On the word “Gameplay” and the First Look Xbox Series X Gameplay Stream

Microsoft didn’t help themselves when they claimed their Thursday Inside Xbox livestream would show next generation gameplay. That is at least if the comments on the YouTube video and the more than 27,000 thumbs down it currently as (as of this writing, 27K down to 21K up).

To be fair this was a showcase for some of Microsoft’s partners’ games, not a showcase for the next Halo. It was also not their E3 showcase for 2020. So maybe expectations should have been in check from the get-go. But even then, Microsoft messed up… a bit.

David Baker, Head of Xbox Global Portfolio, even went as far as to imply that they were aware of how unsatisfied viewers of their E3 2019 showcase were. I also lamented the choice to show so many cinematics rather than actual gameplay at last year’s show. So Baker assured the livestream viewers that Microsoft was listening and they weren’t going to make the same mistake again.

“Because we read the interwebs,” Baker said. “Everything you see here will highlight the in-game experience with actual gameplay captured in-engine, to give you the best sense of what to expect when Xbox Series X launches later this year.”

Then the Inside Xbox livestream proceeded to rattle off a bunch of cinematic trailers with what most people would consider a lackluster amount of actual “gameplay.”

So let’s all get on the same page when it comes to “gameplay.”

Sure, the trailers shown featured cinematics using in-engine/in-game assets. But most gamers don’t qualify in-engine cinematics as “gameplay.”

The industry has long categorized “gameplay trailers” as any trailer showing footage captured in the game’s engine. And while technically maybe that’s accurate, after all, that footage may well be something gamers will see when actually playing the game, using the word “gameplay” carries a different meaning for gamers.

Gamers expect to see what the action looks like while you’re controlling a character. Gamers want to see what the moment to moment gameplay actually looks like. In-engine cinematics may give an idea what the game will look like, but it doesn’t give a sense of what you’ll actually be doing. That’s a big difference, and it matters when you’re trying to sell gamers on why they should not just play the game, but also why they should choose Microsoft’s console to play it on.

Maybe the most telling failure of Microsoft’s livestream was said by Game Informer’s Andrew Reiner in an article titled: “We Need More Clarity From Sony And Microsoft’s Next-Gen Plans.”

“While I walked away wanting to play most of the games that were shown during the stream (a credit to the vision of the devs), I didn’t learn why I should play them on Xbox Series X,” Reiner wrote.

To make matters worse, if they hadn’t been showing these trailers in an Xbox stream meant to show off games running on the new hardware, I wouldn’t have known they weren’t running on current generation hardware instead. 

Most of the viewers who were disappointed in the livestream, weren’t just disappointed due to the misunderstanding about the meaning of the word “gameplay,” but also because the in-engine footage that was shown, didn’t look as particularly advanced as expected. That isn’t to say the footage didn’t look good, because it did, but we’ve grown accustomed to some pretty spectacular generational leaps over the years.

It didn’t help that Microsoft chose a racing game and a Madden game as two games worthy of placing in this reveal of the next generation. Racing games and sports games have reached a place where I could scarcely tell the difference between a title from last generation and current generation. They all look pretty good, but they’re far from interesting to look at in trailer form. And because they’re so common (sports games have been annualized for forever), they’re more expected than anticipated.  

Xbox Series X, despite all the talk of teraflops and a bunch of other “computery” terms, may end up with a launch lineup that looks more like slightly sharpened Xbox One X games.  

That’s a problem when you’re about to ask gamers to shell out hundreds of dollars for the next advancement in home consoles.

To be fair, this Inside Xbox stream was NOT the company’s replacement for an E3 showcase. It’s very likely that a more polished reveal of the console, it’s software and why it’s an upgrade over what’s currently on the market, is still in the works (I’d be surprised if it weren’t).

In fact, I’d be willing to bet that a lot of the new games coming out later this year on the new hardware will feature silky smooth high frame rates that don’t come across well over livestreams. In fact, looking at that futuristic star-fighter game, “Chorus,” leads me to believe that while the visuals are likely something achievable on current hardware, there looks to be a faster frame rate than current consoles are capable of achieving – at least while still hitting 4K resolution.

And maybe that’s the upgrade the upcoming consoles provide. I’m ok with that. Higher frame rates is one of the reasons I tend to play games more on PC these days. So if the next generation consoles can hit those high frame rates too, I’m onboard. Especially when you consider that games continue to look and run better over the course of a console’s lifespan as developers get better at harnessing the power of the platform. But it will be hard to demonstrate upgraded frame rates in trailers. 

That’s going to be one of the new challenges for developers in the new generation.



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