Xbox Series X's Inside Xbox Event Didn't Deliver On Its Promise
Microsoft's gameplay-centric event lacked the type of gameplay that we were hoping to see.
Following the publication of this article, a pair of statements have been released regarding the Inside Xbox event. First, Assassin's Creed Valhalla creative director Ashraf Ismail noted that fans "rightfully expected to see more today." Subsequently, Xbox's Aaron Greenberg acknowledged that Microsoft "set some wrong expectations." You can read our original impression of the event below.
May 2020's Inside Xbox event has come and gone, and while it did deliver Xbox Series X news and some gameplay, it didn't turn out to be what anyone was expecting. Microsoft positioned this as the gameplay reveal for third-party games, with Assassin's Creed Valhalla spotlighted as the big-ticket item. The stream's new Valhalla "gameplay" trailer was seemingly devoid of any standard gameplay footage, and the entire event was not the showcase we were hoping for.
The hunger for next-gen news and details remains at a fever pitch, and Microsoft did appropriately caveat this event in one key way, telling us we'd be waiting until July's event to see Halo Infinite and other first-party games. But we were still expecting some normal gameplay from the third-party games on display, including Valhalla, which didn't see any in its reveal last week. This was a chance for Microsoft to beat Sony to the punch and showcase what next-gen games will look like. Instead, almost everything shown had the air of cinematic trailers. Even if the footage was "in-engine," there wasn't much throughout the broadcast that resembled what you'd see if your hands were actually on the controller.
There are, of course, some challenging obstacles to overcome. Games are being showcased on livestreamed video feeds that are, generally, sub-4K quality, when a 4K source and display would be the optimal way to showcase these games' improved visuals. And developers around the world are now working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, potentially placing further restrictions on what could be assembled for the purposes of an event like this.
But these showcases did little to sell the next-gen experience. There was a reference to the ability to play Dirt 5 at 4K and 60 FPS or 120 FPS, but those are difficult things to show in a stream. And these cinematic-style trailers don't allow you to see what a game truly looks like moment-to-moment. That hurdle aside, with how great some existing games look on Xbox One X and PS4 Pro (not to mention a ray tracing-capable PC), glamour shots of these upcoming games didn't necessarily scream "next-gen," because they're going to be compared with current-gen cutscenes. And some of what we saw would not have looked totally out of place on the console you might already have at home.
Xbox Series X And Xbox One News
But if this is what Microsoft had to show, it should have done a much better job of managing expectations from the get-go. When you say "gameplay," that conjures the thought of gameplay demonstrations (whether live or pre-recorded), not slickly cut videos that are hard to distinguish from cinematic trailers.
A leap in visual fidelity is not all that Xbox Series X provides. The Quick Resume feature that lets you bounce between multiple games sounds great, but that's the sort of thing you need to experience to really appreciate. Ditto for the steps being taken to reduce game install sizes.
But there are other advancements coming, namely the reduction or elimination of load times. Microsoft and Sony have both spoken about this again and again, touting what the solid-state drives of the Xbox Series X and PS5 will allow for. The ability to fast-travel from one point in a game world to a faraway spot with minimal or no loading sounds great, and it is a feature you could demonstrate in a video to some extent--yet this is not something the Inside Xbox stream made any attempt to highlight. As a result, arguably the best next-gen demo to date remains the Marvel's Spider-Man load time comparison.
In an interview with GameSpot last year, Phil Spencer told us that "playability is probably the bigger focus for us this generation. How fast do [games] load? Do I feel like I can get into the game as fast as possible and while it's playing? How does it feel? Does this game both look and feel like no other game that I've seen? That's our target." Just prior to Inside Xbox, we spoke with Xbox director of program management Jason Ronald, who said of the move to an SSD, "We were at the upper bounds of what's possible with the rotational drive. This [SSD] unlocks huge opportunities and it's going to be an area ripe for innovation." And yet, from watching Inside Xbox, you got very little sense of what kind of other improvements the CPU--a serious bottleneck for many developers on current-gen consoles--or the other new hardware will allow for.
There's still plenty of time to effectively communicate all of this, but Microsoft has put itself in an awkward position by not being more upfront about what this event would entail. That's demonstrated in the severe downvoting that many of these videos are seeing on YouTube, where commenters are specifically lamenting the use of the word "gameplay." Sony also received flak for Mark Cerny's extremely technical-minded PS5 presentation earlier this year, but the company had not promised to show games running as part of its event. A sizzle reel is all well and good, but this first look from Microsoft has shown the critical importance of properly setting expectations.