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State of Play – Microsoft’s First Party Studios – Part 1

It’s incredible to think that the newest kids on the console gaming block (Microsoft) have more internal first party studios than either Nintendo or Sony. Well since the debut of the original Xbox back in 2001 they’ve expanded to 29 development studios across the world – 21 of them develop games but not all of them for Xbox Platforms. Though many have been created in the last few years, and many we know nothing of as of yet, there is incredible hope for the future of the Xbox platform with this many studios dedicated to bringing games to the family of consoles. In this piece I will look at each of these studios, discuss their past, their present and what we know of their future. There are some though that are only months old and we know nothing of so please be aware that a few studios will be mentioned but not explicitly covered due to a total lack of information. Let’s kick things off with Part 1. 

Part 2

State of Play – Microsoft’s First Party Studios – Part 1

342 Industries

State of Play - Microsoft's First Party Studios - Part 1

Their Past – It’s interesting how the Xbox brand’s biggest studio could also still be so young. 343 Industries was formed by Microsoft after Halo creators Bungie decided to step away from the franchise. Determined not to let Halo gather dust 343 was formed where the studio has produced four Halo titles (and pumped out a few side-projects and remasters) since it was formed in 2009. Most known for Halo 4 and Halo 5 Guardians, they’ve also produced the Master Chief Collection, Halo Anniversary, Halo Spartan Assault and Spartan Strike while also developing Halo Waypoint. Halo 5 Guardians was their most recent work, releasing late 2015.

Their Present – Currently 343 is busy putting together waves of DLC to provide long-term post release support for Halo 5. This content includes 15 multiplayer maps that will be free and will gradually release until June 2016. As of now there have been no announced plans for single-player DLC.

State of Play - Microsoft's First Party Studios - Part 1
Halo Wars 2

Their Future – As the “Halo Studio” 343 has a lot on its plate going forward. While a large number will be currently working on the Halo 5 DLC, undoubtedly the majority of those working at the studios are already hard at work on the next instalment in the franchise. As always the ending to Halo 5: Guardians was quite open and there is too much money on the table for Microsoft to not release a Halo. Though we have nothing to go on, expect to be hearing a lot from 343 in 2017. 343 will no doubt be lending their expertise to the Creative Assembly developed Halo Wars 2 which is due sometime this year.

Bigpark

State of Play - Microsoft's First Party Studios - Part 1

Their Past – Founded in 2007 and acquired in 2009, Bigpark were one of the main players in supporting the Kinect sensor for the Xbox 360 and Xbox One. The studio has produced three games, all for the Xbox 360 and all Kinect games. Bigpark had also been assisting the likes of Rare and a number of other studios in their own Kinect game such as Kinect Sports Season Two.

Their Present – The studio was reportedly hard at work on more Kinect games for the Xbox One before Microsoft decided to remove the Kinect from the Xbox bundle. When this decision was made support for Kinect dried up very quickly, and you can assume that the studios silence since 2012 is a product of this decision.

State of Play - Microsoft's First Party Studios - Part 1
Kinect Sports: Season 2

Their Future – Though we’ve heard nothing out of the studio in many years, Microsoft seems keen to put a number of their eggs in the Hololens basket. With the studio no longer working on Kinect games, they may have moved on to Hololens development, so I conclude that we may be on the verge of hearing more from the studio in 2016.

The Coalition

State of Play - Microsoft's First Party Studios - Part 1

Their Past – Originally known as Microsoft Vancouver and then renamed as Black Tusk Studios, the studio was tasked with building a new IP for the Xbox platform that could rival Microsoft’s own Halo franchise. That plan changed entirely in January 2014 when Epic Games sold the rights to the Gears of War franchise to Microsoft. From that day onwards Black Tusk (The Coalition as they’re now known) have become the Gears of War studio.

Their Present – Shortly after taking control of the Gears of War franchise they were joined by one of the heads of Epic Games, Rod Ferguson, a man intimately familiar with the Gears franchise. In 2015 they both debuted footage of Gears of War 4 and released a remastered version of the game that started it all.

