They led the Xbox One X announcement with Minecraft, for Christ’s sake
Ever since it’s announcement, I’ve been really interested in the ongoing reception of, and discussion around, the Xbox One X. I, like many, was an Xbox 360 gamer last generation, only to be swayed, also like many, over to Playstation 4 for this latest cycle. Personal reasons for this include a lack of interest in a lot of Microsoft’s first-party titles and, honestly, dislike for the way the Xbox One controller feels in my hands. Now, the latter of those two is personal, of course. But the former isn’t.
It’s no secret that, for this entire console generation, Microsoft has fallen behind Sony in terms of the hype and energy levels surrounding a lot of their games. Cuphead just released on Xbox One and PC, and is certainly a fantastic game that’s a great time for anyone able to play on one of the two, but you’d be hard-pressed to find many people for whom that alone is about to be a console-seller. Forza Motorsport 7 might be a bit better off, but its initial reception was mixed enough that the creators had to completely change their VIP system shortly following release.
On comes the Xbox One X, which shows just how blind (or maybe just resistant) Microsoft is to their own situation. Instead of pouring more money and resources into the creation of a more compelling console-exclusive library, they focus on pure graphical power. The console is starting to seem like a Ferrari surrounded by dirt roads.
The lesson Microsoft needs to learn is this. It no longer matters how beautiful a game looks. At least, not in the way it has for almost the entirety of gaming up until recent years.
Really, I can’t blame them too badly. When I was growing up, and when readers of this older and younger than myself alike were growing up, graphics were a huge indicator of a game’s quality. Well, no, maybe not quite. But perceived quality? Oh yeah, absolutely. There were plenty of kids who dropped Mario and Spyro in favor of Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty. Of course, the reasons for this were myriad, but one of those was the draw of realism. Okay, relative realism, but you know what I mean.
There’s always been a push in gaming to find ways to make game characters look more and more real. We have a long-standing obsession with visuals as indicators of quality, across all boards. It goes back to the jump from 2D to 3D, and far before that, as well. When kids saw A Link to the Past for the first time, they marveled at how good Hyrule looked. They did the same when they saw it in 3D for the first time.
So, if that’s all well and good, why is it that the push for the highest-power console hasn’t made Microsoft into a godlike superforce? Well, a huge part of it has to do with the way good-looking graphics interact with our TVs now. Back in the day, pretty much any CRT TV could play your old Atari, Nintendo and Sega games, regardless of how many pixels were onscreen. Everything changed when TV display became defined by a pixels-per-inch metric. It’s this change that leads us to the Xbox One X.
Microsoft’s new system upgrade exists under the assumption that people want to play video games at the highest visual quality they can. While this is true for many, it is so with a lot less importance than would have once been the case. The main reason here is that not a whole lot of consumers have 4K televisions. As of last June, sales were looking up, but that accounts for everyone who uses a TV. Of those, gamers are a big chunk, but not the only one.
Past that, the resolution issue means that each and every fan of games has to look inward, and ask ourselves if it’s worth buying a whole new TV and this new console, just to play games we can already play in higher definition. And to many, it’s just not worth it. It echoes the ballsy statement Sony made at the Playstation 3’s launch, telling consumers they should just get a second job to buy their console. The Xbox One has been marketed largely towards adults throughout its life. Sometimes adults have to make boring adult decisions with how they spend their money.
Our sensibilities for visuals in games are changing. I marvel at how often I hear someone say, definitively, that some recent release is the prettiest game they have ever played. I marvel doubly at how many more games than ever this can be said about. Again, the reasons behind the reality are multifaceted. There’s the part where, of course, games are getting better-looking all the time. Remember that old need to make things look as realistic as possible? If you want that, you can have it. Just look at 2017 releases like Horizon: Zero Dawn and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Gorgeous detail, gorgeous results.
At the same time, the more things become realistic, the less appealing that becomes. More and more, designers will look at that capacity for realism and say “well sure, but what if we do something else instead?” A great example of this comes in the form of the rise of indie games throughout the last decade, culminating in one of the most praised games ever to hit the Xbox One, Cuphead.
Easily the most highly-praised Xbox One console exclusive of 2017, Cuphead has nothing to do with photorealism. On the contrary, a huge part of its initial draw was to do with its direct inspiration from the 1930s rubber hose classic animation styles of Fleischer Studios. It’s a visual style that anyone with any eye for animation can recognize as an icon of the past, and Studio MDHR captured that art style perfectly. From the start, it was that style more than anything that drew people in. It also happens that the gameplay is super great, but at this point, that’s practically the icing on the cake.
It doesn’t stop there, either. The work of Supergiant Games also stands tall as an example, especially in this year’s Pyre. The artistic detail takes on a hugely different form than if everything was supposed to look real, but nothing about that game is supposed to look real. Realism isn’t the point anymore. Some games are photographs; some games are paintings, or illustrations.
It’s not like graphics no longer matter at all. I still notice when playing Breath of the Wild that the textures are a little more flat than they would probably have been should the game have launched on a more powerful system. But I don’t give a shit. Giving a shit about that isn’t really part of gaming culture’s active conversation right now. The order of priorities in terms of what we want is changing. Games looking more and more like real life has fallen down on that list.
Microsoft’s problems don’t end there. Halo 5 came and went with shockingly little fanfare. I kid you not, I didn’t even know Gears of War 4 had released until a month after the fact. Microsoft’s struggle for a first-party leg to stand on is distressing to watch, but it’s not really a mystery. Until they stop acting like the things most important to gamers of today are precisely where they were a few years ago, I worry that all that lies ahead is for this cycle to continue.
And seriously, though, how did they go about convincing themselves that playing Minecraft in 4K would be a selling point? Christ.