xbox

This week, Microsoft made one of the most daring bets in technology, and I can't wait to see how it pays off.

The company announced – in a bit of a rush, due to a flurry of leaks – the Xbox Series S, a low-powered, disc-free sibling to its next generation flagship, the Xbox Series X. And it announced the price: £249, against £449 for the Xbox Series X.

Ignore, for a moment, the genuinely awful naming convention, which implies amongst other things that the name for this console family is the "Xbox Series".

Let's talk instead about the two ways this could go for Microsoft.

The best case scenario is this: the Series S helps Microsoft double down on a previous dare, and create a new standard of success for console gaming.

That earlier dare was that publicly announcing the irrelevance of the next generation of consoles is a smart thing to do. When the Series was announced, Microsoft broke received wisdom for the console market in a huge way, promising up front that every game for the new console would also be available on the Xbox One, the company's current generation machine.

It was a wild gamble, because the expectation was that it would do the exact opposite: promise a suite of exclusive games for the new machine, in order to curry excitement and boost sales in the first few years of the generation. 

Instead, Microsoft is telling current generation Xbox owners "chill. You're fine, you don't need to upgrade unless you absolutely want games to look the best that they can."

The motivation for that gamble is the third major bet that Microsoft has made: that consoles are a subscription business now. The company's Xbox Game Pass product allows every first-party (that is, made by Microsoft), and a bunch of third-party, games to be played for one flat monthly fee. 

Put all these things together, and you can start to see Microsoft's plan take shape: sell the Series X and the Game Pass subscription to people who need the absolute best machine; sell the Series S and the Game Pass subscription to people who just want to get a new Xbox, and are reassured that the cut down graphics card won't hurt them because games aren't being built to only run on the Series X anyway; and sell the Game Pass subscription to people who won't be upgrading for years to come, by reassuring them that all the games will run on their old consoles anyway.

It's a vision that gambles on two things: firstly, that what matters most is not the number of consoles in homes, but the number of subscriptions (backed up by the fact that the same basic product is also available for Windows PCs); and secondly, that people with an Game Pass subscription will have powerful loyalty to the Xbox platform, because all their games are paid for upfront.

It's an incredible gamble, and if it pays off, it'll reshape the industry. But let's just briefly think about the failure state. What would it look like for Microsoft to screw this up?

Firstly, the people who absolutely have to have the best console are faced with a choice: the Series X or the PS5, each priced roughly the same. Of those two, one will come with exclusive games, and doesn't have a cut-price sibling; the other doesn't.

Those households buy the PS5, and, while they may pick up the Series S down the line for the Xbox only exclusives, the All Access pass never quite makes sense: multiplatform games look better on their PS5, so they buy them there. Worse, as the PS5's early lead grows, it becomes the default console for next-gen developers, with the Series machines an afterthought unless Microsoft throws money at an exclusive release. 

That's Sony's bet: that the console wars are not, in fact, dead, and that a nice subscription product may let you make more money from your customers, but it doesn't let you ignore the need for a strong line-up of next-gen exclusives.

Microsoft does have one last weapon to throw in this battle. An even deeper subscription product, All Access, offers not only the Game Pass, but the actual Series S or X consoles themselves. For £22 or £28 a month, you get the console, and all the games you ever need. It's a compelling offer. But will it be enough?

What do you think, Alex?

On a personal level, I'm not sure it will, and… I think I hope it doesn't?

For me, Sony's argument has weight. If I'm going to spend £450 on a console in 2021, I want to be able to play games that couldn't have existed without that investment. Most interesting for me on Sony's platform is the new Ratchet and Clank game, which is clearly developed from the ground up for a console with an SSD at its heart. The series itself leaves me cold, but as an example of what's possible if you move on from the past, I'm excited.

And then the Series S is a great console – to buy down the line, when I've saved up a bit more cash and the first great Series exclusives hit. But that could be several years time, and in the intervening period, not only will I have built up a substantial library of PS5 games, I'll also have reinforced my network of online friends around that ecosystem.

But part of this is wishful thinking because, incredible as the consumer offering of the All Access pass is, I don't actually want it to succeed. I'm not sure a future in which the vast majority of gamers pay one fee to one company which then decides which games they have access to is one I want to see come to pass. 

Even my own use of Apple Arcade, on iPhones has reinforced that: I pay money every month to Apple, and in return, I get… to ignore a huge swath of games which aren't included in the package, including many that I'm sure are wonderful examples of the form, but which I am too miserly to pay for, having already mentally budgeted my iPhone game spending.

I'm aware I'm in the minority. For most console gamers, a few AAA titles a year are all they want to play, and if they do try a couple of smaller indie games, Microsoft's curation is a net positive, pushing weirder titles in front of eyes that might not otherwise see them. And it's certainly odd that my basic stance is "I want to pay more for fewer games".

But I've seen so many creative industries hollowed out over the past few years, and I'm worried about the same happening to gaming. Even if the Series S is a stunning piece of hardware.