At this point, it’s not controversial to say that Microsoft has failed with the Xbox One. It hasn’t been a colossal failure, mind you — with estimated sales of 30 to 50 million units, this isn’t a Wii U-level catastrophe we’re talking about — but when measured against its closest competitor, the PS4, and Sony’s record-breaking success with that console (75 million units sold and counting) this generation’s console race hasn’t even been close. Meanwhile, the Nintendo Switch, which was released over three years after the Xbox One, is widely expected to eventually outsell it. Of course, sales only tell one side of the story. The Xbox One’s biggest problem — and one I’d argue is more important given that Microsoft doesn’t make much money off of selling hardware — is that the console has suffered from a lack of exclusive software pretty much from day one.
While Sony has managed to make the PS4 an exclusives powerhouse thanks to a ton of top-tier first-party titles such as Uncharted 4, Horizon Zero Dawn, and God of War, Microsoft has struggled to put out must-play games that you can only get on Xbox One. In fact, thanks to Microsoft’s Play Anywhere initiative, which makes every Microsoft-produced game also available on PC, I can’t think of a single game that can only be found on Xbox One. That’s a tough sell for consumers, as they can get a superior experience without missing any Xbox games on PC, but are also more likely to opt for a PS4 given that system’s large lineup of games unavailable anywhere else.
I won’t deny that Microsoft has repeatedly shot itself in the foot this generation with the Xbox One, but I think it’s also true that Xbox head Phil Spencer and his team have made a number of significant improvements over the last five years. By scrapping the Kinect and focusing on quality-of-life updates, the Xbox One has come a long way since its disastrous 2013 launch, even if it is still the last console I’d recommend someone buy. Here are 12 things Microsoft has actually managed to get right with the Xbox One.
In addition to how few of them there actually are, the other big problem with the Xbox’s exclusives lineup this generation is that Microsoft has relied too heavily on its established franchises. We’ve had no less than five new Forza games since launch (personally, I really like the series, but that’s just too many), while both Halo 5 and Gears of War 4 were somewhat disappointing installments that felt like more of the same. That being said, one area where I have to applaud Microsoft is in compilations, as the Xbox One is home to two of the best we’ve seen this generation – Halo: The Master Chief Collection and Rare Replay.
True, The Master Chief Collection suffered from pretty big problems upon release, especially with its online infrastructure, but it’s still a value-rich release that doubles as a love letter to the Xbox’s most important franchise. Rare Replay is on a whole other level. A compilation of 30 of Rare’s games released over a span of 30 years, Rare Replay is not only a celebration of one of the industry’s greatest development studios, but an important piece of video game archiving that other publishers could learn something from. I do wish Microsoft would release more of these sorts of compilations, but these two alone are almost worth purchasing an Xbox One for.
11. The Adaptive Controller
A controller designed for people with disabilities? That’s a hard thing to take any issue with and while the Xbox’s Adaptive Controller is irrelevant to the majority of console owners, it opens the Xbox up to a previously under-served subset of the market. Fully customizable, the Adaptive Controller is a wonder of hardware design and was made with accessibility in mind. “We’re coming up on 2 billion people playing video games on this planet,” Phil Spencer said in an interview. “As an industry, when you start to hit that kind of impact act in terms of the broad base of people that interact with your art form, I do think we have a social responsibility.”
Available for $100, the Adaptive Controller is a bit more expensive than a regular Xbox controller but given its functionality, it seems like a fair price for something that took far too long for the industry to create.
10. Controller Redesign
The Xbox 360 controller is considered by many to be one of the best gaming pads ever made, but the first iteration of the Xbox One’s controller was arguably a step in the wrong direction. While the controller had some small improvements over its predecessor – such as triggers with force feedback – it had a cheaper-feeling build quality and weird, uncomfortable edges (hello finger cramps). When the Xbox One S was released in 2016, the standard controller got a much-needed facelift.
The most notable improvement is build quality, with face buttons that have better action, improved ball-bearings in the analog sticks that don’t get that pesky chalky dust buildup, and a textured coating that simply feels better in your hands. It still doesn’t quite top the PS4 controller for me due to the absence of a touchpad, but the standard Xbox One controller is now respectable in its own right and arguably better than the 360’s. Of course, it only gets better if you go all out and opt for a Design Labs model or the expensive Elite Controller, the latter of which is perhaps the greatest video game controller ever made.
