May's Inside Xbox episode might have been our first real look at next-gen gaming, but it has undoubtedly split opinion. Some were excited to see next-gen games in action for the first time, while others argued we didn't get a whole lot of gameplay. The sentiment online has been so mixed that Aaron Greenberg, the Xbox general manager of Xbox Games Marketing, tweeted that the publisher had "set some wrong expectations (opens in new tab)" in the run up to the show.
Sony ran into a similar problem earlier this year, when they announced their Road to PS5 (opens in new tab) event. A surprise announcement quickly followed by a tempering of expectations that it would be the GDC talk Mark Cerny planned to give at the cancelled show. While this talk gave us an idea of what to expect from the upcoming console – its SSD drive should help make level loading a thing of the past for instance – it also split opinion due to its tech heavy focus (it was a talk intended for game developers after all) and its distinct lack of games.
While both companies have taken different approaches to promoting their next-gen consoles, Microsoft and Sony are going to struggle to meet expectations, regardless of what they decide to say or show, until we get a proper look at the first party games lined up for Xbox Series X (opens in new tab) and PS5 (opens in new tab).
First to the party?
Why are first party games so important? At console launches, they dominate the marketing, even if they're not the games we play the most. For instance, did you play more of Assassin's Creed: Black Flag or Killzone: Shadow Fall when you got your hands on a PS4? Did Kameo: Elements of Power or Call of Duty 2 live in your disc tray when the Xbox 360 came out? The reason for this is that launch titles, especially first party ones, tend to be known for their ambition outstripping the execution.
But the reason we care so much about them is that they give us that tantalising glimpse of the future. Platform holders know that these are the games that will show off everything that the new consoles can do, so when we get our first look at them in action, it contextualises everything we hear about a new system. Talk of SSDs, teraflops, and other hardware terms people only care about in the run-up to a new console are all well and good, but until we see how it benefits the games we play, it's hard to get too excited.
And that's why those first party games are so important not only at launch, but in the run-up to it. They're a statement of intent, a window into the possibilities of what your fancy new console can do. Did every PS4 game use the DualShock 4's in-built speaker and trackpad like Killzone: Shadow Fall did at launch? No, of course not. But understanding how these new features could work in a game allows us to start contextualising all the tech talk.
While we can expect some third-party titles to take advantage of the new console features at launch, it's the first-party studios that can offer us the greatest glimpse of them in action. That's because, traditionally at least, these studios will have had greater access to resources, dev units and support, not to mention the ability to focus on what one console can do, rather than having to think about developing for different platforms.
This is why the online mood is getting fervent when it comes to the PS5 and Xbox Series X. Now to be fair to Microsoft, it has at least been clear about when it'll debut first party games. At the start of the Inside Xbox show and in their announcement of the Xbox 20/20 series of events, it confirmed we'll be seeing first party games such as Halo Infinite in July (opens in new tab). While that doesn't necessarily make up for the mix of CGI trailers and actually gameplay last week, fans at least know when they can expect to see it.
Sony, on the other hand, has been much quieter, with the internet rumour machine's latest guess of a PS5 reveal event being June 4. And, to be fair, neither Sony nor Microsoft would have imagined that their build-up to the new consoles would land in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. The effect this would have had on their plans is obvious and understandable.
Yet it has created a vacuum for both companies that neither have filled yet. The next generation so far is a vague release window, the Xbox Series X and controller, and the DualSense. Outside of that, we have a handful of games (that will be cross-gen for the most part) and a sense of mystery that is becoming more frustrating for fans every time an event passes by without a stronger look at what these consoles have to offer. It doesn't necessarily mean that Sony and Microsoft have been wrong to approach it in this way, we won't know about that until they actually launch after all. But the longer we wait to see first party games, the harder it will be to meet those expectations.