E3 2016 Recap

e32016-001

E3 2016 was one of the most confusing yet important conferences in recent memory.

As Nintendo wrapped up their E3 presentation, showcasing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, I shutdown the live stream feed and felt… confused. Not so much at what Nintendo showed off, although the non-traditional format of their conference left me puzzled. But I was confused about the conference as a whole. Everyone knows well in advance when E3 is coming, yet despite this mostly everyone seemed unprepared, some more so than others.

Maybe it’s because, as I stated in my previous essay, the industry is at a crossroads. In that piece I argued that the home console was in the midst of changing, but now it seems that the entire industry is ready for a shift. But it’s not just console hardware – there’s virtual reality (VR), competitive gaming, and a shift in how and where we play games. Everyone has ideas for how they see the industry changing over the next three years, but there is a lot of uncertainty, mainly because the big three are releasing new consoles, except they might be the same … somehow, and won’t fracture their markets, and oh yeah – we’re not going to talk much about them this year.

If it seems like a confusing mess, that’s because it is. But what does this mean for the future of the industry? No one is certain, but it’s interesting to see who has ideas, who is prepared and who is treading water, just as clueless as those at home are.

Day One – EA and Bethesda

 

I feel for the journalist who have to cover this entire conference in person – each year it seems to get longer and longer, and with Electronic Arts (EA) kicking the proceedings off on Sunday afternoon, it means that video game journalists will spend nearly an entire week, from morning until night, covering the industry at great length. To say this conference is too long would be an understatement.

I feel like I am in the minority when it comes to EA – I see a large publisher that, while guilty of pushing developers to release games on a yearly basis, is also publishing games like Dead Space and Mirror’s Edge, and their support of BioWare, developers of Mass Effect, is a breath of fresh air in an industry where faceless corporations seem to devour talented dev teams to grind out mediocre titles year after year.

But as much of a fan as I am of the publisher, I cannot defend their press conference this year. I’m going over my notes, mostly because nothing stuck out, and my biggest takeaway is – was EA even prepared for E3? There were few new announcements, and what they showed was severely lacking in detail. Their conference was the shortest of all the major ones, coming in at just an hour, and they struggled to fill that time, resorting to gimmicks such as hosting the conference in two locations – Los Angeles and London, to stretch it out to the 60 minute mark.

What little the publisher did show focused almost entirely on the future. With the exception of some updates for Star Wars: Battlefront, EA mainly teased future titles – Battlefield 1 and Mass Effect: Andromeda being the major focus. But with the former, all they had ready to show was a trailer, which they ran twice (and a third time the next day at Microsoft’s conference, in case gamers missed it the first two times), and with the latter, they showed off seconds of new footage and provided no new information. But the biggest offender was their section devoted to all of their upcoming Star Wars games, the most anticipated of which is an action title being developed by Visceral Games, the developer behind Dead Space, and directed by Amy Hennig, who is best known for directing the first three Uncharted titles. This game has been in the works for a while now, and was known prior to this conference, but all EA had to show was a brief, five-second teaser of a nameless character walking out of a door. To say this was a letdown would be an understatement.

That said, EA helped set the tone for the conference by highlighting one of the new primary focuses of the industry – competitive pro gaming. No matter your feelings on pro gaming, one thing is certain – it makes a ton of money. So it’s no surprise to see EA and others get in on the action. EA’s new focus on pro gaming took up the majority of their presentation, and when the hour was up, I asked myself a few difficult question – what am I doing with my life? Why am I wasting an hour on a Sunday afternoon watching this? What’s the point of it all?

 

Thankfully, my existential crisis was put on hold later that evening, as Bethesda Softworks took the stage. Although their conference wasn’t as impactful as last year’s, it was exactly what I want out of a publisher at E3. Their presentation was split between supporting already released titles, and focusing on future releases. Their show opened up with a teaser for a new entry in the Quake franchise, which was welcomed but not too surprising considering the success of the recently released DOOM. After that, they seemed to alternate between the old and new – The Elder Scrolls Online received a lot of attention, and the steady stream of updates make it seem more appealing by the day. A reboot of Prey looked intriguing, as did the upcoming DLC for Fallout 4, and the remastered version of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim with mod support on consoles. Bethesda closed their show with an in depth look at Dishonored 2, which looks like it could be a contender for Game of the Year.

 

During that time, Bethesda continued the theme of competitive pro gaming, saying that the new Quake was being built with pro gaming in mind (they were light on details regarding this, but given the history of the series, one can assume that the game will feature a strong focus on multiplayer action). They also dipped their toes into the new VR arms race, announcing that DOOM and Fallout 4 would see VR versions released for the HTC Vive (and not for the Oculus Rift, thanks to an on-going lawsuit between parent company Zenimax Media and Oculus). Their conference is exactly what we should see out of the industry in the years between console launches – a balanced look at current content, and a look into the future. It was the perfect way to end day one, especially after the uncertainty that started the day.

