Microsoft held its third party partner showcase for Xbox Series X games on May 7. Overall, I (and several others around the internet) were disappointed in what was shown. However, this disappointment is really a culmination of several factors feeding one underlying issue.
It’s important to understand these factors and analyze them in order to obtain a holistic view of what went wrong. Let’s take a look at these interrelated factors and gain a broader understanding of an underlying issue: the gross disconnect between the people creating industry events, and the people they’re meant to inform.
A Brief Digression on Approach
I am a critic in this industry. I find it is my obligation to help folks think more critically in order to understand seemingly unrelated topics. As such, it is absolutely vital to place oneself in the shoes of your average gamer. Not doing so won’t help you understand their thought process, and ultimately, their disappointments. To that end, I’ll cover off a few topics here which all connect and ultimately resulted in the Inside Xbox disconnect we witnessed.
- First, how do I define “gameplay?”
- Second, what does “optimized for Xbox Series X” mean?
- Third, let us look at the disclaimers used in almost every trailer shown off, with specific focus on “in-engine” and “Xbox Series X visual quality.”
- Finally, we’ll discuss how all these connect and how this resulted in the frustration and disappointment felt by me and others
Of all the various aspects of this presentation, this was probably the most confusing and contentious. First, 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. In short, a “vertical slice” in industry parlance.
Microsoft published a blog on May 5 (two days before the event) outlining what the stream would reveal,
“For the Xbox 20/20 May update, we will focus on giving you a first look at next-gen gameplay, trailers and sneak peeks from a wide variety of publishing partners and independent developers across the globe and industry, including Ubisoft’s recently announced Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, and hear from game creators about what they’re doing with their games on Xbox Series X.”
In no uncertain terms is Microsoft laying out what the May 7 presentation will bring. This is exacerbated when Microsoft specifically said, “a first look at next-gen gameplay.” I read this and further assumed we’d receive actual hands-on demonstrations in addition to the trailers and sneak peaks mentioned by Microsoft
Some games had a few clips of offline gameplay interspersed through their trailers, like Yakuza. But were these quick-cuts of a handful of seconds worth of footage what I expected? No, they were not.
This was exacerbated by Microsoft displaying the following at the very top of the stream, further emphasizing “gameplay.” Note the lack of mention of “trailers” and “sneak peaks” as was mentioned in the blog post,
“It’s time for your first look at next-gen gameplay from our global development partners with the Xbox Series X. Boot up the show and take everything in.”
Again, an average gamer could read this and expect to see hands-on demonstrations. I know I did. This came to a head when we were told to expect Assassin’s Creed Valhalla gameplay as well with a tweet from Creative Director Ashraf Ismail
“A message from Ashraf Ismail, our Creative Director on Assassin’s Creed Valhalla! Tune in this Thursday at 8AM PDT / 5PM CEST for the Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Gameplay trailer during the First Look @Xbox Series X Gameplay on Inside Xbox!”
But in a worrying sign, he attempted to mitigate expectations literally the day before the event
“This will be a first TASTE of #AssassinsCreedValhalla – something to tease your appetities!”
He quickly followed up,
“To be clear, this is an in-game first look teaser”
After the fact, we know what we received was maybe 2-3 seconds of actual “in-game footage.” Clearly, I’m not alone in my understanding and expectation of “gameplay” as summarized by one such individual,
“#InsideXbox in a nutshell. Where was the #gameplay we were promised? First impressions mean a lot, and if that's what our first glimpse of #XBOX2020 is then I can't say I hold out much hope for what's to follow.”
The problem here was a total disconnect between the people running the event, and the consumers to which they intend to sell. Yes, Microsoft published a blog explicitly saying what they intended to show.
But, placing myself in the shoes of an average gamer, do I expect the average gamer to read a blog, or do I expect them to simply tune into the stream? I expect the latter. This resulted in disconnect of expectations.
Clearly, Aaron Greenberg, the GM and head of Xbox Games Marketing, felt the same way by trying to damage control after the event,
“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.”
Ashraf Ismail seemingly understood this disconnect as well when he tweeted,
“Hello all[.] You rightfully expected to see more today. We have a long marketing campaign ahead of us, you will see in-depth gameplay and get a lot more info about the game. Thank you for your excitement and passion! Be patient with us and be kind. It will be worth it!”
To me, this showcases that the people making these decisions aren’t completely in-tune with player expectation. I’m someone who follows the industry, and therefore I read the blog prior to the event, and then watched the event. And even I was disappointed because of differing expectations. It doesn’t take much to see how your average gamer would react.
My thoughts are aligned with YouTuber Yong Yea when he aptly stated,
“Baldur's Gate 3's chaotic gameplay demo and the CP2077 behind closed doors demo I saw at E3 2019 where a boss battle glitched at the end also come to mind. I appreciated these live gameplay presentations. I don't expect perfection in early builds, I expect a level of honesty.”
