Yesterday's mammoth leak of Microsoft documentation was eye-opening for all sorts of reasons, not least because it laid bare the company's tentative hardware plans for the back half of this console generation. But the scale of the leak was only part of the surprise. Equally stunning was Microsoft's plan - circa April 2022, at least - to ditch physical media altogether in new Xbox consoles from next year, for what it privately described as an "adorably all digital" future.
Of course, Microsoft has now responded - via a short social media post from Xbox boss Phil Spencer that quickly sought to reframe the leak as outdated without getting into the details of exactly what would now be different. But in just three sentences, the emphasis was clear: Spencer tripled down on what the internet had seen as being "old", adding that "so much had changed" and that Xbox would "share the real plans" when ready.
And thank goodness, right? Because anything else would have been outright confirmation that Xbox was killing discs for good in the next 12 months. And if you're someone who still buys physical copies of games, or uses your console to play older games from past generations, or simply someone who cares about game preservation, Microsoft's outdated plans were a disaster. Such a move would have marked a monumental shift by Microsoft away from disc-based media, to a future where playing games relies solely on unsharable digital licences or ongoing subscription memberships.
To my mind, at least, such a scenario would likely still prompt the kind of PR nightmare Microsoft must know it does not want on its doorstep once again, after the painful memories of the last time Microsoft tried something like this, and left an open goal for PlayStation executives to video themselves passing game boxes to each other. Even the phrasing of "adorably all digital" set my teeth on edge and raised the zombified spectre of Don Mattrick - an era I thought we'd long left buried.
Of course, you can see why Microsoft has considered such a move. The sale of physical games has dropped considerably - something clear from sales chart numbers shared within the industry - and the very nature of how we all access games has changed with the rise of subscriptions. This is especially true on Xbox, of course, where if you have Xbox Game Pass (and why wouldn't you have Xbox Game Pass) you need never pay the much-maligned £70/$70 fee for a first-party release again. Perhaps most notably, this generation, Series X sales have been outpaced by the already digital-only Series S.
But choice is everything - and there are obvious reasons why killing off physical media entirely is a bad idea. Chief amongst them is game preservation, a cause Microsoft itself has acted as a flagbearer for over the course of the Xbox One generation, when its Xbox 360 backwards compatibility announcement gave fans a rare reason to cheer. Microsoft's work on improving Xbox 360 releases and letting you play 4K versions of some titles with your dusty old discs still feels nothing short of magical. How will that work with your personal games collection in the years to come, without a slot to put them in?
When I spoke with Xbox boss Phil Spencer last month, I raised the issue of the upcoming closure of the Xbox 360 digital store, and the need to communicate any changes which might affect game preservation with sensitivity. "Game preservation is critical to us at Team Xbox," Spencer replied, noting that the Xbox 360 storefront decision would affect just a "very, very small" number of people and had been prompted by its three-generation-old storefront tech still being tied to decaying hardware. But surely the fact this old hardware is decaying makes finding alternatives even more important.
The matter of choice is also crucial because of how Sony looks set to handle its own mid-gen hardware refresh, with a continually-rumoured "slim" PlayStation 5 that lets you purchase and plug in a PS5 disc drive separately. Again, an important caveat - Sony's plans here are far from official, but repeated leaks this year have set expectations and painted an intriguing picture. Word of a PS5 with "detachable disc drive" was first reported a year ago, with purported images of its chassis turning up this summer.
More importantly, and perhaps more concretely, Microsoft itself told the FTC in July it expected a PlayStation 5 "slim" to release in 2023. Exactly when it believed Sony was planning to announce and launch this hardware, Microsoft sadly did not say. But surely the fact alone it was cognisant enough of Sony's plans - or that it simply reads the internet's reporting on them - means it also knew full well it could be placed in a situation where PlayStation supports disc-based gaming for the rest of this generation via an optional drive, while it kills off physical media support mid-way.
I can only imagine the frustration felt in Redmond as Microsoft's previous plans for 2024 were splashed across the internet and picked apart from internal PowerPoint slides, without the new and updated details Microsoft is now planning. I can also understand why Microsoft does not want to address every part of what the public was able to see. Still, though, if plans have changed and Microsoft has reconsidered important aspects of its future, surely this means there's still hope for disc support within its revamped Series X, or through an optional drive as an extra. Microsoft says it will announce its plans when it is ready, but it will remain a crucial point to clarify until then. In the meantime, I'll hope the leak being outdated means Microsoft has realised a need to alter its thinking - and that its "adorably all digital future" remains some way off.