What do the platform holders need to do to “win” E3?
Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo all have something to prove - and the only way to prove it is with innovative, original software
E3 isn't what it used to be - it's much, much more. While the show and its associated press conferences remain ostensibly trade-only affairs, that's a distinction that doesn't mean very much any more. After all, with the advent of Internet streaming video, the whole world can watch everything live - and with each passing year, more and more of the world decides to do precisely that. Where once upon a time, gamers waited to hear second-hand tales of what had transpired in Los Angeles from the journalists who'd been there to see it, nowadays everyone watches together, and the sheer impact of the press conferences has been vastly magnified by that change.
A big audience watching around the world raises the stakes. It means that a crap press conference, an ill-judged tone, an aura of arrogance or a litany of mishaps can have big ramifications. These don't just become bar-tale fodder for chuckling journalists - they're transmitted instantly to the precise people to whom you wish to sell. Tonal blunders and messaging problems in E3 conferences can cause image problems that sink games and even consoles. Many of the problems faced by platform holders in this generation and the last one can be attributed partially to terrible performances at E3; the underlying issues started out elsewhere, but how they were telegraphed to the world and how the narrative around them developed was decided, as often as not, on stage in LA.
Bearing this in mind, then, what are we expecting next week? More importantly, what do the three platform holders actually need to do if they want to either sustain or build momentum into Christmas and beyond? Everyone has their own personal wishlist, of course, but in real terms, what's the baseline that these companies need to achieve when the world tunes in next week?
"Sony actually has the toughest job of any platform holder this year, because its very success gives it such a high bar to reach - and its weak 2015 release schedule makes the bar even higher"
Let's start with Sony, whom you might expect to have the least to prove. In a sense, that's right; PS4 is still selling strongly and really doesn't have any rival in the home console space with the exception of Microsoft's honourable mention in the US market. The console's sales even remain ahead of the almighty PS2's at the same point in its life, so there's no question that Sony is entering E3 in a position of strength.
That same strength, though, builds expectations, and Sony will have to show off some pretty remarkable stuff if it's to live up to what will be expected of it. The focus absolutely must be on software; there almost certainly won't be a price cut (there's no need for one at present), although there's a good chance of a hardware bundle or two, and almost anything else that takes up significant time on stage will be a misguided distraction. Sure, Morpheus is cool, but it's a technology that doesn't lend itself at all to on-stage demos; if it's wheeled out, it should be brief, and unless we're close enough to launch for a date and a price tag to be attached to the device and some real games shown off, it shouldn't hog the stage for now. Spending too much time on stuff like PlayStation Now or any service offerings on PS4, too, will bore the audience and risk making Sony look complacent or unfocused.
Games, games, games, must be Sony's mantra, and new games at that. Uncharted 4 and its ilk will be lovely to see, of course, and god knows we'd all like an update on what the hell is going on with The Last Guardian; but what we really need to see is a few big, new games, preferably exclusives, that will whet people's appetites for what's coming in 2016. Sony's slate for 2015 is weak and it knows it; there's not much to be done about that. What it can do, and must do in order to sustain sales momentum into Christmas, is give people a vision of great stuff to come. In that sense, Sony actually has the toughest job of any platform holder this year, because its very success gives it such a high bar to reach - and its weak 2015 release schedule makes the bar even higher.
"Kinect is gone and largely forgotten, the TV-focused launch and DRM cock-ups are ancient history, the price is in a sensible range, it's just made some sensible, good-value adjustments to the model line-up; the Xbox One is in a good place right now"
Microsoft, on the other hand, might have its easiest and most comfortable E3 in several years - not because it doesn't have to seriously impress in order to continue the uphill struggle it's waging against the PS4, but because it's finally over the issues that plagued the Xbox One around launch. Kinect is gone and largely forgotten, the TV-focused launch and DRM cock-ups are ancient history, the price is in a sensible range, it's just made some sensible, good-value adjustments to the model line-up; the Xbox One is in a good place right now. It's only got one problem - with the PS4 being this generation's go-to platform for cross-platform games, justifying the purchase of an Xbox One isn't easy, and the exclusive software line-up just isn't there yet. Unless you're a big Forza fan, the biggest game on Xbox One right now is the Master Chief Collection; the biggest upcoming game is Halo 5. Now, Microsoft is hardly alone is relying on last generation's glories for its big hitters (Nathan Drake Collection and Uncharted 4, take a bow), but perhaps even more so than Sony, it needs to come out swinging with some original, interesting IP that's going to define Xbox One. It needs a new name that comes to the top of people's thoughts when they consider a console purchase; "I was going to buy a PS4, but I really wanted to play X". Halo is great, but it won't cut the mustard for yet another generation running.
