E3 2014: stakes are high for the most crucial show in a decade

Thursday, 5 June 2014 14:36 GMT By Matt Martin

With the world’s entertainment media focused on L.A. next week, Sony and Microsoft have to prove that console video games have a clear, exciting and worthwhile future.

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The build begins and Activision is there first.

This year more than ever Sony and Microsoft need to stand up at E3 and state “this is the future of video game entertainment.” They need to be crystal clear on this now more than any other time in the history of the console games business. They need to point in a direction millions can follow – not just consumers – but the developers, publishers, press and shareholders, a vision everyone can get behind for the continued evolution of the video game industry.

“E3′s days and nights are a bunfight, a backslap, a mudsling – guns fired in the air in celebration of a surgent industry as strong as any other entertainment media.”

E3 has always been crucial. The media briefings are a bombastic showgirl flaunting everything to the press and players. The three days and nights that follow are a bunfight, a backslap, a mudsling – guns fired in the air in celebration of a surgent industry as strong as any other entertainment media. But this year those bullets need to be directed at clear targets, lest so many shots are fired the roof collapses.

The stakes have never been higher. Last year new consoles rolled out and were rightly lauded and lambasted in equal measure. Finally, new hardware after such a long drought! But Microsoft’s Xbox One came hobbled with an arrogant reinvention of the brand; a social connected entertainment box that seemingly placed TV and sports above games. Since then the Redmond giant has u-turned itself dizzy, dropping almost all of its unwanted promises and even some of its intrusive tech. Now it’s just about the games. Quite right.

Sony won last year’s battle but a year later its line-up of blockbusters is equally barren. It’s created good will with indies and good value with PS Plus, but the list of titles from now until the end of the year is as thin as it was at launch. Here, says Sony, have some stuff already released on lesser formats and some free games you’ve already played to keep you happy.

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As always, Microsoft’s media briefing kicks off day one.

There has never been such a risk and such little risk at the same time. The games are what they are – more guns, more cars, more exploration, more role-playing – and the publishers are right to focus mega budgets on them. Because the risk of failure doesn’t just mean your game doesn’t sell. It means the investment money is gone, the 200 people who made the game are sacked, the studio closes down, the local economy suffers. And the little box you play games on has another hole in it.

While budgets are spiralling out of control, other numbers are shrinking. The audience knows what it wants. Look at entertainment on the internet to see what the audience likes and be sure to give it to them. What’s the video game equivalent of a cat running into a glass door, or a bloke in his pants singing Carly Rae Jepsen?

“Far Cry is proven. Assassin’s Creed is proven. That’s why Watch Dogs is both of these things wrapped in a different skin. This is what the kids want. Four million sales in a week proves that.”

“We don’t want that,” you cry. Yes you do. I’ve seen what you share on Facebook and Twitter. It’s hilarious and you shouldn’t be ashamed of it. Pop culture is cool. The lowest common denominator appeals to all and that’s why there are less experimental games and a doubling and tripling-down on what works. Far Cry is proven. Assassin’s Creed is proven. That’s why Watch Dogs is both of these things wrapped in a different skin. This is what the kids want. Four million sales in a week proves that. It’s fact.

Titanfall, Watch Dogs and Wolfenstein (yep, Wolfenstein, it’s not as dumb as you thought) have only shown glimpses of what this new generation of games can deliver. The console industry needs reinventions of its classic franchises alongside new brands. Call of Duty is so tired it’s releasing pirate ghost DLC like an episode of Scooby Doo. Those that haven’t already fled the industry over the past three years must be looking at that with deep alarm. Who’s going to invest time and money in such hokum? We need games like Destiny as soon as possible, with it’s ridiculous $500 million budget and eight year release plan. It cannot afford to fail.

Where’s Nintendo in all of this? Nintendo is out of the limelight. It may be having a gentle resurgence but the Wii U is never going to hit mainstream highs. Nintendo seems happy drifting alongside the console business, non-committal in its future vision and content to serve up those same old characters again and again. It can make a living from that well enough, but it’s all but retiring from this generation of technology. Maybe that will be its wisest decision in the long term.

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Rich white men will try to sell you an expensive box. You should buy one so we can eat.

A lot of the numbers are unsustainable. We understand there are cool indie games out there, experimental projects and fun little games for PSN and XBLA. That’s great, but without the bigger industry booming around them they wouldn’t survive on their own. It’s inspiring that an indie game can start out on mobile and PC before porting to Vita, PS3 and PS4, but without Sony those games don’t get the continued support, the marketing or the sales. Mobile is cool but it’s as brutal – if not more so – as the console business. The top ten on iOS is the same top ten it was last year and the year before. Three talented devs in a garage aren’t breaking into that.

“Sony and Microsoft need to reclaim the spotlight for video games. They aren’t HBO or Sky or ESPN or the BBC and they don’t need to pretend to be.”

Sony and Microsoft won’t make a living selling and supporting indie games. It all adds to the ecosystem and we can all have a little circle-jerk about games being creative and beautiful but the money to support hardware that costs billions of dollars to research, build, manufacture and sell comes from those games that sell 10 million copies at $50 a pop. The games that sell and hold their value over years. Everything else – everything – is peripheral.

The manufacturers have a duty to lead the rest of the console business. It’s their walled gardens we play in. Next week in L.A. Sony and Microsoft need to reclaim the spotlight for video games. Sony and Microsoft aren’t HBO or Sky or ESPN or the BBC and they don’t need to pretend to be. Sony and Microsoft are God of War and Halo and Uncharted and Forza. Activision is Call of Duty and EA is FIFA and Ubisoft is Assassin’s Creed.

They are massive, multi-million dollar entertainment brands, and more importantly, bloody great games.

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