What can we realistically expect from a new Xbox 'AAAA' studio?

Xbox E3
Xbox E3 (Image credit: Windows Central)

Microsoft's first-party games lineup has been under a microscope as of late. With PlayStation putting out photorealistic blockbuster after blockbuster, Microsoft hasn't really met them head on. Xbox has had a ton of success regardless, owing largely to third-party developers and its Xbox Live legacy, which remains, arguably, the most stable gaming platform on earth. But core fans are increasingly noisy about the lack of truly great games emerging from Redmond.

Xbox faced issues when it was part of the now-defunct Windows & Devices Group at Microsoft. Now, Xbox head Phil Spencer is fully in charge of the division, and is able to splash the cash to invest in new content. The first signs of this arrived with the promotion of Matt Booty to first-party games lead, and the hiring of ex-Tomb Raider studio head Darrell Gallagher, who is, "coincidentally" based in the south California area, where Microsoft is planning to set up a new studio.

SoCal has a vibrant developer community and is a focal point for industry talent. God of War, Sony's recent hit, was developed in the region too, where Microsoft is seemingly seeking to build this new studio. But this late in the generation, what can we realistically expect here?

What types of games can we expect?

RYSE, 2013.

RYSE, 2013.

Microsoft has been criticized by core fans for its focus on multiplayer, "games as a service" type experiences, putting single player stories on the backfoot.

Indeed, service type games are the true money makers these days, and therein lies Microsoft's biggest strength. To deliver these games, it doesn't need to pay a third-party cloud provider to power them, and thus, they often have better margins for Microsoft than they would another company, who don't have their own cloud infrastructure. Ubisoft's online systems and PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds are both powered by Microsoft Azure, as well as all of Microsoft's first-party multiplayer games like Halo, Forza, Gears of War, and Sea of Thieves.

Sea of Thieves, 2018.

Sea of Thieves, 2018.

So, does that mean we can only realistically expect more multiplayer games? Not necessarily. Xbox gaming chief Phil Spencer is a fan of single player games, and has been on the record in previous interviews to say that he sees Xbox Game Pass as a way of delivering single player stories. A gamer who isn't necessarily interested in multiplayer games might not subscribe to Xbox Live to play online, but they might subscribe to Xbox Game Pass, if it was delivering quality offline experiences.

Diversifying the portfolio of games available on the $9.99 Game Pass (opens in new tab) subscription, similarly to how Netflix has with anime, cooking shows, dramas, covering all sorts of genres, is going to be crucial to truly scaling the service beyond your typical online gamer, which has traditionally been Microsoft's bread and butter. Microsoft could even create episodic games, delivering new pieces on a month-by-month basis to keep subscriptions rolling.

Either way, I think Microsoft is really looking to build quality titles with this studio, rather than the smaller, "AA" experiences we've gotten with the more limited likes of Sea of Thieves and ReCore. The job listing specifically requested experience in making "AAAA" games, with a whole additional "A" over the "AAA" Triple-A we've long equated with flagship games, so hopefully that indicates that Microsoft is thinking big.

New experiences, reboots, or sequels?

Phantom Dust

Phantom Dust, 2005. (Image credit: Windows Central)

Microsoft has a huge wealth of intellectual property it could potentially hand off to this studio. Microsoft's biggest franchises include Minecraft, Halo, Forza, and Gears of War. Redmond is rumoured to be building Fable again, alongside Playground Games (known for Forza Horizon), and is also building Age of Empires IV with Relic Entertainment and Sega.

Microsoft picked up a huge amount of IP when it purchased Rare, including Battletoads, Banjo Kazooie, Viva Piñata, and Killer Instinct. Redmond also has a few old school franchises waiting in the wings, like MechAssault and Phantom Dust. There are also modern properties like ReCore to consider, which held a tremendous amount of promise, despite its mixed responses from game press and players.

ReCore, 2016.

ReCore, 2016.

