their IP’s that haven’t performed as expected.

Dropping a studio like IO seems to be an effective way to diminish its structure, becoming a leaner and more focused company. Reports that the studio may retain the IP only seems to corroborate the fact that they want to have a smaller but more significant portfolio.

Possible Buyers

 

But there should be many suitors to buy them, and I thought about some companies that could benefit from their talents, and the IP itself. Thinking about the possibilities, four stood out:

Amazon Game Studios: With their own engine, they could use a studio that has produced quality titles, and is battle-tested. Recently they have made some moves, bringing a former creative director of the Need For Speed series, bringing IO and Hitman to their portfolio would be a very interesting move.

Deep Silver: They have tried to become one of the biggest players in the market, and they showed some promise with Saint’s Row and the Metro series. But unfortunately, they’ve had more hits than misses lately, with the abysmal Homefront: The Revolution and the questionable Mighty No. 9. It would show that they are looking into becoming serious players in the market.

THQ Nordic: Their efforts seem a little unfocused, announcing several smaller titles that don’t really appear to entice the market. However, they have announced Darksiders III, another beloved franchise that could end up growing, and bringing an established franchise could cement them as an up and coming publisher.

Microsoft: This is the one that makes the most sense to me, after closing some studios recently, like Lionhead, and canceling several titles, their first-party situation looks bleak. The Forza, Gears, Halo combination hasn’t been able to please the market and is beginning to look weak when compared to its competitors. In a participation on Unlocked #285, Phil Spencer talked about revamping their first-party studios, and this could be an important move, showing to their consumers that they think about the future of the brand. And they could use IO’s talent to either continue the Hitman series, that wouldn’t be required to sell as much in this kind of environment and would fill a void in their portfolio or even create a new AAA IP.

What the future holds for IO nobody knows, but that there’s no doubt that they have a bright one.

 

 

 

Are We Seeing the Beginning of the End of the Physical Market?

For a while now the digital market has emerged as the future of the games industry, with its participation growing exponentially. In the past few years it has already dominated the PC landscape, and every year it increases their participation in the console space. To the point that 60% of EA’s  total business revenue comes from the digital market reaching almost $3 billion in the last 12 months, 47% of Ubisoft’s sales come from digital products, increasing more than 84% when compared to the previous year, becoming an instrumental market to any company.

A confluence of reasons allowed this growth to happen, such as the improvement of the internet infrastructure worldwide, with improved speed and reliability. The ease of being able to purchase a game without the need to wait for days until the game is delivered, allied to the capacity to play from the second it is released. Services such as PS Plus and Games with Gold giving dozens of games each year, the growth of the indie scene, that is very hard to find physically, and smaller prices, bigger sales, also helped attract consumers to this market.

Yesterday another example of these changing times was the announcement of the Xbox Game Pass, a service that for a monthly fee allows gamers to access a library in excess of 100 games. Having a similar structure to Netflix and Spotify, services that dominate their respective markets and were in part responsible for the downfall of the physical market in the movies and music industry, but also a new source of revenue and a revival, changing the way people consume their entertainment.

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Nowadays digital transactions represent more than 27% of Microsoft’s gaming division revenue, considering hardware and software. And in 2014, the first sign of this focus was the arrival of EA Access, that similar to Xbox Game Pass, gives you access to EA’s library, trials and discounts. After the announcement of both services, Gamespot’s shares tumbled, showing a level of concern over their future.

And in order to not become redundant, Gamestop, the biggest video game retailer in the world, has tried to change their business strategy. Focusing on geek culture, selling licensed products from major franchises, trying to reach a new audience, especially since their revenue, number of stores, and relevance has diminished significantly in the past few years.

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They also started GameTrust, their publishing arm, representing their biggest opportunity to stay in the market, if everything goes as planned. Partnering with studios such as Insomniac and Ready at Dawn, to finance and publish new titles, creating products based on these properties that can only be found in their stores. With their first foray being Song of the Deep, with about 80% of the sales coming from retail.

