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E3 2017: Conservatism and mid-generation lulls

With Sony and Microsoft seemingly on cruise control, Ubisoft and Nintendo could steal the show simply by rejecting conservatism

When individual publishers started running E3 conferences of similar stature to those of the long-standing platform conferences, it felt a little pompous. Platform holders had conferences; the role of the third-party publisher was to divvy out their finest wares between those conferences, giving us all some notion of how the fates of the various consoles were currently being perceived in the minds of publishing execs. For a third-party publisher to strike out on its own and insist on dragging the media and a fair chunk of the industry on yet another slog across Los Angeles' barely habitable miseryscape just seemed, well, a bit up itself.

Thank the gaming gods it happened, though. Sure, some publisher conferences over the years have been execrable enough to make you cringe yourself inside out, and others are simply pointless in the extreme; does anyone know what Bethesda thought they were playing at this year? Anyone at all? On the other hand, though, the publishers who have wrapped their heads around how to do these events now put the platform holders to shame. E3 this year would have been a far poorer and less interesting event without Ubisoft's fantastic showing, which jumped nimbly from genre to genre, from old to new and from serious to whimsical - just as a really good, diverse publisher line-up should.

"Sony and Microsoft didn't really seem willing to bring the surprise and wonder that really gets people talking after E3"

Indeed, the contrast between what Ubisoft showed and what was on display in the two big platform holder conferences (Nintendo once more relegated itself to a short, albeit well-received, trailer showcase) is what's really been playing on my mind this week. Lots of column inches have been filled in weighing up the pros and cons of what Microsoft and Sony had on display, and many commentators have decided - quite correctly, in my view - that this was a bit of a filler E3 for both of those companies. Yet it clearly wasn't a filler E3 for Ubisoft; you could argue that even Nintendo's abbreviated showing had far less of a "filler" sense than either Sony or Microsoft.

It's not that either Sony or Microsoft were actively bad; they were both pretty good, earning more than a passing grade. Rather, I think what this comes down to is that both companies were hugely conservative. They did pretty much exactly what you'd expect in a relatively risk-averse, safe-pair-of-hands sort of way. The only bright spot in that regard, I'd argue, was Sony stepping up to the plate in terms of PSVR games. Not everyone is thrilled with what they showed, but I'd honestly been fifty-fifty on whether PSVR was going to be relegated to a dusty and unloved corner of their stand on the show floor, so I think they did a pretty solid job in terms of showcasing big upcoming titles for it at the conference. With its small installed base (by console standards - it's huge by VR standards) and with consumer reaction to VR still hard to measure, throwing the company's weight behind PSVR is a risk, and it's one that it's good to see Sony continuing to engage with.

"Microsoft's conservatism is arguably more puzzling than Sony's, since it doesn't have a particularly impressive set of laurels upon which to rest"

The problem was, well, everything else. Where the likes of the Ubisoft and Nintendo conferences had a solid set of reveals you didn't expect and trailers for games that made you grin for unexpected reasons, Sony and Microsoft didn't really seem willing to bring the surprise and wonder that really gets people talking after E3. Both firms feel like they're in a mid-generation lull; executing very well on the things they've been doing thus far, but not really doing anything particularly new.

A lot of the software we saw from both sides was either new footage of things we've seen before, fairly well-trodden sequels or remakes, and an enormous amount of it won't be launching until 2018. If you already own one of those consoles, you're probably happy enough with what was shown; this is why you bought your system, and there's plenty more of the same - and it's all good stuff, no doubt - coming down the pike. If, on the other hand, you've been on the fence about a PS4 or an Xbox One up until now, I'm not sure what E3 had to offer that might change your mind.

That's problematic for both companies, albeit for slightly different reasons. In Sony's case, you can see how a little laurel-resting might come about. They're way out in front in this generation, not only hammering the competition in installed base terms but still actively building on that lead on a week-to-week basis. PS4 is a massive hit; the company is putting a fair amount of creative energy into PSVR and has had a solid run of good exclusive software. Sony on its "mid-generation lull" setting is still an impressive beast, and in many years Insomniac's superb-looking Spider-Man game would have stolen the show entirely; indeed, had it been a genuinely new reveal it might have done so here, too.

"Ubisoft came out on top of E3 this year through a willingness to surprise, with Nintendo following on its heels"

The problem, though, is that Sony's firmly into the back half of its potential PS4 sales. It's now angling for consumers who have held off on this generation of consoles for years, suggesting that they're simply not that into the usual console game offerings; they're the audience who came on board the PS1, PS2 and Wii - the only home consoles ever to break the 100 million mark - because those platforms succeeded in offering a wide range of different and interesting experiences, not because of sequels to existing franchises or good-looking updates of well-worn genres.

In that context, it was a little disappointing that Sony couldn't find time to put games from some of its indie partners in front of the E3 audience; the company is continuing to work with indies in a relatively proactive way, especially in VR, but its support seems a little more muted than previously and they certainly weren't front and centre in its messaging this week.

That said, it wasn't just indie titles that Sony couldn't find time for in its presentation; arguably one of the most interesting and promising things the firm revealed at E3 was its Playlink project, which links smartphones to the PS4 for social multiplayer games, but it didn't find its way into the conference. Perhaps Sony has determined that only "core" titles do well in the conference setting; if so, that's a shame, since it left the PS4's line-up looking far more narrowly focused than it ought to have been.

Microsoft, in contrast, did a far better job of promoting indie titles for Xbox, and they provided some of the highlights of a show that was, otherwise, really very conservative. Microsoft's conservatism is arguably more puzzling than Sony's, since it doesn't have a particularly impressive set of laurels upon which to rest. After all the hype over Scorpio in the past year, the deeply risk-averse nature of Xbox One X's positioning - essentially following the PS4 Pro playbook to the letter, albeit a year later and $100 more expensive - felt like something of a damp squib.

The big question coming into Microsoft's event was, "What will Scorpio do to convince people who didn't buy an Xbox One to come on board?" The answer, disappointingly, is not a whole lot. With Microsoft's first-party and exclusive titles still looking a bit sparse, it's not really clear what's going to move the needle for Xbox this year. It's executing very competently but not doing anything dramatically different or exciting; faced with Sony also executing competently but unexcitingly, it seems unlikely that the gap between the two firms will change significantly.

And so, for excitement or inspiration, everyone's eyes turn to Ubisoft and to Nintendo, who look set to capitalise on the lull being experienced by other industry players. Nintendo, of course, can't afford a mid-generation lull, having recently rebooted itself and started a generation afresh - which explains why it could casually drop trailers for, or mentions of, major updates to a wide swathe of its best-loved franchises, all of them overflowing with new ideas. In a year when Sony and Microsoft were really set to steal all the thunder, I'd still be worried about how Switch will fare over the winter; after seeing the relative fare on offer, I think Nintendo is in for a solid holiday season, especially if it or its third-party partners can drop a few more welcome surprises like Mario + Rabbids into the release schedule.

If there's a take-away from E3 that can be applied to future years, it should be a lesson about mid-generation lulls. They're not inevitable and could be avoided with better planning and scheduling, though most crucially of all, they require a willingness within platform holders to continue to push to engage new audiences. Ubisoft came out on top of E3 this year through a willingness to surprise, with Nintendo following on its heels. By the time next June rolls around, hopefully both Microsoft and Sony will have a line-up that aims to surprise, rather than to prove ongoing competence.

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