Nobody is more aware of this first-party drought issue than Xbox itself. Parent company Microsoft has been on a major spending spree as of late, making history first with the acquisition of Bethesda in 2021 and then announcing similar plans to purchase Activision Blizzard for a record $69 Billion less than a year later (though it’s still unknown whether this deal will ultimately go through). Combine those big buys with several smaller acquisitions (Ninja Theory, Double Fine, and Compulsion Games, to name a few), and the number of Xbox first-party studios now stands at 23. We’re constantly being reminded by higher-up execs that the games are coming, but we’re still stuck with that slow drip when the Triple-A water flow at all.
You could place the blame on a number of recent factors such as the continued impact of the global pandemic, the typical expense of development, and the protracted 6- to 7-year development cycle modern high-budget games now seemingly demand. What Xbox is quickly discovering, though, is that purchasing studios will only get you so far. It would have been far more fruitful if the groundwork for cultivating and incubating original first-party studios was laid down decades ago, rather than consolidating tens of them under one roof. While good in theory, vacuuming up teams will only ever be a short-term solution; a sticking plaster on a deeper-rooted issue.
It stings even more when you consider the position Xbox would have been in had they not purchased Bethesda (and all its accompanying IPs) two years ago. After all, the two biggest Xbox first-party exclusives set to release this year are Starfield and Redfall. The former game has been in development for so long g that it was also initially announced for PlayStation before being ripped away by Xbox, while the latter was most likely conceived and in pre-production long before that deal as well. Had Bethesda not recently been taken under Xbox’s ownership, what kind of 2023 would Series X and Series S owners be looking at today in terms of AAA exclusives? It’s concerning, to say the least.
So far, the most high-profile example of Xbox trying to form and incubate its own “quadruple-A” first-party studio (as it calls it) is The Initiative. Founded by former Crystal Dynamics studio head Darrell Gallagher, and formed using a combination of talent from respected studios like BioWare, Naughty Dog, and Rockstar, the Santa Monica-based developer is presently working on a modern reimagining of Perfect Dark. Of course, Perfect Dark itself is IP acquired by Xbox when it bought Rare (who developed the original) in 2002.
All these factors when taken as a whole should have Xbox players frothing in anticipation. Since that project was revealed via a CG trailer at 2020’s Game Awards, however, reports suggest the studio is bleeding staff and serious development on the exclusive has stalled. Already this year we’ve seen evidence that such mounting development challenges won’t be going away. Microsoft’s recent firing of 10,000 staff was confirmed to have affected first-party teams like 343 Studios and could represent larger structural issues.
Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? According to Microsoft, there is. In addition to Starfield and Redfall’s 2023 launch, the Xbox team has now announced most of its release slate up until June of this year. Of this generous line-up, though, Forza Motorsport and Minecraft Legends are the only confirmed non-Bethesda first-party exclusives for this year. That’s Turn 10 and Mojang accounted for, but studios such as Roundhouse, The Coalition, and Alpha Dog still remain elusive. Xbox will be relying on acquisitions and third-party partnerships for a little while longer, then, to fill out the rest of its slate. Admittedly, this is by no means unusual. It’s just that, compared to the likes of Nintendo and PlayStation, Xbox has historically struggled to get all its first-party ducks in a row.