9. Console Refreshes
This generation has set a precedent for console design refreshes, as both Sony and Microsoft have released mid-cycle hardware updates to better take advantage of 4K resolutions and improved graphical performance. However, these updates have not been created equal and while both the PS4 Slim and Pro represent improvements over Sony’s original console release, Microsoft has arguably done a better job of giving their current-gen system a makeover with the Xbox One S and Xbox One X.
The S was released in August 2016 and replaced the base model Xbox One. Borrowing a page from Apple’s design handbook, the S ditched the previous model’s bulky frame in favor of a slimmer profile with a sleek white coloring. Aesthetics weren’t the only change though, as the S also introduced HDR and 4K Blu-ray playback support, the latter of which is still unavailable on any PS4 console. Overall, the Xbox One S is arguably one of the best console redesigns of all time, but it’s Microsoft’s second hardware release that set the new standard for console refreshes going forward.
8. Xbox One X
The Xbox One X is a complicated beast of a machine in the sense that, for all its merits, it’s a tough product to recommend to someone. Touted by Microsoft as the most powerful console ever made, the One X does indeed live up to that title thanks to its impressive hardware specs. Essentially, the One X is a pretty powerful gaming PC masquerading as a console and takes full advantage of a 4K gaming experience. Unfortunately, while there’s a lot to like about the hardware itself, Microsoft has done a poor job supporting it, as there is still a dearth of exclusive titles available to really take advantage of it.
Undoubtedly, the One X is superior to the PS4 Pro in terms of technical specifications, but Sony has a lot more games to offer players and in the end, software wins out. That being said, I still think the Xbox One X is something Microsoft got right from a hardware point of view, as it is a significant step up from the base model Xbox One. I just wish the company would allow the X to reach its full potential by, you know, releasing some must-have games for it.
7. Stat Tracking
Maybe I’m alone in this, but I adore the stat tracking features built into the Xbox One dashboard. Building upon the Achievements system introduced on Xbox 360, the Xbox One has detailed stats for every game you play, from total time played to things like matches won if it’s a multiplayer title. Better yet, you can see how you rank against all your friends in each category (I have nothing on the amount of weeks – yes, weeks – some of my friends have sunk into Destiny) and there’s a running tally ranking you against your friends in achievement points earned each month.
Overall, this isn’t an important or even necessary feature, but it’s still interesting nonetheless and I’m surprised neither Sony or Nintendo have introduced something similar on their consoles (the Switch tracks your play time, but it’s nowhere near as comprehensive as the Xbox One’s system).
6. Xbox Play Anywhere
Believe it or not, Microsoft does release the occasional Xbox One exclusive; the only catch is that each one is also released for PC. Xbox Play Anywhere allows for specific digital titles to be played on both Xbox One and PC, which means that if you buy Cuphead on the Xbox Game Store, you’ll also get a copy for Windows 10, with in-game progress saved between both versions. Getting two copies of a game for the price of one is hard to say no to, but I’m still not quite sure who Xbox Play Anywhere is for, as it currently exists. If you own an Xbox One and a gaming PC, you’re probably going to be spending most of your time playing on PC, while if you just own an Xbox One, you’re just seeing better versions of your console’s exclusive games all go to a different platform.
Xbox Play Anywhere is a strange service in that I think it hurts the Xbox One’s overall appeal, but is ultimately a win for consumers that also ultimately benefits Microsoft. Microsoft has made no secret that it’s trying to get away from traditional console generations and is more interested with building a gaming ecosystem, which is something that Xbox Play Anywhere serves. In other words, this is a service that doesn’t really benefit the Xbox One right now, but will end up being a good thing down the road … at least, I think.
5. Backwards Compatibility
When the dust settles, Microsoft’s announcement at E3 2015 that the Xbox One would be getting backwards compatibility will likely go down as one of the company’s best decisions with their disappointing console and for good reason. The gaming industry as a whole has proven itself to be woefully unprepared when it comes to things like archiving and preservation, so any step taken to make sure old games can still be played on modern hardware is a win, at least in my book.
