For those who don’t scour the Interwebs for the latest and greatest game news, Microsoft cancelled <em>Fable Legends</em> March 7 as part of plans to close <em>Fable</em> developer Lionhead Studios. These decisions are the result of Microsoft’s restructuring of their European division, which also includes the closure of Press Play, the developers behind <em>Max: The Curse of Brotherhood</em> and <em>Kalimba</em>. </p>
Studio closures are horrible twists of fate and my best wishes goes out to all those without jobs. Nonetheless, these closures shine a bright light on a major problem facing Microsoft’s gaming division — a severe lack of worthwhile first-party offerings.
It might be hard for some people to understand, but there was a point in time when Microsoft was a strong publisher of video game software for the PC and, later, their Xbox home consoles. In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Microsoft funded and, through their own in-house development studio, even created games of different shapes and sizes from flight simulators to 3D platformers starring a time-travelling cat. Famed franchises such as Age of Empires, MechWarrior, and Project Gotham Racing were once championed under the Microsoft banner.
Sadly, as time moved on and the Xbox 360 became a runaway success, Microsoft started to move away from what they did best. Studios under their wing, like Ensemble Studios, Bizarre Creations, and Bungie were either closed down or bought up by other publishers. In recent years, Microsoft has dedicated single studios to each of their pillars: Halo, Gears of War, Forza, and, until recently, Fable. Other first-party titles would be created through short-term partnerships and throwing immense amounts of money at big third-party publishers.
Wondering how well that has worked for the house Bill Gates built, eh? Just look at the sales figures. Going head-to-head with the PS4, the Xbox One is getting massacred. Considering that Microsoft won’t talk about Xbox One sales figures anymore, it’s obvious that their game division isn’t in a good place right now.
Many people will pinpoint Microsoft’s current downward spiral to the botched reveal of the Xbox One, but it has been building for years and it all started with Microsoft’s shift away from first-party development.
What makes a successful console is the balance between first- and third-party software. Depend too heavily on third-party support, and your console lacks anything to differentiate from the competitors. Rely too much on first-party support, and your console only serves a small niche of rabid fans.
While it has a handful of quality exclusives for the console, the Xbox One falls under the former. You cannot base an entire exclusives lineup by mixing-and-matching different instalments in the same three or four franchises and releasing the rest on PC as well — it undermines the entire meaning of exclusive!
Microsoft, let me get real with you for a moment. Your games division is standing on the cusp of collapse. You may try to garner some goodwill through adding backwards compatibility or offering free 360 games with new releases, but that doesn’t cover up the fact that you are avoiding the real problem. It is the cancer that is slowly killing the Xbox brand.
Stop depending on others to get you out of this rut. You have the talent, the library, and the ingenuity to solve this. The time for Halo, Forza, and Gears to run the show is up as the time to double down on new franchises and ideas is now.