Microsoft presented an hour-long conference, dubbed the Xbox Games Showcase, on Thursday, July 23. It was intended to be their big reveal of first party titles to get people hyped about the games, in addition to getting people excited about the Xbox Series X. After I watched it, I couldn’t believe what I had just seen. Microsoft completely blew it. Again.
There are so many things to unpack here. Crucially, this Xbox Games Showcase was not the first time Microsoft held a presentation about games and its upcoming Xbox Series X. In May, they held an Inside Xbox live stream which was a complete disaster.
I wrote at the time why I believe the event was a failure. I cited a complete collapse of messaging, setting consumer expectation, and deliberately crafted vague terms like “optimized for Series X,” “gameplay,” and “expected Xbox Series X visual quality.”
I thought that by the time this July 23 showcase rolled around, Microsoft would have acknowledged their errors – indeed this is what Aaron Greenberg, GM and Head of Xbox Games Marketing, stated following the May presentation – and pivoted to change their approach in two months’ time. After all, if EA’s Andrew Wilson can pivot and take time out to address the racial inequality and Black Lives Matter protests during their event earlier this summer, surely Microsoft, with their vast resources and pulse on the industry, could pivot to something more in line with consumer expectation.
Check out the video version of this article.
I was wrong.
The Xbox Games Showcase was a complete disaster. There are many factors which I believe compounded each other to lead to this awful showing. However, for the sake of providing you all some organized thought, I’ll discuss the following larger items which I believe led the charge:
- The cognitive dissonance created by Microsoft’s marketing hyping up the power of Xbox Series X contrasted against Halo Infinite’s arguably current gen visuals
- The continuation of garbage messaging from Aaron Greenberg and his marketing team creating further needless obfuscation and confusion
- The “trailer-fication” of game conferences as a substitute to actual tangible gameplay
- My actionable suggestions to Microsoft and Xbox to avoid such future disasters
Marketing + Halo Infinite = Dissonance
It is absolutely no surprise that Xbox is marketing the Series X as the WORLD’S MOST POWERFUL CONSOLE! 8K! 120FPS! I say that partially in jest, and partially to hold up a mirror to Microsoft’s lunacy – in fact, Microsoft’s religious repetition of these phrases is a point I intend to make throughout this article to prove this lunacy.
On one hand, Microsoft is looking at the paper specs of their Series X and their competitor’s PS5 and is claiming the “most powerful console” title. One could look at this and categorize this as naturally marketing the on-paper competitive advantage.
On the other, more critical-thinking hand, it is very easy to look at this as a sign of insecurity. Confidence can be exuded in a few different ways. I believe the best, most effective way is to show, not tell. Those who are confident don’t feel the need to shout or boast about their accomplishments. They simply prove their confidence by doing.
I’m talking about Sony and their absolute dominance this current generation. Sure, they may have moments of braggadocio like any brand, but they simply don’t scream about TERAFLOPS, 4K, 60FPS with the same pitch and frequency as Microsoft for one very simple reason – they’re winning.
Despite Sony’s PS4 Pro being objectively less powerful than Microsoft’s Xbox One X, simply look at the quality of the games they’ve released to close out this generation. Both The Last of Us Part 2 and Ghost of Tsushima are technical masterpieces and critical darlings. Sony is proving their confidence by closing out the generation strong, and driving home this point by releasing two such high profile games only one month apart from each other. That is a confidence they have earned.
Microsoft, on the other hand, for all their shouting about WORLD’S MOST POWERFUL CONSOLE – a marketing line they once associated with the Xbox One X and now co-opted for the Xbox Series X, thus causing even more confusion – have no such critical or technical darlings released this year. They are closing this generation on a whimper. Ironic, given the shouting done by their marketing arm.
It gets worse. Microsoft is obsessed with quantity. This is made abundantly clear when they Tweeted,
“That’s a wrap on #XboxGamesShowcase:
10 World Premieres
22 Console Launch Exclusives
Every game shown will launch in @XboxGamePass or free to play
The best line up of next-gen games on the world’s most powerful console”
This obsession with numbers is entirely in line with Microsoft’s marketing touting 12 TERAFLOPS of the Xbox Series X. It’s as if Microsoft genuinely believes quantity is what people want, and that by assaulting us with numbers, it will, what, somehow impress us? How desperate.
If you can’t tell by now, I loathe Microsoft’s marketing. To me, it reeks of insecurity and desperation brought on by a total lack of confidence in their products. Therefore, when Microsoft yells WORLD’S MOST POWERFUL CONSOLE and constantly talks about 4K, 8K, 60fps, and 120fps in the Xbox Series X marketing, you’re damn right that I will be far more scrutinous than I would be had they not felt the compulsion to shout. The louder you are, the closer I’ll look.
Enter the Halo Infinite gameplay.
