I love Xbox. Let’s get that out of the way right now. Even though I grew up on Nintendo and Sony consoles primarily, I never really got into gaming seriously until I joined the Army in 2009 and several of my battle buddies stayed up all hours of the night playing COD: MW2 on the Xbox 360. My love for Microsoft’s console and online multiplayer platform was then born. But I’ve always been an even bigger fan of a solid single-player narrative.
In my last article I touched on whether or not we as gamers were nearing the end of truly great single player experiences. Some comments made recently by Xbox head honcho Phil Spencer kind of lead me to believe that we, in a way, are nearing the end (at least when it comes to titles developed in-house by Microsoft). I think that's what happened with Scalebound. The new first-party Microsoft IP that included a multiplayer element, but was mostly being lauded for the single player endgame it would provide.
The Xbox team itself doesn’t seem all that interested in investing in AAA story-driven titles such as Scalebound and would prefer to put out something like Sea Of Thieves, a massive multiplayer online experience with plenty of microtransactions and periodic paid DLC. Maybe even the paid “loot box,” options games like Overwatch seem to be so fond of.
Games such as Overwatch exist as a service. There is no “beat the game and you’re done." Even Battlefield and COD have started to adopt this “games as a service,” mantra by providing these paid [either by in-game currency or real money] loot boxes which typically serve no purpose other than to add cosmetic flourishes to your characters or weapons.
This isn’t a game-breaking or genre-defining mechanic so to speak but it does seem to be the direction most large AAA multiplayer games are taking. And recent comments by Mr. Spencer lead one to believe that he is of the mindset that most new AAA games should go this route. He has been quoted as saying, “The audience for those big story-driven games...I won’t say it isn’t as large, but they’re not as consistent,” he goes on to say, “You’ll have things like Zelda or Horizon Zero Dawn that’ll come out, and they’ll do really well, but they don’t have the same impact that they used to have, because the big service-based games are capturing such a large amount of the audience. Sony’s first-party studios do a lot of these games, and they’re good at them, but outside of that, it’s difficult – they’re becoming more rare; it’s a difficult business decision for those teams, you’re fighting into more headwind.”
These words of his are very telling words indeed. It's not my place to say that the head of Xbox is in any way wrong. He has been working on the business side of gaming for the better part of two decades. However, I would like to speak on behalf of the gaming customer...
I know so many people who were beyond excited for the release of Scalebound. It was finally a new IP from Microsoft that looked to include an immersive and honestly quite massive single player experience. Perhaps even dredging close upon the heels of fantasy-campaign giants such as Skyrim. We can speculate all day long the sort of game it was going to be, but now we will never know. Perhaps it really was cancelled due to several financial missteps and missed deadlines by the developer but after reading these comments made by Phil Spencer himself, it gives me cause to believe that maybe there was more to it than that.
Mr. Spencer elaborated further on the matter, “We’ve got to understand that if we enjoy those games, the business opportunity has to be there for them. I love story-based games. I just finished [LucasArts-inspired RPG] Thimbleweed Park – I thought it was a fantastic game. Inside was probably my game of last year. As an industry, I want to make sure both narrative-driven single-player games and service-based games have the opportunity to succeed. I think that’s critical for us.”
He clearly believes in a future for story-driven single-player games, but what sort of future exactly? He has mentioned that he thinks Telltale as a company are doing narrative-based games right. “I really applaud teams like Telltale Games who have taken an interesting approach to narrative-driven games. They pick stories that people already know, like Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, and build a mechanic that’s accessible. From a core standpoint, we may say is, ‘Ah, it’s kind of quick-time events. Is that a real game?,’ but if you think about broadening the audience, you can’t assume that somebody can left-click down on the stick and hold the right trigger and then hit Y over and over in order to solve some problem. As developers, we need to think about how to broaden our audience.”
So it would seem that he is all for new, creative [and possibly cheaper] alternatives to the typical single-player narrative-driven game but at what cost? I know that for a lot of gamers I know think of an amazing first-person experience, a Telltale game is not what initially comes to mind, good though they are. We think of games like Skyrim or The Witcher which go to great lengths to immerse you in their fiction. And while they are plenty creative enough, it would seem that from a business standpoint these sorts of titles are getting more and more difficult to invest large sums of money into.
I cannot see and will likely never have access to the data Microsoft pulls from their Xbox store month by month but it could be deduced based on Mr. Spencer’s comments that far more people are using his console to play “games as a service,” titles than they are playing massive single-player stories. More people likely bought Overwatch, for example, and consistently play it than bought and consistently play Skyrim: Special Edition. Most likely because when you complete any story-driven game, even the massive ones, you’re done. You may have one or two paid DLCs such as in the Witcher 3 but even when you run through those, you’re finished. There is nothing to keep you coming back except for yet another playthrough on a harder difficulty. There is nothing to keep you dumping your hard-earned cash into the title beyond the initial $60 entry fee. And from [exclusively] a business standpoint, it makes sense that Microsoft would not want to invest its own money on these sorts of titles when the returns are nowhere near as great as games such as Overwatch where many players paid at least the standard $60 asking price AND continue to pour real money into it.
I wholeheartedly believe that Scalebound was cast aside for this very reason. We know that Sea Of Thieves will most likely be this sort of “service-based,” title and I believe that even Crackdown 3 will include these sorts of elements. Halo 6 will likely include more of these types of mechanics than its predecessor did....
.....But I am writing for what is likely the most positive gaming community on the internet. So is it really ALL that bad?
Well, no. While I am a huge fan of single-player fantasy and sci-fi RPGs, anyone who’s ever been in business in any capacity can understand why the Xbox team seems to be shifting the way they are. It would be nice to have our very own first-party answer to games such as Horizon: Zero Dawn, I have faith in the many third-party developers who could provide a similarly great experience on the Xbox. This is in no way cause for me to leave Xbox. But it does give us Xbox fans some sort of insight into the possible future of our preferred console. Will Microsoft really give up on publishing any more massive story-driven experiences? I believe that, at least for now, they will. I also believe that any new first-party game going forward will likely include many of these “games as a service,” mechanics as well. To include any new Gears or Halo title.
So, in closing, Microsoft and Xbox really only seem interested in investing in “games as a service,” titles. Is it a little depressing that they will likely not produce another new massive single-player IP for a while? Yes, at least for me. However, it is exciting to know that they will be all-in with every ounce of their industrial might on massive multiplayer titles such as Sea Of Thieves, and while I won’t keep forever drooling over Scalebound concept art. A guy can dream can’t he?
What do you think? Do you think Microsoft is committed to a single player IP? Let us know in the comments below.
I am a U.S. Army combat veteran hailing from Texas. I have been an avid Xbox gamer since 2009. While I've been writing all my life, I only began seriously gaming during a combat tour in Iraq and it has always been a dream of mine to combine the two hobbies. I prefer story-driven action RPGs and skill-based shooters and cut my teeth on games such as COD: Ghosts and Skyrim. I seem to find time here and there for my other hobby, playing guitar and live with my wife and children in Lubbock, TX.