Not E3 2020: The PS5 Reveal and the State of the Series X

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I don't usually go in for debates about who "won" a console generation or "won" E3. If two good games consoles come out, then it seems pointlessly pessimistic to say that one has failed just because another has succeeded a little more. But we can find insight in comparison. Game companies don't make decisions in a vacuum; they react to each other. And when a technology or experience falls down, we can turn to its competition for examples of how it might have better achieved its goals. So, as far as I'm concerned, you can't discuss Sony's introduction of the PlayStation 5 separate from Microsoft's showcasing of the Xbox Series X.

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Back during E3 2014, Microsoft arrived with an "all about the games" ethos. After years of longwinded speeches and awkward tech demos, the Head of Xbox prized the company on skipping the rigamarole and cutting straight to ninety minutes of entertainment software. It was just what I wanted from an E3 stage show, and largely, what I still do now. Over the following years, the need for transparent, games-focused briefings only increased. We saw releases like No Man's Sky, Fallout 76, and Mass Effect Andromeda where audiences thought they were getting one product and were dismayed when they got something entirely different. Not that any studio knows what their final build will look like until the home stretch of development, but the issue of content confusion wasn't going to be solved by less demonstration of the games.

Yet, the amount of play shown at E3 has been on the decline for the last two or three years, and for a period, Microsoft regressed from a software-only approach to indulge in long-form hardware porn. There are constructive applications of high-end tech in the medium. Some genuinely beautiful and rich worlds have been brought to life through ferocious GPUs and bottomless RAM. However, Microsoft pored over these electronics with a fetishism which suggested that putting more transistors on a chip or finding new heat dissipation methods is an end instead of a means. And if you feel the same way, cool.

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It's valid to appreciate engineering for its own sake and to see games as a means to spotlight the power of your hardware. But a lot of us are looking at it from the other end of the scope. In my mind, just having a wealth of polygons or a colossal draw distance is only so compelling in itself. The goal is to use that potential to realise smart and well-implemented design, art, and writing. Somebody telling me that they're going to have great games because they have a cutting-edge console is like telling me that they're going to make a great movie because they have an expensive camera.

We can be generous to Microsoft and say that by building state of the art hardware, it hypothetically enables developers to achieve stunning visions at the AAA echelon. Not only is it nice to have more lavishly-produced conventional action games; we've also seen realistic graphics used to spark artistically acclaimed experiences. Sony did this with break-through titles like Horizon: Zero Dawn or God of War (2018). We can also understand that Microsoft might have wanted to beat the crowds in raising awareness of their console, but that marketing is tough when launch day is a blip on the horizon. If your machine is still in the oven, you won't be able to show professional-grade games running on it, so, it's rational that you'd just flip through the raw specs.

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But when it came time to show the games for the system, Microsoft came down with a case of stage fright. The Series X gameplay reveal from early May wasn't a gameplay reveal. There were some gameplay supercuts, a lot of cinematics which did not reflect the interactive nature of these titles, and a general scarcity of details. But where were the developers with logo t-shirts playing in-game puzzles, missions, or levels from beginning to end? The headline act was Assassin's Creed Valhalla which we'd already seen same few morsels of the day before. And considering the increasing range of art styles, gameplay structures, and subject matter in PC games, most of these Series X projects weren't pushing the relative boat out.

I don't want to be a doomsayer here. It's not unusual for a new machine to launch with a flimsy catalogue. The install base for existing consoles starts off much larger than the install base of newly-released consoles. That means that there's often comparatively little revenue in forging new games exclusively for the next generation. So, you work your magic cross-platform or just on the older set of platforms. And it often takes time for developers to feel out new hardware and learn to converse efficiently with it.

