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That Xbox Podcast Sure Was Weird

Microsoft tried to disguise a whole lot with a whole lot of nothing

Microsoft

It’s been another wacky week in the world of Xbox, a platform that in trying to slightly shift its video game release strategy ran full force into the pitchforks and torches of a militant fandom. Now the company has tried to clear up its stance on exclusives with a slickly produced video podcast, but in doing so, it’s left many with more questions than answers. On the latest episode of Aftermath Hours, we attempt to untangle the mess – and reflect on just how strange the whole saga’s been.

In this episode, we’re joined by our first-ever guest: Ash Parrish of The Verge, a little publication you might have heard of that has published some great reporting on Microsoft’s painful pivot. We begin by diving into the Xbox news before eventually winding our way to a discussion of Helldivers 2, which rules. Then we dig into Final Fantasy VII Rebirth’s yellow paint nontroversy, as well as Luke’s piece about how it’s somebody’s moral imperative to leak Coyote Vs Acme. Lastly, thanks to Chris’ newfound passion for powder coating devices, we devise a scheme to powder coat the Statue of Liberty, which – you must agree – is overdue for a refresh. 

You can find this week's episode below and on Spotify, Apple, or wherever else you prefer to listen to podcasts. If you like what you hear, make sure to leave a review so that someday we, too, can announce a confusing strategic pivot that sees us release content on PlayStation 5 one or two years down the line. 

Here’s an excerpt from our conversation about the video Microsoft posted yesterday, which means that, yes, this is technically a podcast about a podcast:

Nathan: Microsoft just dropped a video outlining their kind of non-exclusive-but-still-exclusive strategy. They are going to release four games on non-Xbox platforms, and they curiously would not in their actual video say what they were. The Verge Dot Com, a website that you might have heard of, Ash, did report on what they’re going to be.

Ash: According to your sources, they’re Pentiment, which we knew about, Hi-Fi Rush, which we knew about, Sea of Thieves, which we knew about, and one we didn't really know about which was Grounded. Wasn't that the community game with the spiders where it's Honey, I Shrunk the Kids? Those are the four games that are reportedly going to be released on other consoles. 

Nathan: That seems to me like a couple games that are smaller and maybe didn't get a ton of attention – or they got some critically, but in terms of sales, they weren't huge. And then a couple other games that are community driven and could probably benefit from an injection of new life into their player bases a few years down the line from release. Makes enough sense to me.

Ash: Pretty much.

Nathan: But at the same time, Luke, you had opinions about this. You were calling this “damage control.”

Luke: Well, “damage control” maybe in hindsight was a bit harsh. What games companies release on which platforms is “whatever” to most normal people that don't take sides in console wars. I'm just fascinated by what this is. And if you haven't seen it, Xbox released this sort of response, partly a response to the stories that circulated that we spoke about last week about Xbox games going multiplatform as slight sort of damage control – as a chance to put an official word out about those reports that were obviously unverified. 

I don't know if I've ever seen anything like it, where it's this really super prepared and slick response to what was essentially a series of press rumors. And at one point, it acknowledges that [those rumors] were partly correct. And then in another way, it attempts to crush two of the main pieces of reporting – that two of the games that would be going to other consoles were major first party exclusive titles: Starfield and the upcoming Indiana Jones game.

This is super inside baseball, but I'm super interested in this from a journalistic point of view. What happened with these stories a week ago? What happened in between then and now to either show that those stories were wrong, even though they came from multiple people who were very close to Microsoft, or whether Microsoft took that extra week in formulating this World's Most Boring Nintendo Direct sort of approach to make adjustments to that strategy? Or to get out ahead of that strategy with an official response that doesn't mention bigger news that might be coming in six or 12 months’ time? I thought it was a wild thing to sit and watch.

