The more things change, the more they stay the same. That is unfortunately one of the few conclusions we can draw from out the first round of build-up towards Microsoft and Sony’s next-generation plans. While no one is of course ignoring the elephant in the room, it’s disappointing that it still feels like we’re spectating another round of business chess. That in both company’s refusal to play their next move out of fear of what the other is preparing, they’ve all-but-misread the room that is its intended audiences. Those that — regardless of whether or not they’ve already invested in a PC that’s well-equipped for the next few-or-so years — are at least still curious on observing how the “next-generation of gameplay” will shape up. How it’s fairing, how the improved hardware from Xbox and PlayStation alike, will help differentiate the ninth generation from the eighth.
Because it’s obvious that diminished returns are a thing, and as much as some are trying their best to build hype and talk up the potential these new consoles can bring — that this generation is as much an evolution as the transition from 2D to 3D was — the reality is that most people are tired of these rehashed motions. A saga we’ve all seen before and that has often ended in disappointing, underwhelming launch periods. Its tiredness of the constant back-and-forth that this console is better than that console. That it’s not about the higher value numbers and more what you do with said specs. Most of all, people are tired and growing frustrated with the implication that those that tune in and invest their time are of a certain intelligence wherein misleading marketing and throw-away, promotional material will spay off. It wasn’t satisfying seven years ago, and as Microsoft [perhaps fittingly] demonstrated last week with their latest Inside Xbox showing, it still isn’t. By now you yourself have likely seen the immense negative response to this.
The video in question — referred to in its own title as “First Look Xbox Series X Gameplay” — as of writing this currently sitting at roughly 30,000 dislikes to around 22,000 likes. Yes, binary options like this (of which can be exploited and manipulated so easily by many a party) are meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but the implied negative response is not without some reason. And it’s not just Xbox’s over-inflated and possibly-dubious messaging prior and even during said showcase. “See the future of gaming…” “…next-generation gameplay…”, “…first look at next-gen gameplay…” It’s bad enough we still get lines like “tomorrow changes the game” in this day and age. But if you insist on having the word “gameplay” as part of your marketing, be prepared for the backlash when, doing the math, only around three minutes of what could be argued as a semblance to a final build was present. Particularly when you lead-in with the following statement: “everything you see here will highlight the in-game experience, with actual gameplay captured in-engine.”
If you’re being extremely kind, you could stretch that number to four minutes if you want to factor in mid-game animations. But leaving it at three minutes exact; that’s around a ninth of Xbox’s roughly twenty-seven minute video. A video that was more interested in cinematic/teaser trailers and getting first dibs at announcing games that will also be on its competitor’s platform, let alone current-gen consoles and PC alike. Yes you can make sure to include disclaimers left and right about how what’s shown is a work-in-progress; you can follow-up with apologies and assurances of first-party efforts and “more to come” in due course. It says something when a personal highlight of what was shown is a game whose own reveal trailer suffered from dire frame-rate issues and frequent darting from 60FPS to 30FPS and back. As if even it is unsure on which generation it wants to define itself as. And yes, Scarlet Nexus is another cross-generation title whose own “next-generation” benefits remain to be seen.
Which leads me to the crux of this current issue and one that extends beyond the recurring frustration of publishers stretching the definition of “gameplay trailer” to practically mean anything they so desire. In all their [perhaps unintended] passive-aggression to indirectly treat us as gullible fools who’ll gobble up anything flung our way. As noted, trailers have, for a while, been far from a compelling argument on why one should fork over $400/$500 for a new piece of hardware. Videos that are often unrepresentative of a player’s experience, devoid of elements such as a HUD, user interface, moment-to-moment interactions and above all else, demonstrations on how improved hardware has allowed for some genuine evolution in gameplay. So while the lead designer for The Medium — the new psychological-horror by Bloober Team, which also debuted with a similarly uninformative cinematic trailer — may talk up these new consoles by claiming The Medium “simply cannot work the same way on current-gen platforms” or that it means Bloober are “able to deliver” on their vision, where is the 10-20 minute footage to back up that claim? It’s bad enough red flags are due to be raised when talk of designing the game “like a movie” crop up or that the team has in fact shown some manner of gameplay to contributing composer Akira Yamaoka?
So then, why not fill us in as well? It’s past the point of teasing projects and it’s about time we are shown what this new hardware has allowed developers to create. Mock up a hypothetical finished build if you must (throw in the disclaimers alongside), but it’s past time studios recognize that a vast majority of the public are simply not interested in artistic pretensions and scene-setting. Divorce yourself from one’s genuine passion and eagerness to create something new — no one will deny you such affections — but at the end of the day there has to be something modestly concrete to cling to. And if studios themselves are not in the position of having someone play through some vertical slice of their game (of which can run at 60FPS at least), then why bother showing up? In all honesty, while some of the frustration on its relevancy to a larger audience is in some respects merited, one has to admit there has been some benefit to Sony making public their planned GDC talk on the hardware powering PS5.
