Given how curiously low key the rollout to the upcoming next generation consoles has been thus far – albeit some admittedly forced by necessity – Microsoft’s promise to finally show us next generation gameplay at their May Inside Xbox stream sparked a lot of interest among a lot of people. While Microsoft made it clear they would only be showing off third party games, it was still an exciting prospect to anyone who was interested in seeing what we can expect from the next generation of games.
It is important to remember just how much first impressions can matter here. Metal Gear Solid 2 sold the PlayStation 2 to an audience of millions, convincing them that console was an appropriate upgrade over the then current-gen (and Dreamcast). Super Mario 64 almost single handedly carried the Nintendo 64 for months, all because it was a mind blowing, immediately perceptible next generation leap. Even with the PS4, we had Sony showing us games such as The Order 1886, DriveClub, Killzone Shadow Fall, and Deep Down – admittedly, these games ended up all being pretty subpar (or, in the case of Deep Down, flat out non-existent), but they looked stunning, and far beyond anything that the creaky old PS3 or Xbox 360 could turn out. That first look at the next generation instantly communicated the value of the PS4.
The problem is that this generation, everyone seems to have forgotten that. Sony’s idea of a first look at a PS5 game was Godfall, which may end up being a great game, but graphically scarcely looks like much of an upgrade (if at all) over games we already have. On the Xbox side, all we had seen until now were concept teasers for Hellblade 2 and the like. That is why the promise of a first look at next generation games was so alluring to everyone. It is important to remember the context – Microsoft promised a look at next gen games. And while technically they delivered, in that all the games they showed off are in fact going to have next generation versions on the Series X (and PS5 as well in some cases), absolutely nothing they showed off looked like much of an improvement over the games we can already play on our existing hardware, right now.
This is an issue for both console makers here – if you are going to launch your shiny new high-tech (and therefore, presumably at least somewhat expensive) console in the midst of a global pandemic and the worst worldwide financial crisis this side of the Great Depression, then you need to communicate that product’s appeal to the people you expect to buy it. People aren’t unwilling to spend money on entertainment luxuries, as the recent NPD reports show us – the Switch is breaking records, and even the Xbox One and PS4 are enjoying late-life lifts in sales. But those consoles are selling on the back of cheaper prices, and already established appeal and value – you already know why an Xbox One or a PS4 is cool, because they have libraries of thousands of games, and they’re pretty cheap to boot. You already know why you want a Switch, because it’s extremely versatile and flexible, and some of the generation’s most popular games, such as Breath of the Wild or Animal Crossing New Horizons, can’t be played anywhere else.
The next generation of consoles, and especially the Xbox Series X, however, will be sold on the promise of the power that they are packing. That’s fine, most non-Nintendo consoles sell themselves on the pitch of “more, but better”. The only difference is, the “but better” needs to be appropriately communicated, which Sony and Microsoft have utterly bafflingly failed to deliver on this far into this promotion cycle.
I will cut Sony some slack here, because while technically Godfall holds the distinction of being a rather tame first reveal for a PS5 game, Sony themselves have not yet held an event to show off their next generation software. If they had, and the stuff we got out of it was all like Godfall, they would be under a lot of fire right now (though to be fair, I had similar sharp criticism for Sony’s similarly tone deaf PS5 “deep dive” back in March).
But Microsoft explicitly promised our first look at the next generation. Their social media channels promoted and hyped that angle for all it was worth, calling it literally “game-changing.” They were the ones who set the expectation that we would see what the console that so far has been sold on the promise of its power (and only its power) can deliver when it comes to games. They were, then, the ones who failed to follow through on that promise.
Make no mistake, I am not criticizing the actual games shown off at the Inside Xbox, most of which I imagine will be very good. The issue is that none of them are a technical showcase for the next generation, and for Microsoft, especially, that poses a problem. With the company having explicitly confirmed that all their games will be cross-generation for the foreseeable future (though third parties, of course, are free to make Series X exclusive titles if they want; some, it seems, will be doing just that), the only reason to buy a presumably expensive Series X now is to have those games look and perform the best they possibly can. That is the value Microsoft needs to communicate, that they should have done yesterday but didn’t, that they actually executed so well with the Xbox One X, defying all skepticism, but seem to have forgotten how to do with this all important generation transition.