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But the most unexpected and perhaps the most important player in this situation, and that could propel this change even faster, is the US president-elect Donald Trump. With his intent to roll out trade tariffs, he can end up affecting the physical market negatively.

Living in Brazil I managed to see this situation closely when the PS4 was released for more than $1.800,00 due to heavy taxation, being recognized by Nintendo as the main reason to end their distribution in the country. With the only way out being producing the console as well as the games locally, as Microsoft has done with the Xbox One from the beginning, and Sony followed suit later with the PS4.

A big part of the expense behind physical games comes from manufacturing and logistics. Printing games, distributing, are all expenses that don’t affect the digital market. Many materials come from other countries, distribution centers might be located overseas, as well as many other parts of the business don’t happen in the US, creating a scenario in which game prices may increase.

If companies are required to bring their business to the US, the overall cost of production will increase, after all the American worker is a lot more expensive than the European, Mexican, Canadian worker. A situation that could create an extremely positive environment for digital stores, that due to a slimmer infrastructure can have much lower prices, to the point of going below the $60,00 price tag for releases, becoming much more attractive than any program offered by a retail store.

Yes, this law is focused in the US, but we are talking about the biggest gaming market in the world. If the American market adopts digital games as the standard for consoles, the entire industry will follow suit, maybe not immediately, but eventually. Microsoft’s decision to create an all-digital service was the biggest example of one of the Big Three companies taking a significant step towards this change.

Whether people like it or not, we are roaming towards an all-digital future, such as the other areas of entertainment. It has never been cheaper and easier to watch a movie, listen to an album, read a book, and from what it looks like, the same will happen with games, and from what we can see from companies such as EA and Microsoft, they can’t wait for it to happen.

PS: Two videos of the Colin Was Right series were part of the inspiration for this text, and they go even further in other subjects, so watch them and enjoy.

Xbox’s Moment of Truth

The Xbox brand has been in the market for more than 15 years, becoming a huge player in the gaming market, rivaling with much more well-known brands such as the PlayStation and Nintendo. However recently there’s a feeling that despite the leadership of Phil Spencer, that has changed their image focusing on consumer friendly initiatives, the Xbox might be at a crossroads.

A lack of meaningful exclusives, the cancellation of Scalebound, even things out of their reach, like the surprisingly good lineup of exclusives Sony has presented in 2017, and the Nintendo Switch release have overshadowed Microsoft’s gaming division. Bringing a lot of doubt and concern towards their consumers that feel that the console is being abandoned in favor of Scorpio.

Xbox’s first party situation is very different from its competitors, with only a handful of studios working on franchises that even though remain relevant, seems to have lost some of their power. Forza, Gears of War and Halo still are crucial to Microsoft, but the latest entries of Gears and Halo didn’t  have the same level of excitement or hype around it, with sales figures being unimpressive when compared to what they were able to accomplish before.

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Only Forza is growing in sales and mindshare, with sales of Forza Horizon 3 far surpassing those of FH2 and being regarded by many outlets as one of the best games of the year. Quantum Break, Sunset Overdrive are examples of new IP’s that didn’t find an audience on Xbox One and despite being well-received, they wouldn’t have the staying power required to turn into a franchise.

Microsoft’s strategy in E3 of only revealing games that will release until the end of the year has been detrimental to the company lately. It is comforting and a lot more honest to know that we won’t see games 3 years away from release, but if there’s nothing to expect in the horizon, there’s no reason for the consumer to be excited. Creating a feeling that there’s nothing during the first semester of every year, and that there are no games on Xbox, when Sony has Horizon: Zero Dawn, Nier: Automata, Nioh and Nintendo has Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

The recent wave of cancellations and studios shut downs has also affected negatively the public perception of the company. Fable Legends, Scalebound, Phantom Dust were cancelled, with Scalebound’s being the one that received the biggest attention, after several delays, poor demos and millions of dollars invested. Lionhead being shut down disappointed fans of Fable, a unique franchise in a genre uncommon in console exclusives, and that looks defunct now.

