Xbox promising unlimited budget & creative freedom for first party studios

Phil Spencer has been quoted as saying that “for a long time, Xbox was like the Garage of Microsoft”. His aim to re-invent the Xbox brand has begun to take shape behind-the-scenes, but will only truly be felt during the next-generation of consoles games. It takes time to make changes at major companies, Spencer inherited a mess from Don Mattrick whose infamous DRM scandal can be largely blamed for the deficit between PS4 and Xbox One this generation. Earning back the reputation of Xbox with gamers will take time. It also takes a long time for game studios to produce new games, and that’s a big part of what Phil Spencer has been initiating, exclusives for Xbox.

Reports have recently come out and stated that Microsoft considers Xbox first party studios to be on an “unlimited budget” status. Of course, we expect that projects will adhere to some sort of reasonable scale, however, it appears that scale is only being limited by the “wildest dreams” of each studio, according to comments being made by Mike Ybarra (Corporate Vice President of Xbox).

In addition, Aaron Greenberg (GM of Marketing at Microsoft) has gone on record to say that “This was first and foremost about finding the world’s greatest teams, who can bring new types of content to our first-party studios, and allow them to continue to operate independently. If you think about a game like Hellblade, how many big companies would have greenlit a game like that? But it’s brilliant and it addresses a lot of important issues. Those are the types of teams that really inspire us and it’s a privilege to be able to work with them. For them to become part of our team provides financial security, access to resources and tech capabilities, and still the creative independence to go and do what they want to do.” confirming that the new Xbox first party lineup of studios will be free to commence their own plans for developing games on the next-generation Xbox Project Scarlet platform, PC,  and beyond.

Microsoft Studios Global Publishing is the new name for Microsoft Studios under a 2017 re-branding that is meant to indicate the transition from being a smaller arm of Microsoft making games to a larger entity directing a multitude of projects at various studios and partners in order to publish entertainment software of all kinds.

Here are the game development studios now exclusive to Xbox:

  • 343 Industries – created originally by a team of Halo fans and ex-Bungie devs, 343 Industries is a large studio in Redmond, Washington, US which has been responsible for the Halo series since Bungie was let go of by Microsoft and became independent. Some of their well received titles include Halo 5: Guardians and the arcade exclusive Halo: Fireteam Raven. The team is currently working on a new title known as Halo Infinite but is said to also have their own new IP coming some time in the distant future.

  • Rare – the storied developer behind many of Nintendo’s most well known titles such as Killer Instinct, Battletoads, Marble Madness, R.C. Pro-Am, Donkey Kong Country, GoldenEye 007, Perfect Dark, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, and many more. Some of these franchises are owned by Nintendo while others remained property of Rare when they were purchased by Microsoft in 2002. Their most recent release has been Sea of Thieves in 2018 with an Xbox One / PC entry into the Battletoads series arriving some time in 2019. Although recent years have had their ups and downs for the company, a lot of potential remains for the future.

  • Obsidian Entertainment – perhaps best known for their work on Fallout: New Vegas, Obsidian is comprised of veteran game developers who worked on titles like the original Fallout series. Their original RPG series Pillars of Eternity received immense praise after its 2015 release on PC and again in its later release to PS4 / Xbox One consoles during 2017. A sequel to the game was also launched in 2018 for PS4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and all major operating systems on PC. Obsidian Entertainment has also been a long-term collaborator on classic titles such as Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights, while even being contracted to develop South Park: The Stick of Truth for Ubisoft. Now that funding has ceased to be such a major concern for the company, it can be safely expected that Obsidian’s next title will take some time to produce but could end up being incredible.

  • inXile Entertainment – a development firm going on 16 years strong led by Brian Fargo and also largely comprised of veteran developers including some who worked on the original Fallout 1 & 2 games for Interplay (similar to Obsidian Entertainment).  The library of games produced by this studio include The Bard’s Tale and Wasteland 2, with Wasteland 3 expected to reach a 2019 release on multiple platforms and a future game to-be-announced exclusively for Xbox and PC platforms under Microsoft’s new ownership of the company.

  • Ninja Theory – a talented studio mainly known for developing titles for other companies such as 2007’s Heavenly Sword for Sony, 2010’s Enslaved: Odyssey to the West for Bandai Namco, and 2013’s DmC: Devil May Cry for Capcom. While making these games primarily as a form of sustainable income to keep the studio alive, Ninja Theory has always had their own passion to make original ideas as well. This was seen in their self-funded hit Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice which released for PS4 and PC in 2017 later arriving on Xbox One during 2018. This well received action adventure title has received various awards and allowed Ninja Theory to become recognized at a higher level by the industry and fans. The game also has a VR adaptation and now that Ninja Theory has become a part of Microsoft’s first party studios, they’ll be able to focus even more on original IPs of their own creation rather than making contracted titles for others. However, they do have one multi-platform game still in production called A Star Wars VR Series – Vader Immortal: – Episode I which is set to release in 2019 for Oculus Quest.

  • Undead Labs – Created by former Blizzard employees, Undead Labs began as a humble start-up that followed the indie dev route until their Xbox 360 exclusive title State of Decay was picked up for publishing by Microsoft Studios in 2013 leading to a largely successful launch that saw a release of add-on content including Lifeline DLC and Breakdown DLC eventually seeing the title launch on Xbox One and PC as the Year One Survival EditionState of Decay 2 arrived in 2018 with co-op added to the formula of building up a base and managing the social group of survivors you recruit as well as resources they collect and consume. A number of large and free add-ons were announced for State of Decay 2 at the recent X018 Event and Undead Labs has stated that their relationship with Microsoft has always been strong, only becoming stronger when they became first party.

