#208: Taking flight

Microsoft puts its troubles behind it with its best E3 showing in years.

Hello! I am delighted to report, after Friday’s rather bleak assessment of Summer Game Fest, that I thought yesterday’s Xbox show was very good indeed. Microsoft did exactly what it needed to do, there were some things I was delighted to see, and in a high-pressure situation following a difficult few months this was a fine first step in getting the Xbox division, and the narrative around it, back on track.

Microsoft’s main task last night was to show us its workings; to update us, if only a little, on what the teeming mass of development studios it has acquired over the last half-decade are up to. To show, in other words, that there has actually been a point to all this. They made a pretty good fist of it, I must say. I was surprised, and very pleased, at how often ‘Xbox Game Studios Presents’ appeared on screen. The new games from InXile and Compulsion looked terrific. Flight Simulator 2024 looked exquisite. We got a release date for Forza, a decent glimpse of Hellblade II, and our long-overdue first look at Playground’s Fable. Good. Very good, even.

If I was to pick a hole in all this, it’s that despite Aaron Greenberg’s rather haughty recent insistence that there wouldn’t be any CG trailers of firstparty games at the show — a jab, whether intended or otherwise, at last month’s State Of Play — there still wasn’t an awful lot of gameplay to be had. There’s not really that substantive a difference between CG and ‘in-engine’: sure, one of them might be a more accurate visual representation of an in-development game, but neither of them tell you anything about how a game actually plays.

That quibble aside, I was very impressed with the firstparty component of last night’s show. This should be the way of things, given the size of the Xbox studio operation; each showcase, whether at not-E3 or elsewhere, should yield a couple of new announcements, some updates on things we already knew about, and a release date or two to look forward to. Yes, it should have been like this for years now. But this was progress, at least, however belated.

I also liked the show’s attitude to indies. While I expect Simon Carless of the excellent GameDiscoverCo might disagree, I greatly appreciated that Microsoft hand-picked a small selection of independent games and gave them the same profile and airtime as the triple-A stuff, rather than squishing 30 of them into a two-minute sizzle reel as E3 pressers have historically tended to do. It felt curated in a way that these shows, and particularly this aspect of them, rarely do.

Cities: Skylines II looked absolutely sumptuous, and I am well up for Jusant, the climbing game from Dontnod. It reminded me of the sweaty-palmed ascents in the old Assassin’s Creed games; I was always struck by how something so mechanically simple could be so powerful —could feel so dangerous, despite there being no real danger — and thought it a shame that neither Ubisoft nor the broader industry ever saw something in there worth interrogating further. The fact that I actually had time to think about all that while the trailer was running shows how much better an approach this was than smushing Jusant in with a couple of dozen other games at such high speed that none of them stick in the memory.

I was heartened, too, to see such a healthy representation of Japanese developers. This is driven in large part by what is clearly a firmly established, and growing, partnership with Sega, and particularly its subsidiary Atlus. Rumours have been swirling for years now that Microsoft wants to buy Sega; watching as a new Yakuza, two Persona games and the Persona team’s Metaphor: ReFantazio (!) were announced on Microsoft’s stage I couldn’t help but wonder if Spencer had written Sega a big cheque for first dibs on its games, or at least their announcements, instead of buying it outright. With Capcom’s intriguing, and very weird Kunitsu-Gami: Path Of The Goddess also shown off, my inner weeb felt at times as if it was watching a Sony press conference, not an Xbox one, and in the context of Microsoft’s E3 showings over the past generation or two that is praise indeed. How refreshing it is to see Microsoft flying the flag for the game industry’s spiritual home at a time when Sony appears to be doubling down on western-made live-service nonsense. The world is truly upside down.

And then we have Starfield. While I have my reservations about Bethesda’s sprawling, spacefaring RPG — to be blunt, the studio’s track record does not exactly inspire confidence that it can pull off a game of such evident complexity and ambition — I love the general idea of ending a not-E3 showcase with such a deep dive into not just a game, but how it is being made, and the people that are making it. This is the sort of thing at which the not-E3 format excels; you couldn’t end an in-person show with an hour-long tour of the year’s tentpole release, because everyone is sweaty, and thirsty, and needs the toilet and some dinner, and quite simply has neither the time nor the energy for any more of your bullshit. But in a remote setting, big games can be allowed a little more room to breathe. Watching it, I was reminded of Nintendo’s Treehouse sessions at E3s past, where they would give a livestream audience much deeper looks, and insights, into the games shown off in the previous day’s Direct. I hope this becomes a recurring theme in the years to come.

A few weeks back I wrote about how Microsoft’s big challenge this not-E3 was tone. How could Phil Spencer practise his usual ‘best year ever’ schtick so soon after he went on a Kinda Funny podcast to rend his garments over how badly everything was going? The solution — to have the likeable Sarah Bond do the intro, and only have Spencer appear at the end of the show to recap what we’d seen and tee up Starfield — worked very well, though Bond seemed rather overawed by the occasion and Spencer’s initial no-show meant I spent much of the broadcast wondering if he’d been fired. I hope this, too, is a sign of things to come, of a new direction for Xbox that makes Spencer less of a figurehead, and less of a target. There is obviously much more to the Xbox business than one man in a bomber jacket and a videogame T-shirt; he has probably been given more credit than he deserves for Xbox’s successes under his stewardship, and taken an excessive amount of flak for its failures. It is time to share the wealth, I think, and perhaps a little of the blame as well.

