Live presentations have never been the strongest suit for Microsoft, but they managed to do surprisingly well, albeit awkwardly this year. They didn’t make any (un?)intentional rape jokes, at least. The on-stage presence was reserved mainly for those doing deep-dives on featured titles and flowery speeches from department heads. Peppered among these was a series of trailers, mostly cinematic, some with gameplay, and a rapid-fire bit trailer montage that showed off a series of indie games. There were a few surprises here and there, though nothing I’d call gripping or entertaining. There was a consistent theme, however, and the main take away was clear by the end: Microsoft has big plans for the future.
It probably sounds like I’m nitpicking but hey – that’s why you’re here, right?
I had high hopes for Microsoft at this year’s E3, if only because their situation was becoming entirely too depressing to watch any longer. They really needed to pull something, anything out of the bag to let players know that, yes, they still functioned somewhat as a games company. With 50 games hitting the stage in one form or another, I’d say they more or less delivered. The problem wasn’t with their content but with their momentum, and before I get into what I think they did right, I want to talk about what they did wrong, which starts with their on-stage speaking.
Phil Spencer, God love him, was probably the blurst of the bunch for this reason. You have to respect a man that can take what the Xbox One started as and end up with something like the Xbox Games Pass near the end of the generation. However, though his passion is undeniable, he doesn’t have a great stage presence. His stumbling on phrases like “sound effrects” and “the histy” of games set the tone for anyone standing at the fore that night. Ashley Speicher, head of engineering at Xbox Games Pass, timidly trotting onto the stage and murmuring a few minor announcements about the service. Again, clearly passionate but not much stage presence, and also seemed genuinely terrified. Then there was the dude presenting Forza Horizon 4, Ralph Fulton, talking about the changing of the seasons as though they heralded the passage into strange, lurid new universes. All the on-stage speaking felt off, and awkward, and overall the show could have used less of it.
“SEASONS. CHANGE. EVERYTHING.” – Actual quote, sans irony.
The other problem was the way the show was scheduled, with stuff thrown in seemingly at random, continuously generating some hype and then deflating it just as quickly throughout. Some trailers were “world premieres,” easily identified by the obnoxious announcement that had to be replayed before every such trailer, which wasn’t even consistently applied to all world premiere trailers. Few of the titles shown had a fixed, or even approximate release date attached to them. Most of all, the rapid-fire indie snippets are great to show you’ve got a lot of stuff in reserve but, honestly, it’s sensory overload. I only watched it just last night, and I couldn’t recall a single game from that trailer reel to tell you about here.
Despite these issues, just the volume and quality of games on show from Microsoft probably puts them ahead of their rivals. No one had a particularly great live conference this year but Microsoft still made the most of it with some excellent first-party showings and some surprise announcements. Crackdown 3 was back on display and with some actual gameplay, apparently showing it’s been saved from production hell. A continuation of classic series’ were promised with Halo: Infinite, Forza Horizon 4, Gears of War 5, and even some fun being breathed into Sea of Thieves with a couple of planned expansions throughout the rest of 2018.
Aaaaaaare you ready to play this for more than four hours?
The third-party lineup was also strong, with the first trailers being shown for Devil May Cry 5, The Division 2, and Dying Light 2. They also had a few surprises like Kingdom Hearts finally coming to the Xbox platform, a cheeky little Cyberpunk 2077 cinematic at the end, and a new Battletoads game. Friggin’ Battletoads. That’s just plain wish fulfilment. There was also a clear focus on planning for the future, renewing commitments to the Game Pass, with all first party games being available through that service. In fact, thanks to Xbox Play Anywhere, you don’t even need an Xbox console because everything is also available on PC. Which, honestly? That’s great for me because I don’t think I’m ever going to buy another Xbox console again – but I’ll gladly play the stuff they served up in their conference.
They also announced the acquisition of five new studios: The Initiative, Undead Labs, Compulsion Games, Ninja Theory, and Playground Games. This creepily EA-like aggregation of development talent is an attempt to address Microsoft’s lack of new and interesting titles. You might have noticed that, while they had a lot of first party fare to show, almost every one of them is a sequel. These studios will apparently be working toward building new games with a new generation in mind, and that’s the best thing Microsoft could have said for themselves this year. We’re clearly at the end of this console cycle, and while everyone is winding down in preparation for the next one, Microsoft is already planning ahead. Still, though, that’s a lot of studios to buy out at once. Isn’t there an old 90’s meme about Microsoft being the Borg?
Who would have thought that this old thing would become semi-relevant again?
Microsoft didn’t cram their foot down their throat this year, to their credit, but it seems that in their attempt to play it straight they also came across as mostly dull. Anyone who took to the stage felt awkward as hell to watch, and the pacing of the presentation’s content felt all over the place. There was also a weird lack of concrete information around release dates and mention of specific platforms. It’s clear that the industry is gearing up for the next generation and Microsoft is no exception here; however, it seems like they’ve had plans in the works for longer than most. A strong but unsurprising first-party line-up, a lot of third-party support, and five studios focused entirely on fixing their lack of new IP is the real take away from this E3 for Microsoft. I have a hunch that in the next couple of years, we’ll be talking about them a lot differently than we have been of late. You’ve come a long way from the early days of Xbox, Microsoft.
Grade: A for dreams, C+ for effort and presentation.