GADGET

Microsoft’s Xbox refresh can’t compete with its leaked roadmap


Microsoft showed off three new Xbox models yesterday at Summer Game Fest 2024, but anyone following the mass of leaks last year may have been surprised at how little changed for this mid-cycle refresh.

In case you didn’t follow the FTC-Microsoft trial last year, things went pretty well for Microsoft, ending in the company acquiring Activision Blizzard. One thing that didn’t go so well was redaction. Nestled among the court filings was a trove of internal documents, including one on the future of Xbox — or at least, one potential future, considered by Microsoft in May 2022.

Xbox head Phil Spencer told the FTC in October 2022 that the Roadmap to 2030 document was “a presentation from our devices organization to the gaming leadership team,” and said he disagreed with some of its projections. The slide deck outlined the team’s plan for its mid-cycle console refresh, codenamed Fairhaven, and its next-gen console. Essentially a pitch deck, then, comprising some things that were definitely happening and others that needed funding to become reality.

Let’s look at what was (un)announced:

Chronologically, May 2024 was to be a debut month for Sebile, the codename for an all-new controller. Sebile would ship with new wireless tech, which the document referred to as “Xbox Wireless 2,” and a Stadia-like cloud connection for reducing input latency when playing games on Xbox Cloud. More exciting for gamers, it would also have advanced haptics like the Switch and PS5 controllers, and a Stadia-like direct-cloud connection for reducing input latency on Xbox Cloud Gaming.

A proposed new Xbox controller from a May 2022 slide deck that leaked last year.A proposed new Xbox controller from a May 2022 slide deck that leaked last year.

Sebile, a proposed new Xbox controller from a May 2022 slide deck that leaked last year. (Microsoft)

Then, Xbox’s big summer ’24 show (which in the real world happened yesterday) would bring a pair of new Xbox consoles. First, a cylindrical Xbox Series X redesign codenamed Brooklin, which was set to be a $500 2TB all-digital device with WiFi 6E, Bluetooth 5.2 and a Sebile controller packed in. Second, Ellewood, a $300 Series S refresh with 1TB of storage, with the same improved wireless connectivity and the Sebile controller, but no big redesign.

A proposed new Xbox Series X SKU from a May 2022 slide deck that leaked last year.A proposed new Xbox Series X SKU from a May 2022 slide deck that leaked last year.

Brooklin, a proposed new Xbox Series X SKU from a May 2022 slide deck that leaked last year. (Microsoft)

The document noted that all three of these devices were “funded” but also gave two eventualities: one that would “limit Fairhaven investment” and another that would deliver the “full Fairhaven vision.” The former would pare down the new controller’s features and cloud connections, but would supposedly include a new industrial design.

A proposed new Xbox Series S SKU from a May 2022 slide deck that leaked last year.A proposed new Xbox Series S SKU from a May 2022 slide deck that leaked last year.

Ellewood, a proposed new Xbox Series S SKU from a May 2022 slide deck that leaked last year. (Microsoft)

Fast forward to Summer Game Fest 2024, where we appeared to get neither of these futures. We already figured that the Series S wouldn’t be refreshed, given Microsoft has been selling a $350 1TB version since last fall. But Microsoft’s vision for the Series X was unclear, and what we ended up with was a pretty weird pair of configurations: a 1TB all-digital Series X console priced at $450 and a 2TB special edition Series X with a disc drive, priced at $600. If there’s improved wireless connectivity Microsoft hasn’t mentioned it, and we’ve currently heard nothing of Sebile; the new consoles were announced with standard Xbox controllers.

Taken alone, these are fine refreshes. But Microsoft was in the unenviable position of competing with not only Sony and Nintendo, but also itself, in the form of those leaked plans.

Microsoft's 2024 Xbox refresh lineup.Microsoft's 2024 Xbox refresh lineup.

