The Xbox Game Showcase is Microsoft's best opportunity to lay out its case for the next generation. It has spent the better part of 2020 locking horns with Sony over hardware specifications, a debate fought in the margins that I've grown tired of, particularly as the prospect of investing hundreds of dollars on a new system sits on the near horizon.
It has made a convincing case on the need for compatibility, transparency, and player-focused services – one that certainly gives it an apparent edge over the competition – but July 23 is Microsoft's opportunity to make an impact with the Xbox Series X where it really matters: with the games we'll be playing, not just at launch but in the months that follow it too.
Going into this, Microsoft is waging a war on multiple fronts. The uphill battle that it's facing cannot be overstated. Sony commands a sizable lead, with respect to an invested player base of PS4 owners eager to make the leap into the generation, not to mention its monster social media visibility, and it'll take everything Microsoft has got to turn heads. That's where things get complicated for the Xbox division.
It's spinning a lot of plates, and how it decides to handle this showcase, not to mention where it decides to settle the spotlight, will likely define its posture going into a launch window wrought with external uncertainty.
First party studios
The best Xbox One games of all time
In the past two years, Microsoft has acquired seven independent development outfits and formed two new internal studios. The 'Xbox Game Studios' umbrella now hovers above 15 studios, and we're still yet to get a solid idea of what the majority are working on. Ninja Theory is continuing its efforts with Bleeding Edge, but it also has Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2 and its new IP, Project: Mara, in development, but details are light on the ground. As for the rest of the acquired studios?
We're yet to get any real sense of what Undead Labs, Compulsion Games, and Playground is up to – although rumours persist that the latter is involved with Fable 4. Obsidian is hard at work on Grounded, but that – by its own admission – isn't throttling the entire studio's workflow. And we still have little insight into what inXile and Double Fine are working on outside of its already announced and nearly completed projects, Wasteland 3 and Psychonauts 2 respectively.
After two years of relative silence with respect to first-party, Microsoft needs to make good on its investments. Video games take a long time to make, and Xbox will no doubt be eager to give these studios time to settle in and push a variety of ideas into pre-production to see what sticks, but the success of the July showcase will likely hinge on how many of these studios it can shout about.
The potential variety offered by Microsoft's first-party studios is a clear boon against Sony's, half of which are world renown for building third-person action adventure games. I don't know about you, but I'd like to see Microsoft go decidedly 'old school' with this showcase. I want CGI trailers, I want logos, and I want some indication of what the various developers are working on for the years to come. Something is, after all, better than nothing.
Sony put on a convincing show with its Future of Gaming showcase event in late June, but it also left far too many questions unanswered; what are the Bend, London, and San Diego Studios working on – not to mention Pixelopus and Sony Santa Monica? Microsoft needs to demonstrate that its studios are hard at work building games, if only to disrupt the narrative that the Xbox One had none.
And then there's the existing internal studios. While we know that World's Edge is working on Age of Empires 4, it's yet to be confirmed for console. As for The Initiative, rumours insist that the studio – staffered with some of the finest team leads in the industry – is working on a Perfect Dark reboot, it's time for both to stake their claim in the next generation.
Turn 10, we can assume, is working on a new Forza Motorsport, but will Microsoft be bold enough to shift gear towards a live-service model – rather than have it trade places with Forza Horizon every two years? How will Sea of Thieves transition into the next-generation, what should we make of Everwild, and where the hell is Battletoads? These are questions Rare desperately needs to answer.
Mojang and The Coalition are likely locked into Minecraft and Gears of War, but the rise of Game Pass could mean more experimental titles are on the way from these studios, especially in light of their respective successes with Minecraft Dungeons and Gears Tactics. How many of these questions Microsoft is able to answer in this showcase will ultimately determine how successful it is.
And then there is 343 Industries. Microsoft has promised that the studio is taking centre stage at the Xbox showcase, and so this will be our first opportunity to see what it has been up to since Halo 5: Guardians shipped in 2015. This should be a landmark moment for Xbox. A new engine, Slipstream, designed to showcase the power of the next generation, servicing a soft reboot for Halo, positioned in such a way that the series can grow over the next decade.
It's a huge ask for Master Chief to define a generation as he did for Xbox and Xbox 360 (and failed to do for Xbox One), but that's what 343 is grappling with now. The success of this showcase and, in many respects, the launch of Xbox Series X itself, will land squarely on the shoulders of John-117.
An extended Halo Infinite gameplay demo will need to demonstrate that the series is as relevant today as it has been in years past. With the title set to launch on Xbox One and Xbox Series X later this year, it will also fall to Halo Infinite to demonstrate that first-party games aren't being held back by Microsoft's decision to have them straddle generational lines for the foreseeable future. It's a tall ask, but if any franchise can handle it, then it's going to be Halo.
One area where Microsoft really struggled this generation was with respect to its third-party partnerships. Given the popularity of the PS4, it was no surprise to see publishers like Activision and EA shift its marketing alignment to Sony in the middle of the generation, but if Microsoft wants to make a convincing case for the Xbox Series X, it'll need some behemoths behind it.
If the July Showcase can land some big reveals, a first look at FIFA 21 and the long-overdue announcement of Call of Duty 2020 (heavily rumoured to be a Black Ops revival), for example, it'll be a firm statement of intent, lavishing the biggest selling games of the year with platform branding signals to players that this is the place to play. In an era where cross-platform play is becoming ubiquitous, this is more important than ever before.
It'll also be good to see more third-party developers building platform exclusives, but it's difficult to see who would be available given how many double-A and AAA studios have been snatched up by Sony and Microsoft in recent years. We know Dontnod is hard at work on Tell Me Why?, and that Square Enix and Capcom have committed to building games for PS5, but I'm eager to see where Microsoft is willing to invest in order to fill out the gaps in its library.
See what else is on the way with our guide to upcoming Xbox Series X games, or watch the video below for our latest episode of Dialogue Options.