It's been a busy (and expensive) console launch year for Xbox and although independent stats show PS5 ahead in sales, Microsoft has claimed the Series X is its fastest selling console ever. The machine has seen some excellent games, with Psychonauts 2, Tetris Effect Connected, and Yakuza Like a Dragon propping up old favourites Forza Horizon 4, Sea of Thieves, and Gears 5, all of which were updated and optimized for the new machine. A smattering of decent multiplatform releases added to the mix – but were these the real stories of the console's first year?
I don't think so. In a somewhat stilted 12 months, no doubt battered by the chaos brought by Covid-19, some of the most interesting and telling moments have been quieter and more subtle. Here then are the moments that defined the first year of the Xbox Series X – and perhaps its entire future…
1. The Bethesda acquisition
When Microsoft announced its $7.5bn deal to purchase Bethesda parent company ZeniMax last September, the strategy was pretty clear: to bring more first-party exclusives to Xbox Series X, PC, and the Game Pass service. Despite owning a swathe of studios all over the world, Microsoft still lacks agenda-setting blockbuster adventures to compete with The Last of Us, God of War, and Horizon, and the ZeniMax deal (which completed in March 2021) gave it access to Elder Scrolls, Fallout, Doom, as well as subsequent titles from Arkane and Tango Softworks – a genuine treasure trove. And although Xbox chief Phil Spencer has assured PS5 owners that not all titles will be exclusives, forthcoming sci-fi epic Starfield and Arkane's promising vampire shooter Redfall certainly will be.
It's a huge investment – especially when you remember Disney paid $4bn each for Marvel and Star Wars – but then Microsoft isn't short of capital, and as the company looks at growing its Xbox gaming business into new global markets next year, it was an important statement of intent. If Xbox Series X had a mediocre 12 months in terms of first-party big hitters, Spencer wants us to know that the next five years will be very different indeed.
2. Flight Simulator 2020 becomes Microsoft's Animal Crossing
Released on PC in September 2020 and on Xbox Series X this summer, the first Microsoft Flight Simulator title in 14 years surprised many with its astonishing technology, using Bing Maps, OpenStreetMap, cloud computing, and some extremely impressive AI to recreate the entire face of the planet. During lockdown, the game – just like Animal Crossing: New Horizons – provided a relaxing escape route for thousands of players, with developer Asobo noticing heavy air traffic around holiday hotspots such as the Bahamas, as though people were reaching out for just a taste of travel and experience.
Like Minecraft, Flight Sim also introduced a marketplace allowing developers to sell their own aircraft and scenic models. This is likely to become a common feature of games as user creativity is embraced to generate fresh content and increase player retention – and Bethesda has shown an interest in Microsoft's marketplace tech. Homemade horse armor anyone?
3. Cloud gaming, PC, and the death of the console exclusive
This year we discovered that Microsoft's vision of the Xbox Series X is as the showy figurehead to a much broader games ecosystem. Through the day one support for PC on all upcoming first-party titles, to the growing Game Pass roster and the beta launch of the Xbox Cloud Gaming platform (including its extension onto Apple devices), Microsoft has looked to expand the Xbox brand way beyond a high-end £500 console that remains difficult to actually buy. In a press briefing before E3, Phil Spencer and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella talked about reaching a potential audience of three billion gamers through streaming Xbox games to smartphones, PCs, and potentially dedicated set-top boxes and an Xbox app for smart TVs, and later that month, the company announced that its data centres would be using Xbox Series X hardware to allow low-latency streaming at 60fps in 1080p.
What does this mean for Xbox Series X? Basically, the console is sort of the F1 racing car or Haute couture clothing of Xbox – it's the elite experience of the brand, which is then distributed to a wider audience through cheaper more accessible streaming pipelines. Yes, the Series X is the sculpted, spoiled influencer of the Xbox community.
4. The Xbox Fridge at E3
Ok, a lot of you will be thinking that Microsoft's E3 2021 showing was more important for announcements such as Starfield, Forza Horizon 5, Redfall, and Contraband than for a silly joke, but bear with me. Think back to the unveiling of the Xbox One, which was a categorical PR disaster, thanks to an initial emphasis on TV streaming and the awkward digital games model that was ruthlessly lampooned by Sony at E3. However, Microsoft's response to the online jokes about Xbox Series X looking like a fridge was to really go with it – tweeting a size comparison, then actually making a full-size limited edition fridge and more recently, a mini-fridge that sold out immediately.
Microsoft also got sweet revenge on Sony with its own mocking video about user inconvenience. What this showed was a company finally understanding that games culture is now almost entirely mediated through social media, forums, Discord servers, and novelty-hungry influencers: whether we like it or not, virality matters. The console war is now mostly a psy-ops battle.
5. The Halo Infinite redemption arc
It could have been a catastrophe. In July, Microsoft showed an early demo of Halo Infinite's campaign mode and lets just say it didn't go down well. The move to an open-world environment and a fully dynamic lighting system seemed to be a strain on the tech, with flat, washed out colours and almost comedic character models (yes *that* screenshot of Craig the Brute). To its credit, 343 Industries got straight on it with a lengthy blogpost detailing the lessons the team has learned and reassuring fans that this was very early footage.
And then, just recently, Microsoft revealed a new trailer ahead of the game's December launch, showing spectacularly improved visual detail and gorgeous lighting, reigniting interest and excitement at just the right time. Did Microsoft deliberately generate a redemption arc around its most important asset? It seems unlikely, but once again, the story of an Xbox console has been defined through the story of a single much-loved video game.
Check out our upcoming Xbox Series X games guide for a look at all of the releases coming to Microsoft's new-gen console in 2022 and beyond.