Bethesda is great, but Xbox Game Studios — you're not off the hook

Senua's Sacrifice
Senua's Sacrifice (Image credit: Xbox Game Studios)

As Microsoft dives ever deeper into subscription-oriented gaming with Xbox Game Pass, there's no question that the gaming giant has boatloads of content. With dozens of teams under Xbox Game Studios and soon Bethesda / ZeniMax, Xbox Game Pass content is set to swell by the truckload.

One of the biggest narratives that plague Xbox on social media, and potentially beyond into the common perception of Xbox, is that Microsoft doesn't match Sony on franchise quality. Halo hasn't had the same prestige it once enjoyed, and Minecraft is wholly multi-platform and scarcely associated with the Xbox or Microsoft brand.

With Bethesda, id Software, Machine Games, Arkane, and other big-name ZeniMax Studios joining the roster, the question of quality could evaporate. But what about Microsoft's core studios, under Xbox Game Studios lead Matt Booty? Will they get the budgets they need to match Sony on quality? Or will we see more of the same "AA" rough-state launches that we've had with games like ReCore, Crackdown 3, State of Decay 2, and others?

A history of "AA" games

One of the things that really really bugs me about Microsoft's games marketing, is their over-use of big-budget CGI trailers that totally betray expectations. All the way back to the canceled Phantom Dust, Scalebound, and titles that did launch like ReCore and Crackdown 3, Microsoft presented these games with high-quality CGI pre-rendered trailers with tons of detail and cinematic flair. Microsoft's marketing budget simply doesn't seem to match many of these games' reality.

Throughout the past generation, Microsoft became known as a company that canceled previously-announced titles, mismanaged expectations, and ultimately under-delivered, with games often scoring in the 70s or below on review aggregation sites like Metacritic. If indeed, they launched at all.

It's quite possible Microsoft failed to give their partners and teams the resources they needed.

This isn't for lack of passion or skill on the developer's side. I believe it's quite possible Microsoft failed to give their partners and teams the resources they needed to see those games deliver at their full potential. Certainly, we're seeing Sea of Thieves truly hit its stride a few years after launch, which you could argue was bare-bones (pun intended) in terms of content. Now? Sea of Thieves is one of the biggest service games under Microsoft's purview, and by all accounts, is continuing to grow. Imagine if Microsoft had taken a bigger risk and invested more in Rare to help it grow and deliver a bigger content slate for the game's launch.

Many have laid blame on stricter budgets in the Xbox One era, with too little of an emphasis on quality. Before Phil Spencer took the reins at Xbox, the entire division sat under Windows in the organizational chart. Now, Xbox is elevated to its own position as part of Microsoft's broader efforts to court developers into Azure services, such as PlayFab and Game Stack. Xbox Game Pass has also seen Microsoft's gaming coffers swell on the consumer side too, with hardware sales of the Xbox Series S and Xbox Series X unable to meet demand.

"AA" isn't bad, but we want more

State Of Decay 3 Ice

Source: MicrosoftState of Decay 3 is another dreaded CGI trailer that may not line-up with the game's launch state. (Image credit: Source: Microsoft)

There's certainly nothing bad about any of the games Microsoft launched in a "lower budget" state. I played the hell out of State of Decay 2, which launched at a lower price point. I also enjoyed my time with Recore, which was also priced appropriately. Yet, I have higher expectations of a trillion-dollar company, especially given that many of the games they launched at cost were very obviously missing their full potential capabilities.

Thankfully, there's overwhelming evidence that Microsoft and Xbox Game Studios is investing heavily in their own teams.

I certainly don't speak for every Xbox fan, nor the legions of people who just buy a console for fun and don't really invest too much in the platform's direction. But for me, I don't want Microsoft to rely entirely on Bethesda to deliver its high-quality exclusives if indeed those games even are exclusive. There's certainly a (slim) possibility Microsoft could allow ZeniMax's studios to continue to launch games on PlayStation and other competing platforms.