Day Two – Microsoft, Ubisoft and Sony

 

If there is any blame to go around for how strange this E3 felt, it can be laid at the feet of both Microsoft and Sony. Their insistence on releasing new hardware that shares the same ecosystem as their current consoles is unprecedented, and going into the show we weren’t sure how these rumors would impact games currently in development, or the impact these rumors would have on our wallets. Sony announced just a day before E3 that, yes, they are working on an updated version of the PS4, codenamed Neo, but it wasn’t going to be discussed at all at E3. This led to an intriguing situation, considering the level of competition and the timing of Sony’s announcement – how was Microsoft going to respond?

Microsoft opened day two with a lengthy conference that was big on their goals and philosophy of the Xbox brand, and surprisingly sparse in details on actual games. There are two new Xbox One consoles coming out over the next seventeen months – this holiday will see a slimmed-down version of the current hardware that includes a much larger hard drive, and next year will see the release of Project Scorpio, which Microsoft is billing as the most powerful console ever made. That claim seems kind of pointless to make – technology doesn’t regress, so any new hardware will be more powerful than what came before, and with Sony being quiet about Neo, it’s unclear how Microsoft can make this claim, or why they are so concerned with doing so. The original Xbox was the most powerful console of its generation, and it lost (in terms of sales) to the Playstation 2. Similarly, the Playstation 3 was the most powerful console of its generation and, you guessed it, lost to the Xbox 360 (although by a smaller margin). Why Microsoft seems hell-bent on having the most powerful console is beyond me, when what matters most is the actual games.

I happened to be watching Microsoft’s conference on IGN’s YouTube stream, and when the show ended I stuck around to hear what their panel thought of Microsoft’s vision of the future. Immediately, a guest on their panel, Seamus Blackley (one of the original creators of the first Xbox), asked a question that had to be on everyone’s mind. Referencing Project Scorpio, he asked why he needed the most powerful console to play Cuphead, the game he was the most excited to play. It’s a legitimate question – Cuphead looks amazing, but it most likely could have been released on last-generation hardware. Why should gamers spend $400 next year to buy a more powerful version of the console they already own? If I had to guess, Microsoft is banking on VR being a massive hit, and is working behind the scenes to bring either the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive to the platform, and will need the extra processing power to do so. But that’s purely speculation on my part, and Microsoft did little to answer that question during their presentation.

So what did they talk about for 90 minutes? As I mentioned, they showed off some games, but rarely went in depth into any of them – Gears of War 4 received some attention, but mostly we saw a few trailers back-to-back before a developer would come out on stage to talk about Microsoft’s new philosophy – play your games anywhere on multiple devices. The initiative, called Xbox Play Anywhere, will allow gamers to purchase a game just one time, and have that game be available on both the Xbox One and any Windows 10 PC. In addition, they are opening up cross-platform play, citing Rocket League as an example of what they hope to achieve, and demonstrated this live by having two people play Minecraft together – one person playing on an iPad, the other playing on a Windows 10 tablet.

Although games took a back seat this year, Microsoft made me optimistic about the future. I am still cautious about this new model for releasing new console hardware – it seems to be identical to what we currently see with smartphones, but their stance on playing games anywhere at any time, and with people across different platforms, is a big step in the right direction. And it’s not as if Microsoft abandoned games entirely – they also took time to unveil their vision of pro gaming, titled Xbox Live Arena, which will hold official, sanctioned tournaments for games over Xbox Live. And they continued to strongly support the indie scene. Their show didn’t have the “wow” factor we’ve come to expect from E3, and it still added to the overall confusion felt throughout the industry, but it was by no means a disaster.

 

A pleasant surprise came just a few hours later, when Ubisoft held their own press conference. More often than not, Ubisoft frustrates me as a publisher and a developer – outside of the Far Cry franchise, much of what Ubisoft does fits into the yearly release schedule, resulting in watered-down, glitch-filled products. In addition, Ubisoft seems to be hesitant to really branch out and explore different ways to tell stories. For these reasons I always dread Ubisoft’s show, but this year was different – I saw from Ubisoft what I saw from Bethesda, and what I wished I saw from EA.

Not all of Ubisoft’s games are ones I’m anxious to play, but each game was treated to a deep dive, showcasing what the future has in store. For fans of the Ghost Recon franchise, the upcoming entry looks incredible, and as a South Park fan, I was happy to once again see series creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone discuss their upcoming title. Where Ubisoft really set themselves apart is by how they’re blurring the lines as a video game publisher – a lot of focus was given to the upcoming Assassin’s Creed film, and this was the first time that I can recall where an onstage interview at E3 took place between a publisher and a producer of a film, and the topic of conversation was a film. Ubisoft is buying heavily into film to complement their games, and I have no complaints with them spending their time and resources this way. Let’s hope that this means video game franchises such as Assassin’s Creed will be given more than one year between releases, to allow the developers at Ubisoft the time necessary to make these games stand out.

