2021 has been an outstanding year for Xbox. It’s been a long time coming, but the investments Microsoft made way back in 2016 have finally come to fruition this year – and Xbox gamers are reaping the benefits.
We’ve seen the power of Xbox Game Pass in full force in 2021, with critically acclaimed first-party games such as Microsoft Flight Simulator, Psychonauts 2, Forza Horizon 5, and Halo Infinite all arriving on day one on Microsoft’s subscription service.
Xbox Game Pass has also secured numerous indie darlings such as Unpacking and Hades over the course of the year, as well as notable third-party day one releases like Back 4 Blood, Outriders, and MLB The Show 2021, all of which help hammer home that Xbox Game Pass is a must-have add on for any Xbox owners.
Playing the long game
Microsoft’s success may seem like it’s primarily down to Xbox Game Pass and simply having a lineup of great titles this year, then – and of course, that’s been a huge factor – but it’s actually much more than that. What’s really helped elevate Xbox to the next level is the calculated gambles and investments that took place during the early tumultuous years of the Xbox One generation, many of which raised eyebrows in the gaming community at the time.
In 2016, Microsoft began by announcing Xbox Play Anywhere, a cross-buy program that let users buy a game once and play them on Xbox One and Windows 10 PCs. This was the start of Microsoft’s push to make Xbox and PC gaming more homogenous, something which has now become a reality in 2021.
However, the main catalyst for Microsoft’s success came in 2017. Xbox Game Pass was revealed, a subscription service that lets users access hundreds of games for a monthly fee, and the service has grown substantially since its release.
The biggest change that undoubtedly propelled Xbox Game Pass to new heights came in March 2018, when Microsoft announced that all first-party titles would hit the service on day one. This began with Sea of Thieves, and Rare’s game would soon be joined by titles such as State of Decay 2, Gears 5, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Doom Eternal, and Ori and the Will of the Wisps to name but a few. For many, getting access to Microsoft’s first-party lineup alone is enough to keep their subscription running.
Xbox and PC combine forces
2019 was the year Xbox Game Pass come to PC and coincided with the arrival of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, a premium tier subscription service that gives gamers access to both Xbox Game Pass on console and PC, but also various perks, exclusive discounts, and Xbox Cloud Gaming.
However, the more significant announcement for PC owners came in October 2020. Head of Xbox Phil Spencer revealed that every Xbox title developed by Microsoft’s Xbox Game Studios would also come to PC as well as console. This led many to speculate that people wouldn’t buy an Xbox console as the games would all be available on PC moving forward but as Spencer put it at the time: “I believe great games should be able to be played by as many people as possible.”
Power of the cloud
And it’s this objective – opening up the Xbox ecosystem to as many people as possible – that Microsoft has seen pay off in 2021. It’s changed the conversation and direction from how many units of hardware it’s sold, to how many people are playing Xbox games and subscribing to Xbox’s services. For instance, Xbox Game Pass had 18 million subscribers in January 2021, a number that you’d expect has only continued to rise substantially in the months since.
Removing the need for people to own a single box to play the likes of Halo or Sea of Thieves means that massive player numbers can be achieved, especially because of Xbox Cloud Gaming. The mobile market is, to put it lightly, an extraordinary opportunity for Microsoft to capitalize on, with billions of players having access to a smartphone. Being able to play a comprehensive library of titles anywhere that has an internet connection is a game-changer.
By allowing gamers to play Xbox games on console, PC, or via the cloud, Forza Horizon 5 was able to achieve astonishing player numbers – over 10 million players in one week – which simply wouldn’t have been possible if the game was an Xbox Series X/S exclusive.
But what else did 2021 bring for Xbox fans?
So Microsoft’s strategy is now clear for all to see, but that didn’t stop the company from also adding a ton of new features to the Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S in 2021. We saw the dashboard go from 1080p to 4K on Xbox Series X, Dolby Vision gaming support was added, and cloud gaming even came to consoles – meaning those who own an Xbox One can play Gen 9 exclusive games like The Medium on their box from 2013.
Microsoft also revealed FPS Boost in 2021, which bumped the frame rate of older titles to 60fps or 120fps, and added over 70 new titles to its backward compatibility program in November. We also a number of Xbox One titles get free Xbox Series X/S optimizations, including Destiny 2, Doom Eternal, and Hellblade.
Xbox is in a strong position going into 2022, then, with more momentum behind the brand than we’ve seen since the halcyon days of the Xbox 360. If Microsoft can keep delivering high-quality games and adding innovative new features, the dark early years of the Xbox One launch will soon feel like a distant memory.