E3 2014: California Dreaming
As the AAA console industry beats its chest, we discusses our expectations for the big companies at the show
Believe it or not, next week at the Los Angeles Convention Center the E3 Expo will be celebrating its 20th anniversary. The industry has come a long way in those 20 years, but there's one constant: E3 remains a venue for huge announcements from the top companies in the business. The show and the conferences that are held in the beginning of the week before the expo floor opens are a chance for companies to put their best foot forward and declare, "This is what we have to offer and this is why you're going to want to buy our products this holiday season and beyond."
The fun all starts on Monday at 9:30 AM Pacific Time, when Microsoft kicks off the festivities with its Xbox media briefing. That's followed by EA at 12:00 PM, Ubisoft at 3:00 PM, Sony at 6:00 PM and Nintendo's direct video feature on Tuesday at 9:00 AM. GamesIndustry International plans to bring you the live streams and we'll be covering the show with news and interviews as we always do, of course.
While last year's E3 represented a critical showdown between Microsoft and Sony as they battled for position with their respective console launches, this year's E3 has a different feel. Now it's about who can maintain, gain or regain momentum, and for the most part, unlike last year the focus will be on software, not hardware. Here are some of the critical issues to look for from the big companies.
While both Sony and Microsoft have gotten off to great starts with PS4 and Xbox One, respectively, it's clear that Sony has the upper hand. Microsoft has already taken an important step in unbundling the Kinect camera, but now the company needs to have a killer show for Xbox to start closing that gap with PlayStation. Yes, we know more Halo is coming, as is Fable, but Microsoft Studios needs to step up its game since third-party exclusives are really becoming a rarity these days. On the other side, you can expect a fair bit of gloating from Sony. Following the early stumbles of the PS3, it feels like Sony's done everything right with the PS4, and now the company must get a better flow of amazing content coming to the platform. I'm fully expecting a ton of software announcements from Sony's talented studio system, but what has me most excited is the company's new technologies: PlayStation Now and Morpheus. Both of these are potential game changers for the entire PlayStation business, and I'd like Sony to devote a good chunk of time to making these feel like viable opportunities in the very near future.
"Oculus really ought to leverage the grand stage that is E3 to answer most if not all of these pressing questions"
Nintendo, meanwhile... well, the company has at least gotten a lifeline of sorts with the outstanding launch of Mario Kart 8. If Nintendo wants to keep up the momentum, the company has to introduce more software of that caliber, and quickly. I'll go ahead and speak for all Nintendo fanboys here: let's see the brand-new Wii U Zelda we all knows is in the works, and don't tell us it's coming in 2015. The new Zelda needs to launch this holiday. And how about some brand-new IP for a change too? I realize it's a catch-22 for Nintendo. Fans want to see the characters they all love, but Nintendo has some of the best designers in the world. Make something new and make us all care, please.
As much as I love the traditional console battle, what I'm really eager to see is how far VR gets pushed during E3. I already mentioned Morpheus, but now that Oculus is owned by Facebook, there's a real opportunity (and need) for the company to take off the gloves and start punching. Where are the VR experiences to knock our socks off? What will the Rift launch lineup look like, when will it happen and how much will it cost? Oculus really ought to leverage the grand stage that is E3 to answer most if not all of these pressing questions. After drooling over the VR experience I had in person at GDC, I'm more eager to see VR take off than ever before.
What I'd dearly love to see emerge from E3 is a celebration of the niche, the experimental, the slightly broken. A move away from the over-polished and anodyne blockbusters which, in the parlance of the elders of my homeland, try to please all the buggers all the time and end up pleasing none.
Big spectacle means big budget. Big budget necessitates big audiences. Big audiences means broad tastes. I know this, but I've played enough games that I only sort of like to last me a lifetime, seen enough good ideas which have had the life focused-grouped out of them, enough brilliant, rough-edged concepts which have been whittled down to ghosts of themselves. I don't want to spend another 30 hours being moderately entertained by a presentation both slick and uninteresting enough to stand for local government. I want soul and passion and stupid ideas taken too far. Halve the resolution or slash the framerate if you have to, remove all that shiny cloud functionality and tacked-on social interaction. I don't want a little bit of everything, I want a lot of what I like.
Entitled much? Perhaps. I understand the basic fiscal realities of making a AAA title and I know that there aren't any developers out there with a picture of my face on the wall as their ideal customer, but I'd trade a dozen Watch-Dogs for a single S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
"I'm old, grumpy and selfish enough to know that I don't have the time to spend on something that doesn't push my buttons any more"
Luckily, that's what I'm going to get.
Not S.T.A.L.K.E.R. specifically, more's the pity (although anyone who's a fan should really download the recently released, free and excellent S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Lost Alpha) but there are a cavalcade of games due to be on show in LA which are, as Paradox's Frederik Wester once put it, 'carving a niche with a very big axe.' I'm sure there'll be queues around the block for all the usual suspects, and more power to them, but I'm far more excited by brilliantly ambitious projects like No Man's Sky, A Night in the Woods and Everybody's Gone to the Rapture. These are the games I think will feel more like experiences than products, passions not pastimes. I don't resent the blockbusters, their audiences or their popularity; and I especially don't resent the people who make them. They're all essential to the continuation of our industry, but I'm old, grumpy and selfish enough to know that I don't have the time to spend on something that doesn't push my buttons any more. Vive la difference.