Let me be clear about this up front. Every one of my criticisms of Halo Infinite’s reveal has to do with the visuals. Therefore, none of my criticisms have anything to do with the story, the music, and gameplay.
Microsoft was very forthcoming about the gameplay debut of Halo Infinite leading up to the showcase presentation. And so, the Xbox Games Showcase kicked off with a trailer plus actual tangible gameplay of the long-hyped Halo Infinite. And it looked…it looked…sigh…
As someone who absolutely does notice visuals, and who does put a premium on graphics and technology in this industry, the visuals I saw from Halo Infinite’s debut were thoroughly current gen, and completely underwhelming.
While the live stream was 1080p and 60fps, I actually went back and watched the post-release 4K 60fps gameplay footage Microsoft released after the conference. In fact, I watched it several times. However, even on my first watch through of the 1080p stream, so many things stood out like a sore thumb.
Poor character models, grass with seemingly no self-shadows, grass and geometry popping in as Master Chief approached, distant clouds popping in during what was supposed to be a vista showing off the visuals, low resolution ground textures, flat lighting lacking any volumetrics – you know what, I’ll spare you because I could go on and on. Instead, take a look at some screen grabs I took:
Make no mistake. Microsoft absolutely intends Halo Infinite to be a system seller. Why else would they dedicate nearly 10 minutes of the 60-minute showcase to one game? Why else would they have spent the preceding days hyping this reveal?
Put bluntly, Halo Infinite simply isn’t pretty enough to be a system seller. In fact, I can easily argue that 2013’s Killzone Shadow Fall for the PS4 has better visuals than 2020’s next-gen Halo Infinite:
The story gets worse. I visited Halo Infinite’s page on the Xbox domain and came across the following (emphasis added),
“On Xbox Series X, enjoy enhanced features like up to 4k resolution at 60FPS in campaign…”
In no uncertain terms, this implies that Halo Infinite – the intended system seller for Microsoft’s hyped WORLD’S MOST POWERFUL CONSOLE – will not be a locked 4K resolution on the Xbox Series X. But wait, literally right underneath that text lies a bunch of marketing badges, loudly stating 4K ULTRA HD.
So what’s the truth here? Is Halo Infinite on Xbox Series X presented at native 4K as the loud marketing states, or is it “up to 4K resolution”? This is simply one more example of Microsoft’s terrible messaging at work.
The story doesn’t end here, unfortunately. We were made privy to the fact that the Halo Infinite demo – the system seller meant to showcase the power of Xbox Series X, the WORLD’S MOST POWERFUL CONSOLE – was actually running on PC. This PC had, “similar specs to the Xbox Series X.”
Now here’s the thing. During such game shows, it is entirely normal for console games to be shown off running on a PC. This PC may be a dev kit of sorts, or may be specced similarly to consoles. But no matter what, a PC with “similar specs to the Xbox Series X” is fundamentally not the same as running natively on the Xbox Series X. It just isn’t.
And here is where this current situation is different. When the game you’ve been hyping – intended to show off the power of the console you’ve been hyping – isn’t shown actually running on that console, it comes across as disingenuous and makes you appear like you don’t have confidence in both the game nor the console for which it’s intended.
This was a huge miss for Xbox. It’s not a good look. If the game looks this underwhelming running on a PC, it begs the natural follow-up: how much worse will it look on the Xbox Series X? I’ll frame it another way which adds greater perspective.
There are current gen open world games like Horizon Zero Dawn which look incredible and run at 30fps on a 1.8 Teraflop PS4. Doing the math, you would expect an open-world-ish game running on a next generation console with 12 Teraflops on far new graphics architecture to run at 60fps at higher resolution and look at least as good as those games. Halo Infinite falls well short of that expectation, and it’s this calculus which greatly adds to this cognitive dissonance.
Aaron Greenberg (remember him?) attempted damage control by speaking to IGN, citing the pandemic,
“Listen, we're in the middle of a global pandemic. It's July, we're far from [launch in] Holiday, you're seeing a work-in-progress game."
In no uncertain words, he’s laying partial blame for Halo Infinite’s visuals at the feet of the pandemic. Here’s the problem with this argument. Literally everyone else releasing games this year is in the exact same boat.
The aforementioned The Last of Us Part 2 and Ghost of Tsushima were both developed partially in this pandemic, yet both released just fine, and both look incredible. Additionally – crucially – Aaron makes it sound like the bulk of Halo Infinite’s development was during the past 6 months of this pandemic. We know this isn’t true because games aren’t developed in 6 months. They take years and years. In fact, we know Halo Infinite’s development dates back to at least 2018 when they revealed the Slipspace Engine. To suggest that the current global situation is somehow at fault for game design and visual design that realistically occurred before the pandemic is craven and flies in the face of reasoned thought.
Additionally, there’s the very real concern about his next statement (emphasis added),
“It is a work in progress. What you're seeing today—and I can tell you, because we see build check-ins every week, and they make progress week after week—so between now and holiday, it's just going to get better and better."
