For as long as I can remember, the middle of June means two things to me: hayfever, and E3.
The less said about the former, the better. My nose runs, my eyes itch, and I feel like shit for a month, and then it goes away. Sometimes antihistamines help, sometimes they don’t. My mother swears by drinking tea with local honey in it. I don’t believe her.
As subjects go though, E3 is far more interesting.
Every year, the biggest game companies in the world gather in LA to show off their cool new stuff. Some of it comes out soon after, most of it is years away. And every year, once the dust of the new trailers and announcements has settled, all the fanboys settle into Twitter and have a great big argument about whose conference “won” E3.
I find this annual debate incredibly tiresome on a number of levels. The fact that it’s rarely driven by anything other than opinions of the people who shout loudest (or tweet most often) is probably the highest of those levels, with its inherent pointlessness sitting somewhere close below it.
E3 conferences are puff pieces. They always have been. They’re a chance for big game companies to get up on stage and make big announcements that aim to do as many of three key things as possible: gain applause, lead to stock market rises, and drive the hype. That’s pretty much it. Let’s face it, a lot of promises made on those stages fail to ever come to fruition – release dates slide, game features get cut, graphics get downgraded. And yet here we are, on the Wednesday of E3 week 2018 and the same old argument is raging on social media. Twitter polls are everywhere, as is loud and foul-mouthed negativity on both sides of the debate – because nothing’ll make a gamer call anyone who disagrees with him a ‘dumbass’ or an ‘asshole’ like seeing his favourite platform holder/publisher accused of ‘losing’ E3. I really find it funny (admittedly in an incredibly depressing way) that gamers get so wound up over them. But let’s face it… a lot of gamers will get wound up over pretty much anything, as long as it’s so trivial as to be basically meaningless in the grander scheme of things.
The quality of E3 conferences has ebbed and flowed, historically. Sony made a lot of ground by presenting a clear message around PS4 after Microsoft almightily screwed theirs up in the year this console generation was announced. You’re right, I can’t remember when it was. I’ll guess at 2013. Microsoft have had real problems with a lack of exclusive games for the last few years, with lots cancelled, a few turning up, and those that have failing to hit the quality bar that’s being set, hit, and then exceeded by each subsequent release from one of Sony’s first party studios. Sony had problems with data breaches and hacks of PSN – yet managed to stay on top through this whole generation after playing catch up for most of the last one.
So, rolling into this year’s E3 I was expecting a lot of the same. For Sony to show off a bunch of new powerhouse games that would make me switch on my PS4 a bit more often, and for Microsoft to miss the mark on several levels. And, I was left surprised – as what I saw was pretty much the opposite of what I expected.
Sony’s show was dominated by gritty realism, post-apocalyptica, and extreme violence. And I mean BRUTAL. I’m not squeamish, but seriously. Watching the trailer for The Last Of Us Part II, I found myself wondering how much fun I could have playing it. Sure, it looks stunning. It also looks from a thematic and gameplay perspective to be a re-run of the original. It just feels like more of the same. It doesn’t help that I enjoyed the first one so much and thought the ending was pitched so perfectly that I honestly don’t see how another story in that universe can possibly add to it. TLOU flew so high that no follow-up will ever be able to walk in its footsteps. I’ll be happy to be proved wrong, but for the moment, that’s where I am.
Ghosts of Tsushima looked stunning – and very much like every other Sony first party game. Seriously though, is it just me or do all first party Sony games basically look the same? I mean, they’re all gorgeous, with incredible textures and lighting… at the same time, they all seem to share the same over-the-shoulder camera angle, the same ‘gritty adult narrative’ themes, the same visceral combat. The same foliage you can hide in, the same bad language. You can criticise Microsoft for a lot of things, but at least their games don’t all look basically identical. It’s at times like this that I feel extremely fortunate that I own both an Xbox One and a PS4 – if all I had was Sony’s endless parade of violence, I don’t think I’d still play as many games as I do.
They showed other stuff, the highlight of which for me was Death Stranding – very much the internet darling of the moment. Days Gone was conspicuous in its absence, as was the Final Fantasy VII remake (it’s never coming out guys, and that’s probably a good thing – it won’t be anywhere near as good as you remember. And that’s a subject for another day.) Regardless of the assumed quality of the games shown though, you can’t escape from two things: firstly, it was a highlight reel. Literally a string of trailers back to back with nothing to break it up. Secondly, they showed only a handful of games. And thirdly, they didn’t say anything about anything else at all. Yes, I know. That’s three things. I threw in an extra one for free.
It’s a stark contract to Microsoft’s conference this year. They showed some games (most of them with no indication of release dates), and had a big third-party presence with Ubisoft, Capcom and Bethesda all making an appearance in a meaningful way. They ended with the first showing of CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077 – possibly one of the most highly anticipated games of all time. But in between all those other games and that final bombshell, they dropped the news that will come to define this E3. I really think that in years to come, we’ll look back and realise that it was on that stage that Microsoft really told the world what they were going to be about as they put the days of the Xbox One behind them – for in that little segment between game reveals, they basically moved all their chess pieces into position before the game had even begun.
Since E3 2017, they’ve acquired four studios and created another one. The new one, named The Initiative is based in Santa Monica. There’s another big game studio in Santa Monica, and they’re owned by Sony. Anything in that? Maybe - make of it what you will. The four they’ve bought?
Playground Games – makers of Forza Horizon, and rumoured to be working on Fable – and also just down the road from where this is being written.
Undead Labs – makers of State of Decay, one of Microsoft’s tentpole 2018 releases, and one which I’m having a lot of fun with…
Compulsion Games – makers of the highly anticipated We Happy Few
Ninja Theory – they made one of my favourite games of last gen in Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and one of my most recent favourites in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.
Exclusivity has been a problem for Microsoft for the last few years – it sounds like it’s not going to be for much longer. And it’s being solved in an interesting way. Between their current slate of studios (343, makers of Halo, The Coalition who deal with Gears of War in its various forms, and Rare – delivering Microsoft’s first true Xbox service game as I discussed in my last post about Sea of Thieves) and these new additions, they’ve got the bases covered to not only ship a lot more exclusive games, but to ship some incredibly diverse ones.
In addition to the studio acquisitions mentioned in this little segment, they alluded to work being underway on the ‘next generation of Xbox devices’ and on a streaming service that would bring Xbox games to any device. To my mind, it’s not only the fact that Microsoft are willing to announce this stuff, it’s the fact that they’re prepared to pretty much bury it in the back end of their E3 conference that shows how they’ve changed. They aren’t on the back foot any more. They have a plan, and they’re confident enough in it that they’ll whisper it in your ear, rather than screaming it in your face.
If Sony aren’t seeing all of this as a warning shot, then they aren’t paying attention.