OPINION

Microsoft has a gameplay problem

And the silence is deafening.

We get it, 2020 has been a rough year for everybody, the video game industry included. Consumers have seen many exciting releases and projects delayed as gaming publishers and developers transitioned to remote working.

It’s an ever tougher year in which to launch a new console.

For the gaming hardcore, a console launch is meant to be an exciting time, where players get to sample bold new ideas and huge graphical and performance leaps from new console technology.

Indeed, Microsoft have made the argument for their new (currently announced, at least) console well here, paying attention to its failures in 2013 with the launch of the Xbox One and making all the right noises when it announced the Xbox Series X at the Game Awards in 2019.

Powerful.

Fast.

Backwards compatibility.

No gimmicks. Just games.

All of this alongside possibly one of the most impressive and impactful game trailers ever made with Hellblade II, promising “in-engine” graphical fidelity the likes of which had never been seen. It was purely about playing games, and was absolutely the right approach.

Fast forward to the May Showcase, and users were promised “Series X Gameplay” and it’s here where the trouble started for Microsoft. Gameplay it seems, is a loose term. For the marketers and public relations folks at Microsoft, it seems to mean quick cut trailers of in-game cutscenes and moments to some brash music. Actual gamers however, expected something a little different.

We want to see people playing games, pad in hand. Walk us through a set piece or a section of the game, have the developer talking about it, don’t hide anything. It gives the viewer a genuine feel for the game, the gameplay loop and a real glimpse at the fidelity on offer.

The Xbox team received a fair amount of criticism on that front following the May showcase, even prompting a response from Aaron Greenburg at the time.

Indeed, we commented that it was, due to Microsofts own ‘over-hyping’ of the event, a minor stumble, but one that was easy to recover from.

Fast forward to the July event, and things still didn’t go quite to plan. This was meant to be Microsoft’s big moment – “Here’s why you need a Series X.” Instead, it was more akin to this; “Here’s why you should get Game Pass.”

Halo Infinite was divisive due to some graphical issues, with things like pop-in and lighting bugs. Fable was expected to make an appearance, and ultimately did, but unfortunately, while it absolutely nailed the tone of the franchise, it was just another CGI trailer. Fans of the series wanted to see the actual game. It’s a similar story for State of Decay 3, Everwild, Stalker 2, Avowed, Forza Motorsport and so on. Granted, games like Pyschonauts 2, The Gunk and Crossfire X showed in-engine snippets, but again it was in the vein of quick cuts and funky beats.

Halo Infinite was the only game to receive an actual Gameplay demonstration, but (and it’s absolutely the right decision) the game has now been delayed to 2021.

Sadly, this isn’t actually the crux of the issue. You see, I can understand the balance and line that must be walked between gameplay demos and announcements, and it’s only right that Microsoft should tell gamers what’s coming down the pipe, even if it’s not ready yet, in order to build interest and discussion for your platform. No, our concerns – and indeed, the community here at XboxEra have expressed similar sentiment; is this:

The Xbox Series X is absolutely the ‘most powerful’ console. It’s got some serious processing power, and by all accounts a pleasure to develop for.

So why haven’t we seen upcoming games running on actual Series X hardware or devkits?

Even the Halo Infinite demo, the original jewel in the crown for Microsoft for launch was captured on PC. Other trailers have said things like “Representative of target for Xbox Series X” and the like, again being more than likely captured on PC.

We know the devkits exist. We saw hardware back in March. We’ve seen it be put together. Yes, we know that Xbox Game Studios release all of their games on PC, but if consumers are being asked to spend money during an inevitable recession on a new console, they want to absolutely know what they’re going to see on it. I know it can run games, because we admittedly have seen Gears 5 running on it, and Minecraft with raytracing.

You could make a similar argument for a lot of what Sony have shown in relation to Playstation 5, but they have shown slightly more actual gameplay on their hardware at this point. While the ongoing “will they/won’t they” battle to announce price last between the two platform holders is drawing exasperation from consumers, here’s what we think Microsoft need to understand.

You are not going to be held to the same standard as your competitors.

Xbox needs to fight tooth and nail for mindshare and attention.

Yes, Game Pass is absolutely killing it from a value perspective. And yes, August in particular has been a stellar month for Xbox Game Studios and a great sign of things to come, but one can’t help but wonder – with Microsoft’s ‘last hurrah’ coming up in September before launch on November 6th, are they finally going to go all out and make the case for why the average consumer should shell out come launch day?

If we were in Microsofts shoes, we’d be making it clear what will be available at launch, what the larger ‘banner’ titles are, and arrange for narrated, deep-dive gameplay demos for all of them, running on actual Xbox Series X hardware. Lift the lid on lockhart, and make the case for this next generation for Xbox.

The Series S is going to be an interesting moment for the industry, as Microsoft move to push a cheaper and lower powered alternative, likely with Game Pass included as an avenue to win more hearts and minds for the platform, and we’re intrigued to see more.

But for the more hardcore of us out there, Microsoft need to still do what they always seem to forget – let the games do the talking.

2 comments on “Microsoft has a gameplay problem

  1. thekeelog

    It’s bewildering to me that Xbox is THIS bad at marketing. They clearly learned some of the lessons from the Xbox One announcement and launch, and have ensured they aren’t going to be on the wrong side of the power argument. We’ve yet to get prices, but all indications from Xbox (and Sony, for that matter) are that they should be at least even, if not ahead on price. From, what, March, they had widespread good will heading into this next generation. All they needed to do was not to trip over their own dicks for eight months, and they could stroll into next gen on solid footing.

    Boy have they been tripping since May. The missteps themselves are worrying enough, but what really concerns me is that I don’t think they understand how badly they’re handling everything.

  2. Twinblade

    I thought Xbox Marketing up until the March event was stellar. After that they dropped the ball and the biggest issue is the missing XGS Marketing. Halo Infinite’s disappointing showing didn’t help.

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