Perhaps it's unfair to place higher expectations on Xbox Game Studios simply because Microsoft at large is such a vast, wealthy company. I also think it's unfair, though, to show off sleek CGI trailers for games that are years out, like State of Decay 3, and then deliver visuals and animation qualities that don't even approach the concepts in the pre-rendered cut.

Thankfully, there's overwhelming evidence that Microsoft and Xbox Game Studios is investing heavily in their own teams. Most of Microsoft's partner studios have seen their headcount swell in recent months and years, with many positions open on Microsoft's Careers website (opens in new tab). But will it be enough to match Sony? And honestly, does it even matter?

Can Microsoft meet Sony for consistent quality?

Source: Windows Central / Russell Holly (Image credit: Source: Windows Central / Russell Holly)

Sony is bringing more of its games right to Microsoft's home turf, on Windows 10. Horizon Zero Dawn already dominated the Steam charts when it dropped last year, and now Sony has revealed Days Gone and more PlayStation exclusives are headed to Windows. Sony's games tend to dominate headlines and Metacritic rankings and are often the subject of envy from Xbox owners. The tide could turn if ZeniMax's games like Fallout, The Elder Scrolls, and DOOM go exclusive, but that possibility is still unknown.

The question remains over Matt Booty's teams under Xbox Game Studios. Can they meet Sony in terms of sheer quality? Does Microsoft allocate enough budget to meet Sony on quality? Does Microsoft even want to meet Sony on photorealism and depth? Do they even need to? Or is the entire argument based on console wars and FOMO from the social media vocal minority?

I feel like this meme about Xbox not being able to deliver critically-acclaimed games has become a barrier to some degree. Although, it's certainly not the case that Xbox Series S and Series X consoles are staying unsold on store shelves. The opposite is quite true, Microsoft cannot manufacture consoles fast enough to meet demand. But how much of that is due to the pandemic? And will it last?

Perfect Dark Dec 2020 Concept Art

Source: Xbox Game Studios Perfect Dark concept art looks exciting, but will it be indicative of the final product? (Image credit: Source: Xbox Game Studios)

At the end of the day, I can only speak for myself. Microsoft has made a ton of great games I enjoyed. I have fond memories of playing Sea of Thieves with friends on Mixer, and I'm enjoying Grounded and Minecraft Dungeons immensely.

I want to see creative risks taken. And you know what? I think Microsoft will.

I'm confident that Microsoft will nail its multiplayer-oriented games like Age of Empires IV, too. But there have been too many disappointments over the years, especially in the single-player arena. The backlash towards Halo Infinite's gameplay reveal, which showcased sub-par models and textures, says to me that there is a significant amount of people who want to see Microsoft dig deeper on this stuff.

I want to see State of Decay 3 hit the photorealism hinted at in its CGI trailer. I want to see it dig deep and find the depth and potential in the game's unique intersecting systems. I want to see Perfect Dark and Hellblade II take risks, and create memorable, emotional moments that I'll cherish — which is something I fear Microsoft's campaign-driven games haven't been able to do consistently for a long time. I want to see risks taken, both narratively, and in terms of investment. And you know what? I think Microsoft will.

What do you think about Xbox Game Studios games in recent years? Do you think Microsoft is being ambitious enough? Hit the comments below, and let's talk.

Xbox (opens in new tab)


Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!