Aaron Greenberg is once again hyping and setting player expectation, driving this expectation even higher. Because of what he said, people are now going to expect Halo Infinite to look decidedly better at launch.
I have zero doubt that Halo Infinite is still in development. But to use this as a crutch to partially explain the visuals is simply misleading. It is unrealistic for the graphics and effects to be significantly overhauled and updated this close to the Holiday 2020 launch. I have no doubt that what we saw is what we’re going to get at launch…at least on PC. Put bluntly, I simply do not believe Aaron Greenberg and I strongly caution against anyone buying into his hype.
What’s sad is, despite how utterly underwhelming the visuals were for Halo Infinite, this was the only real tangible gameplay we saw in the entire conference. Speaking of which…
It didn’t help that the rest of the Xbox Games Showcase was nothing but trailer after trailer after trailer. About 30 minutes in, I was thinking to myself that surely this couldn’t be it, that Microsoft would surely showcase actual gameplay during their much hyped first party games showcase to show off their hyped new console. But, once again, I was wrong.
This trailer-fication of games conferences has been going on for several years now. And I absolutely hate it. These companies genuinely believe that “gameplay trailer” means showing off a quickly cut, 30 to 60-second long trailer of games. Most of these trailers don’t contain gameplay, and instead are montages of cinematics or cutscenes which are not at all representative of in-game visuals. If they do contain gameplay, it’s nothing more than a handful of seconds providing zero information on what the game is actually like to play.
If you recall, I define gameplay as an actual hands-on demonstration (narrated or not) with a person playing the game, showcasing the various systems, the graphics, the mechanics, and more. You know, exactly like the Halo Infinite reveal. I suspect I’m not alone in my definition.
But instead, we were barraged with 50 minutes of trailer, trailer, trailer, trailer. I simply don’t consider a collection of trailers a “showcase.” I would have loved to see actual gameplay of these games, showing off the power of their much-hyped next gen console, and why someone would want to play on Xbox. Given that Sony showcased trailers at their own conference, showing gameplay would have differentiated Microsoft from Sony and would have perhaps persuaded gamers.
Instead, I received no such persuasion. Microsoft may want us to think about Xbox as an ecosystem instead of a console, but none of what I saw convinced me of even that. This was compounded when we learned that RARE still doesn’t have a concrete idea of what their game, Everwild, actually is, despite showing a trailer for it,
“Part of the reason we haven’t talked a lot about Everwild is because we’re still feeling a lot of these things out. We’re still playing around with gameplay ideas.”
If this is the case, then why bother showing a trailer? A trailer immediately sets an expectation for the consumer. By admitting that RARE still really doesn’t know what they want to do with Everwild, they are effectively completely devaluing the trailer. Here’s a radical thought: if you have no concrete idea for your game, don’t show off some concept trailer and present it as a game.
This points back to my earlier observation about Microsoft’s obsession with quantity. Knowing that RARE doesn’t have a solid idea on Everwild, yet allowing them to show off a trailer merely drives home this point. At this point, the trailer is simply one more game to add to the tally to Tweet about later in your post-showcase numbers summary.
Allow me to provide some suggestions to Xbox and their team for future conferences, and general messaging. My advice here is free of charge.
First, cool it with the marketing. Stop shouting WORLD’S MOST POWERFUL CONSOLE, 4K, 120FPS at every chance you get. Stop plastering the 4K ULTRA HD badges on articles where the text describing the game doesn’t actually explicitly confirm native 4K resolution. In fact, stop allowing Aaron Greenberg to drive your marketing and sit for interviews because he only compounds your issue with overhype.
When you constantly shout, you set consumer expectation. And when it comes time for you to prove your marketing – that is, when you have to actually show – consumers will expect the moon. By doing this, you are simply setting yourself up for failure and disappointment from the consumer.
Instead, shout less and show more. And when it comes to showing, stop relying entirely on trailers. I’m not saying trailers don’t have their place. But when you’ve spent months talking about your first party showcase after shouting about the power of your console, people expect to see visually arresting gameplay which matches the marketing.
And that’s just it – we want to see gameplay. For all my criticisms of Halo Infinite’s visuals, I at least fundamentally understand now what the gameplay will entail. This is a good thing. But I have zero idea what Fable will play like, nor do I understand what Forza, or Avowed, or virtually every other game will feel like to play. I have no idea what to expect from them.
I had hopes that Microsoft and the Xbox team would have learned from their disastrous Inside Xbox presentation in May. I was wrong. And now, with only a few short months to go before the launch period for the Xbox Series X, I am left increasingly frustrated by my complete lack of knowledge on what games I can genuinely look forward to playing.
This was Microsoft’s one chance to prove to me (and I suspect others) why their platform and ecosystem is worth my time and money. It was their chance to prove the power of their new console. They failed on both counts.
Bring on the PlayStation 5.