Having this studio build a sequel to a game like ReCore to address the criticisms of their predecessors might seem like a smart move. Marketing a new IP is always difficult, and sequential franchises have established fan bases and effectively market themselves, to some degree. However, there's also an argument to be made that starting fresh might be the better option for a new studio, particularly if they're hiring in new, outside talent. It might be beneficial for the studio's culture to work on a game that's "theirs," rather than work on an existing IP that belonged to another team, previously. Personally, I expect this studio would work on something fresh, on that basis, but it's hard to say for sure.

Don't expect anything soon

The final (somewhat obvious) point to make is, building "AAAA" games (as the job listing describes them) takes a long time. God of War was announced in 2014, putting its development at at least four years, quite possibly longer. If Microsoft is building a studio from the ground up now, then it stands to reason that there won't be anything serious emerging from it for at least a few years.

Theoretically, this could indicate that this new Santa Monica studio is gearing up for publishing for the next generation, which is expected to start with the PlayStation 5 anywhere between 2019 and 2021. That doesn't mean that the games won't be compatible with Xbox One S and X, however, as Microsoft has put an emphasis on change-resilience in its developmental toolchains, meaning that games built for Xbox should be able to scale dynamically across hardware generations, much like they can on PC.

Either way, these recent developments show that Microsoft is committed to improving its games offering, as it attempts to entice more people into subscription services like Xbox Live and Game Pass. It's especially critical when you consider the device-agnostic future gaming is heading towards, where the console hardware matters less than the speed of your internet connection.

What games would you like to see emerge from Microsoft's renewed push for fresh titles? Hit the comments, let us know.

Jez Corden
Managing Editor

Jez Corden is the Managing Editor for 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!