State of Play - Microsoft's First Party Studios - Part 1
Gears of War 4

Their Future –  Gears of War has been locked in for release this holiday so expect to be seeing and hearing quite a lot of The Coalition as the year rolls on. GamesCom, E3 and every other conceivable gaming event will not be untouched by Gears 4 because despite having seen a lengthy gameplay demo, there is still a lot we do not know about the game, and Microsoft will be eager to take advantage of this. There’s a big mountain for The Coalition to climb in 2016.

Launchworks

State of Play - Microsoft's First Party Studios - Part 1

Their Past – Established in 2008 but having gone by a number of names in the past Launchworks is a little-known studio within Microsoft’s stable of first party developers. The studio was established by Microsoft as a studio tasked with the creation of “high quality digital content” for Xbox Live. Three games have come from the studio with Fable II Pub Games (2008) being their debut, followed by South Park: Let’s Go Tower Defence Play (2009) and South Park: Scott Tenorman’s Revenge (2012).

Their Present – With Scott Tenorman now approaching four years old, Launchworks has been quiet for a while. They were rebranded to their current name in 2013, indicating that Microsoft was not done with the studio but their next work remains a mystery.

State of Play - Microsoft's First Party Studios - Part 1

Their Future – Purely speculation here but since they’ve been radio silent for such a long time, I can’t help but feel as though we’re due for something new out of the Launchworks. It’s unlikely that they will be continuing their work with the South Park franchise due to Ubisoft’s work on South Park: The Fractured But Hole, but perhaps we’ll see more of them this year as Microsoft continues to place greater emphasis on smaller downloadable titles.

Lionhead Studios

State of Play - Microsoft's First Party Studios - Part 1

Their Past – Peter Molyneux has a long, esteemed career, and Lionhead was his doing. After years of work at his own Bullfrog Studios, Molyneux left the studio and built Lionhead. The studio’s first work was Black & White for PC before hitting gold with Fable on the Xbox; Microsoft was quick to pounce, and so in 2006 Lionhead had become a First Party Studio. Since their acquisition we’ve seen five Fable titles released including a remake for the original game.

Their Present – Lionhead have been busy at work on their current work Fable: Legends for quite some time. The game was originally revealed in August 2013 having begun development in Winter 2012, but the game has reportedly been through numerous revisions during its development cycle reaching it’s current state –  A free-to-play, online co-op Action-RPG. Long in development, the game is anticipated to release in 2016.

State of Play - Microsoft's First Party Studios - Part 1
Fable Legends

Their Future – 2016 is with any luck a year of pay-off for Lionhead. All reports suggest that Fable: Legends will be landing this year and then we’ll see how it fares out in the wild. No doubt that the game will have a large online presence so Lionhead and Microsoft will be looking to provide a full year of content. Expect to be hearing a lot about Fable: Legends in the near future.

Mojang

State of Play - Microsoft's First Party Studios - Part 1

Their Past – Mojang are what they are because of one man – Markus ‘Notch’ Persson and his phenomenon Minecraft. Minecraft has reached countless millions of fans and earned Mojang incredible praise from critics and fans worldwide. Mojang also put out Scrolls but failed to receive the same acclaim. In 2014 Mojang was purchased by Microsoft for an incredible $2.5billion

Their Present – 2015 was a relatively quiet year for Mojang. Of course there were regular updates to Minecraft, and sales continued to roll in, but they also assisted Telltale Games in the development of the episodic Minecraft: Story Mode. The first four episodes of the season released in 2015 while the final episode has an undefined release date.

State of Play - Microsoft's First Party Studios - Part 1
Minecraft

Their Future – The final episode of Minecraft: Story Mode is still to release, and it probably isn’t far away, but the core team and Mojang are already hard at work on their newest project. Titled Cobalt, the action-platformer is on track for a PC release this February but work is also underway on an Xbox 360 and Xbox One port of the game. You can also be sure that the studio will be continuing to support Minecraft throughout the year.

Paul James

Part 2