Xbox botched the Series X game showcase, but there’s still hope

Microsoft had a captive audience for its Xbox Series X First Look on Thursday. Gamers, bored after six weeks of sheltering in place and starving for news on next-generation consoles, were eager to have their first look at what the upcoming game system has to offer. Over the course of 30 minutes, however, the enthusiasm died quickly.

There was no Halo (the next look at that game, as well as other first-party titles, will come in July). The promised gameplay footage was more a series of quick cuts and reaction shots. Several games showed graphics that were, at best, current generation-level quality. And the much-anticipated debut of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla was a short, underwhelming snippet.

It left a bad taste in many viewers’ mouths, and it wasn’t long before social media filled with hot takes.

Once again all hype and no bite. #InsideXbox #Xboned

— Lucky (@Lambent_Lucky) May 7, 2020

#InsideXbox is the most lackluster next gen announcement i've seen since the xbox ones and that is really saying something

— Lewis Baker (@LewisB1412) May 7, 2020

this #InsideXbox touting "GAMEPLAY" felt even more tone deaf after Damon Baker said that they're "listening to the interwebs"

like…come on y'all

— Jack Tinker (@jacktink) May 7, 2020

With the exception of Valhalla and EA’s Madden 21, the First Look event showcased titles that aren’t the system sellers that will be touted so loudly this fall. They’re games that won’t get another chance at the spotlight. They’re also not the sort of titles that energize the faithful.

Thursday’s presentation was a move from the new console playbook. Start with a splash (which the company did at last year’s Game Awards), then slowly build momentum before showcasing the titles the gaming world has been waiting for, such as Halo. Then, surprise gamers with titles they don’t know they’ve been waiting for, such as additional first party games Microsoft is planning to spring on us for the system’s launch.

“This is a hand-to- hand marketing battle between Microsoft and Sony that will run between now and launch,” says P.J. McNealy, CEO of Digital World Research. “You’ll see skirmishes where they’ll put out some of their strengths and they’ll hold back on some of the big guns. … Certainly, there’s pent-up demand for what’s coming next.”

Blame the pandemic

To be fair, preparing for the launch of the Xbox Series X in the midst of a pandemic has made the development of upcoming titles more difficult. Game creation is a collaborative process, and with developers all working from home now, it’s unclear how that might impact the timeline of this winter’s releases. That’s true for next-generation titles, as developers are still learning how best to code for the systems.

Microsoft’s Phil Spencer, speaking last week on CNBC, hinted this could be a problem as the year goes on.

“On the hardware side, we feel good about our plan. Obviously, [there’s] some impact to schedules, but overall, we’re where we thought we would be,” he said. “On the game-production side, we’re learning every day. I still feel good about it, but I need to make sure the safety and security of the teams is the most important thing, and not unduly push when things just are not ready.”

Microsoft is hardly alone on this front, of course. Sony and Nintendo are facing the same concerns, for both first- and third-party titles. And it’s too soon, frankly, to know which games may be delayed.

Microsoft should have more clarity on where things stand when it showcases first-party (and, presumably, big third-party) games in July. At that point, the Series X will be in the manufacturing phase, and publishers and teams will have a better sense of where their titles stand from a workflow perspective.

Launching a new console system is a marathon, though it’s easy to forget the early miles. Everyone wants to burst out of the gate. Yet early missteps don’t doom you to lose the race. Sometimes, you have to set an easy pace at first, then steadily build momentum.

Microsoft, and Sony, have a long way to go before reaching the finish line. A lot could change between now and then.

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