XBOX Needs a Hero
Contributed by DJMMT
In my opinion, branding is more important in the gaming industry today than ever before. Making great games is important, but if people don’t recognize and remember those games then they don’t really matter. Three of my favorite games from years past are The Mark of Kri (PS2), Metal Arms: Glitch in the System (GBC), and Kameo: Elements of Power (XB360). What all these games have in common is that they’re all amazing games that launched in the same generation that most people don’t remember. The quality of the games is not in question. They all scored at least an 80% on Metacritic in their day. Their platforms are/were not a limiting factor. Each released on a common platform that no one would have considered niche for its time. Yet all three of them have basically been forgotten by the community and industry. Though to be fair, The Mark of Kri did get a sequel. It’s not the age of these games. People still remember and continue to support much older characters like Mario, Sonic, and Crash Bandicoot. In fact, those three characters still get new games released today. What Rau, Glitch, and Kameo all lacked was brand recognition. People never really got to know them, so people don’t care about them today.
When I say Kratos, you think PlayStation. When I say Mario, you think Nintendo. When I say Master Chief, you think XBOX. But now take it one step further. If I say angry bald man that slays gods, you think Kratos and by extension PlayStation. If I say Italian plumber, you think Mario and by extension Nintendo. But if I say guy in armor who shoots aliens, do you think of Master Chief and by extension XBOX? You might, if you’re a HALO or XBOX guy. But that’s a pretty generic description that tells you literally nothing about the character himself. I’ve been playing video games since before HALO: Combat Evolved released. I remember the launches of the first three games in the HALO franchise. I remember the LAN parties. I remember how fun it was to get the sword in HALO 2. I remember how irritating it was that they added energy limits to the sword in HALO 3. But I actually couldn’t tell you much about Master Chief as a person. Even people who haven’t played God of War or Super Mario games could tell you at least some personal details about Kratos and Mario. I’m not even sure if die hard HALO fans could really tell you anything about Master Chief on a personal level. If you take aliens out of my description, there’s really nothing differentiating Master Chief from Doomguy. That’s not good branding.
Iconic characters are about more than just what they do. They’re about who they are. People don’t just like Uncharted. They like Nathan Drake. People don’t just like shooting angel shooting waifus, they like Bayonetta. Characters matter because people latch onto them and by extension their brands/platforms. XBOX doesn’t really have that. The most “human” iconic protagonist I can think of from first party XBOX is Marcus Fenix, but I don’t really feel like the character ever made the big leap into mainstream gaming icon status. Like people who don’t play the franchise know the name but not the character. While it would be very out of character for the brand, I think XBOX needs to do the work of developing a new franchise that’s character driven and commit to making that character the face of the brand. Not just a generic guy in a suit of armor. They need people to care about the person in the armor.
What’s funny is that they’re buying up all these studios in the hopes of not having to do the work themselves. But when you look at the studios they’ve purchased, very few of them are the right teams for the job. With the exception of Ninja Theory, none of the many studios Microsoft now owns are known for making solid character driven games at AAA quality. They’ve amassed a collection of studios that shine at first person gameplay that allows the player to assume the role of the protagonist rather than adventure with the protagonist. Let me be clear, I’m not saying these are bad games. I love the newer iteration of DOOM. But I don’t really care about the protagonist. Because there’s not really much to care about. I care(d) about Commander Shepherd, which is a true testament to just well done the Mass Effect trilogy was. A game with a character creation tool that still has strong enough writing to make you care about the protagonist is a rare achievement worth celebrating. But it’s way easier to build iconic characters that players care about when they have a defined face and personality; and right now XBOX really doesn’t have that.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is great. But Senua is no Aloy. I’m not saying she couldn’t be. But the indie caliber game her IP started in wasn’t grand enough or character driven enough to build Senua into an iconic protagonist. Not to mention that the IP didn’t even start as an XBOX/Microsoft exclusive. Notice that Nintendo doesn’t really leverage Bayonetta as a brand icon. That’s an intentional choice. Because really she’s not Nintendo. She a third-party Nintendo exclusive from Platinum Games. Whether XBOX owns the IP now or not, Senua is not XBOX. At least not yet anyway. Honestly I don’t think Senua or any external IP is the way to go though. They need to build a new IP with a protagonist that can rival the likes of Kratos and Mario. Not just in gameplay, which is of course important, but also in characterization. When PlayStation announced Marvel’s Spider-Man as an exclusive, XBOX players weren’t angry that they couldn’t play an action brawler with swinging, climbing, and gadgets. They were angry that they couldn’t play as Spider-Man. The same thing happened with the recent announcement of Wolverine. People don’t care about what will most likely be an action hack-n-slash game with hopefully a fair amount of gore. They care about playing as Logan.
XBOX needs to build someone. Ideally multiple iconic characters with real personality. But at the bare minimum they need at least one. Who would be in the XBOX equivalent of PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale? Master Chief, Marcus Fenix, maybe Cortana as an assist trophy, and a bunch of characters that aren’t specifically associated with XBOX to the public. XBOX objectively couldn’t. They’d be pulling multiple B characters out of games and would still struggle to keep up. They’d definitely have to leverage obscure characters that weren’t/aren’t popular and third-party characters a la Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.
In the long run, this strategy won’t work. As things become more and more about brand recognition and less about individual games, the need for XBOX icons will only grow. Do an experiment with yourself right now. For every Nintendo first party character you can think of by name, name a first party PlayStation character and a first party XBOX character. Don’t include any characters that didn’t debut as a platform exclusive like Doomguy. Do include characters that started as exclusive and went multiplatform later like Cuphead. Which brand do you run out of characters you can name first? I’d be very surprised if it wasn’t XBOX followed by PlayStation. Why? Because Nintendo focuses on branding and has for decades. They just don’t grow their library of IPs that quickly. PlayStation focuses on branding and develops new franchises and new meaningful characters within their franchises faster but haven’t been making games for as long.
XBOX doesn’t just need exclusives. It needs heroes. It needs characters people want to cosplay as. It needs characters that weirdos on the internet like to fantasize about marrying. It needs recognizable protagonists that get turned into memes based on in game references. XBOX needs more than just the brand name XBOX. It needs personalities that make people think about XBOX. That’s what I’d like to see Microsoft do with all these studios they’ve purchased. Don’t just make sequels with faceless characters no one actually cares about. Make new XBOX eco-system exclusive IPs that people care about for more than just the gameplay and graphics performance.