Exclusives sell consoles, or so the industry saying goes, but Microsoft seem to be in the middle of an attempt to prove conventional wisdom wrong. Can backwards compatibility, cross-platform play and sheer graphical horsepower fill the gap where Xbox exclusives should be?
The question if exclusive titles sell consoles is still burning with its usual faint flicker and only tends to flare up slightly during fanboy forum flame wars. Up until recently, the idea that you can't really have a successful console without a strong line-up of exclusives was still glowing strong in the minds of both console manufacturers and their customers, but the apparent failure of the Wii U in spite of its exclusive titles, and the success that the PlayStation 3 enjoyed despite having no games for a decent time into its lifecycle seem to have caused Microsoft to reconsider their position on exclusives.
The Xbox One famously launched with grandiose boasts about being more than just a gaming device. It was promptly delegated to the position of looser as far as the current console generation was concerned, right next to the Wii U. What Nintendo did in response to this hiccup was to promptly try and sidestep conventions with the Switch, opting for handheld appeal and its strong catalogue of nostalgia and brand recognition fuelled titles, spearheaded by Breath of the Wild. Artificial scarcity rumours aside, Nintendo had a hard time keeping up with initial demand for the device and while exclusives were certainly part of the appeal, it obviously takes more than just exclusive titles as the company's experience with the Wii U quite clearly illustrated.
During their competition with Sony, both Nintendo and Microsoft have probably realised that they will have to make up their own piece of the console pie if they are intent on having some of it on their plate eventually.
Microsoft's idea of how to circumnavigate the issue of having very few exclusive titles outside of Halo seems to have adapted somewhat in reaction to the less than stellar sales of the Xbox One being advertised as a universal media machine. Anyone trying to wrestle that throne away from the PC will be having a budget-crushingly hard time, but Microsoft already have a perhaps decisive foothold in the PC space. The tech giant decided that it might be better to market their console as the centrepiece of a gaming system that encompasses other platforms as well, primarily the PC, where Windows still rules with a rusty iron fist. The new focus in this case is on actual video games, as opposed to various streaming services and the odd social feature.
To this effect, Microsoft have launched their Play Anywhere scheme, still insisting on the Xbox One being part of a larger and more versatile system, but focusing more on the ability to freely switch between platforms along with cross-platform play, something both Sony and Nintendo have been avoiding like the plague. This is the spot where the Xbox One X squeezes its beefy self into the equation.
Lauded as the most powerful gaming console ever created, as if such a device along with the by now standard boasts doesn't pop up every console generation, the Xbox One X is supposed to put Microsoft back on the map of couch based gaming. There is a demonstrable lack of subtlety on display regarding this aspect of the machine, and that is ok since the hardware appears to live up to the hype. All the nuance from the marketing seems to have been drained into Microsoft's advertisement regarding actual games available for the platform.
What Microsoft probably want their customers to conclude is that any game competing consoles can run, Xbox One X can run them better and prettier. The Xbox One X should be able to provide a superior experience when compared to the PlayStation 4 Pro for all titles save for Sony's ever elusive exclusives. In place of Xbox only games, Microsoft provides a whole lot of backwards compatibility with the Xbox 360 and enhanced versions of current generation releases. In theory, any customer not deeply entrenched with brand loyalty or making a purchase only for the sake of playing Bloodborne, Uncharted or God of War shouldn't have a hard time realising that Xbox is the more sensible choice for a more rounded gaming routine. In theory.
Microsoft may be hoping that players and customers won't notice or simply won't care about there barely being any exclusive titles available for their console, hoping that backwards compatibility and cross-play are worth more in the eyes of consumers than Crash Bandicoot and Knack, and finally hoping that this mid-generation upgrade can save the Xbox brand and the Xbox One from being remembered as losing in the latest battle of the console wars. It's hard to come to a different conclusion, especially considering that a launch exclusive game for the Xbox One X is still oddly absent, with Scalebound being cancelled and Crackdown 3 apparently aiming for a Q1 2050 release date.
Much like Nintendo decided to compete on their own terms instead of those dictated by their rivals, Microsoft's latest push in the console arms race looks to be an attempt to redefine a game they are currently losing. We will know whether the gambit has paid off, as soon as the hype surrounding the busiest season of the year for games dies down.