Expect confusion to reign at E3 2013

The good old bad old days of a single dominant business model are gone forever. E3's message will be one of incoherence and change

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.

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Latest comments (17)

Gary Bracey Commercial Director, Kuju Entertainment5 years ago
" 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."

Nicely put, Rob.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Gary Bracey on 7th June 2013 12:02pm

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Funny I stated this a few comments back - though did not take so many words!

Fundamentally, can E3 survive the console war, or will the drive to PC / TV gaming mean CES wins?

And lets hope we do not end up in a hanger for E3 2014!

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Antony Johnston Writer & Narrative Designer 5 years ago
As soon as I saw the headline in my feed reader, I knew this was Rob's column ;) all well said, it's going to be an unusually interesting E3.
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Show all comments (17)
let the livestream popcorn begin.

Gotta luv the games industry. Long live Gamers gaming Games!
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James Berg Games User Researcher, EA Canada5 years ago
Excellent article Rob.
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Andy Payne Chair/founder, AppyNation5 years ago
Superb as usual Rob. I subscribe to this view as you probably know. This ain't the old console rock n roll this is traditional market genocide, but in an amazingly good way and there has never been a better time to be a creator. If money is your only love, then lend it and charge for it. If you want to be creative, make new things and above all have a great life, then it really is all to play for.

If you want answers, look no further than John Lydon's lyrics to 'Open Up' . We are at the start of a really fabulous future. For all of us who care about creating fun, and who knows possibly great things, this is our time.
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Andy Payne Chair/founder, AppyNation5 years ago
PS - it will be interesting to see what comes out of San Francisco next week also. And long live Oculus Rift.
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Nice and positive Andy, we all need to be positive, the kings are mad and dead, long live the king!

Let's hope we can now see other opportunities for creativity in the digital arena get some of the limelight (DOE)!
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 5 years ago
@Andy: ironically, I'd bet a wooden tooth that John Lydon aka "Johnny Rotten" would probably be against some of the ideals tossed about in this industry... and he certainly wouldn't be using an Oculus Rift (unless it was a PiL song title)...
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Andy Payne Chair/founder, AppyNation5 years ago
@Greg - Johnny could do a lot with an OR. Would make a great PiL album title wouldn't it.....
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 5 years ago
@Andy: Well, now that you mention it... it would make a great title. Still, I'd say Bjork gets to the Rift first, given her recent more interactive work...
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 5 years ago
My only hope for E3 is to come out fully understanding of what Microsoft's and Sony's plans are for their next gen consoles are. I'm currently just as confused as everyone else. Both really need to drive home clear, concise messages. The last thing I want is to leave E3 even more confused.
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@Paul - you just know that Sony and MS have gathered all the booth teams in a hotel room locked the doors and are teaching them in rote what they are to say and only what they are to say about the 'hot button topics' regarding their console; "...don't mention used games...", "...don't mention the quality of broadband needed...", "...and don't ever comment if anyone comes up and calls it the Xbone!"
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 5 years ago
The third paragraph best describes the sort of disconnect between people consuming media and consumers buying the actual devices. Sure, the media consumers assume media exposure comes before purchasing a gadget, but reality begs to differ.

and E3?

might be just as mistaken believing it comes before media exposure. It has become a Zoo in which everybody thinks he is the attraction, including the audience.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Klaus Preisinger on 8th June 2013 9:38am

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Yiannis Koumoutzelis Founder & Creative Director, Neriad Games5 years ago
excellent article Rob! and Klaus, once more spot on! :)
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Aaron Brown BA Computer Science Student, Carnegie Mellon University5 years ago
Great article.
However, I do not understand why Microsoft's Press Reveal is considered such a dismal failure.

In my opinion, it was a brilliant marketing move that is going to bring a lot of deserved attention from various media outlets to E3, which can only be beneficial for the sustainability of the industry as a whole. The future is brighter than ever.

That said, I cannot wait for E3, and I hope that OR will impress. I'd love to a decent sized niche market support it down the road.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Aaron Brown on 9th June 2013 5:22pm

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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 5 years ago
I can only speak for the German mainstream press, which focused rather on topics such as privacy, used games and digital ownership. Currently, there are even politicians wanting to pass laws which would allow any used the right to have a private copy of anything bought digitally. Naturally, the TV aspects did not matter much in Germany as MS simply has not announced anything that might interest the EU market. Very very few people care about NBA here. Since most digital decoding is done inside the TVs and not external decoder boxes, some aspects of the Xbox are just a big question mark.

The German gaming press pretty much falls in line with the global gaming press on having a field day with all the used game topics. It is not the smartest thing to do, but the more players rage in forums, the more the magazines rubber stamp a seal of approval on the shitstorm, by releasing further dismissive articles.

Now there is E3 coming up, where we will get to see games. By showing games, MS ignores where the public discussion is at right now. By canceling round table discussions at E3, MS is not making it easier for themselves either. There is a disconnect between what Microsoft is willing to provide at E3 and what mainstream media want right now. Sure, games get their pound of flesh, but even they have other questions as well. Questions which cannot be glossed over with high resolution combat dogs pulled straight from Peter Molyneux's playbook for mad marketing. MS is not getting any help from publishers either, who just keep their mouths shot and let MS take the brunt of negative impact.

This is why MS is considered a "failure" of sorts. Because if the entirety of Europe saw one thing a few days after the XBO unveiling, it was giant ads from Sony committing to a PS4 release this year during the Champions League Final.

This is what it boils down to in Europe. Sony is visible in just the right places. Microsoft seems as if their PR watched too many episodes of Mad Men and mistook the parody for an instruction video on how to run things.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Klaus Preisinger on 9th June 2013 10:24pm

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