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Nonetheless, some signs of changes are coming, from what seems to be a reboot for a company that has been outsold by its main competitor easily. Mike Ybarra, an important figure in the Xbox ecosystem, being promoted to vice president of the division is a sign that the Xbox’s leadership is composed of gamers, joining Phil Spencer in his attempt to revitalize it.

Another important decision began last year, announcing Scorpio at the end of the E3 conference, showing a Microsoft willing to fight and flex their muscles, talking about their mid-cycle console that feels like a new Xbox, before Sony even mentioned the PS4 Pro. And this year the company changed their E3 showcase to Sunday, leaving their trademark Monday morning slot.

It may appear silly, but having more than 24 hours ahead of Sony’s presentation gives them more space in the media and a bigger repercussion to their announcements. Without the need to compete on the same day with Sony, they can feel free to show their new projects without being eclipsed only a few hours later.

But if they don’t come with guns blazing, showing the Scorpio, new exciting games, at least a new AAA IP, all can be lost. Despite showing that Microsoft believes in their lineup for the show, and this level of confidence reassures their consumers, if it is anything less than impressive, Sony will have enough time to do some minor changes to their presentation and also be able to refute Redmond’s company.

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An announcement made today signals a different approach from Phil Spencer’s team, Xbox Game Pass, a Netflix-like service that allows customers to pay a fee to access more than 100 games a month, downloading them, and giving a 20% discount, something never seen before on this scale in the console market. In the announcement a light attack to PS Now, similar to when the company announced the Xbox One S, focused on differentiating them from Sony’s service in the sense that you don’t have to stream the game, since it is on your console, creating a smaller reliance on internet stability.

Being a bold move, especially considering the fact that they are basically affecting the physical market directly,  with Gamestop’s shares declining more than 7,8% today, making a move towards the digital future. As the first major company to show their intent to focus on a digital-only market on console, as what already happens in the PC  space with Steam, GOG, it displays a brazen attitude that might really pay off in a near future.

This focus on innovation can determine the future of the Xbox, that with the release of Scorpio can see a revival, a breath of fresh air. Xbox Game Pass looks like the perfect decision, allowing gamers to enjoy what they love the most, games, for an affordable price. When E3 comes, if we see that the Scorpio is the monster it’s claimed to be, filled with meaningful exclusives, a consumer-oriented environment, and new features, we can finally have a competitor for the PlayStation, something we haven’t seen yet this generation, and we badly need. After all, if Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft are successful, we win as gamers.

 

Scalebound is Another Example Why Microsoft Can’t Have Their “PSX”

This week Scalebound, one of the most expected exclusives of this year on the Xbox platform, was cancelled after more than 4 years of development. Being another exclusive that was announced by Microsoft and didn’t come to fruition in this generation, like Fable Legends, Phantom Dust.

This year’s lineup that didn’t really looked as appealing as in years past now is even weaker. And to me, that’s another example why the Xbox brand doesn’t have the power to have their “PSX”.

For the past three years, PlayStation has organized the PlayStation Experience, a.k.a. PSX, and fans of Xbox have been clamoring for a similar event. Despite using my XONE as my main platform, I just can’t agree with this idea, and the cancellation of Scalebound is a perfect example why, along with many other reasons, such as:

Lack of Strong First-Party Exclusives

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Scalebound was just another example of Microsoft’s policy of using third-party studios to produce their exclusives. And even though a lot of them were excellent titles, like KOTOR, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Ninja Gaiden, Alan Wake, just to name a few, they don’t feel as part of the Xbox brand.

A lot of them never went on to become a franchise associated with the console, going to PlayStation later. All due to a pale number of first-party studios compared to their competitors. And even the amazing indies of the Summer of Arcade age can be played everywhere else, losing any identity with the console.