Of course, Xbox’s backwards compatibility play wouldn’t be half as significant if the PlayStation 4 was able to play older PlayStation games but since Sony seems content to act like the issue doesn’t even exist, this is a battle that was Microsoft’s for the taking. Sure, it would be nice if the entire Xbox and Xbox 360 library could be played on Xbox One but to its credit, Microsoft has done a decent job of making the most popular games available and there have been regular updates to the service. Even better, certain titles such as Red Dead Redemption benefit from significant performance boosts on the Xbox One X, which certainly isn’t enough to move large quantities of the more powerful hardware but doesn’t hurt its appeal either.
4. Xbox Game Pass
Industry analysts have been predicting that the future of video game distribution will resemble the Netflix streaming model for years now, but bandwidth caps and other internet infrastructure issues have prevented this idea from taking hold as of yet. Sony has had the PlayStation Now streaming service for years now, but it’s been held back by performance issues and the inability to (as of this writing) download games from the service catalog. Microsoft arguably did Sony one better with Xbox Game Pass.
Released in 2017, the $10 per month subscription fee nets members a selection of approximately 100 different Xbox One, Xbox 360 and original Xbox games to download and play. The games on offer can’t be streamed, but being able to download them is arguably the better option anyway given that your connection needs to be rock-solid in order to get an optimum play experience. The other reason Game Pass has arguably become an essential subscription if you own an Xbox One is that every single game published by Microsoft Game Studios, even new ones, is available, which essentially means that you don’t need to fork over $60 every time a new exclusive is released (yes I realize that doesn’t happen very often, but it’s still a useful perk). I don’t think it will be long until Sony updates PS Now to allow for game downloads as well but until such time, Xbox One has the edge when it comes to providing the “Netflix of video games”.
3. Home Sharing
One of the best unadvertised features on the Xbox One is Gameshare, which allows you to share your entire digital games library with a friend. A by-product of Microsoft’s policy to allow you access to your games anywhere you sign in to your Microsoft account, Gameshare can be used to cut the costs of games significantly. Find a friend you trust, put your Xbox Live account on their console and designate it as your home console (and vice versa), and you’ll both have access to each other’s digital libraries.
Sony has a similar system on the PS4 but it isn’t as intuitive, as you need to actually sign in to the account of whoever purchased a game in order to download it for yourself. By contrast, anytime you make a digital purchase on Xbox One, that game will automatically show up in your friend’s library. Oh and a little hint: this also works for Xbox Game Pass, so if your Gameshare buddy has a subscription, so do you!
2. It’s A Great Media Hub
Part of Microsoft’s course-correction with the Xbox One was getting away from marketing it as a media center in favor of being a games-first machine. Somewhat ironically, the Xbox One is actually a great media hub and arguably better than the PS4 for things like watching movies and TV shows. Part of the reason for this is that the Xbox One simply has better app selection — for instance, in Canada there’s a streaming service called CraveTV that offers a bunch of movies and TV series not available on Netflix and for whatever reason, there’s an Xbox One app but not a PS4 one.
The other reason I think Xbox One gets the edge when it comes to being a great media hub is something I’ve already touched on, which is that it supports 4K Blu-ray playback. All-in-all, there are a dizzying number of entertainment hub solutions for your living room these days but if you own an Xbox One, you at least have one of the best.
1. Listening To Fans
While it has failed to even come close to catching Sony and the PS4 this generation, Microsoft still deserves credit for owning up to its early mistakes with the Xbox One and course-correcting with a games-first mentality. The biggest changes, of course, were ditching always-online DRM and Kinect but over the course of the console’s half-decade on the market, Microsoft has introduced a number of potentially industry-changing initiatives.
I’ve already talked about how great Xbox Game Pass, but I think it needs to be stressed that Microsoft probably would have never created that platform if the Xbox One was a runaway success. Failure has given Microsoft the freedom to take risks and try new things, which is why we’ve seen things like backwards compatibility, the Xbox One X and, more recently, the Xbox All Access subscription service. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a number of these initiatives are adopted industry-wide in the coming years, which puts Microsoft in a great position for whatever comes next.