And that’s a piece of the puzzle that is important to consider – while even a hypothetical technically disappointing console can compel upgrades with the promise of desirable exclusives, Microsoft has willingly ceded that advantage. The only reason for me to upgrade from my current Xbox One console to a Series X is to play the same games I already can, but much better. And that “better” was nowhere to be seen during this Inside Xbox.
The issue isn’t even that Microsoft chose to lead with third party games, plenty of consoles have had third party technical showcases – the issue is that they chose to lead with third party games that are categorically not technical showcases. A lot of the big publishers were outright missing from the Inside Xbox stream; the few that showed up had games that, while intriguing looking, didn’t look like they are much better than what we have on the current generation (in a lot of cases, literally so, because those games were cross-generation). The one exception was Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, which should have been a slam dunk if we had only gotten to see the game running in real time on a Series X… except we didn’t? Ubisoft, for their own inscrutable reasons, decided to not share any actual gameplay after a full week of promising just that.
Apart from these games, the remainder were all smaller-scale or indie titles. And make no mistake, these smaller-scale or indie games are likely to be every bit as great as whatever titles AAA publishers can front (and in a lot of cases, much better and more creatively fulfilling). But they are also pretty modest as far as their technical capabilities go. They are, in no way, appropriate showcases for a console that is literally relying on its power as its sole selling point. At a show where Microsoft should have used something like the Series X versions of Cyberpunk 2077 or Destiny 2 to show just what a leap the Series X will be over the current generation, they instead used very interesting-looking, but technically modest, games, which completely miss the point.
One potential counter-argument that could be made is that the PS4 and Switch market themselves (marketed, in the case of the PS4) with indie titles; why is it okay when they do it, but not okay when Xbox does it? As compelling as that line of reasoning seems at first glance, however, it completely ignores the broader context to make a disingenuous comparison and deflect criticism.
The PS4, for example, did have a huge emphasis on showing off upcoming indie games in the first couple of years of its life. But Sony did not lead with that, they led with jaw-dropping technically astounding titles that instantly communicated what kind of a leap over the PS3 the PS4 would provide. The focus on indie games came later, after that point had been made – and Sony still caught flack for overemphasizing indie games only at a few shows for very similar reasons that the Inside Xbox is receiving criticism.
The Switch, of course, is still marketed on the back of indie and low-poly retro games, but the Switch is a portable console. It makes no promises of being cutting edge, or delivering top of the line graphics. Literally no one expects the functional equivalent of a PS3 Pro to be generating next generation visuals, with the Switch’s whole appeal centering on something else entirely (its flexibility, along with its exclusives). And even so, even with the Switch, it is important to remember that the console was showcased with titles such as Super Mario Odyssey, ARMS, Splatoon 2, Xenoblade 2, and of course, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The indie focus didn’t come until much later – well after launch, in fact, and again, after the core appeal of the system had been established.
The problem here is that Microsoft have told us what the appeal of the Series X is, but they haven’t shown us that yet (and yes, “seeing is believing” may be a cliché, but it’s true). While having a diverse lineup of smaller scale games is an excellent thing that Microsoft should be justifiably proud of, and highlight, those games should never be expected to communicate the value or appeal of a generational leap. Microsoft did just that with their latest Inside Xbox, and that was why it was such a misfire.
As frustrating as this show was, however, it’s not actually a big blow in the long run. This is nowhere close to Microsoft’s messaging nightmare with the Xbox One in 2013, or Nintendo’s brand confusion with the Wii U in 2012, or Sony’s sheer arrogance with the PS3 in 2006. Much like I said with Sony back in March, the “damage” done here, to the extent that we can call it that, is ephemeral, and easily fixed. Microsoft’s own first party games showcase, scheduled for July, as well as presumed upcoming announcements of next generation games by third parties (including, I hope, an actual gameplay trailer or demo for Valhalla before it launches, though even that might be too much to ask for from Ubisoft at this point) will easily smooth the frustration people feel right now over. Nothing here is irrevocable, and anyone trying to catastrophize this as being more than just a puzzling misstep in the here and now is being dramatic and hyperbolic. It’s just, once again, we see Microsoft make things much, much harder for themselves, than they need to be.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.