  • I can't wait for some Xbox people to get their playstation level game that they want so bad so this narrative can end. We never hear critics mention that PS only makes third party single player narrative games (which I love) when multiplayer is so huge. Also, I don't think Xbox can win on the marketing front.... Sony shows a God of War logo, Nintendo a metro 4 one, and they get all the love. Even though GOW isn't coming this year and will still be on PS4 btw but never gets called on it. Xbox isn't perfect but some of the criticism it gets is ridiculous.
  • Yo, so true on never getting called out. With stuff that was PS5 only and it also on PS4.
  • There's a reason Sony can just show a logo for God of War and they get hyped... that isn't an accident, or a conspiracy. I have no idea what to expect when Microsoft presents CGI teasers for their games. Is that my fault?
  • "We never hear critics mention that PS only makes third party single player narrative games" And what's the counter for that? Microsoft made...nothing, basically. I'd say Ratchet & Clank is known for more than just a "narrative" experience. Gran Turismo and MLB The Show aren't that either. They made Forzas out the wazoo, one Halo that bombed, a couple of Gears titles, and basically outsourced everything. That includes the third-person action stuff like Ryse, Sunset Overdrive, and Quantum Break (and the canceled Scalebound and Fable Legends). Which project, since Microsoft purchased these studios, has been a hit? Which titles have been the brainchild of a Microsoft team and done well? They've bought Hellbalde, not developed it. They bought State of Decay. They failed to keep Ryse, Sunset Overdrive, and Quantum Break. They bought Bethesda's IPs, not developed their own. They bought Gears and it's not seen some kind of amazing resurgence, kind of just petered along. Sea of Thieves (after a bunch of failed stuff from Rare) is kind of all Microsoft has done new in the last 15 years.
  • Sony deserves to be criticized because of the lack of variety of games just as Microsoft deserves to be criticized because of lack of quality games. All Sony's most acclaimed games apart from GT are third person, full of cutscenes, single player, with narrative focus, linear story and pseudo open world action adventure games. It even seems Sony can't do great online multiplayer games. Sony never delivered a game like Gears 5, with a consistent campaign, story, gameplay, coop and lots of online multiplayer content. She sure can do great single player games telling a story with some hours of gameplay, but that's not enough for everyone. On a side note, Ryzen, Quantum Break and Sunset Overdrive are all third party games that MS published but are not her IP, so this is not getting anywhere. If you were to consider those, you would have to consider cuphead and pubg as well. And well, MS did Halo and Forza by herself, which is a pretty big achievement, as Halo is one of the best selling franchises (the second or third greatest exclusive one), ahead of GoW, TLOU and Zelda, for example, and also an icon outside of games, with some comic books, series and stuff. Other games like Ori (the two of them) and Microsoft Flight Simulator are also highly acclaimed.
  • It sure seems like there will be a path where the Game Pass may make it's way to other consoles including the PS5. This would be great for even Playstation owners if it all works out, more games for them to play at least try. The nice thing about a subscription based model is that they don't have to go all in, if they don't find what they want in the first month they can always cancel and wait for another opportunity. With the recent news of Sony bringing more games to PC, it really does seem like there is more of a working together to benefit gamers mentality while still doing their best to entertain their own respective base of players. It will be interesting to see how things move forwards for both companies in the coming years.
  • Is anyone going to acknowledge the fact that Sony has been famous for pre-rendered CGI trailers long before Microsoft joined in, and have even been caught spoofing their "gameplay" trailers with unrealistic presentations like their E3 Last of Us 2 preview, years before it actually launched. Perhaps Microsoft is just meeting Sony in the middle and treating game announcements like they always have going back as far as the PS3 with Motorstorm.
  • It's never good practice to pick up bad habits of the competition lol...
  • The thing that gives me hope abt XGS in the future is that even the games that people were disappointed in weren't bad games by any means they just didn't match the quality of most Sony first party exclusives. People forget that not all Sony games are gold they just get left out of the conversation. The biggest problem was that these games weren't first party because say what you will about them, Halo 5 was a visual and technical achievement, Gears 4&5 as well as the Forza games were too. If the commitment and quality that was put into first party studio games this gen is put into all the first party studios this coming Gen, we have a lot to look forward to as Xbox/PC gamers and I'm excited about it.
