Axios Gaming

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Megan and Stephen here, back together again for Monday's edition of Axios Gaming. Stephen is here to talk about Xbox's big anniversary, and Megan has Thoughts about JRPGs.

👁‍🗨 Send us your questions! We do Q&A every Monday and might just answer yours.

Today's edition is 1,116 words, a 4-minute read.

1 big thing: Phil Spencer on the Xbox at 20

Photos of the original Xbox and Phil Spencer standing on a stage to address Xbox fans
The original Xbox and head of Xbox Phil Spencer. Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela. Photos: Christian Petersen/Handout and Newsmakers/Getty Images

Two decades in, the unexpected consequences of some of Xbox’s boldest innovations nudged Microsoft to break away from its initial “gamer” marketing push toward an inclusive approach to gaming, Xbox boss Phil Spencer tells Axios.

Why it matters: Xbox turns 20 today, offering a moment to reflect on what Microsoft has achieved within console gaming and where it may go in the next 20 years.

What he's saying: Spencer credits Microsoft’s online gaming service Xbox Live, launched in 2002, with expanding his team’s view of who plays games and the barriers in some players' way.

  • “Live gave us a direct, real-time connection to the community of people that play,” Spencer said, contrasting it to a model of selling discs in a store and not hearing from the player again.
  • Microsoft learned from Live’s positive and negative feedback: the friendships made by Live users clarified the potential of an online community, and toxic online chat showed the obstacles that kept some people from playing.

Spencer also cited the Xbox’s largely abandoned Kinect sensor for getting his team to think more about accessibility issues.

  • Kinect launched as an add-on to the Xbox 360 in 2010, offering a means to control games with body movement and voice, a sort of answer to Nintendo’s blockbuster motion-control Wii.
  • Microsoft took note of feedback from parents of children with physical or mental disabilities who told them that Kinect had enabled their child to finally play a video game.

Spencer traces a line from those breakthroughs to Microsoft’s current ambition to bring gaming to a bigger, more diverse group of people.

  • Microsoft describes this push as an attempt to attract some 3 billion potential players, a group Spencer said by definition is “not one gender or race or kind of one anything.”
  • It’s a sharp contrast from the original marketing of the Xbox in 2001, which Spencer acknowledges targeted the “canonical example of a slack-jawed teenager in their basement with a headset on, swearing at the person on the other end of the line.”
  • He acknowledges that the image of the gamer as a common industry “caricature” was not even accurate then.

Go deeper: Xbox chief Phil Spencer reflects on 20 years of Xbox

2. Spencer: Game Pass skeptics are wrong

The Xbox chief defended his company's ambitious Game Pass service, saying it is “sustainable” right now.

Why it matters: Microsoft's big bet — an all-you-can-play Netflix-style subscription service — missed a growth target in the 12 months ending June 30 and has been subject to industry skepticism that it is financially viable long-term.

  • Spencer invites people to do the math. "I guess you don't know how many subscribers or how much each subscriber is paying," Spencer said, tacitly acknowledging that some people are on $1 promo subs or are otherwise not paying the standard $120/year.
  • “I know there's a lot of people that like to write [that] we're burning cash right now for some future pot of gold at the end,” Spencer said. “No. Game Pass is very, very sustainable right now as it sits. And it continues to grow.”

3. You ask, we answer

Image courtesy of Atlus

Megan here for today's Q&A. Got questions? Send 'em our way.

Q: [It seems that Japanese role-playing games] trend more toward action RPGs. What has happened to JRPGs in the last decade? Do we still see good titles being released on the consoles? Can you give some examples?

A: I think it's more that many franchises have evolved over time. "Final Fantasy" — arguably the most well-associated series with the genre — has moved away from the careful, turn-based gameplay JRPGs used to be known for, in favor of experimenting with the action style you're talking about.

  • But the franchise has always played with different genres, whether it was dabbling in turn-based strategy (like "Final Fantasy Tactics") or trying to be a shooter ("Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII," sorry we have to mention it).
  • There are still popular franchises leaning into turn-based combat to complement their traditional JRPG storytelling (attack and dethrone God). Atlus' "Persona" and "Shin Megami Tensei" series both offer modern versions of the action style, with updated sensibilities that make the experience feel enjoyable. (See item 6 for more about SMT.)
  • If you need a place to start, "Persona 5" is my top pick (huge shocker). It still uses that traditional turn-based combat, but as strategic elements through a system of weaknesses and strengths for your party to play against. That's on top of its robust social sim elements, which let you do everything from building bonds with party members to doing your homework. For my money, it's the definitive JRPG of the era.

4. Need to know

🎮 Microsoft is adding over 70 Xbox and Xbox 360 games to its catalog of backward compatible titles, including the "F.E.A.R." and "Max Payne" franchises, "Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast" and "Skate 2."

  • It also just launched "Halo Infinite"'s free multiplayer mode, a few weeks earlier than expected.

😷 PAX East is returning as an in-person event April 21-24 in Boston and will require all participants to be fully vaccinated and masked at all times.

🛹 Take-Two publishing label Private Division has acquired "OlliOlli" developer Roll7; Private Division will publish the team's upcoming game "OlliOlli World."

🤔 "Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy" has returned to PC, after Rockstar pulled it to "remove files unintentionally included in these versions."

🥾 "A Short Hike" launches for PS4 and Xbox One on Nov. 16.

5. Worthy of your attention

Industry analyst Daniel Ahmad has an interesting Twitter thread discussing developer presence in Montreal, inspired by news that "Genshin Impact" creator MiHoYo will open a new studio there.

"MiHoYo follows in the footsteps of other Chinese game developers that have set up [shop] in Montreal. Most notably, NetEase opened a studio there in 2019. Tencent also opened a studio in Montreal under its TiMi brand earlier this year. The push comes as Chinese devs go global. ... So why did so many studios decide to set up shop in Montreal I [hear] you ask? Well it's an interesting story that requires us to go back to 1997 when Yves Guillemot was first looking to open a studio in North America to increase its presence in the region."

6. A game for your week

Image courtesy of Atlus

If you’re in need of something a little meatier for the holidays that you can also play while you travel, Atlus’ “Shin Megami Tensei V” just released for Nintendo Switch.

  • It’s a post-apocalyptic JRPG, set against a backdrop of Biblical tropes, where you recruit demons to help you in your fight.
  • The game has a definite mean streak, as its difficulty can be a little challenging; battles are turn-based and work around a strengths and weaknesses system that will give or take away turns.
  • "SMTV"'s mix of recruiting and team creation works well with its strange story.

Elevator pitch: It's "Pokémon" by way of "Final Fantasy" with a dark twist.

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🐦 Find us on Twitter: @megan_nicolett / @stephentotilo.

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