It may be diminished in importance ever since its sudden, massive deflation last year, but E3 week is still generally the busiest week in the videogames calendar. Not every major company uses it as the primary platform for announcements any more of course, but the annual spectacle of the platform holder conferences continues to entertain, delight, and in some cases disappoint the crowds.
Much like the regular keynote speeches from Apple boss Steve Jobs, half the fun is in the predictions, as everyone from fans to highly paid analysts publicise their best guesses for the conferences - ranging from wild stabs in the dark, via wishful thinking, to genuinely well-informed insider knowledge. Needless to say, the former two are far, far more common than the latter type of prediction.
Bearing this in mind, I'm not terribly keen to see my own predictions - which I'll happily confess are a healthy mess of thoughts, seasoned with a pinch of insider info - added to the mass of guesswork you can already find all over the Internet. However, without turning this into a Mystic Meg crystal ball staring episode, there are certain things which we know the platform holders are working on - and which it's worth keeping an eye out for as the conferences loom.
Nintendo is by far the most secure of the big three, and it goes into E3 with very little to prove. With Wii Fit now on the market and selling like hot cakes, it's plausible that the company will capitalise on the installed base of the balance board peripheral with some new software for the board. Meanwhile, the firm's delicate balancing act between satisfying core gamers and reaching out to new audiences means that there's a good chance that we'll also see some more traditional franchises taking centre stage again - Animal Crossing Wii seems like a shoo-in for this conference, for instance.
By and large, though, I expect Nintendo's conference to be more heavily focused on self-congratulation and back-slapping than on new products. In a year which has seen solid launches for the likes of Wii Fit and WiiWare, that's unsurprising - but then again, Nintendo is also under pressure to maintain its growth trajectory, thanks to a vastly inflated valuation on the Nikkei. Rumours of a redesigned DS console, potentially featuring a widescreen display, would probably have been dismissed a little while ago - but the firm does need something to push its growth through to 2009, and an attractive redesign of its most popular console could be just what the doctor ordered.
Perhaps the most important Nintendo-related news from E3, however, may not come from Nintendo's conference at all. There exists, after all, a substantial possibility that Microsoft, Sony, or even both of them could reveal a Wiimote-style motion sensing controller for their respective consoles next week. We know that both firms have gone far past the concept stage with these controllers - insiders have blabbed, developers have blabbed, and at this point, the official announcement will merely be the cherry on the cake. Sony's version, at the very least, will definitely be announced in the coming months - whether they choose to do so at E3 remains to be seen.
If they, or Microsoft, do reveal a Wiimote challenger next week, there will be those who argue that Nintendo's victory in this generation of hardware is complete. For its rivals, having dismissed the Wii as a novelty, a gimmick, and a whole host of even less charitable things, to now turn around and try to emulate its unique controller will be embarrassing as hell. It'll be even more embarrassing, of course, when those controllers prove to be terrific flops. The idea that the PS3 or Xbox 360 can somehow inherit the appeal of the Wii simply by emulating the Wiimote in an optional controller is a demonstration of how deeply Sony and Microsoft misunderstand (and underestimate) the success of their rival.
As to other announcements from Sony and Microsoft, new SKUs of their hardware remain, of course, a distinct possibility - with Microsoft, whose 20Gb basic hard drive size looks increasingly unimpressive, the most likely to make the leap to a new SKU line-up. Redesigned Xbox 360 or PS3 consoles, along with a return to PS2 backwards compatibility on the PS3, are in the realms of highly unlikely wishful thinking, however.
No, the focus once more will be on software for both companies - and as the cycle progresses, I think we're going to see an increasing focus on sequels and franchises in both conferences. With Metal Gear Solid 4 finally on store shelves, Sony's focus will turn to titles like Killzone 2 - and it'd be surprising if Motorstorm 2, Gran Turismo 5 and Final Fantasy XIII didn't make appearances in one form or another. PlayStation Home, meanwhile, is a bit of a dark horse. It still enjoys some level of anticipation, but another demonstration could just underline the fact that it's massively overdue - unless, of course, there are genuinely great new features to show off.
For Microsoft, there are some more obvious franchises to champion - Too Human, for instance, and Rare's Banjo. However, I expect that the big software reveal of Microsoft's conference will be a rather more familiar face - or at least, helmet. Following the success of Halo 3, it's simply unthinkable that the Halo franchise will be allowed to rest - and spin-off title Halo Wars simply won't carry the crown in the way that a brand new Halo game would. If not E3, then some special event later this year, but I'd be hugely surprised if the Master Chief doesn't take a bow in Los Angeles.
Also likely to be trumpeted loud and clear by Microsoft is its newfound popularity among developers of Japanese RPGs. It's utterly unlikely that we'll see something as immense as Final Fantasy XIII crossing platforms, or anything of the sort, but there's no doubt that the Xbox 360's J-RPG support is becoming significant. With Square Enix now firmly on board as a partner for the first time, Microsoft will be keen to make hay among the press from this brief glimmer of eastern sunshine.
Of course, E3's most memorable and immense announcements have always been the unexpected ones - the PlayStation Portable being the best recent example - and many game firms have been getting better at keeping their huge revelations under wraps. Who'd be a pundit, eh? My expectation is for this year's E3 to be entirely evolutionary rather than revolutionary for all three platform holders - but we'll know for sure, of course, by this time next week.