While I don’t think 2021 is going to be remembered as one of the all-time great years in gaming history, I am convinced that this will ultimately be remembered as the year that the Xbox team finally turned the corner and showed everyone that they’ve been right about quite a few things.
The problem with praising any video game manufacturer over another (or any brand/product over its competition) is that it tends to trigger this consumerism defense mechanism that forces people to tell you why you’re wrong because their preferred product or brand is better. What I find truly remarkable about Xbox’s 2021 success, though, are the ways in which the company succeeded that go beyond the console wars or strategies that will somehow help them “beat” PlayStation and Nintendo. Honestly, I think they will probably continue to run a fairly distant third in that hardware race.
However, in a year that disrupted the video game industry and occasionally reminded us of the worst elements of modern gaming, there are just some ways that the Xbox team seems to be objectively showing us a better path forward through both good times and bad.
Xbox Game Pass Helped Carry Us Through a Slow Triple-A Release Schedule
While the fact that Xbox Game Pass gives you day-one access to various new releases is undoubtedly valuable, 2021 really showed that the service’s best feature is its massive library of retro games, indie titles, and other recent releases.
It’s true that the 2021 release schedule was impacted by complications caused by the Covid-19 pandemic (which is a point that we’ll obviously be returning to), but the fact is that even recent pre-pandemic years have been burdened by “slow seasons” for major releases. Those slow seasons should be an excuse to explore indie games or maybe even backlog titles you missed out on, but for a combination of reasons that we will, again, explore more in a bit, we typically see many gamers simply turn to a small collection of live service games to carry them to the next major release or update.
The simplicity and affordability of Game Pass make it that perfect way to expand your horizons and try new games. Creatively speaking, that’s honestly what the industry needs most right now.
The Botched GTA Remasters Reminded Us How Important Xbox’s Backward Compatibility Efforts Are
The only thing worse than the quality of the recent GTA “Definitive Edition” remasters is the fact that Rockstar chose to essentially use them as an excuse to replace the original versions of those games. While Rockstar has walked back that decision somewhat (and recently released a patch that addresses some of those games’ most glaring issues), those remasters should have been a reminder that there is no game that’s so big that it can’t be erased if the decision to erase it benefits select small groups of people in the short term.
Beyond fanboy preferences, I don’t think I’ll ever understand the reason why someone would argue against more game preservation programs/backward compatibility access in gaming. It’s true that there is a debate about whether or not such programs are profitable, but unless you’re personally invested in a company’s profits, why would you even begin to care about the comparatively low cost of such programs vs. the very real ways they benefit gamers?
Game preservation should be a service that companies owe us, and while I won’t pretend that the Xbox team’s backward compatibility programs are perfect, the gap between their efforts and Sony and Nintendo’s efforts in that arena is becoming a little depressing.
Xbox’s Easy Next-Gen Upgrade Strategy Showed How Simple That Process Should Be
In a recent article about Horizon Forbidden West, I talked about how the PlayStation team seems to be subtly pushing people towards buying a next-gen console before most people are able to buy a next-gen console at will and before many studios have had the chance to start developing proper next-gen games. Sadly, Sony has also been pushing that same agenda by making the process of upgrading a PS4 game you already own to the PS5 version of that same title needlessly complicated.
The thing that amazes me about Sony’s PS5 upgrade policies is that they are often objectively inferior to Xbox’s Smart Delivery system but Sony doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to really do anything about it. I suppose that their hesitancy to improve that system can be attributed to the relatively small number of people that it regularly impacts, but I’m still shocked that the relative indifference to PlayStation’s policies in that area means that it gets to exist as it when we know there is a clearly better option.
When I talk about the Xbox team being proven right in 2021, I’m especially talking about programs like Smart Delivery that show us there are sometimes ways to do things that are simply better.
The Xbox Series S is a Budget Next-Gen Console That Makes Sense
Truth be told, I didn’t think much of the Xbox Series S when it was first revealed. It just struck me as the kind of console that a well-meaning relative buys for a kid because they don’t know that a much better console exists for a slightly higher price.
While there may be an element of truth to that (the Series S was incredibly popular during the recent Black Friday sales), the circumstances of this year reveal that the Xbox Series S isn’t another budget next-gen console; it’s a viable alternative to more powerful consoles that just aren’t as useful right now due to the slow rollout of true next-gen games. Xbox Series S owners haven’t really missed out on anything in 2021 that wasn’t already exclusive to some non-Xbox platform, and that trend looks to continue in 2022.
While some of the value of the Xbox Series S is obviously based on the fact it still lets you access Game Pass, there’s another way that the Xbox team is making the Series S so much more than a “budget” console…
Xbox’s Cloud Gaming Program Might Actually Help Free Us From Unnecessary Console Generations
Leading up to the release of the Xbox Series X/S, there was some talk about Xbox getting out of the console game and looking at this as their “last generation.” Since then, Xbox reps have clarified that they’re really more interested in rethinking traditional console release strategies and generational release timelines.
Truth be told, the events of 2021 really converted that idea from “vague corporate strategy” to “a genuinely appealing alternative.” Again, you can’t understate the ways that the Covid-19 pandemic changed everyone’s schedules and plans, but even pre-pandemic years saw more and more studios struggle to make that leap to the next generation in time for a next-gen console’s debut. We’re just reaching this point where the release of a new console seems to be based more on the time that has passed since the last new consoles were released rather than if we really need them. Alternatively, Microsoft is investing a lot of money into the idea that next-gen software and next-gen power don’t have to be so closely associated with a piece of hardware.
Again, I don’t think Microsoft has found the magical solution to this problem with their cloud gaming programs, but for the first time in a long time, we’re watching a major player in the industry argue that the process of having to buy this new piece of hardware every 4-5 years is as outdated as most of the other multimedia hardware in our lives that we’ve replaced (or supplemented) with digital alternatives.