The worst thing Microsoft could do - and in fairness, I don't think they're actually about to do this - is arrive on stage with nothing to show off but a big bag of money hats. I think the Microsoft of two or three years ago would have done precisely this, running an E3 conference whose primary message was "we've paid a load of third-party publishers for exclusivity" - an action which doesn't actually secure any more games or new experiences for Xbox gamers, it just denies them to gamers on other platforms. That's what happened with Rise of the Tomb Raider at Gamescom last year; Xbox fans didn't get a new game, Microsoft simply paid a load of money to stop PS4 fans from playing too. It's a petty, negative approach that sucks away resources better spent on making new, interesting things, and I hope that Microsoft leaves that particular playbook at home next week. (An exception can be made, of course, when a platform holder is rescuing a franchise or game from extinction by taking it under its wing, as Nintendo did with Bayonetta; this E3, I'll happily pin my personal winner's rosette on any platform holder that rescues Silent Hills from being trampled underfoot in Konami's mealy-mouthed retreat from console publishing.)
Finally, Nintendo. Of the three platform holders, Nintendo is the only one that's even remotely likely to have a price cut up its sleeve, but announcing that sort of thing now isn't very Nintendo at all; it's more likely to save any discounts for the end of summer (not least because it'll want to see where the currently very wobbly dollar to Yen exchange rate stabilises before committing to a new US price point for the Wii U). In hardware terms, expect to see precisely nothing about NX, and don't expect anything about mobile games either; the ink is barely fresh on the DeNA partnership and its first fruits are likely to be aimed at Japan anyway.
This will, then, be an entirely software focused digital event for Nintendo - a running theme through all the platform holders, in fact, if they play their cards right. But what software will it show off? I expect that 3DS will get more attention than Wii U, overall; it's by far the better performing platform (and by contrast, I don't imagine that PS Vita will warrant more than a passing mention in Sony's conference). Nintendo will of course be keen to demonstrate that they aren't abandoning the Wii U, despite its weak sales, but the only real "pillars" of future Wii U support that we know about are its open-world Zelda title (one would rather hope that there'll be more of that on show) and, arguably, Star Fox, with a few other games like Mario Maker and Yoshi's Wooly World filling in gaps. Xenoblade Chronicles X, yet to be released outside Japan, will also likely make an appearance in the streaming conference.
"[Nintendo] is actually in one of its most creative and innovative phases ever at the moment, which makes it a real shame that its home console is performing so badly"
The really interesting thing from Nintendo will be the stuff we don't know about, both on 3DS and Wii U. The company is actually in one of its most creative and innovative phases ever at the moment, which makes it a real shame that its home console is performing so badly, but does leave the door open to some really interesting stuff at E3. All eyes will be on the possibility of "this year's Splatoon" making an appearance; something different, new and innovative coming out of Nintendo's studios. Equally, though, it's worth keeping an eye on Nintendo's third-party relationships, which have been very interesting in recent years, and have produced some surprising results such as the Xenoblade series and the aforementioned Bayonetta 2. If Wii U wants to remain even remotely relevant over the coming year, it's going to need both of the above; innovation from within Nintendo, and some very strong work with third-party studios.
Each platform holder faces a challenge that's similar in broad terms but very different in its specifics. They all need games; Sony needs 2016 games to confirm to 2015 buyers that the future pipeline is promising; Microsoft needs a standard-bearer for a console that's much too reliant on the tired Halo franchise; Nintendo needs to keep the likes of Splatoon coming in order to keep the Wii U even marginally relevant. With pricing settled and hardware or service revisions likely off the cards for a while yet, this E3 will truly be all about the games - and if it's really innovation and creativity that will guarantee a "win" in LA next week, that's pretty great news for gamers and the industry alike.