Simple question for you. When was the last time you saw a preview—trailer, first look, a mere glimpse—that genuinely surprised you? (Cloverfield? Maybe. The Force Awakens? Close, but not quite.) We’re talking twists, turns, and honest-to-god storytelling, within a three-minute-long span. And no, cameos and/or superheroes don’t count.
My answer? Earlier this month at the Xbox Games Showcase. It’s arguably Xbox’s biggest day of the year—when they pull out each and every stop to show gamers what to expect for the next year and beyond. In the very first moments of the event’s very first trailer, we saw… Richard Aoyade? In video-game form? The British comedian plays “DAVE, VEGETABLE ENTHUSIAST,” who gives an Office-like interview about his skepticism of heroes, intercut with footage of the game’s actual hero adventuring about. After a while, we learn that DAVE is actually a giant who lives in Jack and the Beanstalk-looking digs, and the little protagonist just interrupted his interview. A clever giant-tiny fight ensues, and you’ll have to watch the trailer itself to see who wins. Turns out, this was the trailer for Fable—a beloved, action-adventure (and incredibly British) franchise, which Playground Games is giving the reboot treatment.
But Fable‘s trailer only marked the first few moments of a show—which was part of Xbox FanFest, a gamer-friendly throwdown dating back to 2015—that had much at stake for the gaming giant. As Parris Lily, a host at Kinda Funny and Gamertag Radio told me beforehand, “Xbox, as far as since the pandemic, they’ve been pretty slow on releases. There’s a lot of games queued up that people are anticipating.” Here, Xbox cleared 45 minutes for a presentation focusing solely on one of those games: Bethesda’s incredibly ambitious space exploration title, Starfield, releasing later this year. (More on that soon.) Not to mention Forza, Xbox’s signature racing title, which debuts its latest chapter this October.
It’s about 7:30 in the morning, on an overcast day in Los Angeles—near LA Live’s Novo Theater, right next to where the Lakers play—and Chris Samples and Deanna Moore, first and second in line, are telling me that they arrived three hours ago. Xbox FanFest, by the way, is an invite-only event, held in-person this year in Los Angeles, Toronto, Melbourne, and Madrid, in addition to streaming certain events virtually. “A lot of people might think it’s just about the game stuff,” Samples says of why, you know, he flew in from Ontario. “It’s not. It’s about the Xbox community. It’s about the friends that we make here and everyone that we take back home with us and just have a lot of fun.”
Moore adds: “[Xbox] gets all of their fans involved with all of their decisions, and it’s really focused on making sure that the fans and the community is really happy.”
Now, this sounds like a crafty bit of PR from a couple of Xbox superfans, but the idea of a single brand inviting its fans to a niche Comic-Con-esque blowout—if you really think about it—is somewhat of an anomaly in our post-pandemic world, where IRL events continue to change and splinter. In 2023, the industry’s biggest showcase, E3, was cancelled for the third straight year, because it “simply did not garner the sustained interest necessary to execute it in a way that would showcase the size, strength, and impact of our industry,” according to an email obtained by IGN.
Now, instead of one massive convention showing everything all at once, you have several smaller-scale events, from Geoff Keighley’s Summer Game Fest, to the few Nintendo Direct virtual presentations the studio delivers throughout the year, to what you see with Xbox FanFest. If you’re a TV and movie buff, imagine this: what if every major studio and streamer sat out Comic-Con? And debuted their own trailers and news, at their own event, in front of their own fans?
“I’ve kind of been seeing this coming the past few years and I think the pandemic accelerated it,” Lily says. “It used to be E3—everyone would be in the LA Convention Center. You got thousands of people there. But it’s a thing of: You’re sharing that message with so many other games and publishers all at once. Why don’t we do our own thing on our own time? We control it. And that’s what you’re seeing. The splintering.”
Kudos to Xbox for going full Substack back in 2015, when the team had the idea to fill a theater with their devotees and plan an event around it. But, yes—the fans are fed (I can confirm there were breakfast burritos) and relatively happy, which is a far cry from any angry-gamer stereotypes you may still hold. “I see them investing and they’re keeping up,” says Thomas Allen, another loyalist I caught up with in line. “They’re listening to what we’re asking for. It was really surprising just to know that they were listening to us. “Everybody gets kind of starstruck when they’re like, ‘Yes, we’re listening.'”
Breakfast burritos aside, this whole rigamarole does come down to the games. Arguably the brand’s greatest boon as of late is Game Pass, a subscription service that offers a massive library of games. Earlier this year, Xbox stated that Game Pass has a whopping 125-million-plus active users. However, since Xbox debuted its latest generation of consoles in Fall 2020, it’s left something to be desired in terms of major, blockbuster exclusives. (Though Hi-Fi Rush, an Xbox and PC-only title, is firmly in Esquire’s Best Games of the Year list, so far.) That could also change pending Microsoft’s massive acquisition of Activison Blizzard—a deal that will be entrenched in legal proceedings with the Federal Trade Commission throughout this week and next. “I think a lot of people have been waiting and waiting and waiting,” says Alan Feely, a creator who follows and curates Xbox news under the alias of Idle Sloth, with a following of nearly 2,000. “And now they’re in a perfect position to show what they’ve been doing for the last three, four years.”
So, what did they show? We already ran down Fable and its Monty Python-esque antics. The showcase also featured the long-awaited Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty, an expansion of the Keanu Reeves-starring game. (Yes, Reeves absolutely announced the news himself, via a delightful pre-recorded video. It’s adorable.) Plus, we saw a trailer for Star Wars: Outlaws, Ubisoft’s open-world adventure in the galaxy far, far away. Forza Motorsport had its moment, looking sleek as always. The long preview of Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II creeped out half the audience. The big, out-of-nowhere surprises? 33 Immortals, which—it’s in the title—supports 33-player co-op play, plus Dungeons of Hinterberg, the animated, ski resort-themed jaunt you never knew you needed.
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Then, of course, it was Starfield time—which, to remind you, held its own 45-minute slot. “I recognize that fans have been wanting a game like Starfield for so long,” says Malik Prince, a communications manager at Xbox. “And so the fact that we have a Starfield direct on top of the Xbox Showcase tells you a lot about how the team is really thinking about it as a huge title.”
Bethesda, the developer behind Starfield, has a history of making the game. In 2011, Bethesda debuted Skyrim, which—at the time—may have been the medieval fantasy game. In Fallout, they’ve pulled off the same feat in the post-apocalypse genre, multiple times. At the beginning of Starfield‘s big moment on Sunday, its director, Todd Howard, said their intent was to make “the space game.”
If Starfield pulls off about half of what was teased this past Sunday, it might go down as the most ambitious video game ever created. You can read Esquire’s full breakdown of the presentation here, but the gist of Starfield is this: near-unlimited space exploration. Howard promised over a thousand worlds to explore, with loads of dogfighting, discovery, space travel, and characters to meet along the way. To understand Starfield‘s true scope, you really should consider catching the full spiel, which is above. It’s certainly shaping up to battle The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom and Diablo IV for game of the year.
After a month that also saw excitement elsewhere in the gamer-verse—including a great look at Insomniac’s Spider-Man 2, and the announcement of Super Mario Bros. Wonder, a new 2D Mario adventure—you should feel pretty damn good about the next year of releases. And the fans certainly seemed pleased, judging by the good vibes at FanFest. If none of that is enough to warm up your cold gamer heart, I suggest you walk into Giant Richard Aoyade’s room and let him teach you a lesson.