  • Microsoft has had some big wins sure, Forza Horizon has been great, Flight Sim too, and Sea of Thieves really came into its own. But I want to be able to look forward to the action games without wondering if they'll actually deliver. Halo Infinite's gameplay demo last summer was not exactly a home run. I am confident they WILL deliver, but I'm also reluctant to throw all my hype behind XGS for some genres right now.
  • Thing is, Halo is a technical achievement of making a good-looking game with bad console hardware. It's...optimized well, I guess? The story was horrendous, with basically everyone hating most every part of it. The multiplayer was pretty divisive and might have a lower player base than The Master Chief Collection on Xbox, at this point. Forza Horizon's done well, but it's also a franchise that's sat around without much movement for a few years. Gears is one that Microsoft bought from Epic and has done OK with, but it's not managed to be particularly successful either. That Microsoft's major wins this generation has been a subscription service for existing titles and upscaling old games is kind of telling. People can throw out a bunch of good-or-better titles from Sony over the life of the PS4, most of them developed by Sony-owned studios. The best Xbox exclusives are mostly filled with second-party titles (Quantum Break, Sunset Overdrive, etc.) or franchises that have failed to continue on an upward trajectory (Halo, Gears). Forza is really the only example of a market leader in its genre, and it's a pretty niche genre.
  • The only console hardware that is actually low end is the OG xbox one. The fact that XGS / Microsoft got backwards compatibility via emulation done and optimised for that low end Jaguar SoC is a engineering marvel. The one s is just into middle of the spectrum in terms of compute and performance when you put the entire Xbox One series on a line. So the hardware is fine, it's just a matter of optimisation and that needs to be done manually by people (coding hours). A person can only work so much... It's not feasible to expect devs to code and test resulting crazy long working hours just to meet a deadline. This is a flawed approach as it only destroys moral, it destroys productivity, allows for obvious bugs to be missed, leaves no room for optimisations - all this results in a poor launch. To mitigate all that, alot of content and optimsation + testing is cut again resulting in a poor launch. So you either delay the game / franchise by a year or more - which often is fiscally impossible due to stringent delivery required by publishers which are effectively often run by project managers with little to no experience in game development. Therefore teams ultimately need more people and resources. The latter is in reference to compiling code and rendering. Microsoft finally has got that message - however they still need to provide both funding and autonomy for XGS. The other faucet of hardware is the hardware provider which is currently AMD for Xbox. Zen 3 is kicking Intel up and down the board in terms of performance and price. The only place it fails is volume but that is with TSMC and the ongoing pandemic pretty much dismantling the entire supply chain - it's long twisted past breaking point. in terms of compilation and rendering - Threadripper provides bucket loads of performance compared to Xeons which often cost crazy amount of money for the same performance (these prices haven't been really reduced unlike the consumer space due to multi-year contract purchasing agreements which often have fiscal penalties if they are terminated without notice and review - this headache locks corporations in and Intel can always threaten prolonged legal action which is another headache - both are avoidable). Thanks to Epyc and Threadripper we also get extremely high production quality content to stream via Netflix et al. Time will tell if Intel's newest CPU holds up any muster. For the sake of competition we all better hope it does. Given the node issues they have had; Intel's gpu will at least need two generations before seeing any mainstream headway.
  • Playstation has a good reputation because they have invested sufficiently in each generation to deserve it. Microsoft has not. They under delivered content for Xbox One. They will only get praise once and if all their studios put out consistently decent or good games. I have hope they are building a strong foundation moving forward, but we probably won't see them hit their stride for another year or two. In the meantime they have the best deal in gaming with gamepass and some really great hardware. I also think they should 1000% shaft PS and Switch when it comes to first party games. Put them only on PC, Xbox and Gamepass to grow their brand. It should be known that if you want to play new games from the studios they own that those are your only options at least for a couple years like Sony does
  • Under delivered what content? Xbox One has been the best / most used console I've ever owned and it's in the odd spot of not having been a breakthrough in anything but the sheer amount of content/games available. From Backwards compatible to games for gold to Xbox game pass and their outreach to all the indy game studios and growing inclusion of those into the ecosystem. Great time to be a gamer and I laugh at anyone complaining. Sony and Microsoft can do their own things, having a choice is a good thing. We don't have to be like movie studios that compete to make bad copies of each others movies to remain relevent.
