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With Starfield delayed, 2022 is the ultimate test for Xbox

This was supposed to be an important year for Xbox. And it still is, just not in the way Microsoft was hoping.

Hot off the successful launches of Forza Horizon 5 and Halo Infinite, Microsoft was set to flex its newfound (i.e., newly bought) muscles in 2022. We were finally going to see how much its expensive Bethesda acquisition would pay off for the company as it broadened its arsenal of exclusives. With Zelda delayed, Starfield would be the biggest game of the holiday season — and it would also launch on Xbox Game Pass on day one.

But you know what they say about making God (or Todd, in this case) laugh. Microsoft’s carefully laid plans dissolved this morning as Bethesda delayed both Starfield and its other big 2022 Xbox exclusive, Redfall, into 2023. While we’re likely to get some new reveals at Microsoft’s big not-E3 showcase in a month, Xbox could go the entire year without launching a single big-budget exclusive.

As a result, 2022 is now the ultimate test of Microsoft’s grand Xbox experiment. It’ll definitively prove if Game Pass is a strong enough value on its own that Microsoft no longer needs to lean on pricey first-party games to sell consoles.

The Game Pass approach

The Xbox Series X/S’ short life cycle has never really mirrored that of a traditional console. When the devices launched in November 2020, there was no big console-moving exclusive to entice players. While PS5 owners would get Demon’s Souls, Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Sackboy: A Big Adventure, and more on day one, those who picked up an Xbox Series console just got a next-gen upgrade for Gears Tactics and a multiplayer-enabled rerelease of Tetris Effect. Halo Infinite was famously supposed to be a launch title for the new wave of Xboxes, but the game was delayed a full year just months before release day.

A character in Starfield.

In our initial review of the Xbox Series X, we called it “a sports car with no gas.” Microsoft had created a powerhouse device, but there was simply nothing to test its potential.

That became much less of a problem as Microsoft’s ultimate plan came into focus. The company began loading Xbox Game Pass up with new releases, solidifying it as the “best deal in gaming.” Third-party games became the Xbox’s secret weapon as titles like Outriders and even Sony’s MLB The Show 21 were available on Game Pass at launch.

Despite my initial bewilderment with Xbox’s lack of exclusives, I quickly found myself recommending the Series X to my friends more frequently than the PS5 — though with the caveat that they’d need to subscribe to Game Pass or it wasn’t worth it. Microsoft had successfully found a new way to sell Xboxes that flipped our understanding of a traditional console cycle. It was about buying into an ecosystem more than picking up a few hit games.

An update on Redfall and Starfield.

— Bethesda (@bethesda) May 12, 2022

However, there was always the promise of more exclusives right around the corner. Halo Infinite was coming and it would launch day and date on Game Pass when it did. With Starfield and Redfall moving into 2023, however, Xbox’s immediate future is much blurrier. Those looking for a tentpole Xbox game this year will be hard-pressed to find one. Instead, they’ll have to have faith that Microsoft is going to load up Game Pass with enough intriguing indies and big third-party nabs to justify the monthly subscription price.

It’s hard to overstate how unprecedented Microsoft’s current position is. Even late in a console’s life cycle, it’s rare to go a full year without a few major exclusives to sweeten the pot for buyers. Xbox has had slow years in the past, but even dry spells like 2018 brought Forza Horizon 4, State of Decay 2, and Sea of Thieves. This year’s Microsoft + Bethesda Showcase would need to pull some genuine surprises out of thin air to give the console any semblance of a holiday software lineup.

The burning question heading into the rest of the year will be whether or not Microsoft has earned players’ trust enough to thrive despite an empty release calendar. Will players be as eager to buy into the Xbox ecosystem this year based simply on Game Pass’ previous track record? If that’s the case, then Microsoft will have proved that Xbox Game Pass is the only exclusive that actually matters.

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