Next week, we’ll bear witness to the enormous investments that major companies and platform makers are making into video games. I’ll try to spell out the kind of bets these companies are placing in this column.
The blockbuster console and PC game makers will show up in force among the 293 exhibitors at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo in the sprawling Los Angeles Convention Center. More than 1,500 games will be shown, including more than 100 that have never been seen before.
The year of the reboot
If I were feeling snarky or grumpy, I would say it’s the “year of the reboot.” These games are getting the AAA treatment for next-generation consoles and PCs, but they’re still a redo of a game that we’ve seen before. Insomniac, for instance, is working away on Ratchet & Clank. Square Enix is debuting Rise of the Tomb Raider, the reboot sequel to the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot. We’re also going to see remakes with Guitar Hero Live, Tony Hawk Pro Skater 5, and Rock Band 4. Electronic Arts will show next installments of Star Wars: Battlefront and Mirror’s Edge. Bethesda is showing up with its reboot of Doom and Fallout 4. Bandai Namco will bring Dark Souls III. And, of course, we’ll see new versions of Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed.
These are all big budget games that are going to look beautiful as “re-imagined” AAA titles. But they’re not original. That’s worth grumbling about. But I recognize that there are some really great reboots coming, and that there is a lot of good original content being shown as well. Gamers like me enjoy the reboots if it means we’ll get polished graphics, an emotional narrative, and awesome gameplay. Even though these big budget blockbuster remakes aren’t going to bring us any really new, I think they’re going to make die-hard fans quite happy. That’s because they’re going to be the games where the companies can confidently make huge investments and keep the quality bar high.
Toys to death
We’re also going to see some very serious investments in the “toys to life” category. Activision started this segment from zero in 2011 and grew it to $4 billion on the strength of the Skylanders toy-game hybrid titles. Rovio and Hasbro joined in with Angry Birds, Disney kicked off Infinity, and Nintendo joined in with Amiibo. The question isn’t whether kids are going to get tired of playing with these newfangled toys. It’s about whether parents are going to get fed up with buying them.
Now we’re seeing some of the biggest investments yet. David Haddad, head of Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, said that Lego Dimensions — with a lot major brands from Warner’s The Lord of the Rings to Valve’s Portal — is the biggest game investment his company has made to date.
Disney also signaled how serious it is about toys-to-life by noting that it has enlisted eight major game studios to build its Star Wars and Inside Out titles for Disney Infinity this year. Activision is fighting back with its own vehicle-based Skylanders title this year. If parents keep buying these games for their kids — they’ve spent about $131 on average in the past six months — that will be great. But if there’s a limit to how much money parents will spend, then it’s going to be a bloody competitive fight this fall. Will these investments pay off, and were they worth it if it means that these giant companies had to cancel lots of other games in order to bring toys to life?
Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo
The platform owners are going to hit E3 with all of the exclusive content they can muster.
Microsoft will bring its staples like Gears of War, but it has the potential to surprise us with demos for HoloLens, the holographic augmented reality glasses that it has shown off. It will deliver some nice cross-platform capabilities with Windows 10. And it is banking that Halo 5: Guardians will keep its faithful fans happy.
But I would wager Sony will show up with more games, and they’ll be the kind that leave your jaw dropping, like Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. It will also try to create cool new gaming experiences around its Morpheus virtual reality headset. And, god forbid, it may show up with The Last Guardian, which is sure to be a disappointment when it finally arrives after years of rumors.
If you can bet on anything with Nintendo, it will show up with the fun. It can dust off old franchises like Starfox and Zelda, and show them working on a modern console. Nintendo’s big announcements probably aren’t going to come until it shows up with its new console in 2016.
All of these games will make you feel like you’ve got to own all of the consoles and gaming platforms.
VR, VR, VR
E3’s Mike Gallagher, chief executive of the Entertainment Software Association, says we’re going to see 22 virtual reality companies at E3. As we saw yesterday, Facebook’s Oculus VR plans to show up with a consumer prototype of its Oculus Rift headset and some cool Oculus Touch motion controllers as the input system for VR. It was very interesting that Microsoft and Oculus partnered on the controller and the VR game streaming capability.
Oculus is going to show up with 16 game developers as its partners. These partners are going to show off games that will be playable on the hardware that Oculus will bring to the show. Sadly, we won’t now some key facts, like how much it will cost and what the killer application is going to be.
Magic Leap might show up with its cool augmented reality glasses, but those could be very far in the future still. I still say to startups and big companies: Be careful about how much you invest in these games, because it’s going to be a long time before you can make money with them. But I know they won’t be able to resist themselves. They’re going to invest way too much in this market because of the hype, and that’s going set this technology back when it comes down to earth. Digi-Capital is predicting augmented reality and virtual reality could be a $150 billion market by 2020. But that doesn’t mean that VR companies are going to make much money in 2016.
Mobile gaming MIA
Mobile gaming is expected to grow to $30 billion worldwide and become bigger than console games this year, according to market researcher Newzoo. But you wouldn’t know it based on who is showing up at E3. Gallagher said there are 70 mobile game companies showing up at E3, but very few of them bothered to get booths, and I didn’t get very many pitches from these companies at all. They realize that mobile games don’t show well on big screens, and that the competition for attention is really tough.
If you went to E3, you would never know that one of the most valuable companies in the gaming business is Supercell, a 150-person Finnish company with a valuation of $5.5 billion. That’s probably a bad thing. It means that the mobile game companies and the console game companies aren’t really getting to know each other. And the opportunities to bridge the divide between the audiences of these platforms — by taking console to mobile or mobile to console — are going to be unfulfilled.
I’ll be happy to see one mobile game, though. Zynga is showing up with its Dawn of Titans game from its Natural Motion division. That title promises console-like graphics on a tablet. I really want to see games like this take off.
Even though most of this column seems cynical about where the industry is investing its dollars, I am grateful that we’re going to see some original games. Ubisoft is showing up with its Rainbow Six: Siege and The Division games. While these titles have been in the works for a long time, and they aren’t a surprise, I’m glad that Ubisoft is taking the time to make major investments in new gameplay that we haven’t seen before.
And I’m looking forward to indie game originals like Wattam, a new wacky game from Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahashi and Journey co-creator Robin Hunicke. I am also very intrigued by Abzu, an underwater exploration game from 505 Games and Giant Squid. I really hope it’s going to be like Journey under the sea.
But maybe we’ll get some surprises. Joe Montana Football could very well show up and take on the monopoly of EA Sports’ Madden NFL football. I live for the day when something comes out of the blue and really knocks me out. I sure hope that I get surprised. Otherwise, you’re going to see that cynical side come out again.