Microsoft has been pushing the same narrative this past couple of years; “We want to reach more gamers.” To their credit, Microsoft has made several efforts to do exactly this. Making Xbox One both the most affordable and the most powerful console has certainly helped Microsoft’s standing in relation to their goal by garnering support on both sides of the proverbial gaming aisle. The introduction of Cross-Play and debut of many games, that were originally Xbox One exclusives, to the PC market afforded Microsoft even greater reach to even more gamers; despite the Microsoft Store’s flaws. Microsoft even went so far as to purchase the creators of Minecraft, Mojang, to extend their reach to not just PC gamers, but other consoles and platforms as well. Through all these efforts and more, Microsoft has sought to grow and increase the number of ‘Xbox customers’ at nearly any cost, and it is costing them their ability to prepare and adapt for the future, an area that looks consistently bleaker as time moves on.
As part of Microsoft’s push to refocus their efforts on Xbox as a brand, rather than the console itself, there have been several changes to concepts and definitions to support this shift. The most important change has been to the concept of what is an Xbox customer; to those of us on the outside, the assumption would be simply someone who owns an Xbox and subsequently purchases games for the system. However, that definition is not one shared with Microsoft.
Starting back in 2015, Microsoft made the announcement that it would no longer be reporting on the amount of Xbox sales (at least on its quarterly earnings report), but rather would be reporting the amount of active Xbox Live users. Anyone with any sense of marketing would quickly understand the purpose of this change, to not only fluff the numbers but also as an effort to change the narrative to what was important. No longer was the sale of Xbox One’s as important to Microsoft, but the brand of Xbox and how many users it had active. From Microsoft’s perspective at the time, this makes sense, at the time Microsoft had recently rolled out its effort to bring many Xbox One exclusives and other titles to Windows 10. Games on Windows 10, purchased through the Microsoft store, are all still part of the Xbox network and many of the features and functions overlap. To further this cause, Microsoft would also introduce a cross-buy system, where buying a Microsoft exclusive title digitally would give access to the game on both Windows 10 and Xbox One. Microsoft was in the process of changing what an Xbox customer was to be to something greater and needed to reflect this change in their reporting. To not do so, would in part, make Microsoft look like it was falling behind as their focus was being expanded to something greater.
So the change was made.
Things don’t stop there however, Microsoft would also find itself purchasing the company behind the acclaimed Minecraft, Mojang. Minecraft has seen worldwide success and interest, sporting a bustling modding community on one end, and even going so far as serving as an education tool for schools. As of currently, Minecraft has roughly 144 million users across multiple platforms with very little sign of stopping. What were once just Minecraft players, now that Microsoft is the new owner, are now considered Xbox customers; even if those customers are on computers, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo, Phone etc. All of these platforms, as far as Microsoft is concerned, are considered Xbox customers and are now part of the Xbox ecosystem in some manner.
The definition of what constitutes an Xbox customer simply used to be someone who owned an Xbox. But with Microsoft’s expansion and shift in the platform and brand, it has come to mean anyone who at some point has logged in, purchased, or interacted with a Microsoft platform that is focused on gaming as an ‘Xbox customer’. If you play Minecraft on your Nintendo Switch, you’re an ‘Xbox customer’. If you used Microsoft’s Mixer streaming platform, you’re an ‘Xbox customer’. If you end up playing a game made from Microsoft’s new cloud division in the future, you will most likely be an ‘Xbox customer.’
Microsoft is looking to broaden its wings in the gaming market, to be seen less as a console maker, but as a company with a variety of different solutions and options ranging from platforms to titles. A large part of that effort can be seen in what Microsoft considers as an ‘Xbox customer’ before vs. now, shifting from a purchase to simply a user of one of their many gaming outlets. It’s an admirable attempt by Microsoft and one that makes a lot of sense considering the type of company Microsoft is outside of the gaming market. Except, there is one key piece missing from all of these new ventures and ideas, how do they relate back to each other and how do they help Microsoft grow in a meaningful way?