Microsoft’s actual 2024 Xbox refresh. (Microsoft)

A $450 all-digital 1TB console and $600 2TB special edition are disappointing in comparison to Brooklin, the 2TB $500 all-digital console with a shiny new controller the leaked deck was pitching. The $450 console is almost a price increase, given Microsoft and third-party retailers regularly sell the original 1TB Series X for that price. (It should be mentioned that Sony has actually increased the price of the PlayStation 5, with the discless model priced at $450 vs. the $400 it cost at launch.) The $350 1TB Series S is essentially the same console we got last fall, but that too represents bad value compared to the leaked $300 refresh.

Plans change, especially plans dated May 2022. But how they change can give an idea of how Microsoft is thinking about Xbox right now. Back in 2022, Series X and S sales were broadly keeping pace with Xbox One. That is no longer the case. Estimates put the total number of Xbox Series consoles sold since the November 2020 launch between 28 and 29 million. Even in the US — Microsoft’s strongest market by far — retail analysts Circana say the Xbox Series consoles are trailing Xbox One by 13 percent.

One particularly telling slide in the May 2022 document predicted 25-29 million of the mid-cycle consoles could be sold in three years. As of today, that would mean more-than doubling the lifetime sales of the platform. At the time, Microsoft’s hardware team was probably not expecting sales to be as dismal as they currently are. Microsoft ended the last console generation with around 58 million Xbox One consoles sold, which was a marked decline from the 85-plus million Xbox 360s it moved.

A slide suggesting sales volume will depend on the amount of investment Microsoft makes on its mid-gen Xbox refresh.A slide suggesting sales volume will depend on the amount of investment Microsoft makes on its mid-gen Xbox refresh.

A leaked slide from May 2022 suggested sales volume would depend on the amount of investment Microsoft makes on its mid-gen Xbox refresh. (Microsoft)

Microsoft doesn’t talk console sales figures unless it has something positive to say, but third-party analysis suggests a typical week for Xbox in 2024 involves moving 60-80K consoles, with Nintendo doubling that figure and Sony often tripling it. Put in plain words: Xbox falls further and further behind every week. It’s unlikely we’ll find out what Microsoft’s expectations for the refreshed consoles are, but it’s probably not 25-29 million.

The tough thing for team Xbox is Sony and Nintendo are broadly walking their own road and doing pretty well at it. Sony has sold 58 million PlayStation 5s and is preparing to launch a pro variant that will be significantly more powerful than the Xbox Series X. It’s also opening up to publishing on PC and just announced a game that’s coming to Nintendo Switch. Nintendo has sold over 140 million Switches, regularly outsells Xbox and has pre-announced a sequel console that will assumedly be able to handle current-gen games (including Call of Duty!) with fewer cutbacks. Meanwhile, Microsoft is struggling to sell its existing consoles, faltering in its plan to grow Game Pass subscriptions and seemingly squashed its hardware team’s dream of a bold mid-cycle refresh.

One thing it does have is game developers making games. Outside of the underwhelming new console SKUs, Microsoft’s big Summer Game Fest was a reminder of just how much of the industry it now owns, and how many games it currently has in development. We got updates on Fable, Perfect Dark and the future of Gears of War. We got a new Call of Duty and a new Doom. There are still countless developers under its wing that don’t have an “announced” project, and big games previously announced that didn’t make an appearance, like Marvel’s Blade from Arkane Lyon, The Outer Worlds 2 from Obsidian, Everwild from Rare and Hideo Kojima’s OD. Microsoft’s game studios have a lot going for them, but with all of their titles coming to PC (and several to PlayStation and Switch) great games might not turn into great console sales.

Phil Spencer has spoken on last year’s leaks a couple of times. He nearly-immediately took to Twitter to say that “so much has changed” — which was clearly true, though maybe not for the better. Separately, he told a court something pretty wild about Microsoft potentially leaving the gaming business if Game Pass didn’t get a better mix of players by 2026 or 2027. Game Pass growth, as of February this year, has been seriously tapering off, so… uh-oh?

I don’t for a second think Microsoft would spend the best part of $100 billion on developers to exit gaming, but I do sincerely believe that its console business is on life support, and it doesn’t need shiny new hardware to make a ton of money on gaming. The gaming leadership team that was pitched Sebile, Ellewood and Brooklin in May 2022 clearly agrees.



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