Inability of Creating Memorable Franchises

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When the game in the image above was announced, a lot of people, including me, thought that it was a new IP and not a revival of Phantom Dust, an obscure Xbox exclusive that is unknown to most gamers. Watching PSX’s conference you could see people cheering for games such as Parappa the Rapper, LocoRoco, Patapon, Dangaronpa, receiving a warm reception in spite of never being huge franchises.

If feels like the Xbox consoles don’t have those smaller, unusual, artistic games that appealed to a hardcore audience, like Journey, Shadow of the Colossus. Having only Halo, Gears, Forza, the now in the limbo, Fable as their trademark franchises, whereas Sony has many cult hits over the years that created a fandom that is extremely faithful to the PlayStation brand.

Something that Microsoft has been unable to do, and we see that in sales numbers, with 4 active PS franchises (Uncharted, Gran Turismo, Ratchet & Clank, God of War) selling over 20 million copies, and only 2 from Xbox (Halo and Gears of War), with no new franchise in sight as a possible massive hit.

No Recognition of Third-Party Games as Theirs

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When you think about Final Fantasy, Metal Gear, Destiny, more recently Resident Evil 7, you end up thinking about PlayStation. With many having no idea that titles of these franchises have been released for Xbox consoles, and in this specific generation it feels stronger than ever. Sony has been able to attach their name to a game so strongly that the audience reacts to them as a first-party title, all due to a successful use of marketing agreements, and titles that were part of the establishment of their brand.

Scalebound was an expected title because it looked like something that the Xbox One doesn’t really have, an exclusive AAA JRPG. In this generation, many of XONE exclusives didn’t take off like Sunset Overdrive for example, and it feels like more games are being cancelled than released.

A large-scale fan event from Microsoft would be great, but unfortunately, the Xbox brand doesn’t have the variety and the franchise power than their competitors have. Like Nintendo and Sony do, and yes, they have more time in this market, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that without Halo, that doesn’t have the same impact as it used to, and Gears, that went through a soft reboot, a Xbox console may fail due to a lack of a established history with gamers.

 

 

Why You Should Play: Forza Horizon 1 & Forza Horizon 2

I’ve always been a huge fan of racing games, with that being one of my favorite genres, from Super Mario Kart, to Top Gear on the SNES, to Gran Turismo 2, NFS: Underground 1 & 2. But as I got my Xbox 360 I felt like I couldn’t find good racing games, I became a orphan of Gran Turismo, since I never had the PS3, and ever since the Underground series ended and the Need For Speed series started releasing title like Undercover, I didn’t have fun with the genre, with the exception of Burnout Paradise. Enters the Forza Horizon series.

But why should you play Forza Horizon and Forza Horizon 2?

Forza Horizon

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In 2012, the first entry of the series, Forza Horizon, was released, and after years of lackluster arcade racing games, a new studio formed by former Project Gotham Racing, Codemasters veterans, introduced us to a spin-off title that deviated from the main series in the best way possible.

The story was very simple, you are a novice racer looking to become the No. 1 driver of the Horizon Festival, a mix of a car show and a music festival in Colorado. And little by little you evolve, unlocking new races, earning XP, money, and recognition, changing the color of your wrist band as you progress, being rewarded not only for coming first as well for the style and skills you exhibit in each race, as well as in free roaming.

The garage had a very  nice number of options, from Range Rovers, to Jeeps, Ferraris, and an interesting customization system, that was greatly improved on the sequel, all being done, purchase of cars, paint shop, in the hub of the festival.

When it comes to races you have the option of normal ones, underground races, where you can make a lot more money, and exhibitions, where you race against a plane, balloons, just to name a few, in a nice twist that brought something new to a genre that lacks innovations sometimes. An interesting decision by the developers was of creating “rivals”, with famous drivers of the festival trash talking you before every race, and giving you a financial boost if you beat them.

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Despite being located in only one place, you have a nice variation of scenarios, from mountains to small towns, with a beautiful game, that still holds up, that runs smoothly. Different from the Motorsport series, here you also have a more laid back approach to driving, with the game leaning more towards Arcade, leaving a lot of possibilities to change the assists, making more money and more XP as you turn them off.

