Astro’s Playroom is a unique type of game I thought we’d never see again. No, not a 3D platformer, which are experiencing a mini-resurgence over the last few years, but rather a console pack in provided free at launch. It is also a heck of a good game and topped the personal game of the year lists of both Jeff Gerstmann and Brad Shoemaker, two duders who, rumor has it, have played a fair number of games over the years. Jeff is even alleged to have reached the double digits!
Pack in games tend to be among the most influential in any console’s library. This is both because they tend to be relatively high quality (if you’re packing in a game to encourage console sales and improve user satisfaction and engagement there’s not much point in packing in a dud) and, more importantly, because by definition they have the largest possible userbase and set user and developer expectations. Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario World defined Nintendo as a game company and helped make the 2D platformer the “default” genre for two generations. Altered Beast defined the Genesis as an arcade ports powerhouse and a system for older, more mature, gamers, and then Sonic redefined it as a system that provided faster, more intense, experiences, and was for gamers who liked ‘tude. Wii Sports remade the entire game industry in its image, at least for a time, giving birth to not just the Wii’s great success but the Playstation Move and the Kinect. The Atari Jaguar’s Cybermorph helped define that system as a colossal disappointment that didn’t really know what it was doing. Okay, not every pack in game has a huge impact (when is the last time you saw a reference to Keith Courage in Alpha Zone?) but they have a relatively good track record. Even Nintendoland for the late and not very lamented Wii U is fondly thought on as one of that system’s better games.
So what about Astro’s Playroom? What impact will it have on the industry at large? Obviously I’m just speculating because it’s impossible to know, but I think there are some likely outcomes here:
Astro’s Playroom will inspire better Dualsense integration
Astro’s Playroom is a number of things including both an advergame promoting the PlayStation brand a tech demo for the PS5’s various features. The most heavily promoted feature is the Dualsense, and Astro’s Playroom makes heavy use of the controller’s gimmicks including the microphone, the touchpad, and the gyro. But more than anything Astro’s Playroom acts as an advertisement for the Dualsense’s haptic feedback and trigger resistance. The game uses the advanced rumble in the Dualsense in very impressive ways, including simulating the feel of walking across different surfaces, being rained on, or breaking certain objects. The triggers are used for everything from drawing back a bow to grabbing handholds in a monkey suit and while somewhat less impressive than the haptics they add tension and a tactile element to those activities. A lot of gamers will expect quality Dualsense use after playing Astro’s Playroom and I think a lot of developers will use the game as a template on how to deliver and what the Dualsense can accomplish in skilled hands.
Astro’s Playroom will help show how SSDs can influence game design
SSDs have been around for a long time but the PS5 and Series S/X are the first time that game makers have been able to assume that everyone has access to one. Astro’s Playroom takes advantage of this not just through short loading times but by using those short loading times to make the game more modular. There are 4 main worlds with 4 sub levels each and you can travel to any of them at any time. There’s also a speed run mode with 8 additional mini levels to run through. Obviously this is not the first game to have fast travel or a speed running mode, but the way its all integrated into the UI of both the game and at a system level really shows how cool it can be. One of the features that the PS5 is pushing is the ability to travel into “activities” within a game not just from the game UI but from the system UI itself, bypassing all the game loading stuff. Astro’s playroom integrates that very well and combined with the fast SSD and the modular design makes for the ultimate pick up and play experience, where you can jump into a sub level and clean up collectables from the system itself. Not every game can or will do this, especially those with a more narrative focus, but Astro’s Playroom shows its ideal integration.
Astro’s Playroom will encourage developers to rethink speed run modes and more players to try speedrunning
Time attack modes are nothing new, even in platformers, but Astro’s Playroom building race courses from 3D platforming elements and then also creating a leaderboard system with integrated times is going to encourage even more developers to put these kinds of modes into their games. Speedrunning has become more and more popular over time, but most games either don’t encourage it, or encourage it in simple ways (like including a timer through the entire game.) By building the overall time out of segments and making the mode so accessible and each run a minute or less, Astro’s Playroom really does a good job of showing how these kinds of modes can add value and actively encourage people to engage with leaderboards. None of it is revolutionary or unprecedented, but in a game that leaves players wanting more and will be owned by every single PS5 buyer, so it makes a great entry point and has already inspired people to dip their toes into the waters.
Astro’s Playroom will sell a lot of PS5s
I don’t mean that people will buy PS5s in order to play Astro’s Playroom the way they bought Wiis for Wii Sports or SNESes for Super Mario World, but rather that Astro’s Playroom acts as a great advertisement for the PS5 and the Playstation brand in general. Obviously people who own Astro’s Playroom already have the system, but they will show the game off to friends and people will (eventually) experience it in demo kiosks and the like, and its very impressive Dualsense integration and infectious enthusiasm for all things PlayStation (the game is essentially a big PlayStation theme part complete with PlayStation systems and peripherals to collect and bots cosplaying as famous PlayStation characters within the levels) is going to make people want to pick one up. By making an easy, accessible, 3D platformer that shows off these features Sony did a great job of creating an interactive advertisement that’s actually fun to play. Make no mistake, Astro’s Playroom is designed as marketing. It’s fun marketing, but it’s marketing, and everything from the tech demo nature to the pervasive PlayStation branding and promotion serves that function.
Astro’s Playroom will not change 3D Platformer game design
This one is simple. Astro’s Playroom is mildly innovative in the way the game is structured for fast travel and speed running but the game itself is a tried and true formula given a modern polish. While the vehicle sections are fun breaks in the action they’re also pretty shallow experiences and don’t really do much that’s new (with the arguable exception of the monkey suit and its motion controlled climbing.) Pack ins like Super Mario Bros. and Wii Sports influenced the gameplay of dozens of imitators. Astro’s Playroom won’t.
Astro won’t become a beloved mascot
This is not the first appearance of Astro the astrobot, who was in the original PS4 Playroom app and the Astrobot Rescue PSVR game. Astro is cute and appealing but, its purpose as a character is to be the player’s avatar in a tech demo, not really the star of the game. Astro’s Playroom is about the PS5 and the Playstation brand, not about Astro, who has no story, no real personality beyond being happy and bubbly, and no defined lore or world. Astro’s Playroom references almost every iconic PlayStation character or franchise in some way, without creating a new one. Nathan Drake and Ratchet and Clank have nothing to worry about.
Astro’s Playroom won’t inspire competitors to follow up with their own pack ins.
The success of Mario led to the creation of Sonic, and Wii Sports’ success made it so that the Playstation Move and Kinect both had their own pack in experiences, but at this point Microsoft and Nintendo are both on their own paths and won’t feel the need to counterprogram. Microsoft is all in on Gamepass and wants new console owners to use that to engage with their ecosystem, and Nintendo is off in its own little world with the wildly successful Switch and won’t feel the need to follow Sony.
Astro’s Playroom will be fondly remembered by a generation of gamers
For most of us old fogeys Astro’s Playroom will come and go. Even those who consider it the best game of 2020 won’t think about it very much five years from now. It’s not going to be BOTW or Bloodborne, or any other games that linger in the imagination. But for children who get a PS5 for Christmas or a birthday Astro’s Playroom will be the most magical thing of all. Not just a free game but a free game they can talk about with their friends and share tips about and show off their fancy new toy with and enjoy. Games are precious for kids, and the game that everyone on the playground has becomes a language they can all share. The fact that Astro’s Playroom has leaderboards for friends to compete with is just icing on an already delicious cake. Astro as a character may not inspire fan fiction and affection like Sonic or Mario, and 3D platformers may not change after its release, but Astro’s Playroom is going to be a generational game for a lot of kids.