To the casual consumer, or even an Xbox fanboy like myself, the names Microsoft and Xbox aren’t likely to be top of mind when one considers the title “Brand of the Year”, but I think if there has ever been a year that Microsoft has deserved it, without question it’s been the award year we’re currently in. After all, this was the year that we saw Microsoft fully rebound with the company’s trusted steward Xbox Head Phil Spencer at the helm still at the helm after spending an entire console generation righting the ship that wildly veered off course with the 2013 launch of Xbox One.
Following last month’s successful and generally well-received E3 2021 Xbox Games Showcase, the Xbox Series X and S are now approaching their first year on the market, and it appears that that the ship has finally crested the wave, promising a very exciting plunge into an ocean of games this fall. But that’s not the reason why I think Microsoft/Xbox deserves to be in this BOTY conversation.
When I think of Microsoft (and more specifically Xbox) as a “brand”, I think far less about the games and more about the bespoke Microsoft-designed products, services and initiatives (e.g. accessories, peripherals, Xbox Live, Games with Gold, etc.) that won me over to the Xbox platform from the very beginning and that continue to delight me as a customer today, not to mention the Seattle-based software giant’s continued efforts to create products and services aimed at making the Xbox platform accessible to all walks of life. With that criteria in mind, here are my top arguments for Microsoft and Xbox’s BOTY candidacy in 2021.
Xbox Series X|S
Let’s start first with the obvious. the Xbox Series X is arguably the most powerful gaming console on the planet by a number of metrics, and it’s almost entirely on the back of this next-generation machine’s raw horsepower and versatility that the names Xbox and Microsoft are in this BOTY conversation in the first place. Considered together with its lower-spec sister console the Xbox Series S however, these next-gen consoles also have dramatically overturned and re-established the status quo as to what a successful dual-SKU, next-gen game console launch looks like; that is, two Xbox consoles with vastly different performance capabilities and max resolution outputs running the same games and scaling them accordingly, similar to the modern PC gaming experience.
It’s also the first time that a sister SKU launch console has been offered to consumers at nearly half the price of its more fully-featured sibling, with the Xbox Series X at $499 USD and Xbox Series S at $299 USD. With the cost differential of other famed dual-launch SKUs like the PS3, Xbox 360 and even this generation’s PS5’s sister models only being $100 at most, the Xbox Series S is comparatively the cheapest yet most advanced next-gen console ever offered at launch, making next-gen gaming more affordable and accessible to everyone.
Power and pricing are just the tip of the iceberg though, as the Xbox Series consoles are packed with a number of key features that have already sent ripples though the game industry and have even put Xbox’s more popular competitor, PlayStation on notice. For example, Smart Delivery and Quick Resume were two Xbox Series features that leading up launch were largely ridiculed by skeptics for being highlighted as selling points, and were taken for granted by just about everyone else. That was of course until both competing consoles launched and it quickly became evident that the PS5 had no answer for either feature, resulting in many PS5 users downloading the wrong versions of cross-gen titles and having to find more circuitous means to “quick resume” suspended gamestates. Go figure, the implementation of new features doesn’t just occur through next-gen magic, it takes actual work, and not only did the Xbox team do the work, they’re still doing it.
“FPS Boost and Xbox Enhanced modes leverage the deep backwards compatible library of original Xbox”
Meanwhile, FPS Boost and Xbox Enhanced modes leverage the deep backwards compatible library of original Xbox, Xbox 360 and Xbox One titles inherited from the previous console generation, rejuvenating many of them with faster, up to 120-frames-per-second framerates, Auto HDR, and in many cases, overall improved visual fidelity on Series X|S. The results are previous generation games that often look as good as if they had been released today, rather than a generation or two ago. And while many of those older games will be familiar to seasoned gamers like me, as far as the millions of NEW gamers that are either just dipping their toes into the Xbox Ecosystem or diving in “cannon-ball style” are concerned, all those games they’ve never played before are awesome-looking NEW GAMES piled on top of guess what, MORE NEW GAMES.
