Tuesday’s debut of the much-anticipated video game Titanfall likely will be a pivotal early moment for Microsoft’s newest console, the Xbox One, which has struggled to keep up with Sony’s cheaper PlayStation 4 since both launched in November. Almost four months in, Sony has sold 6 million PS4s, compared to 4 million Xbox Ones. With the Xbox One costing $100 more than the PS4, and with few other distinctive titles, Microsoft is hoping a successful Titanfall launch will keep it in the game.
Distributed by Electronic Arts, Titanfall is a rip-roaring online-only take on standard tropes of science fiction and first-person shooters, from creators of the Call of Duty franchise. It initially will be exclusive to the Xbox One, then also be launched for Windows-based PCs and Microsoft’s older Xbox 360 console. It is not scheduled to be available on Sony consoles, an unusual move by a big third-party publisher such as EA that normally wants to make its games as widely available as possible.
In securing the exclusive arrangement with EA, however, Microsoft clearly is hoping Titanfall will do for its newest console what Halo did for the original Xbox: make it a must-have for serious gamers and solidify its long-term viability. Halo was called the Xbox “killer app,” selling more than 50 million copies across multiple sequels and generating an estimated $3.4 billion in direct revenue. It also sold a lot of Xbox and Xbox 360 consoles. In fact, early in the Xbox’s existence, Halo was practically the only reason for hardcore gamers to buy the machine.
While it’s ridiculous to consider the Xbox One “dead” if Titanfall isn’t a big success, Microsoft nonetheless could be in serious trouble with game creators and Wall Street. For game designers and publishers, perceived Xbox One weakness now might be cemented into place for years to come. Game creators must make big, long-term commitments when designing console titles. If they think the Xbox One is turning into a loser, they might shift future game development to the PS4, creating a vicious cycle of inadequate Xbox One game offerings that further reduces console sales. Investor concerns also might grow if they perceive intractable problems in what had been one of Microsoft’s most successful divisions, perhaps enough to affect its stock price and hobble its new CEO. For the games unit, 2013 was an annus horribilis, as it botched the Xbox One rollout at the E3 conference and saw two presidents depart within six months of each other. For morale and momentum if nothing else, the unit needs a win.