Trailing PlayStation in the sales league, Xbox chiefs remain bullish for the future, launching a new console and showcasing more than 40 new games at E3 this week. Ronan Price spoke to Microsoft's Mike Nichols in Los Angeles
EXCLUSIVE, exclusive, exclusive! The booming word rang out dramatically around the Galen Center in downtown Los Angeles 22 times last Sunday as Microsoft unleashed its slate of forthcoming Xbox games at its E3 press conference.
Each reveal was preceded by a voiceover straight out of a movie trailer booming “EXCLUSIVE”, followed by cheers from a crowd of bussed-in supporters down the front.
Xbox boss Phil Spencer had just taken the wraps off the new Xbox One X console – due on November 7 for €500, it’s tooled up for full 4K visuals. Now it was time to showcase a torrent of new games, the most Microsoft has ever shown at E3 – 42 to be exact, of which 22 are, you guessed it, exclusive.
Of course, the definition of exclusive is more elastic than you think, as Xbox chief marketing officer Mike Nichols explains to me a day later in a back room at the Galen Center.
“There's 22 titles with some form of console exclusivity,” he notes. “There some of them that are pure console exclusives. Some of them are exclusives to console and Windows 10 PC. Some of them that are exclusives for a period of time.”
Later, a Microsoft spokesperson confirms to me that of the 22, just six are exclusive exclusives: “Crackdown 3, Forza Motorsport 7, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, Sea of Thieves, and State of Decay 2 are all Xbox One and Windows 10 exclusives, and Cuphead is an Xbox One console exclusive. The others have timed exclusivity.”
In other words, the remaining 16 won’t appear on PS4 for anything from a few months to a year or more afterwards.
But Nichols is nonetheless bullish about the coming year, with Microsoft dubbing the new Xbox One X “the world’s most powerful console”.
“We feel great about our line-up,” he says proudly. “Particularly if you look back over the last several years, the line-up of exclusive titles that have been available on an Xbox One and what we shared yesterday, we feel great about it.
“Not only is there a set of exclusives, a lot of the biggest blockbuster games people are going to see the rest of the week (at E3), are not only going to run on Xbox One, they're going to run best on an Xbox One. We're doing everything that we can to make sure that it's easy for developers for take full advantage of all this power that the new system will have.
“We feel really good about the line-up of games that people are going to be able to play. We share the largest line-up of games that we've ever had at E3 and most of them are shipping in the next 12 months.”
It seems a crying shame to me that, with all that horsepower under the bonnet of the One X, there’s no appetite within Microsoft to permit exclusives specifically to harness the six teraflops of graphical muscle and 12GB of RAM (for comparison, the PS4 Pro has 4.2 teraflops and 8GB RAM).
But Nichols is having none of it: “If our primary objective was just to get you to buy Xbox One X, I could see why it would make sense for us to offer exclusive titles on it. But that's not really our primary objective.
“Our primary objective is to offer a family of devices that will meet lots of different needs while keeping the experience for consumers very simple. Imagine if you walked into a retail outlet and you went to the gaming section and you couldn't tell which of the devices that game worked on.
All of those games right now say Xbox One at the top. If I buy this game, I know it's gonna work on an Xbox One, Xbox One S, or the new Xbox One X. If it's on an Xbox One X, it's at its absolute maximum calibre.”
Nichols goes so far as to say that if a developer did chance their arm and make an X exclusive, it would be refused certification by Microsoft and thus could not be sold.
“We are saying that games need to work across the family. That was the goal of keeping things very straightforward for consumers.”
In fairness, Sony takes the same approach with the PS4 Pro, mandating that all titles must run on the older PS4 too.
When Phil Spencer first teased his new console as Project Scorpio at E3 last year, he implied that owners of non-4K TVs would see little difference in the visuals. But the Microsoft message has now shifted.
Mike Nichols confirms that you don’t have to upgrade your telly box to enjoy some of the benefits of the One X – but you should.
“When we talked about the Xbox One X, what we did is we set out to introduce a new level of graphical fidelity. The quality of it was geared towards: what would it take for us to be able to display real gameplay at true 4K quality with really strong frame rate support.
“That what's led us to the specs. We didn't want it to only be impactful on 4K televisions, we introduced a new technique called super-sampling to enable the gameplay even on 1080P TVs to be improved with the Xbox One X. It will be meaningfully better across TV sets.
“We totally expect people to be playing on 1080P TVs. If you have a 4K TV, it's a natural complement to that. If you have an Xbox One X, you might choose a 4K TV to get the absolute maximum out of it.
“But it is important that people on a 1080P TV know that quality will be meaningfully better. We aim to show that.”
Microsoft won’t talk about it but it knows the Xbox One X needs to reclaim some of the lost ground on Sony. At E3, PlayStation’s global head of sales Jim Ryan confirmed to me that his machine is outselling the current Xbox One by three to one in western Europe, based on official figures.
“We don't really comment very much on share of sales,” says Nichols. “Our job is to make our pitch on product and see how it goes. Ever since the launch of Xbox One we've been outselling Xbox 360 at the exact same time in the generation. Not only has that been the case but the level of engagement and customer satisfaction is incredibly high.
“Sony's done great. Nintendo's doing great. This is a great time for the industry. A lot of people try to make it us versus them. We think of it less that way than some other people do. It's not like we're not competitive. We're very competitive. But that's not the number one thing.”