Microsoft Surface, Accessories and Windows 11
As one might expect from a hardcore console gamer, my BOTY arguments are going to be heavily slanted towards the Xbox side of the business, but I’d be remiss not to also acknowledge Microsoft’s much larger presence as a software and hardware company. This is especially significant considering that Windows OSes account for approximately 88% usage share of the worldwide personal computer market and roughly 35% usage share across personal computers of all kinds, including desktops, laptops, mobile devices, and game consoles. Microsoft Surface, the solely Microsoft-designed and distributed touchscreen computer line that first debuted with the “Surface for Windows RT” in 2012, is still going strong today, headlined by popular, sleek and extremely portable devices like the Surface Pro 7 tablet and the Surface Laptop Go (the latter of which we reviewed late last year). While somewhat pricier than other portable Windows-based productivity devices on the market, Surface products offer customers added confidence and peace of mind in the Microsoft name, not to mention the most direct integration between the hardware and software, since both are designed by Microsoft. It’s effectively Apple without the snobbery.
That said, if you still have a penchant for stylish, bespoke devices, you’ll be happy to know that the less-is-more industrial design of Microsoft’s latest surface products have informed the company’s approach towards the design of its premium accessories as well, including the Xbox Adaptive Controller, the Xbox Elite Wireless Controller Series 2 and the Xbox Wireless Headset, three products that work across Xbox and PC and that CGMagazine gave top marks. Beyond that, Microsoft’s new “Designed for Xbox” and “Designed for Xbox – Limited Series” accessory initiatives are expanding the company’s design sensibilities and expectations of quality beyond just its own products, offering Xbox and PC customers an assortment accessories and peripherals to satisfy just about any price point, from the $70 USD entry-level NACON RIG 500 Pro HX wired headset to the $500 USD Bang & Olufsen Beoplay Portal wireless headset, for example.
Last but not least, Microsoft’s recent reveal of its upcoming new operating system, Windows 11, is demonstrating a renewed and committed focus on PC gaming, instead of treating it like Xbox’s ugly second cousin. Windows 11 will feature a much deeper integration of Xbox software, features and services, such as Xbox Game Pass and xCloud, and will now provide custom support for PC game developers though the newly announced DirectX 12 Agility SDK and DirectStorage technology for PC, enabling more efficient implementation of next-gen console features currently available on Xbox Series such as Quick Resume and Auto HDR. The results of these efforts will take time to bear fruit, but each successful step Microsoft takes in this direction is bringing Xbox and PC closer to becoming one unified platform that will benefit all players who game on it.
Xbox Design Lab
Without a doubt, the Xbox One generation was the most prolific in terms of official Xbox controller colorways, themed Limited Edition controllers and unique customer-designed options, easily outpacing the selection offered by any of its closest competitors, and this trend is already destined to continue. At a mere seven months into the new console generation, not only does the current selection of NINE official Xbox Wireless controllers outnumber the selection of DualSense controller options available to PlayStation 5 users by a factor of three, the Xbox Design Lab website has finally reopened with the new Xbox Wireless Controller as it’s exclusive template, offering customers an additional 30 million potential color combinations, new custom button color choices and of course, personal engraving. Chances are likely that no matter your personal style, there’s the perfect Xbox controller out there for you, and if there isn’t, you can just make your own. Whatever floats your boat!
Backwards and Forwards Compatibility
Even though it’s still early days, I’ll always fondly remember Gen 9 as the console generation in which Xbox blazed a backwards-compatibility trail so bright that it effectively dragged Sony kicking and screaming into the “future past” with it, as witnessed by Sony not only implementing PlayStation 4 BC into the PlayStation 5 at launch but also introducing an unprecedented amount of free, “FPS Boost-style” enhancements for several of its previous generation first party titles on PS5, including Ratchet and Clank, Ghosts of Tsushima, Days Gone and The Last of Us Part II. But on the Xbox side, the backwards-compatible conversation has long ceased to be just about games anymore. As part of Phil Spencer’s long-promised commitment to not to leave the Xbox One generation behind for at least another two years, the vast majority of headsets, flight-sticks, joysticks, steering wheels, Chatpads, etc. are fully compatible with Xbox Series X|S and in many cases PC as well, and the new Xbox Wireless Controller is also fully forward compatible with Xbox One and PC.
