With E3 2018 only a few days away, the internet has started to fill up with articles predicting what we'll see at the show, to which I'd like to contribute one prediction of which I'm absolutely stone-cold certain: by this time next week, we'll definitely have seen a torrent of judgements regarding which companies have "won" or "lost" the industry's biggest annual event.
It's easy to roll one's eyes at this decades-old industry ritual but, in reality, E3 conference presentations have often served as a pretty solid indicator of where companies' fortunes are headed. Whether that's because of the influence of the conferences themselves setting the tone for how the media and consumers view a company, or whether it's because the conferences can serve as a canary in the coalmine for a company's strategy or internal culture going wildly awry, or perhaps a bit of both, the result remains the same; whenever a platform holder is about to have an annus horribilis, they often precede it with an underwhelming, ill-judged, or downright embarrassing E3 conference.
"Not since the golden years of the PlayStation 2 has a platform holder sauntered into E3 with such an easy bar to hop over as Sony"
Since we're all going to end up playing the "E3 winners and losers" game in the end, and since there might even be some analytic and predictive value in it, it's worth thinking a little about the context in which the game is played. People often act as though the platform holders arrive to E3 with a fresh and pristine tabula rasa every year, but that's very distant from reality. The playing field is deeply unbalanced; platform holders arrive in Los Angeles with a very different set of tasks facing them and must perform to wildly different levels in order to fulfil or exceed the expectations people have of them. A "winning" performance for one firm might be pretty disastrous for another.
This year's E3 is a great example of that dynamic in action, because not since the golden years of the PlayStation 2 (or perhaps a brief period in the back half of the Xbox 360's reign) has a platform holder sauntered into E3 with such an easy bar to hop over as Sony faces this year. The company's lead in the hardware market is pretty much unassailable, it's maintained strong consumer goodwill throughout this generation, and it's still basking in the afterglow of the near-unanimous (and richly deserved) praise for God of War, itself only the latest in a string of superb and acclaimed first-party titles. The detail of Sony's conference, especially in regard to how it chooses to handle PSVR, will be interesting - but in terms of what the company actually needs to do to have a "winning" E3 conference, the bar is set low.
Indeed, for Sony to mess this up would require not so much resting on its laurels as making a mattress out of its laurels and settling down into a coma on top of it. Show off Spider-Man and The Last of Us 2, throw us a bone by giving some more concrete sense of what Death Stranding actually is, and drop in a couple of first-party efforts we haven't seen yet, and you basically have a solid conference. A couple of decent unexpected exclusives (first or third party) to round it out and give people more to talk about, and there you go - job done.
"Microsoft needs to bang the drum for software, software, software, beginning to end"
It won't be this easy for Sony forever; once new hardware starts to come back into focus, it'll need to fight tooth and nail to prove itself anew, and it'll soon hit the tricky balancing act between continuing to support PS4 while moving development resources to PS5. But for now, Sony's sitting in the Indian summer of PS4's lifespan, and arrives in Los Angeles with very little pressure other than to execute as it has done for the past few years.
Compare and contrast that with its would-be main rival, Microsoft's Xbox division, and the differences are stark. Microsoft enters E3 with an enormous weight of expectation on its shoulders. Xbox has had a tough run this generation, but for a couple of years the company has been able to stave off the worst of the criticism of its anaemic slate of software by deflecting attention onto its hugely ambitious hardware project, Scorpio.
"Deflection" might be a little bit of a strong word for this, but it's not far from the truth; focusing on the unquestionable technical prowess of the console that would become Xbox One X was a brilliant strategy that bought time for the company to actually knuckle down and get to work on the games that would run on all that bleeding-edge silicon.
This year, however, it's time for Microsoft to put up or shut up. In the background to its hyping of the Xbox One X over the past couple of years, the company has been talking a good game on software - making all the right noises to imply that it understands that it dropped the ball on first-party titles and exclusives, and is working hard in the background to get back on track. It stands to reason that you can't do that overnight; there is an inevitable time lag between realising that you've messed up by letting your first-party studio structure fall into decay and actually getting back to the point of announcing big games again.
"Nintendo has dumped a lot of wind out of its own sails by announcing its Pokemon slate ahead of time"
This year, though, it's time for the firm to deliver on all those fine words. There's no new hardware to talk about (oh god, there better not be - another new piece of hardware when there still isn't a decent pipeline of games for the last console they launched would be approaching self-parody), and a lengthy reiteration of the fine features of Xbox One X would honestly feel a little desperate at this point. Microsoft needs to bang the drum for software, software, software, beginning to end. A "winning" Xbox conference would need to excite people for a platform that's under-delivered thus far, and set out a compelling vision for why Xbox remains relevant - a far greater task than Sony will be asked to perform.
How about Nintendo? Honestly, Nintendo is always something of a wildcard at E3, veering haphazardly between making a huge effort in their presentation one year and then suddenly deciding that they don't care about E3 enough to do anything but a half-hearted Nintendo Direct broadcast the next year. There's a sense that this should be an "on" year for them, with E3 seeing a decent set of games being detailed for the first time - but it's dumped a lot of wind out of its own sails by announcing its Pokemon slate ahead of time, so who even knows what they have in mind right now.
One major thing that would turn E3 into a winning proposition for Nintendo would be just how much Switch support materialises from third-parties in their various conferences and presentations. Some rumours suggest that there will be a lot of third-party Switch games at the show, implying that the industry is getting strongly on board with the new platform. If that's true, it might deliver a hugely positive show for Nintendo regardless of what shenanigans they end up pulling with their own conference presentation.
The stakes next week are all about Microsoft, the company entering E3 with much to gain and much to lose. For Sony to lose its footing right now would require something even worse than the giant-enemy-crab debacle of the early PS3 era, while Nintendo under-performing would be widely written off as the firm simply choosing to underplay its hand at E3 again, as is its wont. But it's Xbox that has something to prove, and it's not much of an exaggeration to say that, by this time next week, we'll have a pretty clear idea of whether Xbox is going to manage to stay relevant for the rest of this hardware generation or not.
Your move, Microsoft. No pressure.