And everything is enhanced by my favorite soundtrack ever found in a game, being better than the sequel’s. Going from indie rock, to electronic, pop, being extremely varied, and so good that you can even use it at a party, playing a huge role in creating this amazing environment, where you can just relax and just drive around the map, enjoying the views, the day-night cycle, going after special cars that are hidden in barns, finding outposts where you can do challenges, never being out of things to do.

Forza Horizon 2

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In 2014, Playground Games elevated the level with the release of Forza Horizon 2, bringing many innovations, being the first title of this generation. The story was pretty similar to the first one, but we don’t really play these games because of it, once again with an underdog story, but in a new location.

The graphical upgrade was significant, with the cars looking better than ever, using assets from Motorsport 5, an even greater number of models, with the premiere of Porches, and expanded customization options, all aided by one of the best locations you’re gonna find in any game, the Mediterranean sea, expanding between the Italian and the French coasts. With the world becoming a character of its own, being a real open world, adding rain, a first for the Forza series, looking simply incredible, as well as off-road races in which you can destroy fences, drive through beautiful fields, go pretty much anywhere, all with stunning vistas, that motivated me to stop and use a game’s photo mode for the first time.

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Races are now part of championships, that you need to finish a certain number to challenge the best Horizon Festival driver, with every city having championships that were separated by car styles, against drivatars, ghosts that emulate your friends style of driving, that are much better than those in Forza Motorsport 5. And every time you finish a championship you can choose another city to go and start a new one, but as you go there you go through a road trip with other drivers, having a specific amount of time, always more than enough, to get there and earn a substantial amount of XP, being a nice way to just enjoy a calmer experience in between races.

And each time you level up in the game you earn something, if it’s due to XP gained by wins in championships and exhibitions, you can do a wheelspin, where you can win cars or a specific amount of money. If you level up due to skill displays, you earn points that allow you to unlock perks, like a boost in XP after each win, or a bigger duration of the skill chain, including others.

The exhibitions reached a whole new level, with one being a race of a Ferrari against jets, as seen in the picture above, always being crazier and more interesting than the previous. A new system called Bucket List was also added, with challenges where you have to use your skills to beat them, with different levels of difficulty, trying to outplay your rivals, as well as  the developers.

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The musical side became even more important, with new radios, including one of classical music, reflecting the beauty of the world, with an upbeat feeling, and bands like Chvrches, Pixies, Cage The Elephant, including others. Multiplayer got a lot of attention, becoming easier to find people to play with the addition of Clubs, Meet-ups, and allowing you to take road trips online, all working seamlessly and simpler than in Forza Horizon.

Both games are not only great racing titles, they truly are great games overall, being varied, beautiful, a true joy to play, incredibly fun, aligning gameplay and graphics like few do out there, never harming one in benefit of the other, and working as a great way to just get lost and forget about everything, being friendly to both veterans in the genre as to newcomers.

 

 

 

 

Expectations for Fall Season

Fall Season has arrived upon us with the release of the acclaimed Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Batman: The Telltale Series, amongst other games, the best time of the year has come to destroy our wallets and our savings, and warm our hearts, and I’ll talk about some of my personal expectations regarding some releases from September to December, a few major titles may not appear here, but after all it’s my most expected, so…

September

Recore

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To kick things off, a game that had an enticing reveal trailer that left gamers intrigued with the concept of a heroine being assisted by robots that could evolve, and the relationship dynamic around it, Recore, will be released on the 13th, with concerns surrounding the title due to a lack of a marketing push from Microsoft, mixed reception from previews, however the team behind it is composed of industry veterans, known for the Metroid Prime and Megaman series, and from what it has been shown that’s a title that may not have the most complex story or amazing graphics, but a fun and interesting gameplay.

