Microsoft's Xbox is in a very tricky position, seemingly just as it started to build some kind of momentum. The past few weeks have been odd, to put it mildly.
Xbox boss and figurehead Phil Spencer has essentially confirmed that we'll be seeing a new, more powerful Xbox, released within a normal console lifecycle. Is this during the Xbox One's lifecycle? It's not clear, but why put that thought into the minds of consumers if it isn't happening soon? If it's a pipe dream, it didn't come across as one and it will most certainly have put off a group of potential Xbox One buyers.
Let's say that a new, more powerful mid-gen Xbox One isn't released this year. This Christmas the only Xbox you can buy is the original Xbox One – a console less powerful than its direct competitor, the PS4. And that PS4, which is already in a dominant position this console generation, is going to have another selling point from October: PlayStation VR.
I'm not going to dwell on my feelings towards the price and mainstream appeal of PS VR (it's comparatively well priced, but still not 'cheap'), but what is clear is that existing PS4 owners and console fence-sitters will have plenty of choice this holiday season. Microsoft will be hoping that PS4 owners will be tempted to add an Xbox One to their setup, and with games like Gears of War 4, Sea of Thieves, Forza Horizon 3 (presumably), and Halo Wars 2, it's possible, but if they're happy with their PS4 and want something genuinely different, PS VR could well be a more attractive option.
Now let's say Nintendo's mysterious NX console arrives this holiday too. A console/handheld hybrid, or perhaps something else entirely. Whatever it is, it's sure to appear on shelves with a wave of hype behind it. It'll likely launch with a string of exclusives that will be hard to resist and, if Nintendo has sense, at a price in the same ballpark as PS4 and Xbox One.
Looking at the possible market from a consumer's point of view come this winter, the choices could be thus: a brand-new way to play and experience games using tech that feels futuristic, a brand-new console that's doing something unique and is home to much loved franchises, or a console that's had a hard time and isn't as appealing as the console needed to use option A. To me, that is a bad situation for the Xbox to be in. And I think I've been more forgiving on the Xbox One's problems than most.
Microsoft may try to push that its console is the only one focusing on core gaming (which would be quite the turnaround), and Gears 4 will help sell that message, but what if Phil Spencer's odd revelation is indeed coming sooner than we think. What if this Christmas there's an uber powerful Xbox One on shelves? And what if it supports Oculus Rift to deliver VR? Could the Xbox One go from zero to hero with nothing more than a bump in specs, full access to older titles, and a competitive price point?
This scenario playing out exactly like that is a long shot. Microsoft is already working with Oculus, but that's a long way from the device supporting Xbox One, and many people think a more powerful Xbox One would prove to be a disaster. But what if it did happen? Who is in trouble then? Nintendo? Sony? Do they end up wiping each other out completely with a triple KO?
Usually new console cycles bring about the biggest waves of excitement and uncertainty, but this year feels like a defining moment in the games industry. Three companies, each with different approaches, and an outcome that seems obvious but might not be so clear cut. We'll likely know more after E3 in June, but one thing's for sure: the Xbox needs to do something to remain relevant.