With E3 kicking off in a mere handful of days and promising to be one of the most interesting and adversarial events in years, it's fascinating to look back at the landscape of the industry a mere 12 months ago and think about how far we've come. A year ago, we were just getting used to the idea that Nintendo might have pulled victory from the jaws of defeat for the 3DS, while the creeping realisation that PS Vita was Sony's least successful console launch ever was causing people to shift nervously in their seats around the industry. Both PS3 and Xbox 360 were going strong, yet their successors remained mysterious - with the view that the console business model was doomed finding plenty of traction among industry watchers expecting more of the same from both Sony and Microsoft. The exciting things to watch were Steam, which would surely - surely! - have a hardware platform to call its own within the next year, and Ouya, which heralded the unstoppable rise of the low-cost gaming hardware that would come to rule the world. Oh, and Apple TV too. Everyone was pretty damn excited about Apple TV.
Today, the 3DS is firmly established as a successful platform and the Vita is holding on by its fingernails in the hope that its ability to interact with the PS4 will be its saving grace; yet Nintendo and Sony's gaming fortunes are more complex than that, with the Wii U being something of a commercial tragedy so far (in Nintendo's defence, it has a habit of staging tragic first acts before turning the tables on us all) while the as-yet-unreleased PS4 is the unquestioned darling of the fanboys. Microsoft, somewhat unexpectedly for a company that's been much loved by gamers in recent years, has fumbled badly with an Xbox One reveal that might as well have consisted of Don Mattrick carrying a set of medieval stocks onto the stage, locking himself into them and then having his assistants hand out baskets of rotten fruit to everyone on the Internet.
"In Nintendo's defence, it has a habit of staging tragic first acts before turning the tables on us all"
Meanwhile, not only does the SteamBox still stubbornly fail to exist, but just this week we watched the slightly mind-blowing spectacle of indie development studio Code Avarice blasting Valve for making it impossible to get their game onto Steam and suggesting that they'll put it on PlayStation instead - yes, that's right, we've reached the point where developers are saying "distributing on PC is too restricted, we're going to try a console instead". Ouya exists, for real, but nobody really seems to care quite as much as we expected - we're all too busy getting excited about the other Kickstarter hardware effort, Oculus Rift, which is technology so insanely brilliant that I cannot be alone in fearing that it's just too beautiful a future to ever actually come to pass. Oh, and we're not excited about Apple TV any more. It's all about the iWatch now. Make sure you keep up, it's pretty uncool to get caught still drooling over last month's piece of completely baseless Apple speculation when the whole world has moved on to speculating about something else that probably doesn't exist.
As the backdrop to an E3 that will finally properly introduce the next-gen consoles (Sony's going to show us a plastic box, while we're all hoping that Microsoft might show us some "videogames", which we hear are popular with kids now), this is all simultaneously tremendously exciting and tremendously confusing. Previous hardware transitions have, of course, made E3 very exciting indeed - but in each case it was pretty clear where things were going. Console manufacturers have switched lanes repeatedly (Sony bypassed Sega and Nintendo, Microsoft drew level, and so on) but they've all still been console manufacturers; PC gaming continued to purr along nicely in the background, turning out in-depth, fascinating games on a regular basis and rapidly adapting its business models and distribution channels as if to thumb its nose at the rhythmic beat of proclamations of the PC's inevitable death. We all knew where things were going, more or less. Perhaps Sony would be bigger than Microsoft, perhaps Nintendo would do better than expected, the PC might ebb or flow in importance - but the central business of making, distributing, selling and ultimately playing games would stay the same.
"Previous hardware transitions have, of course, made E3 very exciting indeed - but in each case it was pretty clear where things were going"
Such certainties are gone - and even the new self-professed certainties which replaced them ("mobile will kill handheld consoles!", "the SteamBox will conquer everything as soon as it gets around to existing!", "the era of dedicated games hardware is over", "the Apple TV is the deathknell of everything you've ever loved, or it will be as soon as it stops being non-existent!") are proving to be little more than hopeful or fearful soothsaying. Companies, creators and consumers are adapting and changing, publishers are placing bets on a host of different futures and the "certain" futures which pundits predict are increasingly looking like merely one facet of a kaleidoscope of possibilities.
At E3 next week, most of the buzz is going to be around PS4 and Xbox One (both of which, for all my ribbing of Microsoft's extremely poorly pitched and considered launch event, will almost certainly come to E3 with a hugely impressive roster of games). However, look further afield and you'll find companies betting heavily not only on a wide array of platforms and distribution channels, but on an extraordinary span of different demographics as well. Videogames are realising more of their potential than ever - addressing a wider audience than ever, being created by a wider range of creative people than ever and being played on a wider array of devices than ever before.
That's almost certainly not going to stop. The sheer range of different creative, technological and business possibilities which has opened up in the past few years is exceedingly unlikely to narrow back down to a single one-size-fits-all business plan for interactive entertainment. If anything, that range of options is still being expanded by the creativity of those who are building the next generation of entertainment and the willingness of companies like Valve, Amazon and Sony to stop outside their own comfort zones and experiment with new models for distribution and revenue.
"It's mistaken to think of the current explosion of possibilities as being a temporary state of affairs"
There will be some ideas which turn out to have a limited shelf life and are ultimately discarded - but the only safe prediction I'd care to make for the next five years is that the sheer range of business models and creative possibilities open to us will expand, rather than contract, during that time. It's mistaken to think of the current explosion of possibilities as being a temporary state of affairs, an interlude state of flux as the industry thrashes around looking for the next stable business model. That's not what's happening here. This is the new reality - a reality where how you create entertainment, who you create it for and how you make money are things you have to work out creatively and intelligently on the fly, rather than being things that are set in stone before you even set out on your journey.
This is relevant to E3, and worth bearing in mind, because in the coming weeks we're going to be subjected to a deluge of commentary seeking to discover the industry's "trend" - to distil the messaging of countless diverse sectors and companies over the course of E3's various events into a single thread of narrative and discover where the industry is going and how its business model is going to look in the months and years to come. This endeavour, I believe, is fundamentally mistaken. We know the old business model isn't in healthy shape right now - but hoping for it to be patched up and sent back to war isn't any kind of intelligent strategy, and nor is waiting around for something new to arise from the ashes. Those aren't ashes anyway; they're fertile soil, and the countless new shoots you see aren't weeds, they're the future.
There is no single "trend" for the future of the games industry, unless "exponentially growing diversity" can be considered a trend. The old model was defined by necessities - a disc in a box, a truck full of boxes travelling to a store built from bricks and concrete, an ad in a magazine printed on paper - which no longer exist. Without those constraints, the possibilities have broadened extraordinarily. Expect E3 to be thrilling, frustrating, confusing and incoherent in equal measure - but don't expect it to hold up a glowing neon sign saying "This Way to the Future". Nothing is that simple any more.