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Critical Hit: Is the Xbox 360 Dead in the Water?

Critical Hit: Is the Xbox 360 Dead in the Water?

A Gears of War 3 multiplayer demo, Batman: Arkham City and yet more Halo: Reach DLC; this week’s Microsoft Showcase event in San Francisco may have been merely a speck compared with the likes of E3 and GamesCom, but I'm still left feeling that the Xbox 360 is a console that’s running out of steam – and fast.

That view is in complete contrast to the one laid out by Microsoft’s Kevin Unangst, of course. In San Fran, the senior producer for Microsoft's interactive entertainment businesses described 2011 as an ‘incredible year for the console’, highlighting the success of the Kinect peripheral. That successful aberration aside, however, the Xbox 360 seems to be a console treading water in a sea of multi-platform gaming, with a me-too peripheral that’s yet to win over the hardcore, and with a distinct lack of first-party cornerstone titles for the year ahead.

In fact, I’m left wondering whether the prophecy of the PS3 overtaking the Xbox 360 – something long predicted by industry soothsayers and Sony fanboys – will actually come to pass in 2011. On the face of it, sales remain strong for Microsoft’s console, thanks to last year’s launch of Kinect, the hardware refresh and the price drop. On the games side, however, I’m definitely detecting more than a whiff of weakness: Over the past few years Microsoft has steadily weakened its internal studio base and failed to develop new and successful first-party or exclusive franchises.

Critical Hit: Is the Xbox 360 Dead in the Water?
Microsoft's reliance on key franchises such as Gears of War could become a vulnerability

A quick look at the titles released by Microsoft Games Studios since 2005 is a startling eye-opener. Microsoft is increasingly reliant on franchises such as Halo, Gears of War and Fable, it seems. This is a danger in an industry where it’s important to keep a broad stable of content, especially when former subsidiaries such as Bungie have found a way to wriggle free.

So, what is the current state of play for Microsoft Game Studios?

Well, we've yet to see what 343 Industries has planned for Halo, while Rare is languishing in Kinect and Avatar hell (that $375 million investment just isn’t being put to good use) and Lionhead is gathering its thoughts on what philosophical delights it can introduce into its next titles. Meanwhile, Wingnut Interactive still appears to be little more than a stillbirth studio and Turn 10 Studios is about to vroom vroom its latest addition to the Forza franchise; the only first-party title that still interests me. Okay, so both BigPark and Good Science Studios are no doubt working on follow-ups to their respective Kinect franchises (Joy Ride and Adventures) but I hardly expect them to blow my mind.

Critical Hit: Is the Xbox 360 Dead in the Water?
Of all Microsoft's upcoming first-party titles, Forza is the only one to keep me interested

Some of the properties owned by Microsoft could be tried again in the console’s current mature life-cycle, such as Kameo, Perfect Dark, and Viva Pinata - all games deserving another crack of the whip in one form or another. There’s plenty more where they came from too. Kinect is crying out for some core titles, so why not a Kinect-powered Kameo follow-up? Alan Wake, while woefully late to hit retail, was a solid enough start to a promising franchise but its future remains uncertain. What about older and dormant franchises such as the Xbox Original series Blinx or Crimson Skies? Or how’s this for an idea – Black & White: Kinect?

Of course, this might all change by the time E3 comes and goes, and we may find the Xbox 360 is prepping a wide gamut of first-party and exclusive titles ready to defend its position against Sony.

Or not.

Critical Hit is a twice monthly column that explores recent events in and around the games industry.

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