E3 Reactions – Microsoft’s Mixed Messaging

After a Drought comes the Flood…

Yesterday, Microsoft had what will undoubtedly be remembered as their best E3 conference in recent years, with an almost entirely undistracted focus on new games and content. Today, many gamers will be happy indeed. From Halo Infinite to Devil May Cry 5, several Gears of War titles to FromSoftware’s next project, Phil Spencer et al. debuted a mind-numbing amount of previously unseen projects at dizzying speed. All in all, they revealed by my estimations around ten highly significant titles – not bad, given many people’s tepid expectations ahead of the expo.

A Race for Reveals

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Seeing Edinburgh rendered with such fidelity in Forza was a conference highlight

Now, a more cynically minded individual might point out that – as has been the case for several years now – most of those games were multiplatform; though Microsoft claim to have announced 18 ‘exclusives’, included amongst that number is updated content for existent games and ports of PC or mobile titles.  From the remainder, the most notable were (once again) the triumvirate of Xbox stalwarts: Halo, Gears of War, and Forza. Of those, Forza Horizon 4 is the only game set to release in 2018, and though we learnt much about this (very UK-centric) online racer, fans of Xbox’s flagship series got a disappointingly small amount of information regarding Halo Infinite. It seems then that the multitude of ‘world premiers’ was more expo-ammunition to aim at Sony than a sign of seismic shift in exclusive support.

The notion of Xbox being short on great (first- and third-party) exclusives has been prevalent for some time, so it was perhaps unsurprising that Spencer explicitly attempted redressing this on stage. Amidst the game announcements came news of Microsoft acquiring several new studios: Playground Games, Undead Labs, Ninja Theory and Compulsion Games. The first two are seemingly obvious grabs – Playground’s sole output is the Microsoft exclusive Forza Horizon series, whilst the original State of Decay (thus far Undead’s only game) was published by Microsoft. However, snapping up the latter two might generate more animosity than good faith. Ninja Theory’s last two games, edgy reboot DmC: Devil May Cry and the award-winning Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, were both multiplatform. Compulsion’s much anticipated We Happy Few will fortunately still see a PS4 release, but it’s saddening to know that future output from such an idiosyncratic team will be tied solely to Microsoft platforms.

Shuffling Towards a Gaming Dystopia

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Despite drawing almost entirely on British literary and TV influences, We Happy Few is actually the brainchild of a Canadian developer

On that note, the new trailer for Orwellian adventure We Happy Few – which revelled in allusions to cult 1960s TV show The Prisoner – was (aptly) one of few moments to leave a positive impression on me. Alongside footage for Ori and the Will of the Wisps, Tunic, and a Life is Strange spin-off, it stood in stark relief to the monotonous procession of hyperreal, post-apocalyptic shooters featuring washed out colour palettes and grossly cliché scenarios. Spencer frequently mentioned the alleged exemplary quality of storytelling and world-building within the industry, but if the dialogue of the Gears of War 5 trailer is anything to go by the mainstream industry is sorely deluding itself.

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‘The script… it’s too painful, I can’t go on!’

The indistinguishability of setting, tone and aesthetics across The Division 2, Fallout 76 and Dying Light 2 also highlighted a worrying homogenisation within AAA gaming (the latter, though, does deserve some kudos for the use of adaptive scenarios, showing novel game design is still a consideration). This was the first E3 conference my partner had ever watched, and she was genuinely shocked by the prevalence of such games and their seemingly superficial treatment of pressing subject matter. Given the current sociopolitcal climate within the US, now would perhaps be a good time to consider the idea of ‘life reflecting art’, and the massive responsibility game developers have towards shaping culture for younger generations. Then again, the entirety of E3 is essentially an exercise in global marketing, so maybe I’m being somewhat sanctimonious.

Schrödinger’s Streaming Service

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Think I’ll be sticking with my Switch for a while yet…

Almost as grey as these games’ landscapes is the view Microsoft is taking towards the imminent future of gaming . Like EA the day before, Spencer dedicated a short while to discussing their vision for bringing ‘console quality experiences to every platform’ via streaming. Almost in the same breath, he announced that they are working on a true successor to the Xbox One. It seems to me that behind the rhetoric there is uncertainty about the viability of streaming as a near-future industrial shift, and so they’re preparing for all potentialities. For one, people around the world still encounter problems when streaming mere audio-visual content, which is infinitely simpler than streaming a game. For another, its not too long ago that VR was set to become the next unified step in video game development, and – given the inaccessibility of the tech to the average consumer – that didn’t exactly come to pass. What’s more, in recent years Microsoft have done a poor job at delineating between their two platforms, and I fail to see how adding a ‘third pillar’ would help to drive hardware sales. If anything, this will just compound the issue.

A Better Place to Play?

All that being said, I do appreciate the focus on gamers’ experience, perhaps best exemplified by the fantastic treatment Xbox Game Pass subscribers are receiving. Whilst Microsoft are seemingly throwing their monetary weight about in order to avoid the XB1 going to way of, say, the PS3, it’s also evident that they’re decreasing focus on competing with Sony in terms of hardware sales. My impression of Spencer is that he does genuinely have gamer’s wants (and the industry’s future) at heart – just look at the forthcoming adaptive controller – so I can settle for him trying to give existing Xbox fans a great place to play. I just wish there was more focus on diversifying not just the gamer-base, but also what is considered the mainstream of gaming.

That’s my two pennies’ worth regarding a mostly decent but perhaps shallow conference from Microsoft. Do you think I’ve been too harsh, or do you agree that their offering was too samey and overly reliant of extremely generic games? Let me know your thoughts below. Until next time, play nice!

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