But it was a terrific show, all told, and I really only had one major problem with it. Where was everyone? Why are we still producing these things like we’re in lockdown? There were several moments that deserved to be met with the roars and excited squeals of a crowd. I find it puzzling, given Microsoft owns an event space a two-minute walk from the LA Convention Centre — and that it held an in-person hands-on event for media directly after the briefing — that it decided against doing the showcase in front of a crowd. I get that it is much, much cheaper like this, and it is surely much easier to prepare for and produce. There is less chance of someone absolutely shitting the bed and spending the rest of their life as a meme. But also. Also! I don’t care about that stuff, and nor should you. Sort it out, please, Phil and co. We all know Microsoft can afford it.


  • Before we get into today’s roundup, Geoff Keighley has been in touch (!) about Hit Points’ withering assessment of last Thursday’s Summer Game Fest showcase. I shan’t share the text but he was very gracious about it all, to his great credit — though he did want to make clear that the “Xbox and Ubisoft events are part of Summer Game Fest.” Hit Points is happy to correct the record. I hope you all realise that, as withering as Friday’s piece was, it comes from a good place. E3 was special to a lot of people, I want whatever takes its place to be special too, and to me that means that any and all pretenders to the throne must be held to the highest possible standards. I take no pleasure in writing stuff like that (quite the opposite, actually — I was a right grump on Friday night). Onwards!
  • Starfield will run at 30fps on Xbox, game director Todd Howard has admitted. It’ll be native 4K on Series X, and 1440p on Series S. “I think it’ll come as no surprise, given our previous games, what we go for,” Howard told IGN. “Always these huge, open worlds, fully dynamic, hyper detail where anything can happen. And we do want to do that.” If I may pop the Hit Points consulto-hat on for a moment, I would advise against messaging that suggests that what a game’s developers want is more important than what its players want. I reckon a lot of people out there would be happy dropping the Series X version to 1440p, or even 1080p, if it meant they could play Starfield at 60fps. I know I would. (I’d also point out that in the era of VRR and 120Hz displays, a 40fps mode should always be on the table in times such as this.) If it’s a technical limitation, which I imagine it is, kindly respect me enough to be honest about it. Trying to dress it up as a matter of authorial intent is just asking for trouble.
  • Xbox Game Studios bossman Matt Booty reckons his employer’s firstparty woes are behind it. “We had some gaps last year, but I think we've turned the corner coming into 2023,” Booty said in a roundtable interview after last night’s Xbox showcase. “[I] feel very good about launching Hi-Fi Rush, we have Minecraft Legends out there which is doing well, we have Age Of Empires continuing to come to console... and then as we saw today, this fall we have Forza Motorsport and Starfield. Then in 2024, it really kicks into gear.” Poor old Redfall, eh? Just airbrushed right out of existence. Probably for the best.
  • Amid the weekend’s flurry of announcements I was rather taken with Stampede: Racing Royale, a 60-player kart racer from the driving-game veterans at Sumo. Honestly, ‘kart racer battle royale’ is such a good middle-of-the-Venn-diagram elevator pitch I can’t believe it’s taken this long for one to appear.
  • Activision Blizzard has been allowed to join Microsoft’s appeal against the CMA’s blocking of you-know-what. Apparently there’s a hearing about it today. Don’t these people know it’s E3 week? This really isn’t the time.
  • It’s Capcom’s 40th birthday! To celebrate it’s made Capcom Town, a sort of browser-based museum celebrating the publisher’s remarkable history. You can also play retro games in your browser, if that’s your vibe. There’s controller support and everything.


Our miniseries of reader Zelda memories has slipped down the running order temporarily, in order to give not-E3 the prominence it (probably?) deserves. Here’s ForensicGunk.

My first Zelda was A Link To The Past on the SNES, which to this day remains my stock answer to the question: ‘What's your favourite game?’

I have very fond memories of the half-term holiday my brother and I spent playing it in 1993. We were in our mid-teens, taking turns every hour or after each death. We had the PAL version which came with a little hint booklet that proved invaluable early on. We beat the game in a week, and then proceeded to replay it with our own saves in which we both ground out a full 100% completion with all the hearts, upgrades, etc.

I've played every Zelda since then — even Four Swords using a GameCube and 4 GBAs, during one highly coordinated Sunday afternoon that I'm sure every participant remembers fondly.

The standout series entries since LTTP for me are Wind Waker and Breath Of The Wild. I bought a large widescreen CRT TV due to WW's staggering visuals. Sailing across the waves in 480p component in 60Hz with progressive scan... beautiful stuff.

When GTAV was launched in the twilight of the 360/PS3 generation, myself and a fellow former dev colleague (an ex-graphics programmer from Rare) would frequently comment on how only witchcraft explained what R* had managed to achieve on those consoles.

I feel exactly the same way about BOTW on Switch. It was just a staggering achievement — a technical and design miracle of modern game development.

That will do! A quick spot of Diablo before the school run, methinks. Tonight it’s Ubisoft and Capcom’s turn to do not-E3 things; if I am suitably inspired I may be back in your inboxes as soon as tomorrow. Why not hit the buttons below in the meantime? It’ll make the time go a bit faster, and if you hit the paid subscription one you’ll also make me very happy. Cheerio!