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So, I could forgive Microsoft on those counts, but you have to ask, given that Halo is their flagship series, how do you have an Xbox gameplay reveal without Halo Infinite? It's intended to hit during the launch window. Moreover, there were no exclusives. And worse, it feels like the ridiculous endpoint of taking live play out of publisher presentations that "gameplay reveals" don't necessarily contain any gameplay now. Those PC games Microsoft is competing against often have hours of taster videos behind them for anyone who wants to know what they're getting into. I can't reliably tell you from the sixty-minute sizzle reel what most of those Series X games will be like to play.

Software is going to be integral for the Series X because there's only so much of a leg over it'll have on hardware. Both the Series X and the PS5 use eight-core AMD Zen 2 CPUs, SSDs, AMD graphics cards capable of ray tracing and displaying 4K at 60FPS, and they each have 16GB of GDDR6 RAM. It's true that the Series X has about 200GB more internal storage than the PS5, a roughly 1.75 teraflop lead on the GPU, and 2.4 more GHz on its CPU. But we don't know what it'll say on the price tags, and the two computers are still roughly comparable.

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This is why Sony's approach of trying to woo us with more than ray tracing and high-speed memory is the way to go. In the PS5 reveal, the console manufacturer was also surprisingly adept at avoiding a wet launch lineup and over-reliance on action. I don't want to create the impression that there was no vaguery around games on that stream or that there wasn't a fair few non-gameplay trailers, because there were. I also don't want to suggest that there weren't some number of games there playing on masculine power fantasies because that's what titles like Gran Turismo 7, Deathloop, and Hitman 3 represent. Which is fine, by the way. I've spent thousands of hours with my virtual hands wrapped around grips and steering wheels.

What I mean is that Sony's presentation was less homogenous, and had more gameplay. And proper labelling made all the difference. When Microsoft called what was basically another Inside Xbox their "gameplay reveal", they created the impression that they had a lot more wares on their stall than they did. The peddlers of the PlayStation didn't fall into the same trap.

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Sony's decision to open the curtains on GTA V, a game already released for two generations of consoles, didn't give that impression. It made people think that the company was starving for appealing new creations, but that wasn't the case. Maybe Rockstar's crime game simply got the vanguard slot because nothing gathers people around a screen like the words "Grand Theft Auto". The moment when things really picked up was with Ratchet & Clank: A Rift Apart which had a devilishly clever application of modern hardware. The game wasn't just plying us with higher-res textures or more particles; it was showing that if you have plenty of memory and lightning-fast loading, then you can seamlessly transport a character between environments. And character is going to be one of our keywords here because this PS5 reveal had more of it than I've seen the Series X ever having.

In addition to showing games more concerned with traditional shooting and driving fare, we saw Sony hark back to the days of the PS1 with some whimsical mascot titles. See Ratchet & Clank, Sackboy: A Big Adventure, Bugsnax, and others. Then there were the bleeding heart experimental works like Stray, Goodbye Volcano High, and Solar Ash. These come on the back of a history of Sony seeking out games like Flower or Noby Noby Boy that might do something unusual or even touching with the medium.

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Any one game today may use harsh or soft aesthetics, might be narrative-led or gameplay-led, cares about perfecting an existing formula or is trying something totally out of the box. There are large audiences for all those approaches, and as such, any modern console must have a seat for every one. Sony also showed us plenty of new games that blur the line between AAA blockbuster and artsy darling. We mentioned a couple of the games that went there earlier: Horizon: Zero Dawn and God of War (2018). They're continuing that trend on the PS5 through titles like Ghostwire: Tokyo, Returnal, and Horizon: Forbidden West.

It's not that the Microsoft streams were better for those who wanted to talk computer components and that the Sony streams were there for those who wanted to see some creative flair. Instead, I think Sony served both camps better than Microsoft, and they did it by placing a clear dividing line between the arena in which they were going to talk about hardware and the one in which they were going to talk about software. If you wanted to get down to the nitty-gritty of the PS5's copper and silicon, you didn't have to make do with one segment in a feature-length show or see the specs offered up as red meat for a baying crowd. The Road to PS5 lecture was a dedicated and classy one-hour presentation on the PS5 as a piece of digital tech, presented by its systems architect. If that didn't float your boat, then you could watch the PS5 reveal stream and only get the player perspective. With these distinct channels and the platform's fledgeling library, Sony is attacking on all sorts of fronts that Microsoft are not. Or, at least, that Microsoft won't tell us they are.