Forza Horizon 3

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One of my favorite franchises, and one that has maintained a steady level of quality throughout its iterations, showing great and considerable improvements, Forza Horizon 3, out on the 27th, seems to elevate the level of the franchise, that will premiere on PC, and spin the story, from an unknown driver fighting for recognition, now you are the man or woman behind the Horizon Festival, organizing the events, hiring your friends and firing them if they don’t perform, all with one of the most beautiful settings anyone could ask, Australia, from the coast to jungles, with breathtaking vistas, and the stunning graphics and great gameplay we’ve come to expect from the franchise.

Destiny: Rise of Iron

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A game that has transformed a lot from the troubled release, with terrible reviews and expectations being shattered, to last year’s The Taken King expansion, that I have to admit I enjoyed a lot more that I’d expected, Destiny: Rise of Iron, out on the 20th, is a new promising expansion with new missions that will expand on the franchise’s lore and improve the story in meaningful ways, multiplayer changes, a raid, all while leaving last generation behind, what looks like a great move, bringing new gameplay and graphical possibilities, preparing the market for next year’s Destiny 2 expected release.

October

Mafia 3

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This is a surprise for me,  especially since I’ve never played any game of this franchise, Mafia 3, out on the 7th, has turned into my most expected for the entire year, with the promise of a grueling and mature story, of a former soldier, Lincoln Clay, coming back from war to find his family and city, New Bordeaux, torn apart by crime, displaying his climb through the ranks, tackling tough themes that we hardly see in any games, such as racism, prostitution, and the dark side of crime and America, all with a soundtrack that has everything to be one of the best ever and a concern on world-building that looks into enhancing the atmosphere of the US in the 60’s, that if done properly, can create a remarkable experience.

Titanfall 2

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The open multiplayer beta didn’t really help creating any hype, actually going on the opposite direction, tampering players expectations, mainly due to the pace, that is slower than Titanfall 1, and modes that didn’t feel right with the gameplay, Titanfall 2, out on the 28th, has the difficult task of bringing the franchise to a whole new level, with the a single player campaign that looks like a buddy story between the soldier and his titan, and I still can’t wrap my head around how they’ll be able to bring the multiplayer speed to the campaign, while telling a compelling story, but team behind it has professionals responsible for the revered COD: MW 1 campaign, so let’s give it a chance.

Battlefield 1

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After an entire generation of modern and future war games, the Battlefield franchise returns to historical wars, focusing on one that doesn’t have enough representation on video games, WWI that was the background for the excellent Valiant Hearts, with Battlefield 1, out on the 21st, displaying a combat focused on closer interactions, old airplanes, more rudimentary tanks, weapons that don’t have a lot of range, making the battle more intense, and less dependant on technology, and promising to present a single player that will tell different stories with varied POV’s.

The Last Guardian

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This one is more due to pure morbid curiosity, after approximately 10 years of an arduous development, the team behind the classics Ico and Shadow of the Colossus will finally release The Last Guardian, out on the 25th, being the spiritual successor of the aforementioned titles, with years and years of hype, being announced originally for the PS3, it will be released on PS4 with worries regarding the graphics that look outdated, and the problem of a project that’s been through a long development cycle, the possibility of a game that comes out feeling old, with gameplay systems that don’t belong in this generation, chances are that the hype was too big to achieve but maybe a new classic is upon us.

November

Final Fantasy XV

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Speaking of morbid curiosity, I’ve never played a game of this franchise, a few hours of FF7 doesn’t count, Final Fantasy XV, out on the 29th, is another example of a game plagued by a long development cycle, will be released after several delays and name changes, being announced originally as FF Versus XIII in 2006, boosted by an aggressive marketing campaign that culminated in an event, called Uncovered, unveiling a multimedia strategy, with an anime series, a movie, Kingslaive, and demos, that brought the project back to the media in grand fashion, promising hours of a grandiose experience that will be fulfilling for novices as well as for veterans of the franchise, being influenced by western games such as Last of Us.