Some may be disappointed that one of Sony’s only videos this year on the next-gen hype train was a powerpoint presentation talking numbers. And yet, even this provides a way-in, an opportunity for developers and eventual showcases to better translate the capabilities of these new consoles. Even if you do have to dig for it. One example being the idea that level design needn’t rely on rudimentary corridors or that load times may in fact be removed altogether. It’s these aspects, from the structure/scale of environments to how AI behavior and adaptability, may define a game premise, where the real interest lies. You needn’t be a game creator to see these benefits — this is exactly the kind of promotion that live gameplay can afford without coming across as intentionally misleading. Not a cinematic trailer, not some tone piece aiming to evoke the mood of a game that (for what it’s worth) may as well be running sub-60FPS given how vacuous its contributions feel. These are the areas I’m interested in, because they potentially answer that burning question: what makes the next-generation different? Can they, to go back to that quote from previous, offer as much a radical shift that 3D graphics offered? If they can: prove it.
Yet even Sony, in all their muddled glimpses of information here and pointless logo reveals there, have somehow found a way to get lost in the strategy of business chess, in forgetting we’re mere months away from when the PS5 and Xbox Series X, are likely to release. While the speculation on an actual first-party blow-out remains just that, you can’t ignore just how odd their own marketing strategy is. Yes without E3, Sony loses that crucial stage and center of coverage for which they can reveal all and maybe, as it happened in 2013, capitalize on their competitor’s mistakes. But lest we forget: outside of the logo and the DualSense controller, what else have we seen affiliated with PS5? At this point seven years ago, Sony had already hosted their own initial reveal of sorts. Games were announced, features were literally demonstrated so as to give an idea on application and while it might’ve been a touch dry, there was information and key details to go over. It’s mid-May and we still haven’t seen what the console looks like. A controller, a logo, an oddly-sized 825GB SSD…and not much else.
That’s not to say presentations have to be positioned a certain number of months out from a console’s launch in order for said new console to appear even remotely enticing. Nintendo left it until January 13 of 2017 to talk more extensively about the Nintendo Switch, prior to its launch less than two months later on March 3. But starting there we got details on the nature of the hardware and upcoming software line-up. It wasn’t perfect by any stretch; online details were still withheld, with the launch line-up essentially amounting to Zelda, some smaller-scale ports and that’s about it. Which is why the emphasis on gameplay is important and why holding out for longer-form videos — rather than this compartmentalizing monthly/bi-monthly episodes — can still pay off. Would the Nintendo Direct format be as demanding, as treasured a series, by its many viewers if it were some monthly, twenty-minute saga of clambering for anything that can be passed off as new information?
The difference here is that both Xbox Series X and PS5 are the beginning of a new period for both publishers. And while better graphics may have held better sway in earlier generations, those of us who are looking beyond the surface — beyond the inflated focus on 4K — are eager to see what the potential is when it comes to better hardware. We haven’t even got to the issues surrounding online, offline functionality and how each console’s ecosystem will look. And no, superimposing a mock-up of how Series X’s additions will work won’t cut it — let’s see these in action, running in real-time. Microsoft may already have a slightly leg-up on Sony thanks in large parts to the success and appeal of Xbox Game Pass, but also the fact that they went about revealing/announcing their new console at The Game Awards last December. But their continuing fascination on resolution and visual fidelity at the cost of frame-rate, while nothing new, underscores a greater many problems on the longevity and appeal of its incoming library of games. First-party and third-party alike. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla may still end up running at 30FPS on Xbox Series X; let that sink in, 30FPS on a console…in 2020. And if your only means of bolstering third-party support is to be the showcase to reveal new projects — before said developer/publisher confirms it’ll also be on other platforms — how else are we to look at this as anything other than worrisome for console players. PC wins again, I suppose.
If this is a complaint to be raised squarely at the platform holders — for their dictating the time and place for messaging — the problem is in the lack of getting to the root of defining next-generation’s benefits for the consumer. How this differentiates from what’s come before and to demonstrate this gameplay that isn’t so overly-choreographed. For Microsoft, restricting developers to but a couple of minutes each, relying mostly on pre-rendered trailers and scene/tone-setting cinematics, for a reveal show billed as “gameplay” heavy. Why go about this? Especially if all that ends up is you poking holes in your own arguments for next-gen? What kind of precedent are you even setting for the upcoming first-party reveals? Should we even expect gameplay from the many studio acquisitions Microsoft have been so bullish about as a response to their woeful (by comparison to both Sony and Nintendo) showing these past six years? Or will it just be more trailers and title cards alike, now that we know — like Ubisoft — Microsoft are so willing to throw terminology out of the window?
Even if I speak as someone whose library of third-party games is predominantly on PC, as a neutral observer it’s puzzling just how sparse the build up to next-gen consoles has been on the details front. In one corner we have a console, with little-to-no generation-exclusive material to work off. A company who’ve made some great strides in winning back consumer trust, yet still can’t shake off the habit of masquerading style as substance. And in the other we have a company — understandable it may be to see out the final couple of exclusives they have — whose impression that consumers want to hear of things like file compression is starting to sound a touch like preemptive cockiness. Remember the transition from PS2 to PS3, and Xbox 360 to Xbox One alike? The internet certainly does. In a time such as this where communication is paramount, restrictions are no doubt testing and more bluntly, availability of products are up for debate, treating your target audience with a tad more respect would be appreciated. Enough with the pompous trailers and the lead-off hook that there’ll be more to come in due course, it’s about time we see the most fundamental component of them all: the gameplay, front-and-center.