Ubisoft also dedicated time to a lengthy demo of Eagle Flight, an upcoming VR game that seems suited perfectly for the hardware. Outside of VR, Ubisoft seems to be doing their own thing, so when they engage so heavily with this new hardware, it says to me that VR is here to stay, and will be a big part of everyone’s strategy going forward. But the biggest owner of VR at the meeting was also the press conference that really sold me on the bright future of the industry.

 

Every year, gamers try to determine who “won” E3. Of course, there is no actual award, but it is important for gamers to signal to industry insiders who we found to have the best plan going forward. In that sense, declaring a winner is important, and without question, from my perspective, this year’s winner was Sony. They closed out day two with a press conference that delivered one must-have title after the next, and did so while also announcing the release of their own VR headset which, contrary to rumors, will work on all Playstation 4 consoles and will be available this year.

While I appreciate the philosophy of Microsoft’s approach to gaming, this is, after all, about the games, and Sony delivered a lineup that will be near impossible to top. A new God of War opened the show, and in a sign that Sony is able to evolve and adapt, it looks to be a much more intimate affair than previous titles. This could be felt in the slow, deliberate movement of the characters, the focus on fighting just a couple enemies at a time and the new camera angles, which are far more traditional and allow the player to take control of them, a first for the franchise. Also, the new setting, based on Norse mythology, helped inject life into a franchise that seemed to run its course.

From there, the announcements kept coming – The Last Guardian from Team Ico finally has a release date; a new property, Days Gone, looks like The Last of Us but amped up in every way; VR games in the worlds of Star Wars and Batman sound promising, as does the latest entry in the Resident Evil franchise, which will be playable from start to finish in VR. And yet the biggest announcement might be the teaser for Hideo Kojima’s newest title, Death Stranding, which was short on gameplay but high on intrigue. There were plenty more games announced, all of which looked incredible (specifically Horizon Zero Dawn), providing a bright outlook for, at the least, Sony’s future, if not for the entire industry.

Out of everyone who presented, Sony seemed to have the best idea of what’s to come. Microsoft’s strategy still has a lot of unanswered questions and potential, but it was missing the games that made Sony’s conference memorable. And even though they unofficially won E3 2016, everyone would have to wait a day for what might be the Game of the Show, and a potential lifesaver for the oldest company left in the industry.

Day Three – Nintendo

 

To describe Nintendo’s recent approach to E3 as unconventional would be an understatement. Gone are the big, splashy press conferences, and instead live demos are held all throughout the show. Before E3, Nintendo wanted everyone to know that they are working on a new console, and that they would only show off one game at E3 – the brand new Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which would be unveiled during their Nintendo Treehouse event, the closest they have to a conference, on day three of the show

Of course, that’s not what happened, and in keeping with the theme of “no one knows what they’re doing,” Nintendo announced Breath of the Wild, then shifted gears for forty minutes to cover the new Pokemon titles coming out this year for the 3DS. I understand that franchises like Pokemon are what Nintendo is relying on right now to keep afloat, but to introduce a new Zelda game, and then cut away for forty minutes, seems to suggest that this presentation was put together last-minute.

Fortunately, when the Pokemon portion was over, Nintendo dived head-first into the most ambitious Zelda title in franchise history. Breath of the Wild looks incredible, and is the first sign that Nintendo is finally paying attention to western developers, and incorporating some of those elements into their games. Make no mistake, this title feels like a Zelda game – many of the same audio cues from The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword return, as does the stamina meter, enemies, weapons and art direction, but it all blends together nicely with open world RPG mechanics. Nintendo’s conference may not have stolen the show, but Breath of the Wild looks absolutely amazing, and is hopefully a sign of greater things to come from the famed developer.

What To Make Of This

As I write this, the dust has yet to settle on E3 2016 – in fact, it’s still in full-swing, with more insights into the games announced hitting YouTube every minute. But taking a step back, the message behind E3 2016 is one of cautious optimism coupled with confusion. The industry is still committed to supporting traditional, AAA blockbusters, but the indie scene is alive and well. Some very fascinating games appear to be just over the horizon, and VR looks more promising than it ever has. But mid-cycle hardware upgrades combined disjointed and lackluster announcements leave gamers with quite a few questions.

It’s great to see companies thinking about how we play games, and how that can evolve as the technology surrounding us evolves. It’s great to see that these companies are looking to cater to gamers, regardless of background, and working slowly toward a more inclusive environment. E3 2016 ends with some important questions that still need answers, but with so many wonderful games coming in the near future, everything at least looks OK.