  • Phil Spencer would make a great CEO.
  • Agreed... maybe one day.
  • I think they'll do okay. Quality stuff takes time in anything, so those hoping for brand new AAA single player titles from Xbox would have to be patient, we are talking 3-4 years development time at least, especially for brand new IP. But that's the way it has always been (in the meantime, you can always grab a PS if you're really desperate for those specific titles, no harm done). Expecting anything sooner for solid quality is just unrealistic - expectations should be reasonable.
    As for me, my backlog is enough to keep me busy for the next 5 years (no kidding!), and it keeps growing from both OG, 360 and the One, so I'm in absolutely no rush to get any brand new titles. A step at a time, the goods will be delivered.
  • My backlog is serious business too... and lots of big third-party games coming. Cyberpunk, new Division, mannnnnnnnn.
  • My backlog is impossible....titles like State of Decay 2 come along, jump ahead of the pack, and any backlog efforts become null and void.
  • State of Decay 2, Crackdown 3. I'm still getting through hellblade at the moment. I haven't even downloaded Sea of Thieves and haven't finished even half of FH3. But yeah Xbox doesn't have any games.....
  • "But yeah Xbox doesn't have any games....."
    Oh please, you know what that actually means...
  • Glad I'm not the only one with a backlog problem haha
  • Yeh we are going to have to wait now. Just have to accept and move on with the fact that MS has had very poor planning for the Xbox this gen.
  • True dat. I often wonder where Windows would be if Vista and Windows 8 hadn't been screw ups... and phone for that matter.
  • Tie fighter!
  • Please, tell me that they intend to call the studio 'AAAA'. That would be pretty hilarious.
  • haha who knows
  • Please change the font color... the green font is barely visible on a white background.
  • We know it takes time but what is missing is the 'next' big Franchise. Halo now faces much greater competition and its 'fall' could be contributed to 343 but also the fact that the FPS genre is much more competitive with CoD, Battlefield, Battlefront, Titanfall etc so they have to do a LOT more to standout. Its difficult to change to much without upsetting the existing user base too. Gears 4 was maybe too 'safe' but maybe they wanted to show they could make a 'Gears' game first and foremost- keep the 'core' fans happy.
    The problem with bringing old franchises back is that the 'fans' want them to be like the old games but also feel 'fresh' and 'modern' - not just a 'prettier' looking game because of the hardware. Change too much and they upset the fans, too little or the wrong things and again upset the fans. Its more difficult to be creative and appease expectancy than it is to be creative and deliver something fresh and new with little expected. Its unfortunate that Scalebound was cancelled as that had the potential to give MS something 'unique' and 'new'. It looked like it could have sold consoles too.
    It also looks like Sony are resting on their 'back catalogue' either - rehashing the same 'games' - at least not without 'rebooting' them in some way (God of War). Games like Horizon: Zero Dawn (instead of another Killzone), Ghost of Tsushima (instead of another Infamous), Days Gone (instead of bringing back Syphon Filter. Apart from Gran Turismo, it seems few games lately are getting the 5th+ game. It also seems as though the Studio's are free to explore other areas - not locked into making a single Franchise.
    Maybe if we had some big new IP's that offer something different, we wouldn't put so much expectancy on the core franchises to carry Xbox through. It can't be just a fresh coat of paint for these titles either as that still leads to them feeling stale. If the only reason you are buying a game is for the latest Maps in MP, that aren't overly different from the last ones, something is fundamentally wrong. Yes MP/service games can be 'lucrative' but you also need a 'happy' install base that are willing to spend extra. If the game doesn't deliver, then they will migrate to a game that will...
    I know new franchises can be a hard sell but they can also propel the Xbox forward. Bring those that don't want Halo, Forza or Gears to the console. Not saying these franchise need to be forgotten either but Xbox does need new and more diversity to its gaming line-up - the next 'big' thing.
  • Thanks for the thoughtful comments. Agreed that perhaps it'd be best to come up with something new, nostalgia is easy but it's backwards-facing, and backwards compat can carry that torch. Still, I'd love to see MechAssault come back for AAA (AAAA?) treatment.
  • Hey Jez, Do you really think that Microsoft will be given 3-5 years by its considerable number of critics to to develop an entire studio and have it put out a polished game? An additional question would be, do you think Microsoft has anything left in the tank for this gen?