Chris: It was really fucking weird, dude. I guess that's the other thing: It had echoes of Nintendo responding to Palworld where you can from inference feel people who've been yelled at by a lot of very unwell people for the span of a whole week, and they're like, “We have heard your concerns. The viability of Xbox [blah blah blah].” 

The thing that is instructive is, like, trying to parse the code of what they're saying when they're saying nothing, but also seemingly saying something. Using words like “the viability of Xbox as a platform” and saying it's always always been about the games, but then also doubling back down on hardware. It was weird, because it felt like they were trying to obfuscate by sounding as corporate as possible – which is what they always do – but while still signaling to people who are just yelling at them, “We get it. We understand.” It's a really strange tone. If you didn't have the context for what had happened, it would be really confusing. It would feel really arbitrary. This could have been an email. It could have been an email, right?

Nathan: They're replying to this contingent of their fans who got really upset about the idea that there might not be Xbox exclusives in the future, that Xbox might be diverging from that model. But how big is that group of people, really? This is their most online contingent of fans: the people who are still console warriors in the year 2024, which has always been a sad thing to be, but which is an excessively sad thing to be now. Who were they speaking to here? I mean, they clearly felt like there was a big enough group of people that were aggrieved by all of this that they needed to address it. But are those people actually that much of their consumer base? Or are they just able to make themselves incredibly loud?

Ash: I mean, they're obviously able to make themselves incredibly loud, but at the same time, they're still talking to the people who go out and buy their Xboxes every year for whatever reason. And the interesting thing to me is they didn't really assuage those fears. People were, you know, returning their Xboxes and smashing their Xboxes and writing songs and crying and stuff because they thought that Indiana Jones and Starfield were coming to PlayStation. 

Critically, [Microsoft] didn't say they weren't. They're just not a part of this little rollout. Phil Spencer basically said, “We're going to do this on a case-by-case basis.” But he didn't hard-kill the idea that Starfield is going to show up on PS5 in the future. Those people who have made Xbox their identity, yeah, they had this histrionic response right now, but there's still a very valid concern of “Why do I even buy an Xbox anymore if I can play Spider-Man and Starfield on my PS5 just a year or two later?”

Luke: That's essentially all this show today was: a response to some press reports. But in addressing those, in trying to sort of head those off by addressing them so formally and so full of corporate comms PR talk, they haven't really solved anything. In fact, they may have made it worse, because they've tried to come out and essentially say, in a very slick manner, “Don't worry about those reports. It's these four games. It's not these big games. It's fine, guys.” But then they also say the games had to be a year old. So now everyone looks at their calendar  like “When does Starfield turn one? What contracts have been signed on Indiana Jones for 12 months after it's released?”

Chris: What was really striking to me was, they were talking about hardware, and they said, “Oh, the next Xbox will be the greatest hardware jump in history.” And granted, that's the shit they always say. But that's pretty provable. It's like a pretty huge thing to say. And they're like “Oh yeah, we’ve got new hardware coming in December.” Is that a controller? Is that a console? Is that several other controllers and consoles made by other people [and] licensed? What the fuck is going on? You're not helping me figure out what I really care about, which is: Do you have an Xbox anymore? 

And I understand what the answer is probably, but their ambivalence towards even that concept, even in how they were hedging, felt really strange. And especially when they talk about screens everywhere, it's like, I don't know man, it sounds like you guys don't know. Or you do know, and you know something really weird. You're not really helping me either way.

Nathan: They also signaled what a lot of people are feeling in the industry, which is that the industry is changing to a pretty huge degree. They name-dropped Roblox and games like that and talked about how these individual games can become bigger than platforms. If you're a Microsoft or a Sony, you've got to be looking at that and thinking, “OK, how do we do that? How do we adapt to that?” And so of course, they want to be everywhere, because they see these games being everywhere, and that’s some version of the future. But their current business is not rooted in anything like that. So they feel a need to be able to do both, so they're hedging their bets. But if you hedge your bets too much, then you just have an unfocused business, and it's like “OK, what are we doing here?”

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