Watch Dogs 2

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The sequel of one of the most successful new IP’s of this generation, Watch Dogs 2, out on the 15th, aims to improve on the first title, that despite selling very well, failed to meet expectations, and had a release that tarnished Ubisoft’s brand due to the general feeling of deception, because of a downgrade and a final game that didn’t reflect the reveal trailer, however Watch Dogs 2 has been well received so far by the media, with previews presenting a sequel that heard the complaints and worked on them improving on every area, from driving to customization, and a new and beautiful setting, in San Francisco, with everybody expecting an improvement on the level of AC to AC2.

Dishonored 2

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After the rousing success of Dishonored, that despite being a new IP, had rave reviews being considered one of the best games of the year, Dishonored 2, out on the 11th, has 2 protagonists, Corvo, and his daughter Emily, both returning from the first game, with Emily being playable for the first time, presenting a world that will react to the player’s actions, with new possibilities of stealth, areas shifting physically, changing the perspective of the gameplay, new powers and a big focus on the story, that looks very interesting, with the city being an important part of it.

December

Steep

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Another surprise for me was Steep, out on the 2nd, that during the Ubisoft E3 press conference I was surprised they finished the presentation with this game, that looked so boring, and even though I’ve always loved extreme sports games, such as SSX and THPS, I couldn’t muster any excitement for Steep, but after watching a gameplay released during Gamescom, introducing the possibility to use 1st and 3rd person views, and embracing different styles like snowboard, ski, a sign of hope erupted that it may be an interesting game, not groundbreaking, but fun, and that’s why we play games.

South Park: The Fractured But Whole

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Talking about fun, this may be the most fun and one of the funniest games of the year, South Park: The Fractured But Whole, out on the 6th, is the sequel to the critically acclaimed Stick of Truth, and now they poke fun of the superhero genre, with the hilarious E3 trailer demonstrating how the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe and no DC Universe will be torn apart, with the characters leaving the RPG stereotypes from the previous entry to dress up as heroes creating their own Universe, and being a worthy addition to a genre that hasn’t exploded on games yet.

As we can see there’s a plethora of games to play for the rest of year with some that weren’t mentioned here, like Gravity Rush 2, Dead Rising 4 and Bioshock remasters, COD: Infinite Warfare, just to name a few, and Indie games like Cuphead, do you remember another game? Leave it in the comments

 

 

 

 

Branding and games: Microsoft – The role of Xbox One S and Project Scorpio

During this year’s E3 Microsoft announced the Xbox One S, a slimmer model and with a slightly enhanced performance, being able to process HDR and the capacity of running 4K video and with minor changes to the already great controller, with a bluetooth connection, improved grip, in a much more compact size than the original Xbox One (what’s not really that hard to do), and revealed the long-rumoured Project Scorpio, who will be supposed to be 4x faster than the XOne, but why would they announce 2 consoles in one conference?

The most reasonable answer, the beginning of a rebranding project of the whole Xbox brand, and signs of that becoming a reality started after Phil Spencer took reigns of the division, leaving behind positions and decisions of former management, with one that resonated with the announcement of the S model, the end of mandatory use of kinect, that in this new model doesn’t even have an option to be used natively, requiring the purchase of an adapter.

In the re-design, another change that didn’t look extraordinary was the use of white as the official color of the model, without considering special bundles, implying that they are looking into distancing themselves from the failed launch and good but underwhelming sales of the original Xbox One, presenting new design features, dropping the matte finish, with an integrated power supply, something that didn’t happen since the OG Xbox, leaving that brick behind.

By bringing a new image they hope to have a clean slate on a brand that has been damaged, erasing any memories related to 2013’s launch, with a re-launch of the Xbox One, being able to run games better as tests have shown, a more sophisticated look, up to the latest technologies, with a great lineup of exclusives, creating a more solid ground, culminating next year with the release of Scorpio.

That even though we don’t know much about it, except that it will run 4k games, a subject that has been debated, due to a disbelief in the possibility of that actually happening, being that the most advanced graphics card can struggle to run some games in native 4k, even though the 1080 can run 8 teraflops and Project Scorpio will run 6 teraflops, but we are talking about a dedicated console, instead of a pc that needs to manage a much larger number of processes, it sounds promising.