  • If they properly execute the blurring of the gens, I think they are okay. The games will be ready whenever they are ready, but it will play on several consoles classes, so the specific current gen does not really matter. Just like PC has been doing forever. My gtx 980 can still give a decent performance on some 2018 AAA titles at 1080p, despite being last gen. This is the efficient way to develop games going forward.
  • Maybe the next gen is called Xbox one XX. If so, people won't think of it as next gen, lol.
  • Good point.
    I think 'Sea of Thieves' is a pretty good candidate for something new. Maybe not the next big thing as such, but at least it genuinely tries to be a fresh idea. As you know, reactions to SoT have been mixed and quite polarized. Compare this to the so-called heavy hitting single player titles from the blue team like HZD and GoW which are tried-and-true Tomb Raider-esque formulas and it's easy to see why studios do not take as many risks these days. Safer to just put on a fresh coat of paint, or release the nth title in the series and call it a day. Same goes with the FPS domain which are all increasingly the same.
    There are few unique standout titles like Monster Hunter, but that is also an nth iteration anyways.
    I hope MS still continues supporting genuinely fresh and risky takes like CupHead, or artistic endeavors like Ori alongside the 'AAA' titles. I find myself playing those unique games far more anyways.
  • It's personal preference of liking alternative titles. But I agreed with you.
  • That comment really made me laugh. HZD and GoW are Tomb Raider-esque games?? SoT had mixed reviews not because of it's genre but because of what it turned out to be after all the hype and promises around the game. Most of the people going crazy about it happened to be XB or MS loyals. Even though this game was supposed to be a "service" that players plays for month or even years but not many people are still talking of it in this forum. Going from making FPS Killzone to a new third person action RPG is a big risk. This GoW is so much different from the usual games of the franchise. So even that is a risk because it's not more of the same.
    These are games they made and published. It's a MUCH bigger risk than making a deal with a 3rd party studio that a game like Cuphead never comes on PS4.
    Yes, Ori is a great game they own but there are so few of these compared to what the competition is doing.
    MS needs to do a lot more to compete with the PS4.
  • How are HZD, GoW not Tomb Raider-esque titles? What genre do they fall under then? Obviously I don't mean they are the SAME as Tomb raider as their plots, stories and timelines are totally different. Similar to The Witcher, Assassins Creed, and even a title as 'different' as Zelda BotW and so on. These are well known and established single player experience formulas. Players know what to expect, game developers know what to do. It is very very difficult and extremely risky coming up with a completely different angle to games, in fact only indie studios have been stepping up with their modest budget titles in that regard lately. That is why big studios will rather do the nth iteration of a successful franchise than risk a new one with an unfamiliar novel approach that might potentially flop, regardless of quality or effort. Even variations within an established franchise causes massive backlash from the playerbase e.g CoD infinite warfare (which I actually loved btw), so we are back to the WW CoDs and so on. And this really goes beyond an MS vs Sony thing (I have or had pretty much every console and most handhelds from the 3 camps and had nearly all the Segas before that too)
  • Sorry but I don't think your post is inconsistent and contradictory.
    So are you really comparing action RPG like HZD or a RPG like witcher to action adventure games?
    If you want to cluster them as "single player formulas" then why not include cuphead or ori? They are also single player games.
    Both are actually classic 2D platformer. Cuphead has great graphic, atmosphere and music but it's a classic platformer with boss fights. Ori is a brilliant game with nice atmosphere, music and graphics but it's a classic Metroidvania platformer.
    Nothing really innovative. Yes, indie usually innovate more because they have much smaller budget. And for argument sake what is innovative about SoT? Besides making it a game without story and packed with only fetch quest? Also you cannot say single player games like HZD and the latest GoW aren't risky when devs in the industry and major executives at MS and EA have been saying how risky they are.
    http://gameranx.com/updates/id/104620/article/xbox-head-gives-personal-i... And you really can't call HZD nth iteration. It is a new IP, they went from making FPS and to an etablished franchise like Killzone to this open world 3rd person RPG that has NOTHING to do with what they were doing with Killzone. You talked about variations within an established franchise, but you can't really honestly say that GoW doesn't have variation. It's not a MS vs Sony thing but looks like you're trying to make it that way when you said "so-called heavy hitting single player titles from the blue team". But the main problem now is that you're not being consistent with your arguments.
