What makes a good games showcase? Is it the unique moments? The meme-ability? Or just anything Nintendo? Well, Microsoft made some headlines last week with its own showcase: Inside Xbox, a presentation of upcoming next-gen games surrounded by large amounts of hype and excitement. There was widespread disappointment, even though we got over a dozen games showcased. Considering the current work-from-home difficulties, it wasn’t actually that bad, and it was miles beyond Xbox’s output during the Xbox One era.
Sadly, however, the audience (myself included) came away feeling very differently. Hyperbolic marketing and talk of how Inside Xbox would ‘change the game’ set the audience up for something more mind-blowing and built way too much hype.
For example, the show’s climax was meant to be the first gameplay from Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, yet what we got was in-game visuals cut-up into a bombastic trailer. No third-person camera, no HUD, nothing any of us would call gameplay. The reactions were mostly negative. ‘Gameplay Trailers Should Have Gameplay in Them’ read one headline over at Kotaku. What was, on paper, an impressive third-party offering from Xbox has resulted in a lot of disappointed voices.
Tomorrow changes the game. Or rather, the games do the changing.
— Xbox (@Xbox) May 6, 2020
The marketing was the core of the problem. Setting people’s expectations correctly is key to events like this, with clear branding that a wider audience can understand. Inside Xbox as a brand is more low-key than its counterparts, and a show that is mainly consumed by Xbox die-hards.
However, last week’s show will have had a large number of people who tuned in for the promise of next-gen footage, viewers who are new to the Inside Xbox brand. With the show being presented as the beginning of next-gen — and social media buzz building unsustainable hype — they set expectations almost as high as they can go, even if previous Inside Xbox events have rarely been a memorable showing.
Sony’s own showcase brand, called State of Play, has been similarly underwhelming (and scarce), but much less disappointing. If we compare the two we can see how context was the killer for Xbox. As a brand, State of Play has been slow to get off the ground, a little impersonal, and, in general, a little plain. However, with clear, clean-cut branding, Sony had set up its State of Play as something understated. Other than their first show — where speculation ran wild as to what would be revealed — people rarely expected anything more than what they got.
Inside Xbox is often less plain and more personal — something which should have given it an advantage. We get to see presenters’ faces, which, with the current work-from-home streaming set-ups, came across as more charming than usual (such as Aaron Greenberg sitting in front of an Xbox Series X fridge, clumsily leaning into the meme). So, Xbox’s showing had all the right ingredients to be a really likeable show. But it still disappointed across the board because of the sky-high expectations.
We can also look at the format that everyone is roughly copying: Nintendo Directs. These shows have often been important moments in the gaming calendar, and they’re acutely branded by Nintendo. The most recent show was a surprise Nintendo Direct Mini. We saw a new trailer for Xenoblade Chronicles, a slew of 2K games, and a handful of other indie titles.
The show’s biggest announcements were a decade-old JRPG and some last-gen ports. But it didn’t really matter, as we knew that it wasn’t going to blow us away, we knew it was going to be ‘mini’. By keeping expectations lower, Nintendo has often pleasantly surprised the audience with pretty low-key announcements. Xbox could do with keeping that in mind.
While Xbox’s event had all the right qualities, their mismanaging of expectations, social media buzz, and general hyperbole led to a disappointed fanbase. While the ethos sounds so simple — underpromise and overdeliver — marketing teams seem to often miss the mark. If they had presented it as something less important, it would have been a small win in the run-up to next-gen.
I still think the Inside Xbox event was pretty good. We saw interesting indie titles, various genres, and lots of new games on show. But, with next-gen on its way, Xbox is going to have to be a bit more exciting to continue its good run of marketing. As Sony continues to be tight-lipped about its plans for this year, Xbox can’t afford to shoot itself in the foot again.
If you’re interested in what other digital events are on the way, there’s the upcoming indie game showcase Guerilla Collective or July’s Ubisoft Forward event, where hopefully we will actually see some Valhalla gameplay.