  • The Coalition – previously known as Microsoft Game Studios Vancouver and later Black Tusk Studios, The Coalition was once working on a unique franchise meant to be as big as the Halo series but eventually was instead tasked with the development of Gears of War titles since Microsoft purchased the IP from Epic. Thus far, the studio is responsible for the PC and Xbox One versions of Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, Gears of War 4, and the recently announced Gears 5. This team was also responsible for Microsoft Flight and the cancelled Project Columbia which was meant to be a Kinect-based shooter title before a complete re-structuring and re-staffing of the company in 2012. It appears that The Coalition is also the team developing Gears Tactics (a strategy based title similar to X-COM 2), and Gears POP! (a cutesy mobile spin-off of the series based on Funk POP! dolls.

  • Mojang – founded by the creator of Minecraft, Mojang is a development studio charged with the ongoing development of Minecraft add-on content as well as new games. Currently, the team is known to be working on Minecraft: Dungeons to be released in 2019 starting out on PC. The game is an RPG, hack and slash entry into the Minecraft series which Microsoft also owns since 2014. In addition to this, Mojang has been developing a long-term project to bring Minecraft to HoloLens.

  • Turn 10 Studios – created in 2001 by Microsoft themselves to develop the Xbox exclusive racing series Forza Motorsport, Turn 10 Studios has often been recognized for excellence in automobile simulation and game design within the racing genre. They’ve developed seven titles on their own for the franchise across the Xbox 360, Xbox One, and PC platforms.

  • Playground Games – a british studio formed by devs from Codemasters, Criterion, Ubisoft Reflections, Slightly Mad Studios, Black Rock Studios, etc. who have worked on some of the world’s most successful and high quality racing titles. Playground Games has worked with Turn 10 Studios to develop a more fun-based, arcade style spin-off series to the Forza Motorsport franchise which is traditionally simulation style leaning. They’ve created four Forza Horizon titles across Xbox 360, Xbox One, and PC platforms with a new title already in the works, to-be-announced which they’ve stated is an open world action RPG and not another racing game this time around.

  • Compulsion Games – based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, Compulsion Games is a studio founded by previous Arkane Studios developer Guillaume Provost. He has folks who have worked on titles like The Orange Box and Far Cry 3 and the team has now worked on aiding other studios in developing titles like Darksiders, but have also released their own games like Contrast in 2013 and We Happy Few in 2018. The team is now working on a brand new, exclusive to Xbox franchise, yet to be announced.

  • Decisive Games – in recent years reports have been floating around about a company owned by Microsoft called Decisive Games hiring for the development of a new entry in a “beloved strategy game” franchise. Many are hoping that this would be a full-fledged, faithful attempt at recapturing the majesty of the original Age of Empires games which took the world by storm on PC during the late 90s and early 2000s golden age of PC gaming. Little is known about the studio at this time, and Microsoft also owns the rights to Rise of Nations, which could be a returning IP.

  • The Initiative – a brand new studio created by Microsoft to be led by Darrell Gallagher (ex-chief of Crystal Dynamics) in Santa Monica creating new exclusive Xbox games full of story-telling, world-building, and creative exploration. The studio is quoted as saying, “We’ve been given the freedom to explore, try new things and operate like an independent studio, with the backing from one of the biggest companies in the world to do something bold and different.”, adding credence to Spencer’s claims of studios having a healthy dose of creative freedom.

  • Microsoft Casual Games Team – also known as Microsoft Europe, this studio was responsible for producing built-in Windows titles like Minesweeper, Hearts, Jigsaw, Solitaire, Mahjong, Bingo, as well as QuizToWin on iOS / Windows Phone.

  • Kids and Lifestyle Entertainment – unknown studio responsible for aiding in development of family-friendly Xbox titles.

The future of Xbox is looking good. Although it will take a great deal of time for new games, new IPs, and unique franchises to be created for the next-generation of Xbox consoles (currently code-named Project Scarlet), it does appear that the right steps are being taken to make that future a reality. It appears that Microsoft Studios Global Publishing has not finished with its acquisition string of studios and could end up purchasing even more game companies.

Less known development companies that work with Microsoft:

  • Sumo Digital – the British team currently working on the upcoming 2019 Xbox exclusive Crackdown 3 after Reagent games ceased their work on the title during June 2018.
  • Vanguard Games – developed the twin-stick shooters Halo: Spartan Assault and Halo: Spartan Strike which both provided excellent quality gameplay experiences primarily on PC with mobile and Xbox versions released as well.
  • Smoking Gun Interactive – formed by former devs of Relic Entertainment who made Company of Heroes. Their most recent title was Age of Empires: Castle Siege for PC, iOS, Windows Phone, and Android in April 2017. They’ve also worked with Microsoft on their SmartGlass project.
  • Ensemble Studios – responsible for the critically acclaimed Age of Empires series, Massachusetts-based firm Ensemble created the Halo Wars real time strategy game which launched in 2009 for Xbox 360 then later in 2016 for Xbox One. Ensemble Studios sadly shut down in 2009 and the sequel to Halo Wars released in 2017 was developed by 343 and Creative Assembly but didn’t manage to capture the same magic as the original. The developers of Ensemble went on to create Stainless Steel Studios which produced another legendary RTS series known as Empire Earth. Finally, a third company has emerged from this team called Tilted Mill Entertainment and still makes PC games to this day.
  • Frontier Developments – best known for their creation of Elite: Dangerous, RollerCoaster Tycoon, and the digital pet series ‘Kinectimals’ which was part of the original Xbox One vision.
  • Arkadium – New York based digital interactive content creator responsible for helping Microsoft Studios out with some of their card games and puzzle games, particularly on mobile platforms.

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