  • I don't get why Sony and Nintendo get a free pass when they rehash the same games over and over. God of War, Spiderman, Yakuza, Gran Turismo, Mario party/world/cart/golf/tennis, Zelda etc. But when MS does it, it's wrong.
  • This coment is wrong in many different ways, First: the new GoW is completely different from the previous games, Seconde: the Spiderman game is their first First Party Spiderman game, Third: the Yakuza series is published and developed by Sega, and like Persona the only reason to not be on the Xbox One is because they don't even care to port these Japonese games and neither does Phil Spencer, Forth: Zelda games are all very different. The only thing that is correct is that GT and Mario are constantly Rehashed, and even there 3D Mario games are normally very different, and Pholiphony Digital (GT devs) doesn't go to the extend of making a game every 2 years and have another Studio make games every 2 years so they can make GT a anual Franchise like CoD
  • hum. You're kidding right?
    GoW changed massively from previous games.
    Spiderman is not a sequel.
    Yakuza isn't Sony. (Question: Did you play any?) The different Mario games are DIFFERENT. How can you compare Mario Kart to Mario Golf to Mario World. Talking about the main Forza, GT and Mario Kart. 1992 Super Mario Kart (SNES)
    1996 Mario Kart 64 (N64)
    2001 Mario Kart: Super Circuit (Game Boy Advance)
    2003 Mario Kart: Double Dash? (GameCube)
    2005 Mario Kart DS (DS)
    2008 Mario Kart Wii (Wii)
    2011 Mario Kart 7 (3DS)
    2014 Mario Kart 8/Deluxe (Wii U/Switch)
    25 years, 8 games (9 different systems, 6 home console, 3 handheld) 2005 Forza Motorsport (XB)
    2007 Forza Motorsport 2 (X360)
    2009 Forza Motorsport 3 (X360)
    2011 Forza Motorsport 4 (X360)
    2012 Forza Horizon (X360)
    2013 Forza Motorsport 5 (XB1)
    2014 Forza Horizon 2 (XB1,X360)
    2015 Forza Motorsport 6 (XB1)
    2016 Forza Horizon 3 (XB1,PC)
    2017 Forza Motorsport 7 (XB1,PC)
    12 years, 10 games (4 different systems, 7 Forza, 3 Horizon) 1997 Gran Turismo (PS)
    1999 Gran Turismo 2 (PS)
    2001 Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec (PS2)
    2004 Gran Turismo 4 (PS2)
    2010 Gran Turismo 5 (PS3)
    2013 Gran Turismo 6 (PS3)
    2017 Gran Turismo Sport (PS4)
    21 years, 7 games (4 different systems, 7 GT) MS main franchise is Halo, Gears and Forza.
    And they have been pumping these games at a crazy rate compared to the competition. And the thing is tha MS seem to be mostly focused on these franchises while not making as many new IPs or diverse games as the competition. And that's where there is a problem.
    We expect to see Forza coming this year. We expect Halo 6 and Gears 5. We expect more of the same with a number increase.
  • Whatever they decide to do, I hope they push VR right alongside it.
  • Downvote? Have you tried VR yet?! Halo Recruit is such a tease of how awesome a VR Halo would be. If they had wireless VR headsets for Xbox One X and a bunch of AAA VR games it would be amazing.
  • Here's what we can 'realistically expect' Lots of Hype and an announcement of vaporware and overambitious commitments
    Still committed messaging
    First announced vaporware cancelled.
    Still committed messaging
    retrenchment Sell Xbox to Sega.
  • ALL studios delay, from both green and blue teams. You can strike the delay points out.
  • That comment is 100% MS derived, no green/blue comparisons required.
  • Point is, if you are getting game devs from planet earth, delays are a given, just like sunrise and sunset, therefore it bears no special mention - it's pretty much part of the game package itself
  • Scalebound
    Fable legends Yes it bears special mention in MS land.
  • Last Guardian was announced as a PS2 game and released in 2016. Delays happen to every developer. And speaking of Vaporware, where's that FF VII remake Sony announced in 2015 and forgot about entirely since.
  • Who cares. I already said this isn't Green v Blue.
    This is MS v MS and MS have proven they are the losers.
  • lol the classic "but others are also doing it so its fine" argument.
  • Ff vii isn't sony it's squaresoft and squaresoft are the king of delays not ms
  • Gran Turismo sport was delayed for years. And it ended up being a half finished game when they finally did release it.
  • Again more of the "but others are also doing it so its fine". But how was it delayed for yearS? And how was it half finished? Can you talk about the half of the game that was missing? And what exact years are you talking about?
  • Fable. Bring back the Fable franchise! It was the biggest reason I owned an XBox/360!
  • Planned and cancelled, that was fast even for Microsoft.....
  • What is cancelled?
  • Founding of a studio to release of quality game is what, 3 years at least? Sadly, not much to expect for quite awhile.