“Optimized for Series X”
The beginning of stream showed the following words in a rather dramatic and deliberately emphasized fashion,
“First look Xbox Series X Gameplay[.] Every game you’re about to see is being optimized for Xbox Series X”
But this naturally begs the question: what does “optimized for Xbox Series X” mean? We have some idea from Digital Foundry. We have further indication from the aforementioned blog,
“And all the games you’ll see will be Xbox Series X Optimized, meaning they are built to take advantage of the powerful Xbox Series X features that make games look and feel incredible, including 4K resolution at up to 120 frames per second, DirectStorage, hardware-accelerated DirectX raytracing, super-fast load times and much more.”
But, once again, let us place ourselves in the shoes of the average gamer and ask whether or not we expect such a consumer to read a blog, or if they’re more likely to simply watch the stream.
Even I had questions on what exactly they meant by “optimized for Xbox Series X,” and I’m someone who read the blog and deeply understands tech.
This circles back to expectation. I expected hands-on demonstrations, with developers explaining exactly how their game takes advantage of the Xbox Series X.
To be transparent, interviews were conducted with developers after the main showcase in which some of this information was discussed. Additionally, Microsoft published yet more blogs outlining this. For example, this The Medium post specifically mentions 4K, ray tracing, and minimized load screens.
But, once again, do I expect the average gamer to stick around for these interviews, and to read these blogs? The answer is no.
Microsoft should have integrated this information during the bulk showcase when they knew they’d have the most eyes and viewership, thus ensuring this information reached the most people.
Again, this goes back to a disconnect between the people at the top making these decisions, and the consumers they’re meant to serve. Are you noticing a recurring theme?
What Does “In-Engine” Actually Mean?
Finally, let’s discuss that disclaimer. As a reminder, here it is in all its vague glory,
“Game and console in development. In-engine footage representative of expected Xbox Series X visual quality.”
Let’s break this up into two sections: “in-engine footage” and “expected Xbox Series X visual quality.”
In case you may not know – and honestly, it’s ok if you don’t – “in-engine” does not mean the same thing as “in-game.” The former describes what is possible to accomplish with the game’s engine, whereas the latter describes actual in-game experiences akin to what you’d expect when you pick up the controller and play.
Crucially, “in-engine” does not mean “real-time.” You can render a sequence using the game’s engine and run it in real-time, sure, and this causes the console to render the sequence then and there. But, you can also render that same sequence “offline” on separate hardware, meaning, what you see is actually no more than a video playback. Therefore, it’s not taxing the console, nothing is being rendered in real-time, it’s legit just a video playback.
This leads us to the second half of that disclaimer: “expected Xbox Series X visual quality.” We’ve already established that “in-engine” does not mean the same as “in-game,” nor does it guarantee “real-time.”
So then, what does “Xbox Series X visual quality” actually refer to? Is it referring to the video playback quality we can expect? Or, does it refer to the in-engine local rendering we can expect? Or, does it actually mean my aforementioned definition of “gameplay” we can expect to see on the Series X?
This all circles back to player expectation, and Microsoft failing to answer these questions. If someone like me who works in the industry, and deeply understands tech, has these questions, it is not a huge logical leap to understand the confusion of the average gamer.
As mentioned previously, Microsoft did publish separate blog posts for these games, but, even after having read those blogs, my questions above remain unanswered
The Underlying Issue
By now, we discussed several factors:
- Definition of gameplay
- The confusion around “optimized for Series X”
- The lingering questions around “in-engine” and “expected Xbox Series X visual quality”
These seemingly disparate factors all feed into and prop up the underlying issue: the gross disconnect between the people creating industry events, and the people they’re meant to inform. Aaron Greenberg, the team at Xbox marketing, and Ashraf Ismail and the Assassin’s Creed team were all out of touch with expectation of the common, average gamer.
This was the root cause.
As a result of this root cause, symptoms such as confusion, anger, and disappointment took hold. This is why, in my frank opinion, the Inside Xbox event on May 7 was a failure.
This was Microsoft’s one big chance to show just what “next gen” is, and why we should buy this machine. Instead, they completely flopped. And, as I’ve said for a long time, first impressions are everything.
You only get one chance to make a first impression. This is your one chance to set the tone of the narrative and dictate what the perception of your product will be for the most crucial part of its lifecycle: the launch.
And Microsoft completely blew it.
The disconnect between the marketing and community teams and the community they’re meant to serve could not have been more vast than it was during this presentation. As I have discussed in the past, the near breathless hype that is fueling this industry is simply unsustainable, and we got a glimpse of that volatility during the stream.
I’ll put it another way. This whole stream – the social media campaign meant to drive marketing and engagement, the collection of trailers, the script, the flow, the disclaimers, everything – had to be signed off on by someone. Someone had to look at the final presentation in totality and say, “yes, this is good to go.”
This individual (or individuals) had to look at the use of the word “gameplay,” look at the trailers, look at the disclaimers, and concluded that this final presentation was not misleading or confusing.
And that right there is the underlying issue. Until we see the people “at the top” – whether it be marketing, PR, or even CEOs – getting “in the trenches” and getting a firm understanding of what the average gamer expects, failures like this Inside Xbox event will continue.
Ultimately, the consumer is the one who loses.