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Despite A Strong Lineup, The Xbox Showcase Left Me Cold

Playing the hits

Microsoft

Microsoft, a behemoth with near-limitless resources that’s nonetheless spent the past few years lost in the woods, needed a win over the weekend. By most measures, it got one. Xbox’s Summer Game Fest-adjacent showcase came out guns blazing – and also chainsaw shield blazing, in Doom’s case. But try as I might’ve, I was unable to walk away from it feeling anything aside from mild trepidation.

To begin, Doom: The Dark Ages does look sick. Clair Obscur: Expedition 33 gives off appealingly incomprehensible JRPG vibes filtered through a French historical lens. South of Midnight seems to be hitting all the right notes with its vibe and southern setting. And Dragon Age… well, I’m gonna reserve judgement until after we see gameplay tomorrow. 

But all the other designated heavy hitters felt like strained attempts at recalling a better time. Gears of War: E-Day is a prequel to an already long-in-tooth franchise. Indiana Jones is a prequel to multiple decades-old movies. Metal Gear Delta and Age of Mythology are both remakes. Fable and Perfect Dark are attempts at reviving franchises that struggled to evoke excitement the last time Microsoft wheeled them out. Mixtape is literally a game about playing the hits. Diablo IV’s Vessel of Hatred trailer made me wonder what a story like that would look like if it wasn’t chained to a decades-old franchise about making numbers go up. Even STALKER 2, a game whose download button I plan to mash frantically the second it becomes available, mostly just looks like a prettier version of a game I played in 2009. 

I’m sure all of this is for someone – many someones, in fact – but it just didn’t really land for me. Microsoft owns a significant chunk of the triple-A video game industry, but it has struggled to marshal those forces in a direction that feels fresh or uniquely compelling. Don’t get me wrong: Sony and Nintendo also lean heavily on franchises, but the former demonstrates a slightly more regular willingness to throw something new into the mix, while the latter never stops making old new again. I’m not encouraged, meanwhile, by Microsoft’s baby-with-the-bathwater approach to studio ownership. The closures of Tango Gameworks and Arkane Austin loomed heavily over Xbox’s showcase, ghosts of the recent past that show what happens when successful teams swing and miss (or swing and don’t hit hard enough). 

This, to some degree, is what that approach gets us: a creaky boatload of franchises that feel, to executives, like surefire successes, but which eventually suffer from diminishing returns. It’s a microcosm of where the video game industry seems to be headed: toward a future of fewer, bigger games that grow endlessly, for growth’s own sake more than as a result of any organic need. It’s difficult to look forward to tentative twists on the same old steps in a year when indies have stepped up in a big way and delivered some of the most interesting hits in ages. 

Following an unyielding torrent of industry layoffs, the disparity between indie and triple-A sectors is likely to grow. In this sense, the main Summer Game Fest showcase was instructive; big names like Civilization VII and [checks notes] Lego Horizon Adventures popped up here and there, but surprising debuts like Killer Bean, Wanderstop, and OuterslothAmong Us developer Innersloth’s plan to make sure the indie firehose doesn’t shut off anytime soon – brought the heat.

If this is what the foreseeable future is going to look like, I’m not mad about it. I’m drowning in cool games I still need to play, and I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon. What the Microsofts of the world are doing just isn’t for me anymore, and that’s alright. Moving on is just part of life, even if it’s a part that big companies, specifically, are loath to embrace.

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