  • The problem I have with the calls to make sequels to Microsoft's existing AA games is that they (in some cases rightly) didn't make much of a splash in the first place. Sinking a lot of time and money into a sequel to a game that was commercially and critically underwhelming seems like a poor use of resources when there's such a wide variety of IP that could be the cornerstone of a renewed push by Microsoft. Microsoft needs to focus on games that will bring back the 360 to PS4 customers. The generation is lost at this point, and arguably has been since E3 2013, if not sooner. Microsoft's focus from now until the Next Xbox launches has to be in earning back the trust of everyone they lost under Mattrick. A marquee full of rehashes of mediocre games that looked promising will only further enshrine Sony as the console to buy for the foreseeable future.
  • Personally, I'm still salty about the loss of Scalebound. That game looked amazing
  • If you read about it, that game was so broken as to be unplayable & would've taken years to fix.
  • @bub
    Read where? Do you have link where MS said it was broken and it would have taken years to fix? I'm curious...
  • Joking?
    That game looks like ps1 game (and it is using ps1 era static keyframe animation controller) on stage it'd be a disaster off stage. Would you prefer to put down another 4 or 5 million and make it a 10 years project and sold around 1-2 million copies in the end, like most exclusives?
  • @Hirox
    Looked like a PS1 game?? LOL
    Either you never played PS1 games or you didn't actually watch the E3 gameplay video.
    I've read topics about Scalebound here after the E3 presentation and most people said it looked great. ofc all your numbers are just speculation from you, but yeah it would have been great if MS managed the project properly and kept their promise they made when they hyped this game.
  • "Xbox has had a ton of success regardless"
    Well that's totally debatable and subjective. We cannot know for sure... "But core fans are increasingly noisy about the lack of truly great games emerging from Redmond."
    That's also debatable. Most of the people who damage control the lack of exclusives happen to be hard core fans of MS/XB.
    Those who don't care about exclusives. Those who say 3rd party games are the one that matters. Those who said they had enough games or big enough backlog and don't need or want this. Those who said exclusives/console exclusives are bad for the industry. I think many of the people who are coming hard at MS aren't actual fans of the company and just want games.
    Most core MS/XB fans I see or have debate with usually don't criticise MS and their current policies. All they do is defend them and attack those who criticse. Right now MS really needs to listen to ALL gamers not just their fans or people who just worship them. They really need to look at what others are doing. What's successful + popular and not just what makes the most money. This is actually good news. ofc it'll depend on what comes out of this studio. I think people should still be cautious. I wouldn't go crazy and blindly support them. I'll support their games when they actually come out and when we see the direction they take...
  • California will likely attract only complete retards. Why not Singapore or Hong Kong?
  • I wouldn't say no to a new Condemned if they can acquire the ip.
  • Oh man, this would be amazing.
  • you have to watch an ad video before the comments will expand..ehhh
  • I just realize... this is such a clever business strategy...
    With the GamePass model, you can create as many chapter 1s as you want, and if one becomes a hit, you invest more in that franchise. If you read tech news, you'd know Assassin's Creed 1 spent most of dev time and money on Game Engine.
    AC2 uses the same engine so they can spent time and money on contents.
    AC3 engine, AC4 content and so on and so forth.
    And I believe most people find AC-even-number more enjoyable. With short episodic model, you create a game engine then you can spend rest of the budget on not-a-40-hours-long-repetitive-gameplay but on a shorter-unique-exquisite-gameplay. And if majority (not a few core fan) like it, they can start making more chapters.
    And people will keep their sub because of these episodic games' day1 release and 1st party games' day1 releases. Short episodic also generates more news time and value and people will talk about it. There'll be lesser cool down time between each iteration.
  • hmm so what you're is that company make glorified demos. People pay to rent these demos. And if majority of subscribers want more content (how will they even know this unless they provide number of subscribers), they will make more content.
    ofc that means creating story based on popularity and not just creating one story with a start and an ending. I see so many flaws in this thing. I wouldn't say it's great for consumers as they are depended on MS, companies and others to see more content. It's so frustrating when TV shows are just cancelled after one season or at a cliffhanger. That's what it'll be like. Can you imagine life is strange cancelled after episode 3 or 4? Also can you imagine games being dragged for ages even the story doesn't make any sense... They won't really get a "full game" and this could be just content added little by little...
    What you're basically suggesting is SoT and we can see how that turned out... Anyway like I said I see so many flaws for the consumer, even for the devs but not for MS. But I guess that's your priority, right?