  • Bethesda is okay, not great, mostly relying on older IPs. ID - good i.e. Doom (2016) was pretty good... I didn't see the sense in the new Doom Eternal though. Rage 1 was awesome, but they outsourced Rage 2.... to me it was a below average game. Arkane - is okay to good, Dishonor and Prey were not bad, never really cared for the Wolfenstein reboot. Although Dishonor, Prey and Wolfenstein are average to good... they basically sell in the low end range. MachineGames - average at best, doing Wolfenstein stuff. Ehhh. Tango - average to good, The Evil within series is solid. Again, not great in the sales department. Zenimax Online - disaster territory with Fallout 76. Bethesda Game Studios - solid but known for bugs and bad quality at times. Fallout series has been solid but bug city, Elder Scrolls is where the whole company has survived as they just keep porting V over and over... and it keeps selling. Overall a mix bag, the problem is Microsoft... they just aren't good at this consumer thing. Its not like these are bad IPs, but not sure anyone has confidence in Microsoft to really do much as far as consumer development of software. Without elder scrolls, Zenimax itself probably would have been in serious financial difficulties... very well could have been anyway. Its like Ground Hog Day everyday with Microsoft and consumer products/software/service.
  • Well, Elder Scrolls is where they started. I remember when Elder Scrolls Arena came out. At the time, it was competing with other large, open world role playing games like Ultima. They've always been more sprawling and less story and character oriented than others in that ilk, but they've been enough of a financial success to grow the business, acquire the Fallout IP, and then ID and other great brands. Zenimax/Bethesda is absolutely one of the biggest names in gaming. They don't have the sports games or yearly franchises of an EA, but like CDPR, they can spend many years on a game and then see strong sales for years after release, all with a more developer-friendly work atmosphere.
  • I understanding blowing the ship up, yes it a total rebuild from the ground up. Yes, Microsoft caused this by not developing in house.
    Xbox is under new management so we can see what happens.
    Also Sony and Microsoft are alrge companies, Sony went all in on PS4 because everything under Sony was not doing well financially.
    Xbox brand is a small brand, even though it large as hell but under the Microsoft Banner it like 5th or even lower. Microsoft has committed to the brand, so let wait and see it will take time.
  • I just want something, ANYTHING to actually get released from all these acquisitions, because so far they're getting studios but we aren't getting games.
  • I understand! But to be fair. It takes more than 1 year to make a game... more like 2-5 lol.... and Microsoft hasn’t even completed buying Bethesda. So you can expect a new game in 5 years, if they acquired them today and don’t already have a game in the works. (I’m sure they do have games coming out, but it’s not because of Microsoft).
  • OK, and 343 hasn't released a new Halo in nearly 6 years. Forza Motorsport is 4.5 years old, with Turn 10 just now giving early acknowledgement of a new Motorsport for an unknown release date. Compulsion's been under Microsoft for 2.5 years, with no word of what they're working on. The Initiative took 2 years to announce what they're working on, and we have no clue when that Perfect Dark title will come to fruition. There's a lot Microsoft's had within its walls for a while without much to show for it.
  • It’s very much make it or break it for me. Too many broken promises and squandered opportunities. I got a Series X. It’s time to deliver the goods. It’s time to validate loyalty to the brand. I’m not going through another Xbox One style generation of promises to string people along. The time to deliver compelling games is now.
  • This is nonsense. Seriously. The Series X has a ton of games that all got refreshes or higher textures or increased FPS. It's what everyone knew to expect coming in this generation. The Hype was announced when the X1X started this iterative improvement journey - they just said they were continuing that cycle. Beyond that, we're still in a pandemic, studios are all delayed or adjusting and we will see this regardless of PS5/Xbox or PC. NO one has been "strung along". Until the pandemic is over, manufacturing catches up and supply chain woes are solved, you're in a LUXURY SPOT right now and game companies can't cater to you - they have to reach mass appeal and it will take some time for that to happen - no matter the device/console/hardware.
  • I know this acquisition is a big deal, but honestly, I'm not into first person shooters or role playing games so I can only get so excited. I would've been happier if they had gotten WB Games because of the Arkham, Lord of the Rings and Mortal Kombat franchises. Not to mention, they would've given Microsoft more variety considering that they already had Obsidian and InExile for RPGs and 343 and The Coalition for shooters.
  • I just want to be able to play co-op games over Xbox live. Why is everything couch?