This morning, Microsoft kicked off the endless, digital non-E3 that will consume the next several months with an Inside Xbox presentation. The streamed event was touted as showing "first look next-gen gameplay" for Xbox Series X games. Ubisoft even confirmed that there would be a gameplay trailer for Assassin's Creed Valhalla at the event, following its cinematic reveal trailer last week.
What fans got in the Inside Xbox event felt low on gameplay though. Bright Memory Infinite, Dirt 5, and Bandai Namco's Scarlet Nexus certainly delivered on that front, but a number of the trailers were primarily cinematic in nature. Trailers for games like Scorn and The Medium seemed more about atmosphere, rather than showing how they actually played. Dirt 5 and The Ascent even stated that the footage was in-game and "representative of Xbox Series X gameplay," not actually running on the console itself. Even Yakuza: Like a Dragon, a game that's already out on PlayStation 4 in Japan, was stuck showing a cinematic trailer rather than the game's new turn-based combat or exploration.
The kicker came at the end with Assassin's Creed Valhalla, which had been teased as the anchor for the event stream. Like some earlier trailers, Valhalla's "Xbox Series X Gameplay Trailer" was light on actual gameplay. It was more a mood piece, like the earlier cinematic trailer, but in-engine. Also, it was just "representative" of Xbox Series X gameplay with barely any indication as to how Valhalla will actually play.
The backlash was swift online. Producer Geoff Keighley, who co-streamed the Inside Xbox presentation as part of his ongoing Summer Game Fest celebration, put up the statement "Gameplay does not equal in-game footage" in big block letters during an interview with Dirt 5 development director Robert Karp. Gamesindustry.biz publisher Christopher Dring noted that "Gameplay" in quotes was trending on Twitter in the Gaming category, obviously related to Inside Xbox event.
"When you hear 'Official Gameplay' what does that mean to you? I've been out of this for a while so perhaps the definition has drifted. I think of 'Gameplay' as showing a segment of the actual game running vs. in-engine Trailers. Is it just me?" asked former Xbox marketing senior director Albert Penello.
YouTuber YongYea weighed in, "Do game companies know what 'gameplay' means anymore?"
"Stop doing [these] rendered scenes in game engine bs. Just say it's an early look or something. You don't have to lie to hype a crowd who still wants to see some of your game," added Monster Prom executive producer Jesse Cox.
Most of that sentiment was mirrored by the community itself. The Xbox Series X and the PlayStation 5 are coming this year, but fans have no idea why it needs to buy these new consoles. Graphics are important, but we've definitely reached a soft plateau in their impact to 'wow' us. Even the new consoles themselves are leaning more on features surrounding graphics and gameplay, like fast SSD drives, vastly improved audio, haptic feedback, and features like Xbox Smart Delivery for a smoother console transition. It's hard to market for that stuff I'm sure, but what was on display at the Inside Xbox event wasn't the way to go. Even something like gameplay showing the difference between the One X version of a game and the Series X version would've been appreciated. Nvidia gets a lot of mileage out of "RTX On/RTX Off".
Even I was disappointed when it came to Assassin's Creed Valhalla's showing at the Xbox event. Ubisoft's previous "World Premiere Gameplay" trailers have been similar to today's Valhalla trailer, providing cinematic production over in-engine footage. But those trailers generally came at E3 proper, and were followed directly by real gameplay walkthroughs and further videos highlighting specific features. By comparison, I feel like I got a better understanding of what Assassin's Creed Origins and Odyssey were from their trailers, with footage that gave me some idea of how those games would play. Instead, it feels like we're getting tease after tease.
We're in unknown waters thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, with marketing teams having to scrap previous plans to come up with new ways of presenting games. But none of this is specifically new, as Nintendo's been doing the Nintendo Direct thing for years now. And marketing is about setting proper expectations; telling viewers to tune into a stream called "Inside Xbox Presents First Look Xbox Series X Gameplay" and then not having much in the way of actual gameplay is a misstep.
We're now six months (at most) away from the launch of the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5. Folks are still wondering what games they're going to play and how much these systems will cost. They want a reason to jump onboard, even if the actual consoles are going to be scarce. And the easiest way to do that is to show off the games, with real gameplay.
If you give folks gameplay, they'll do the work for you. They'll tear up your footage, infer and speculate about characters, storylines, and mechanics, and generally just share the footage amongst themselves. Right now, there's just resentment, because they were promised gameplay and they got "gameplay." Cinematics can do a lot of legwork, but at the end of the day they're just movies. We're here for video games.