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Of course, there was one controversial decision we discovered during the PS5 briefing. Comments about the console's appearance include plenty of light ribbing, but also some genuine criticism of ugliness. Before we go into what the console did look like, let's note that its design is a world apart from the PS5 devkit plastered over the internet. That cryptid first appeared in a Sony patent, and later, a photograph of the same found its way online, with journalists who had witnessed the console first-hand verifying its authenticity. A lot of publications were suggesting that this alien monstrosity might be the finished version of Sony's next console, and a number of gamers took it as gospel, feeling that they'd got the inside scoop because they'd scanned the leaks.

But companies regularly file patents containing outlandish diagrams that don't end up reflecting any product on store shelves. And devkits aren't necessarily designed to look pretty to end-users; many are simply practical containers for system hardware. If these console shells looked like they were made to provide maximum airflow without any regard for aesthetics, that's because they were. The PS5 devkit was not meant for display in a home entertainment setup; it was designed for engineers to be able to stack them without them overheating.

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The consumer PS5 is a lot less H.R. Giger, but has still been branded as aesthetically offensive, which is interesting because no one part of its visual design is that daring. The running gag is that it looks a network router, which is accurate, but given that we're already comfortable neighbouring our routers with other home electronics, why should that be a bad fit for the PS5? And if black or white are the standard-issue camouflage of domestic media cuboids, what makes the PS5's paint job stand out so much? I think it's a combination of shock at it being something new and different and a reaction to the contrast between its colour and form factor. The console is shaped like a router but is not uniformly black or white. It has an unassuming dark middle section, but also white covers that curve out, away from it. Designers use diagonal lines and heavy contrast to make things bold and eye-catching, which the PS5 certainly is, but that's not what everyone wants from a box that's meant to sit quietly under their TV.

It's indicative of why most consoles are faceless black monoliths. Electronics manufacturers can't make too many assumptions about how a buyer has a decorated their home. So, instead of trying to match the room the item will be displayed in, the corporations behind Blu-Ray players, set-top boxes, and consoles aim to make them blend into the background and fit a generic "functional" look. But I like that the PS5 is a bit of a statement piece. Gamers are always ragging on consoles for being bland black cuboids, so here's one that isn't. Here's one that, like its games library, is trying to exude personality.

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Look, I'm sure that the Xbox Series X will be fertile ground for some great games. The Xbox One was a killer console, the original Xbox was at least fine, and once they got past the horrendous technical muddles of the Xbox 360, it was also huge fun. And I have a lot of faith in the people who make games on all major platforms to keep bringing us experiences crafted with love and talent. But in a world where even mid to low-end PCs are exerting pressure on consoles, I'm straining to see any reason to buy the Xbox Series X around launch. That is, any reason apart from "Halo will be on it". And even that game appears so opaque at the moment.

The Series X is coming out this holiday season, but it's June now, and we have only the foggiest idea of what it looks like in action. During the machine's gameplay reveal, the Head of Xbox Partnerships told us there are hundreds of games coming to the system in 2021, but they're conspicuous by their absence. And many of the titles Microsoft are gesturing to, its suggesting are relatively predictable action blockbusters. Sony showed another way it can be done, with more transparency, more range, and more inventiveness in its games. Even if you want your AAA experiences to be nothing more than fun, we should be able to see those games having fun with themselves. That's what you got from the PS5 reveal, as well as an arsenal of more artistically ambitious projects. But the race isn't over yet. Microsoft will be back with another Series X preview in July, and let's hope they'll bring the big guns. They're going to need them. Thanks for reading.

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