What happens next week at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the biggest video game trade show in the U.S., and what I wish would happen are two different things.
E3 2014 starts on Monday with Microsoft’s opening press conference, followed by Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, and Sony. On Tuesday, Nintendo will show its hand in a webcast, and it has noted that its chief executive will not be attending the show on doctor’s orders. We’ll be hearing a lot of promises about a bright future for games. I want the industry to live up to them.
By noon Tuesday, the exhibit floor of the show will open to the 45,000 attendees. This year, the show is going to be more predictable, with the hardware introductions from Microsoft and Sony handled last year. Now we can focus on the games that will set the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One apart. In the approach to E3, many games have been pushed back to 2015, and leaks have spilled the beans on some major titles. Accordingly, I’m worried that there won’t be enough surprises at E3. In fact, what happens if, at the last minute, E3 2014 gets delayed until 2015?
Among my chief worries is whether anyone will notice Nintendo. The company has no formal press conference. It has vaguely suggested that it will differentiate itself with games that improve our quality of life. But there’s a whole bunch of companies in that sector already, such as Apple with its new HealthKit platform or Lumosity, the popular maker of brain-training games. Nintendo has indicated that it’s not going to reveal new platforms to replace its Wii U console or its 3DS portable device any time soon. The Wii U is in trouble, and the 3DS, while doing well, is not outselling its predecessor. If Nintendo announces a few new games, these aren’t going to move the needle on its fate.
I hope that Nintendo surprises me, but I worry it won’t do that. I hope it shows me a real sense of urgency. Nintendo has been disrupted, at the high end by Sony and Microsoft and at the low end by free-to-play mobile games on the iPhone and Android devices. This year, Newzoo predicts that Apple, King (the maker of Candy Crush Saga), and Supercell (the maker of Clash of Clans) will each surpass Nintendo’s game revenues. Please prove us all wrong, Nintendo.
Even if we forget about Nintendo, I’m still kind of a worrywart. Mike Gallagher, the chief executive of the Entertainment Software Association, is excited about E3, which he calls “the Super Bowl” of video games. But he is paid to be excited. I look at some of his core constituents — the console game makers of the world — and I worry that they’re going to blow it. They have a golden opportunity to create a Golden Age of games, where the industry expands endlessly on all fronts: console, PC, mobile, social, online, and emerging platforms. It was great to see Electronic Arts report a better-than-expected quarter recently as many different parts of its business saw growth. But the transition could still be rocky.
I see small steps forward. Ubisoft’s cyberhacking open-world game Watch Dogs has sold more than four million units in its first week. It is a game that has physical, online, and mobile dimensions. It has fun multiplayer competition and a companion app that you can play on an iPad. And it looks like it could be globally appealing. I’ve done about 25 missions, and I’m not bored with it yet. This kind of new franchise has the potential to become a blockbuster, and it could easily spread that success across multiple new platforms.
At the same time, I see two steps back. Ubisoft delayed its Tom Clancy’s The Division until next year. Warner Bros. delayed Dying Light and Batman: Arkham Knight until 2015. Microsoft’s Halo 5 and Quantum Break also slipped into next year. So did Sony’s The Order: 1886 and CD Projekt’s The Witcher 3, and Warner’s Mad Max. Worst of all, Valve delayed its Steam Machines platform until 2015, causing delays among its 13 hardware partners who were counting on shipping machines this fall. In typical Valve fashion, the company disclosed this with a little note on a forum.
Console and PC game companies were already doubling down on fewer titles. They saw such increasing demands for higher quality that they cut loose the me-too titles or the experimental games, and they focused on what works. That gives gamers fewer choices, but quite possibly better and longer lasting experiences. These companies were also optimistic about the ease of making games for next-generation consoles. The theory was that it would be easier to make games for the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 because they were essentially x86-based PCs. Rather than pump out a new blockbuster every year with 500 to 700 people, you might now get by with a much smaller crew.
But the delays of these major games, which Gallagher attributes to the learning curve for next-generation hardware, suggest that it’s not as easy as everybody thought. So the console makers shrink the number of games they launch, and they still delay a lot of games. That could be a formula for shrinking the industry at a time when there should be a sense of urgency.
I would agree with Gallagher that the show could become more exciting as details about alternative game platforms emerge. Sony will be talking more about Project Morpheus, its virtual-reality headset. We’ll also be seeing playable games on top of the Oculus Rift, the virtual-reality goggles that have captured the imagination of a lot of gamers.
In the meantime, mobile game companies are moving after players. Machine Zone’s Game of War: Fire Age, which launched on Android recently, is one of those unnoticed games that could very well steal the money in wallets that would normally go to console game makers.
Mobile game companies will be there, but with smaller presences compared to the giant console game companies. And we’ll also be wondering more about what Amazon plans to introduce on June 18, and whether it will be good for gamers.
I’m pretty sure that the mobile game industry, which is on its way to $35 billion in revenue by 2017, will feel left out. E3 is too splashy, too expensive, and oriented to the wrong gamers for many mobile game companies. I wish E3 were more relevant to these major players, but I fear they will sit on the sidelines. By contrast, roughly 50 percent of the attendees at the Game Developers Conference in March were indie game developers. If E3 can’t make itself essential to the mobile game companies, it is doomed to shrink in its relevance. As evidenced by Apple’s unveiling of its Metal graphics technology this week, mobile gaming may get better. Cool tablet games like the upcoming Vain Glory from Super Evil Megacorp could entice traditional console and PC players.
These little guys are the barbarians at the gates. They could sap demand for hardcore console games, if they’re good enough. But they’re not really compelling for a lot of us right now. Apple could have landed a much bigger blow against the console makers this week, but it didn’t announce any new hardware. That’s kind of like a reprieve for the consoles. It definitely feels like there’s a transition happening. I’d hate to see the core console guys shrink further before mobile gaming really hits its stride.
I would to see the game makers handle the transition well, rather face disruption. Sony’s PlayStation Now technology, which will offer a cloud-based game experience on the PlayStation 4, could be an important bridge between the physical and digital game platforms. But it’s been a bit slow in coming.
I have to admit that Sony in particular has executed surprisingly well with the PS4 launch, selling more than 7 million units in five months. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Assassin’s Creed Unity will probably be crowd-pleasers. The sci-fi shooter Destiny — a creation of the Halo folks at Bungie — is expected to make it out this September, and there are some other creative titles that will hit the market by October. And with 33 million units sold, Grand Theft Auto V has certainly shown us what can happen with you hit a home run with a hardcore game.
Maybe I’m worrying too much. The future always makes me nervous. But I’ll hope for the best. As gamers, we’re all rooting for the industry. But the traditional game companies don’t own our future. They’re the custodians of our future. If we don’t like what they give us, we’ll take that future back, and give it to someone else.
See you at E3.