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Xbox is poised to dominate the next console generation

Microsoft spent 2018 learning from its mistakes.
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Well, this is certainly a surprise. Xbox has been the bumbling underdog of the eighth console generation, playing catch-up to Sony's PlayStation 4 and watching from a distance as the Nintendo Switch reignited the passion of video game fans worldwide. However, over the past five years, Microsoft has doggedly climbed its way out of a PR and reputation pit with items like the Xbox One X and the Adaptive Controller as well as its public support of cross-console play. Today, Microsoft is better positioned than any other video game company to take control of the coming hardware cycle, which is expected to kick off in 2020.

First, let's appreciate how deep that Xbox pit really was. Microsoft's reveal of the Xbox One in 2013 was a clownish disaster, as spokespeople spewed conflicting answers about the new console's most disruptive feature: a consistent connection to the internet. The Xbox One was going to be the first console to require an internet connection, allowing Microsoft to implement new features on a regular basis, but executives sold this idea in the most confusing, anti-consumer way possible.

After weeks of backlash from fans and no clear answers about how the Xbox One's online requirement would actually work -- or why it was a good idea -- Microsoft backpedalled. It removed the online requirement from the Xbox One and scrambled to get the console in shape for its launch in November 2013.

Meanwhile, Sony was on a roll with the marketing of the PS4. Its messaging was clear, the console was familiar but beefed up, it would work just fine offline and it cost $100 less than the Xbox One. With this imbalance at the start of the hardware cycle, the PS4 handily outsold the Xbox One for years.

The Great Xbox Comeback of 2018 has been brewing for more than a year, starting with the launch of the Xbox One X on November 7th, 2017. The One X is the most powerful console on the market, offering 4K gaming and Blu-ray. Microsoft has the edge here, since the Xbox One X is the only console with true, baked-in 4K capabilities. Sony's PS4 Pro does offer 4K gaming but only through an upscaling process, and it doesn't support UHD Blu-ray.

The One X was a tough sell at first. Both Sony and Microsoft decided to upgrade their latest consoles midway through the hardware cycle, and though the PS4 Pro didn't feature true 4K, it cost $100 less than the One X (mirroring the pricing model established by the original Xbox One and PS4). Both companies had already rolled out cheaper versions of their consoles in the Xbox One S and PS4 Slim too.

Post-launch, the Xbox One X proved itself as a cutting-edge console capable of delivering the most beautiful living-room gaming experiences possible. Today, buoyed by positive reception of the Xbox One X and S, Microsoft's console family sales are improving. On November 27th, NPD analyst Mat Piscatella tweeted the following: "Xbox One sales show the highest growth of the three major [hardware] platforms in the US this year, and the Xbox One X in particular has been performing phenomenally."

Microsoft is on the right side of history when it comes to cross-console play.

The Xbox One won't catch the PS4 in terms of sales -- Sony has sold more than 86 million PS4s while Microsoft has sold an estimated 40 million Xbox Ones -- but a strong upswing at the backend of a console generation will only help the company in the future. And Microsoft certainly has plans there.

Microsoft is on the right side of history when it comes to cross-console play. This year, the company has demonstrated a willingness to open up the Xbox ecosystem and allow players to join games with folks on PS4, Nintendo Switch, PC, Mac and mobile platforms. A few games already support cross-console play among Xbox, PC, mobile devices and Switch, but Sony has been sluggish to join the revolution. It's kept the PS4 walled off while Rocket League and Minecraft players on Switch and Xbox One have been happily bouncing balls and building walls together for months. Fortnite supports play among PS4, Xbox One, Switch and other platforms, though that only happened after a chaotic launch period and weeks of bad press forced Sony's hand. A $2 billion franchise has that kind of sway over publishers, after all.

And then there's the coming console generation. It's too early to tell if Microsoft learned its lesson about messaging, especially when pitching a disruptive piece of technology to an ornery video game crowd, but it seems to already be setting the stage for the next hardware cycle. Rumors about the next Xbox started leaking in July, stating that Microsoft was building a console specifically for streaming video games and other media -- in other words, a console that requires an internet connection. This time around, the idea of a constantly connected Xbox didn't incite mass hysteria across the video game industry. In fact, plenty of players and critics seem pretty stoked about the idea of high-quality game streaming (as long as it actually works).

The Xbox squad also expanded its market in 2018 in an unlikely, yet truly important, way. The Xbox Adaptive Controller is a $100 gamepad built specifically for people with disabilities, and it's the first accessory of its caliber. A team at Microsoft developed the controller over the course of three years, gathering feedback from charities like AbleGamers and Warfighter Engaged as well as beta testing a one-stop gamepad for people with a broad range of mobility concerns. The end result is a sleek controller that works with just about every disability accessory already out there. The Xbox Adaptive Controller brings video games to 1 billion people who have been poorly served or left out of the market for decades, and its full impact on the future of gaming remains to be seen.

Xbox has turned itself around in 2018 (you could even call it an Xbox 360). Microsoft is generating positive buzz and slowly, delicately preparing players for the 2020 console cycle, which will surely feature at least one constantly connected Xbox. It's bolstering its game-development capabilities too: Microsoft Studios bought seven companies this year alone, adding Fallout New Vegas house Obsidian Entertainment, Wasteland 2 studio inXile Entertainment, Hellblade developer Ninja Theory and other big names. Meanwhile, Microsoft is preparing developers to work in a streaming ecosystem with a public beta for its Project xCloud service launching in 2019. Compare all of this with Sony, a company that has backed away from courting independent developers, refused to implement cross-console play and just recently pulled out of E3 2019 entirely.

It took about five years, two mid-generation console releases and a brand-new gamepad to get us here, but Xbox is back. Microsoft is finally in control of the video game conversation once again, and in 2019, its runway is clear. Xbox is about to blast off.

Images: Timothy J. Seppala/Engadget ("W" watermark by Koren Shadmi)

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