Some critics will argue that the above move was a missed opportunity by Microsoft to truly revolutionize its next-gen controller as Sony has done with the DualSense, but the positive, consumer-friendly impact of that decision cannot be overstated, particularly in the midst of a global pandemic layered on top of a worldwide chip shortage. Yes, like the PS5, Xbox Series X and S consoles are currently difficult to obtain and will likely continue to be for the foreseeable future, but thanks to Microsoft’s “no one left behind” initiative, Xbox gamers can continue gaming on Xbox One much longer, and when they finally upgrade to a Series console they don’t necessarily have to replace all their gear. And now that it’s been announced that Microsoft plans to bring xCloud game streaming to Xbox One consoles later this fall, it’s possible that very soon Xbox gamers will be playing next-gen games on their older Xbox One hardware without even needing to own an Xbox Series X|S or high-powered PC gaming rig, meaning more affordable access to the latest games for millions more people. Naturally, an active Game Pass subscription tier of some sort will likely be needed though, which brings us to…
Xbox Game Pass and xCloud
Back in August of last year I wrote a feature article on whether or not Xbox Game Pass and xCloud would be a game changer. Fast forward to the present and it’s no longer even a question that these perpetually joined-at-the-hip services have irrevocably shaken up the videogame industry. Xbox Game Pass subscriber numbers have ballooned over the past year from 15 million in September of 2020 to 23 million as of August 2021, and is on track to hit 30 million subscribers by the time Halo: Infinite’s long awaited campaign mode launches on Xbox Game Pass this holiday.
In that same time frame we also saw the announcement and acquisition of Zenimax Media by Microsoft, bringing Bethesda Game Studios and all of its existing and future IPs, including Starfield, The Elder Scrolls 6 and the just recently-revealed Redfall into the Xbox family, and more importantly, into the Xbox Game Pass family. Not only did the Bethesda acquisition finally address Microsoft’s lack of compelling Xbox exclusives problem, it ignited a sea change in how consumers viewed the value of the monthly subscription service, with the ability to play the next big Bethesda game at launch at no additional cost being a huge driver behind this change. Microsoft’s E3 2021 Game Showcase last month further shored up that position with an exciting supporting cast of games from its own Xbox Studios teams as well as its third-party partners, with all but three of the 30 featured titles coming to Xbox Game Pass, further stoking the flames of that bonfire.
But while all this has been happening, Xbox Game Pass’s loyal wingman xCloud has been working quietly in the background, hitting milestone after milestone despite technically still being in “beta”. Since early this year, Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscribers on Android have been able to seamlessly play most games that are part of the Xbox Game Pass library anywhere, and can even use touchscreen controls for many of them in the event that the don’t have access to a compatible controller. Even without a GPU subscription, gamers can use Console Streaming via the Xbox Beta app for Android to stream and play games installed on an Xbox console that’s linked to their Microsoft account, free of charge. On iOS, Microsoft’s goal of getting Cloud Gaming with Xbox Game Pass (Beta) on iOS devices has finally been realized (though supported browsers and not an app, long story), and the service is also up and running on PC via browser as well, which despite not yet having a Console Streaming option still has me very excited. Better yet, Microsoft recently began upgrading its Xbox One blades in its Azure servers to Xbox Series consoles, resulting in much improved framerates, stability and visual clarity in xCloud sessions, particularly on PC, to which I can personally attest to.
“Microsoft’s goal of getting Cloud Gaming with Xbox Game Pass on iOS devices has finally been realized”
Of course, it won’t stop there, as Microsoft has publicly shared their intentions on multiple occasions to bring Xbox Game Pass via xCloud to even more devices, including streaming sticks, built-in media apps on future television models, and as mentioned earlier, even on Xbox consoles, the latter which will not only extend the lifecycle of the of the previous Xbox console generation well into the current one, but also open up possibilities for future quality of life features on console in general, such as “stream before you download/install”.
The Xbox Ecosystem: It all just works
Science Fiction novelist Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, and these words almost perfectly describe the Xbox Ecosystem in its current 2021 form, across console, cloud, and PC. Playing your games anywhere via xCloud or Console Streaming. Seamless cross-saving across devices so that your progress is never lost. Experiencing the best version of the game for your console via Smart Delivery, or perhaps even a superior version via the power of xCloud.
Consistent system updates that bring new features to existing Xbox games, software, hardware and more. Of course it’s not really magic, and there are definitely snags here and there, but the reality doesn’t stray that far from the marketing. The ecosystem works, and there are multiple divisions at Microsoft working tirelessly to improve the experience all the time, performing countless feats of wizardry on the daily that gamers like you and I take for granted. If that’s not deserving of a “CGM Brand of the Year award” on its own, I don’t know what is.