Well, they don’t, and it’s all blinded by their own numbers.
Blind To Itself
Microsoft has refocused their efforts to spread outward into the gaming market under the brand of Xbox. In doing so, they have purchased popular games, started new divisions, attempted to create new outlets in existing ones, and taken efforts to compete with similar platforms.
In all these efforts, the goal has remained to continue to expand into these new markets. But as a side effect of Microsoft’s shift in its concept of what it means to be an ‘Xbox customer,’ it is actively hurting itself in the process. In each of these new ventures, there exist significant flaws, that would both be seen as far more concerning and troublesome if they are simply looked at in a different way.
Starting with the PC market, the Microsoft store, especially in relation to games, is an utter mess. Games suffer from a slew of extra issues that are not found on similar platforms such as Steam and forcibly moves players to a platform that is considerably worse than competitors. Regardless of the reception of the platform and potential use of it, using Microsoft’s new system, even logging into it once and not playing anything would still count as an active Xbox Live users. Even if those users find the experience lackluster or simply unusable in some way, Microsoft, in this case, is still counting as a win due to how the systems in place are set up. If you received the game free as you purchased it digitally, you now own a Windows 10 version as well regardless of your desire to use it. Purchasing a game on Windows 10 would also have it link to the Xbox One.
Minecraft suffers from being a landlocked country surrounded by enemies. It is available on every modern console as well as supported on most smart devices and even some VR platforms. It exists where no other Microsoft game does, on competitor platforms. This results in a situation where the game itself can exist on those platforms, but connecting them back to Microsoft or Xbox related services is all but impossible. Doing so would result in some form of pushback from competitor platforms and risk losing support or the ability to be sold on those platforms. While Minecraft has an extremely large user base, it simply cannot be leveraged in any meaningful way outside of Microsoft’s platforms.
Finally, we have the Xbox One itself. While the console is certainly feature rich, it suffers from one major issue, a complete lack of exclusives, largely in part due to Microsoft’s handling of such deals. While it may offer affordability or raw power depending on the version, it lacks one of the most important qualities a console should have: games. PlayStation 4 has largely dominated this console generation for this fact alone (baring Microsoft’s initial mistakes with the Xbox One), you can have all the features and power you want, but if there is not a game there to separate it from the group, then why purchase it?
These are just a few examples of some of the many issues Microsoft faces with its expanded Xbox outlook. Every company or product isn’t going to be perfect, but many of these issues are extremely concerning. The PC gaming side of Microsoft’s Xbox efforts have been in a lackluster state and have developed a bad reputation for being buggy and generally riddled with issues. Minecraft as a game is fantastic but simply doesn’t relate to Microsoft in any meaningful way. Finally, the Xbox One is left being a good console with no exclusives left to properly compete with its competitors.
As Microsoft continues to expand in the avenues it has chosen, it will continue to see its numbers grow and grow. But those numbers are only growing because of the narrative they have been designed to tell, more people are becoming ‘Xbox customers.’ What those numbers don’t tell, is the extremely large and worrisome failures that exist currently and are simply unsustainable. Will Minecraft always be profitable? No, a day will come where it will pass, and what will Microsoft gain from it when it’s gone? Little to nothing if history is any indication. If the PC gaming aspect of Microsoft’s Xbox plans are never improved, will it still be around? Looking at Games for Windows Live says it will just quietly fade into the darkness to never be spoken about again. And once more, when it comes time for a new set of consoles, is anyone going to be willing to purchase an Xbox Two if there are complete lack of exclusives? Most likely not.
Microsoft sees itself expanding, and it is, but Microsoft consistently expands in areas that yield no future worth or value. It has happened time and time again, be it developers, technology firms, or even phones, Microsoft has a distinct history of expanding into new areas and never properly leveraging them for a potential future. So here we find ourselves again, Microsoft pushing itself in a new direction, believing what they are doing will yield them a prosperous future, but instead is simply spreading themselves too thin, leaving them with a turbulent future.