It didn’t take long for yesterday’s Xbox Series X gameplay event to feel like it was grinding to a halt. Once the funky music was done and the countdown hit 00:00, we all edged forwards in our seats to see what the next generation of console was capable of. I’m sure there are many people who are still none-the-wiser.
Aaron Greenberg – head of Xbox – immediately impressed by having used none of his undoubtedly huge salary to replace a webcam that seems to have come from 2011. Surely, he could have at least repurposed one of the leftover Kinects? Don’t worry though Aaron, you’re only here representing one of the globe’s biggest tech companies. I’m sure no one will have noticed, especially now that he’s been disappeared from the video stashed on the Xbox Youtube channel.
Once we’d got past that, and at least had a snicker at his Zoom background with its fridge-sized Series X, it was up to Matt Booty and Damon Baker to get the show going. The only real problem they had was that, on a stream titled ‘First Look Xbox Series X Gameplay’ we were treated to a parade of game trailers that largely featured in-engine cutscenes at best, and where they purported to show ‘gameplay’ they had the addition of a fairly major caveat that “In engine footage representative of expected Xbox Series X visual quality”.
They actually started off strongly in that regard. Bright Memory Infinite, the first game out of the gate, was a visual feast, matching the previous PC gameplay demos shown with GeForce RTX ray tracing released from the game, and hitting many of the same gameplay beats with a largely HUD-less design. It’s absolutely stunning, especially when you learn that it’s being created by a single person. That, however, felt like the real high point of the show.
You see, someone decided long ago that in-game footage of games didn’t make for very exciting trailers, and that we’d much rather see a flashy series of quick cuts and in-engine or pre-rendered images that represented the game instead. I’d argue that the success of Twitch fairly comprehensively proves that idea wrong, and, beyond the most casual of casual gamers, the game itself is the most important fact.
Dirt 5 had action-packed wheel to wheel racing, but not once did we get a true follow cam or in-cockpit view. Scorn lavished us with a dark, phallic alien world, Chorus was largely comprised of cinematic, with brief flashes of spaceship flight and combat, and NFL Madden 21 boiled down to Patrick Mahomes chatting away before a single slow motion replay showed off the detail of the players kits. As announcement trailers, showing off the concept and tone of the game, they excelled – well, except for Madden – but surely that could have been accompanied by the developers talking about their game and a slice showing off actual in-game footage?
Other games got this balance right, such as The Medium having a separate gameplay segment filled with tense supernatural moments, The Ascent’s showing plenty of top down cyberpunk action RPG action, and getting to see plenty of action game combos from Bandai Namco’s Scarlet Nexus.
The biggest disappointment though, and surely the main reason some people will have tuned in in the first place, was the outright fib that we would get to see Assassin’s Creed Valhalla gameplay. After the cinematic announcement trailer last week, everyone was salivating at the chance to see what the game would look like in action, you know, like they’ve done with previous gameplay reveals for AC Origins and the like. Certainly we got to see an approximation of what the game’s graphics will look like on Xbox Series X, but any claim that what was shown was gameplay is ridiculous.
The problem throughout is that the lines have now been blurred (and I’m not just talking about YouTube’s compression algorithms). If Valhalla’s trailer is apparently gameplay, then that undercuts the perceptions of everything else that was shown. The subconscious throws out those split-seconds of third person space combat from Chorus and remembers the cutscenes that made up the bulk of the trailer. Our past experience with game announcements for the current generation of console makes us down that Bright Memory Infinite can possibly look like that.
In fairness, Aaron Greenberg has held his hands up to the fact that expectations going into the stream were accidentally set too high:
Had we not said anything & just shown May Inside Xbox show like we did last month, I suspect reactions might have been different. Clearly we set some wrong expectations & that’s on us. We appreciate all the feedback & can assure you we will take it all in & learn as a team. 🙏🏻💚
— Aaron Greenberg 🙅🏼♂️❎ (@aarongreenberg) May 8, 2020
Similarly, we have to accept that everyone, from Microsoft to the publishers and developers have been working in a very challenging situation for the last few months now. Adapting Inside Xbox into a mini-game console reveal will never have been the original plan for Microsoft, and it led to a lopsided stream with back-to-back trailers early on before returning for interviews bolted on at the end.
The thing is, Microsoft aren’t the only ones struggling with the weirdness of streaming. You only have to think back a couple months to the strange fake audience shadows as Mark Cerny dryly rolled out the technical details of the PlayStation 5. It’s clear that both companies have some improving to do as they try to build up excitement for their next generation consoles.