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E3 2018: Starting next-gen hype early is bad for business

Casual references toward next-gen consoles and games risks overshadowing the huge releases coming in 2018

Credit where it's due. This was a make or break E3 for Microsoft's gaming ambitions, and it did almost exactly what was required to reaffirm its commitment and build excitement for the future of Xbox - no small task after some very tough years for the platform and the brand.

This was unquestionably Microsoft's best E3 since the halcyon days of the Xbox 360. It not only began to live up to the company's long-standing promise to address the lack of exclusive content on Xbox, but also firmly established its relevance for the coming years. A series of well-chosen studio acquisitions will go some way toward closing the ground Microsoft has lost to Sony's first-party efforts in the past generation.

"It was unquestionably Microsoft's best E3 since the halcyon days of the Xbox 360"

Even acknowledging what a great conference showing Microsoft had, however, it wouldn't be unfair to note that it was very much a show about the future of Xbox rather than about the present. Between hints about next-gen hardware, software reveals that may well end up being cross-generation titles, and studio acquisitions whose first fruits are likely to emerge on several years down the line, many of the high-profile headlines from Microsoft's show were about laying the groundwork for a better showing in the next hardware generation rather than really delivering on the promise of its existing hardware. There were of course Xbox One titles on display as well - quite a few of them, in fact - but it was hard to escape the sense that Microsoft knows it will never catch Sony in the current generation and is already turning its attention to the next.

In and of itself, that's absolutely fine. The most important thing Microsoft needed to do was re-establish exactly this kind of relevance and demonstrate that it remained committed to being an active and engaged competitor to Sony in the console market. The industry as a whole, and consumers in particular, are far better off when there's serious competition at this end of things.

"This was a show where most of the attention went to things we'll be lucky to see by the end of 2019"

However, Microsoft's focus on the future ended up having a strange knock-on effect on the rest of E3. Throughout the course of the week, it seemed like the reaction to the show - and even the priorities of some of the publishers - was focused far more on the distant horizon than on closer prospects. Perhaps it was Microsoft's casual mention of its future hardware plans (or Sony's quick namedrop of the same thing a few weeks previously), or perhaps it's simply the case that the industry is starting to itch for new hardware. Whatever the case may be, E3 2018 felt like a show where most people didn't really want to hear about 2018.

From the mention of new hardware via musing about streaming services through to the teaser reveals of new software that won't be with us for several years, this was a show where most of the attention went to things we'll be lucky to see by the end of 2019. Cyberpunk, Elder Scrolls VI, Starfield; it proved surprisingly difficult for the games of 2018, or the confirmed, locked-in releases of 2019, to challenge the blue-sky dreaming over games that remain a long way off and will quite likely launch on platforms we haven't even seen yet.

The Elder Scrolls VI was teased at E3, despite it still being in pre-production

The unfortunate result was that some otherwise pretty solid showings from platform holders and publishers ended up receiving rather muted responses. There are things to critique about Sony and Nintendo's offerings, of course. The format of Sony's show was dumb as a box of rocks, apparently completely forgetting that the important audience for these conferences isn't the few hundred jet-lagged journos you shepherd into the room but the tens of thousands watching online. The back half of Nintendo's presentation would have left anyone who isn't a big Smash Bros. fan pretty much out in the cold (myself included - don't @ me, but I'm actually more excited about the new Mario Party game).

"Hype for the next generation starting too early risks upsetting the economics of the industry for everyone"

Yet what both firms had was a solid focus on showcasing games that will actually be in players' hands within the next 12 months. They treated E3 as a way to communicate to PS4 and Switch owners what they can look forward to in the coming year; not as a platform to bait audiences with games that will likely return to E3 2019 in somewhat more complete form (apart from Death Stranding, obviously, which will eventually launch in 2027 on the PlayStation 6).

The underwhelmed reaction to these conferences - and to others such as Square Enix' showing, which similarly focused on this year's games rather than devoting time to titles still several years off like the Final Fantasy VII remake - is problematic for the industry. We're in the 'making hay' period of the console cycle right now; PlayStation 4 has a massive, engaged installed base and Switch is building up a head of steam, meaning this should be a perfect time for developers and publishers to push out big, high-quality titles that reach the widest possible audience. Of course there'll be one eye to the next generation in the background, but the foreground for the next year or two should be all about building excitement around games that need a mature platform and a broad audience to flourish.

That kind of game was absolutely there at E3 - the release schedule for the coming year looks pretty extraordinary, in fact - but parts of the industry and the media was all too easily distracted by the glint of shiny objects in the far distance. Hype for the next generation starting too early risks upsetting the economics of the industry for everyone; we shouldn't fool ourselves that this kind of thing doesn't filter down to consumers, because it absolutely does. If the industry starts beating the drum for the next big thing too soon, it naturally pushes consumers away from current-gen titles - especially given that the expectation of next-gen remasters of big current gen titles has been firmly established.

Microsoft's position in this regard is understandable, of course - its largely unimpressive performance this generation makes it logical that it would be keen to fire the starting gun on the next generation early, a strategy it previously pursued with great success during the Xbox to Xbox 360 transition. This doesn't just undermine Sony, though (about which Microsoft naturally doesn't give a hoot) - it also potentially damages the business of third-party publishers and developers, who should be far more careful about feeding the flames of next-gen speculation too early.

It's only natural that E3 will contain some degree of speculation about the future. It's not just a product showcase, after all, but also an opportunity for the industry to set out its vision for the years to come. This year, however, the balance went askew; coverage seemed dazzled by far-future prospects we know almost nothing about, to the detriment of massive games we'll be playing in the months to come. Once the dust settles on the show, one can only hope that there's a degree of quiet reassessment in the media and among consumers. If you can pull your eyes from the distant horizon, there's plenty to be excited about in 2018.