Had I been asked this question a few months ago, I suspect my answer would have been different. I've owned a PlayStation 4 ever since it has been possible to do so, and as I've sunk hours into FIFA 14, a host of familiar franchises and games I played on PC more than a year ago, I've reminded myself that, in the first year, new console hardware is all about promise and potential. Things will surely improve.
"We tend to talk about the late-generation decline in console hardware and software sales as if the upswing is inevitable, but nothing could be further from the truth"
Two recent events have drained my confidence. The first was the release of gameplay footage from The Order: 1886, which showed Ready At Dawn's distinctive Victorian London setting used as a backdrop for a highly improbable Gears of War-esque gunfight. The second was the launch of Ubisoft's Watch Dogs, a game that most agree is a shadow of the bracing, unique demo that rocked E3 two years ago, but nevertheless sold 4 million copies in something like three seconds. We have been shown the future of consoles, and it looks distressingly like five years ago.
At this E3, I would like to see some - any - indication that the publishers who hang their business plans on making content for consoles see this is a problem. Not because I, personally, have been more exhilarated by a few hours with Rust or DayZ than in eight whole months with next generation console hardware, but because I suspect that it genuinely is a very serious problem indeed. I won't try to tell you that the console is dead, or that free-to-play tablet games are the future, but I feel just about certain that the console companies aren't doing enough to justify their expectations from an increasingly fragmented games market. Savvy marketing may earn a few hollow victories, but sooner or later people tend to wise up. This time round, I'm not convinced that Halo 5 and Uncharted 4 will be enough.
We tend to talk about the late-generation decline in console hardware and software sales as if the upswing is inevitable, but nothing could be further from the truth. The Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 - hell, even the Wii U - have found ways to make more content than ever available to console gamers, but everyone who's likely to spend £400 on hardware on quantity alone has probably already done so. The real question now is what all of those games are going to be. E3 had better throw up some very convincing answers.
What I'd really love this year, almost as much as that Viva Pinata sequel I've been whining about since 2009, is an outrage free E3. I'd like marketing managers and developers, journalists and handsomely paid C-list celebrities to think carefully about the content they're going to present and how they're going to present it.
"E3 is the chance to show that to the outside world, to show that we've grown up and we're not just children with toys and a fixation on mammaries and guns."
The industry has made some huge strides when it comes to awareness and inclusivity, thanks to the great work of people in it like Manveer Heir and the brave participants in #1ReasonWhy. E3 is the chance to show that to the outside world, to show that we've grown up and we're not just children with toys and a fixation on mammaries and guns. Parties don't have to come with a free scantily clad dancer, booths can be manned by knowledgable, capable people - male or female! And those big press conferences? They can go just as well without any inappropriate jokes. You're presenting to a diverse audience, not writing an episode of Family Guy.
So let me write about the games this year, and the great people making them.
To Matt and Dan's points, I think a big piece of the innovation puzzle is going to come from the indie sector. AAA blockbusters will continue hewing to the Ubisoft template for a while yet, and it will be the supplementary catalog that ensures the new consoles remain relevant. Sony's indie pipeline is as robust as ever going forward, and the last year has shown that Microsoft is desperate/determined enough to make whatever changes are necessary to compete. As these smaller games succeed and prove out new ideas and gameplay, the AAA market will co-opt them and sell them to the masses as daring innovation. (I fully expect to see something billed as a AAA roguelike next week.)
"PlayStation Now could be a towering technological achievement, but Sony has an awfully long way to go to make it a viable product for customers"
As for the rest of the show, I'll be paying close attention to the tech talk. Not so much about VR, but about last year's highly touted darlings, Xbox cloud computing and PlayStation game streaming. Microsoft made a big deal about the power of the cloud, but the Xbox One has failed to present any such benefits that might give it a competitive edge. And if all that cloud talk really was just hot air and empty buzz along the lines of the Sega Genesis "blast processing" campaign, that would be an embarrassing misstep for the system's marketing. Maybe the third or fourth most embarrassing misstep from Microsoft's E3 briefing last year, but still...
On the other hand, PlayStation Now could be a towering technological achievement, but Sony has an awfully long way to go to make it a viable product for customers. If the whole project is just laying technical track for the PlayStation 5, that's all well and good. After all, Microsoft in many ways did the same thing with Xbox Live on the original Xbox. But even so, we need to see more benefits of streaming than having a virtual PS3 that allows us to play games nearly as well as we could before we tossed our actual PS3s in the closet to make room for the PS4 a few months ago. Given the comical effectiveness of the PS4's play-while-you-download functionality for AAA games (I downloaded Watch Dogs, played 10 minutes, and then had to wait several hours for the download to finish), I'm increasingly skeptical that lag-free streaming is a technical hurdle we're ready to clear.