With that power being up to 4x stronger than the S model, and even more robust than their main competitor, the PS4 Neo, that will be marginally superior to the current PS4, with an improvement of around 40%, exacerbating a huge difference of strategy of both companies regarding the release of their new consoles, with Microsoft focusing on dramatically improving the performance of their product.

But perhaps the biggest change is that these announcements show a company that has decided to take the lead and kick the door of next generation, focused on being the main player, instead of running after Sony, trying to catch up with their success, using the E3 stage to give a sweeping declaration, that they are here to stay, and they are not going to accept being the runner-up, with a far more powerful console and a speech directed to gamers, that all your games will be backwards compatible, and claiming that no one will be left behind, it may be scary to have a smaller console cycle, but as far as it goes, we have signs that it may be interesting to gamers, let’s stay tuned to scenes of the next chapters.

Branding and games: Microsoft – The importance of the Xbox division to Microsoft

Every now and then, new reports of a possible sell of the Xbox division surface in the media, with possible buyers such as Amazon, amongst others showing interest, a situation that seems unlikely nowadays, even though the number of consoles are going through a decrease both in sales and revenues, Xbox Live active users keep growing at a surprising rate, reaching 49 million, up 33% from the same period last year, and if the strategy of Microsoft shows one thing, is that they cannot afford to lose the Xbox brand, at least not for the foreseeable future.

A company known for the Windows OS and Office suite, Microsoft has tried in the past few years a different approach, branching to hardware with the release of Surface, arrival in the smart phone market with Windows Phone, and despite possessing quality products they can’t find the same success as they do in software, being a minor player in these markets, without being able to penetrate in markets dominated by Apple, Samsung, Motorola, going back to the Zune vs iPod failure.

But one brand managed to win not only consumer’s loyalty but also their hearts and mind share, Xbox, that released their first console in 2001, garnering amazing critics around the world due to important innovations in the gaming market, creating a service that has steadily grown, Xbox Live, and one of the biggest franchises in entertainment history, Halo, and has remained important for gamers for 15 years now, with 3 consoles and products such as Gears of War, Forza, Sunset Overdrive, among others.

However the biggest contribution to Microsoft is the ability of the Xbox brand to capture customers of a very important demographic, 18-49 year old’s, who don’t see the company as just another boring software company, but as part of their day-to-day lives, with kids and teenagers who grew up playing Halo now doing it with their kids, being a very profitable group and one that tends to stay faithful to a company, remaining as the only “cool” brand of the company, allowing them to stay in the zeitgeist of pop culture during the last decade.

Other reasons are the strategic role of the brand when it comes to its competitors as seen in the IGN Unfiltered episode with Ed Fries, where he told the story of how one of the reasons for Bill Gates approval of the project was to contain Sony’s ability to dominate the living room, and despite being at second place in this generation, the brand has demonstrated having enough power to compete with the Playstation company as we saw during the 360 generation.

The Seattle-based company also has been trying to become more of a service company, as seen with the free update of Windows 10 and focus on integration throughout all of their platforms, ranging from smartphones to the XOne, with all using their new OS, store and with millions of customers using the Live service they can in the future transition to a digital gaming company, what seems to be the future for this market, as seen with steam and PC gaming.

And another hint that they are becoming closer to the PC market is the reveal of Project Scorpio, that will be a huge investment to the company, and is more than never based on the PC market, with your entire library being backwards compatible, and from what it looks like a smaller console cycle, with different iterations of the same product, with a stronger more expensive machine and a weaker but more affordable one.

Although sales have slowed, maybe due to natural saturation of the market as well as the inevitable release of Scorpio, the brand retains a vital role in Microsoft’s future, that may decide to leave gaming in the future, but the signs point to it being an integral part of their strategy, being a brand that can expand into other areas, what is great news for us gamers, after all we don’t want to lose an important player in our beloved market.

And if you’re curious here’s the episode with Ed Fries, former Xbox studios manager: