E3 2014 Roundtable: Playing It Safe
The big companies focused on big games and much of it was exactly what we'd expect - the GamesIndustry staff discusses the conferences
As dawn breaks on the second day of E3, it's quite clear that Sony will not enjoy another resounding victory over its nearest rival. Last year, Sony needed only to reiterate a handful of consumer-friendly policies, stand back and watch Microsoft trip over its own shoelaces. The conversation about who 'won' E3 is really only useful as an amusing distraction, but the gap between the victor and the loser has never been so obvious or so rapturously received as it was in 2013.
This year, in every conference, the focus was almost exclusively on the games, a fact for which any console owner will be grateful. As we approach the final quarter of this generation's first year, truly essential experiences that demonstrate the industry's current mastery of the hardware are difficult to find. E3 2014 has offered our first glimpse of the second wave of new generation games, free from the rigours and compromises that go hand-in-hand with hitting a launch window.
Sony is ahead in sales and, for now, public goodwill, but early leads can diminish and disappear with frightening speed in this business. Did Microsoft find the right balance between its corporate agenda and its consumers' needs? Is Sony actively building on the advantages it was afforded by Microsoft's mistakes? Did Nintendo's decision to shirk press conferences for a second straight year pay off? Does any of this even matter? The GamesIndustry International crew shares its thoughts...
This year, the platform holders let the games do the talking, and my one big lesson from E3 so far is that, on a product-by-product basis, the games have very little say about the direction the race for console supremacy might take.
"Credit where credit's due: Microsoft listened to its detractors after 2013's many messaging calamities and spoke about nothing but games, yet in doing so it once again left the door open for its rival"
Both Sony and Microsoft showed a litany of products on their respective stages, but in a world where third-party platform exclusivity seems an almost quaint idea, it's difficult to know what to make of the presence of, say, Grand Theft Auto V in Sony's conference, or Assassin's Creed: Unity in Microsoft's. If we're to take the E3 conferences at all seriously as a barometer of success, multiplatform titles should probably be excluded from the conversation. And when it comes to the real exclusives, it's largely a matter of taste: Are you a Platinum Games person, or do you prefer From Software? A third Crackdown or a fourth Uncharted? Project Spark or Little Big Planet? Sunset Overdrive or Suda51?
That's an offhand way of saying that I don't believe Sony or Microsoft showed a single game capable of selling an entire system, and that kinda gave Sony the edge. Credit where credit's due: Microsoft listened to its detractors after 2013's many messaging calamities and spoke about nothing but games, yet in doing so it once again left the door open for its rival. Sony took full advantage of its ass-numbing extra 45 minutes to remind the crowd that it has more to offer than just games, be they works in progress (Project Morpheus), pleasing diversions (PlayStation TV) or genuinely exciting new concepts (PlayStation Now). I have no doubt that Microsoft could have filled an extra 45 minutes, too, but it wanted to display the sort of focus and gratitude many thought it lacked last year.
It's what the fans wanted, after all, and that's too bad. Because I suspect what E3 2014 has truly revealed is that, in the modern console wars, games alone are no longer enough.
Having sat in both Microsoft and Sony's conferences yesterday, I felt there was a palpable difference in the atmospheres, not so much in the reaction of the crowds, but in the tone of the speeches.
Microsoft were, in their newfound humility, extremely keen to reiterate their commitment to games and the gamer. No TV, no tertiary services, no 'celebrity' guest appearances. Instead they packed the show with wall to wall games, both returning successes and a few new surprises. Sony, comfortable in its ascendancy, felt it had the luxury of spending time on some of its non-game offerings, like the Powers TV show and the PlayStation TV device. Nonetheless, they still managed to pack in a wealth of titles, both AAA and indie, as well.
"Sony were very keen to make just as much fuss over smaller, quirkier titles as the huge blockbusters. Every well-run business wants to make as much money as possible, but in the entertainment industry, you need to temper that desire with a little passion, too"
It's not the confidence difference which I felt was the distinguishing point, however. What summed up the delineation between the approaches of the two companies for me was one throwaway quote from Shawn Layden, referring to Vib Ribbon:
"Vib Ribbon really embodies the PlayStation spirit. It might not have been a million seller, but that's not the point."
That short sentence was the standout quote from the entire 90-minute show. Both Sony and Microsoft had their fair share of exclusives, and a wealth of third-party content. Microsoft wants big games which sell huge amounts, Sony has more room for experiments and potential failures. Although it was interesting to see which platform's conference the big-hitters chose to appear at, particularly Rockstar with GTA V, it seems likely that we'll see almost everything not made by a first-party studio appear on both consoles at one point or another. But Sony were very keen to make just as much fuss over smaller, quirkier titles as the huge blockbusters. Every well-run business wants to make as much money as possible, but in the entertainment industry, you need to temper that desire with a little passion, too.
Yes, Microsoft had Inside and Ori and The Blind Forest, but Sony slotted in their first small game, Entwined, right after the big hitters of Destiny and The Order, giving a young team with a quintessentially Sony idea a huge wedge of exposure. No Man's Sky, which was the game that left me most excited, also took the spotlight for a considerable period, despite being unashamedly niche. Publishing deals with Devolver and Paradox, which thrive by hitting narrow audiences absolutely head on, were a masterstroke. These decisions are about making relatively small groups of people extremely happy indeed, rather than trying to draw in a wider audience.
Of course, they have more than enough AAA IP to do that as well, but the focus leant Sony's show a charisma, a feeling that you were discussing something interesting with a friend with a mutual interest, rather than being sold something by an executive. Microsoft has always had a problem with shaking off its corporate image, whilst Sony has an edge to it, a relaxed cool. It's an ineffable quality, one that can't really be bought, but it has me completely on board. Microsoft made inroads this year, most notably with Sunset Overdrive, but that feels like it's trying very hard indeed to catch up, which is pretty counter productive. My takeaway impression was one of business vs. passion.
Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that Microsoft's conference began early on a grey day, with a long queue in a sports hall, whilst Sony had attendees gather in a sunny parking lot with food trucks and a free bar, but then perhaps that in itself is a reflection of the ethos of each group. Either way, the games on display were phenomenal, with titles to watch across the spectrum of AAA to indie. I'd hoped for a date for Morpheus, but I can wait. There's plenty to do in the meantime.
Both Sony and Microsoft put on a good show at E3, though on a technical level Sony's was more impressive with its gigantic screen and slick production. All the beautiful graphics on display didn't quite distract from the same central issue both companies have: Neither has a brand-new exclusive title for this holiday that could, by itself, be relied on to sell millions of consoles. Sure, Microsoft's Halo Master Chief Collection sounds like a great value that may persuade Halo fans to jump into the Xbox One (access to the Halo 5 multiplayer beta is a big boost), but that may not by itself sell millions of $400 consoles. Sony's got some exclusive Destiny content, but you'll still be able to get Destiny on Xbox One. Little Big Planet 3 may be cool (inept demo notwithstanding), but that's not going to sell PS4s by itself. Most of the big titles are shared by both consoles, with perhaps a slight difference in DLC or an advanced beta time frame. If you want to play the top games on next-gen consoles, either console will do.
"Nintendo's return to 'Nintendo-like profits' will likely have to wait until new hardware of some kind appears"
Many of the most anticipated exclusive titles for both consoles have moved into 2015 (or were already there), so both Sony and Microsoft strove to present an array of other reasons why you'd want to have a new console this holiday. On the whole, they've succeeded in generating more excitement, enough to get more console fans to drop $400 in time for the holidays. Will the non-hardcore start buying these expensive devices? That seems less likely, particularly with devices like a $99 PS TV as a choice. That (and Amazon's FireTV, and perhaps an Apple TV with games or the rumored Android TV) will be the first place the casual buyer looks this holiday. Neither Sony nor Microsoft mentioned Xbox 360 or PS3 except in passing, and there's no sign of a major price cut or any significant effort to sell those consoles.
Nintendo's Digital Event showed a number of titles, with Super Smash Bros. taking the lead for this year. A number of titles were teased for 2015, with a new Zelda being shown. There's some good-looking software on tap for the Wii U, but nothing that seems like it will substantially change the console's sales dynamic. Nintendo's return to 'Nintendo-like profits' will likely have to wait until new hardware of some kind appears.
There was one takeaway from E3 2013, and that was to give the people what they want. Sony did it last year, and the PS4 received a momentum boost that built hype where a pretty uninspiring launch lineup could not. Microsoft, on the other hand, still drunk on its own Kool-Aid after winning the Xbox 360 generation, announced the Xbox One with a number of unpopular policies, all of which--as of this week's release of a $399 Xbox One without Kinect--have since been reversed.
If Microsoft's E3 2014 event was anything to go by, the company has learned its lesson. After spending the last year prostrating itself before gamers for ignoring their wishes last time around, Microsoft risked overcompensating at this year's media briefing. Microsoft's show was all games. No hardware, no "power of the cloud," no stats, no cross-media entertainment platform. And with the exception of a possible pity segment given to Harmonix to talk about its Kinect-powered games (Fantasia: Music Evolved and Dance Central Spotlight, which isn't even getting a retail release), all of the games were aimed at the core audience. There was nothing especially casual, nothing for an audience broader than the Call of Duty crowd. Despite being a fairly novel approach to an E3 conference, it was an awfully conservative approach to appeasing a vocal audience of gamers.
"I didn't see anything to turn the Wii U's fate around, the 3DS pipeline looks to be drying up a little, and most worrisome of all, there wasn't a peep about Nintendo's new Quality of Life initiative"
For its part, Sony was also fairly conservative. Coming from a position of strength, it relied on largely the same approach that helped build momentum at the PS4 unveiling as well as E3 2013. Sony offered a diverse assortment of games, from up-and-coming indies to blockbuster murderfests. They even spoke fearlessly about some of the things Microsoft kept quiet about, including transmedia efforts (the Powers TV series, the Ratchet and Clank movie), subscription services (PlayStation Plus), technology (PlayStation Now streaming), and hardware with no proven audience (Project Morpheus, PlayStation TV, and if we're being tragically honest or exceptionally snarky, PlayStation Vita). It wasn't as effective a show as last year's, mostly because its competition was more competent.
That applies to Nintendo, as well. I still think ditching the live press conference format in favor of a pre-recorded Nintendo Direct is a mistake, especially for a company who can pack the audience with a notoriously enthusiastic fanbase able to make even a bland showing seem electric in the venue. That said, Nintendo did the best job of actually showing off its games. Having the developers of games like Yoshi's Wooly World and Splatoon show the games off at some length and explain what makes them different was a nice change of pace from Microsoft and Sony, where most games spent their fleeting time in the spotlight with pre-rendered CG clips or smoke-and-mirrors gameplay trailers.
The big problem for Nintendo is that simply being better than last year isn't enough. I didn't see anything to turn the Wii U's fate around, the 3DS pipeline looks to be drying up a little, and most worrisome of all, there wasn't a peep about Nintendo's new Quality of Life initiative. The Wii U and 3DS are not Nintendo's future. The company is dependent on the next big thing after those systems. It was supposed to reveal more about what that would be this week (and it still may; there are more livestreaming events scheduled), but its absence from Nintendo's key E3 event suggests it isn't even ready to be shown off, much less launched in any reasonable time frame.
Having just watched Nintendo's video, I'll start there. To Brendan's point, better really isn't enough. Yes, I'm thrilled to see that the new Zelda looks great, and Nintendo actually has an interesting looking new IP in Splatoon. I also think the amiibo NFC toys line is going to be a great boost to Nintendo's business. But following the wondrous release of Mario Kart 8, Nintendo really needed to keep my attention this year, and other than Smash Bros. it's just not happening. All of the great content is being held for 2015, and if I had to guess, we won't see that new Zelda until Holiday 2015. That's a real shame, because if Nintendo had been able to work faster in getting this content to market, perhaps Wii U would see some new life.
"I'm certainly not the first person to point out how violent the games are at E3, but this Michael Bay-ification of the industry is depressing"
As for the Sony-Microsoft battle, I largely agree with my colleagues. Sony maintained its edge, helped by more indie support and interesting technologies in Morpheus and PS Now, but to Microsoft's credit, Xbox One is showing that it has plenty to please the core gaming crowd. I wish we had gotten more details on Project Morpheus during Sony's briefing. The fact that it wasn't a priority seems to indicate to me that it's not coming this year. And maybe Oculus won't be ready either - it could be that developers still need more time to truly prepare VR for primetime.
I think the larger takeaway for me, whether it's Sony, Microsoft, EA or Ubisoft that we're looking at, is that I'm no longer the prime demographic for AAA game publishers, and that's because AAA sadly persists in its "murderfest" as Brendan called it. I'm certainly not the first person to point out how violent the games are at E3, but this Michael Bay-ification of the industry is depressing. That's not to say I can't or won't enjoy some of these violent games, but the endless barrage of shooters and explosions makes every game start to look and feel the same. That's why, I believe, the indie movement fascinates so many of us. Games like No Man's Sky, Ori and the Blind Forest, Inside, Entwined, Abzu and more are a very welcome breath of fresh air. Perhaps I'm just jaded, or perhaps AAA game makers should start recognizing the fact that they have an audience older than 15, and that we're actually interested in mature and unique concepts that don't resort to evisceration, decapitation and giblets.