Today, Microsoft showed off its Xbox Series X gameplay showcase in a live stream on YouTube and other platforms. The event was billed specifically as a demonstration of the power of the Xbox Series X, but little was done to actually explain how any of the showcased games benefit specifically from the features and components present in the next-gen console.
Few of the games were really on the level we typically expect in these kinds of showcases. None of the games looked bad; in fact, they all looked great, but expectations were high as we ramp up into the regular E3 period, in a year without an actual E3.
This event offered a glimpse into the difficulty the industry may experience marketing their titles in the pandemic age, as they pivot to home-made experiences without the bombast and polish we typically get on a big Los Angeles stage.
Microsoft repeatedly described this event as being a gameplay showcase, which for me, comes with certain expectations. I realize that I'm a different audience than perhaps the broader viewership (and if you're reading this, you probably are as well), but when I think of "gameplay trailer" as a core gamer, I think of a demonstration of actual play. Instead, we got primarily choreographed cutscenes, rapid supercuts, and possibly even some CGI weaved in for good measure. It's easy to be skeptical about whether or not this is truly indicative of what you'll experience when you have a controller in hand.
I'm not sure how these games represent 'next-gen.'
Now, it may be the case that all of this footage was indeed, truly representative of Xbox Series X footage. If it was, I'm not sure Microsoft did a great job of demonstrating that. Additionally, I'm not sure the company demonstrated how the games represent "next-gen," or why they require an Xbox Series X to play optimally. There was no mention of how NVME SSD drives will allow games to load-in more animations out of storage rather than having to keep them in memory, for example. There weren't any examples of ray-tracing enhancing visuals. There was nothing in the visual detail of any of the games that said to me "this wouldn't be possible on an Xbox One X." And as a first impression to the very-likely expensive Xbox Series X hardware, I think I would have liked something that felt a little more real.
Some of my casual-gaming friends and family expressed similar sentiments to me right after the show, saying they had expected more, specifically from Assassin's Creed Valhalla, which was built up to headline the event. Instead, we got another supercut of cutscenes (albeit, good-looking cutscenes), and some post-show info that was previously revealed in exclusive interviews with some press outlets.
There was nothing wrong with the games Microsoft showed off. But I wonder if Microsoft went in with live-audience mindset, thinking that they'd need to keep details to a minimum to prevent audiences from dropping off. I feel like you can get away with offering more detail in a live stream show like Nintendo does with its Direct events. If there was any time to offer more detail, doing it as part of your next-gen console showcase was certainly it. But that didn't happen.
Post-E3 Covid-era games marketing
For those wondering why we didn't see EA's next big AAA game, or Bethesda's next Elder Scrolls, or any other major third-party franchises, it could ultimately be found in the way marketing is being restructured in general for the Covid-19 era.
If you're EA wanting to show off a sci-fi action game, for example, do you really want it to be at the same show as Cyberpunk 2077? Where people are able to make an easy and quick comparison? Additionally, do you want to throw all your eggs in one basket, showing your game on Microsoft's stage, when you also have PC, PlayStation 5, and Nintendo versions waiting in the wings? Or, since we have no E3 this year, do you just make your own live stream event where you can control 100 percent of the narrative?
That's what many publishers have already been doing for years. EA has its "EA Play" event. Bethesda has also been doing its own showcases. So has Ubisoft. Some of these studios have already announced plans to do the same this year as well. Previously, for publishers that maybe only had one big game to show, such as CD Projekt RED with Cyberpunk 2077, it made sense to put their game on a platform holder's stage where all the eyeballs will be. Since there's no E3 this year, there's no need to do so. CD Projekt RED is doing its own event instead, just for Cyberpunk 2077.
There's also the question of whether or not a lot of these games were even ready to show. I've heard from talking to industry colleagues that Covid 19 and the work-from-home wave occurring is already impacting developmental timelines across the board. Making extra time to create demonstrations and trailers ultimately costs developer resources, whose time may be stretched by the hardships thrust upon the world as a result of this pandemic.
Growing pains for Microsoft, Xbox and the gaming industry
It's easy to succumb to negativity (this is the internet after all), but at least Microsoft managed to get an array of titles together that gives us a bunch of new stuff to potentially look forward to. Bloober Team's "The Medium" looks excellent, featuring the musical stylings of Akira Yamoaka of Silent Hill fame. Neon Giant's debut offering, "The Ascent", looks like it could appeal to sci-fi and Diablo fans, and of course, we have Assassin's Creed Valhalla, which already looks immense.
The Xbox team showed passion in huge quantities during the show.
They say that you only get one first impression, though, and if people searching for Xbox Series X gameplay happen upon this showcase first, I'm not sure they would be super impressed. The fact that the two-minute supercut trailer above ultimately contains everything you need to see from the 45-minute live stream says it all.
Thus sums up some of the growing pains of marketing gaming in the Covid-19 era. Traveling to studios to do live demonstrations is ultimately impossible, and developer timelines are impacted, as well as general availability to put something like this together. Everybody's health ultimately has to come first, hence why many of the interviews were conducted over webcams and laptop microphones (Microsoft, please buy some of your employees a quality microphone ... we have some recommendations right here!).
In any case, we'll see more of what Xbox Series X represents in the coming months, as Microsoft pledges monthly news drops for next-gen games and info moving forward as part of its Xbox 20/20 initiative. Of course, the disappointments I've raised here are not for lack of passion, which the Xbox team showed off in huge quantities during the show. I just hope future events end up a little more... meaty than this one.
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