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Ubisoft and EA: which third party won E3 2014?

Two of the largest third-party publishers in the world went head to head at E3 2014. Ubisoft and EA may not have a historic rivalry, but you can't tell us they weren't competing for your love in LA last night.


E3 is a reflection of the games industry. A few years ago you'd be reading reports or watching livestreams of up to a dozen events. This year, we have just four major players - EA, Microsoft, Sony and Ubisoft.

This whittling down of key companies reflects the industry's increasing reliance on fewer, bigger hits, in line with the rising cost of competitive triple-A development as hardware advances. If the last generation hadn't lasted as long as it did, keeping a lid on growth, we might be looking at even less content - or none.

The next few years will determine whether the triple-A scene can continue its unchecked decadence or whether the industry has to refocus, so it's worth our time to watch closely and see what the remaining big four bring to LA. Microsoft and Sony are worlds in and of themselves, but EA and Ubisoft have interesting parallels: both are early adopters of new hardware. Both own astonishing catalogues of property. Both are among the most important content creators in video games.

Ubisoft had the more entertaining show, I think. Aisha Tyler attracts a lot of haters, presumably because we're all so deadened by marketing that we're no longer capable of recognising authentic appreciation for the material. Tyler is a mainstream celebrity who likes video games; Tyler is a conventionally attractive woman who loves video games the way we massive geeks love video games. Since the media and society are constantly telling us this is impossible, it's no wonder many of us react badly to her enthusiasm.

If you can get over that barrier, she's a great host; genuinely excited about the games, but perfectly willing to give a smirk, nod and wink to the camera in acknowledgment of the incongruous juxtaposition of cheerful dancing and overwrought melodrama. She makes us part of the experience with her occasional ad-libs - by her live criticism of the auto cue script she's reading from. Quit complaining about her and compare her to the stiff, over-media trained developers and executives, or the obviously confused celebrities and athletes brought on stage with the lure of a gratuity. (Not to mention: she's female, and a woman of colour. It is delightful to get a tiny break in the unceasing chorus of white men that is: every video game event ever.)

"The French publisher had a short but sweet line-up to show, and it kept the pace punchy. Every presentation was to the point, with no distracting marketing waffle and no time wasted on less-than-triple-A titles. Sony could take a few lessons."

Tyler love aside, if I could give a prize for presentation it would go to Ubisoft this year. The French publisher had a short but sweet line-up to show, and it kept the pace punchy. Every presentation was to the point, with no distracting marketing waffle and no time wasted on less-than-triple-A titles. Ubisoft is talking to vendors, yes, but it's also talking to you, and it knows you have a short attention span. Sony could take a few lessons, and Microsoft already has.

Meanwhile, Andrew Wilson is egregiously Australian. I forgive him this, since I'm also an Australian, and also his really, really unfortunate suiting decision (oh my love, no. Please - let me introduce you to my tailor. Also: Peter Moore would never have agreed to that jacket). But there's very little else to say for him. EA is full of vibrant executives and it loves trotting them out, which is lovely, but none of them are in the jobs they're in because they know how to work a crowd, you know?

EA had a funny conference; after all this time it doesn't seem to know how to connect with its audience, throwing bombastic trailers at them but never giving them reasons to care beyond "you already do, because marketing".

This year, a lot of the stuff it had to "show" was extremely nebulous. It had promised to bring us Star Wars: Battlefront, but what it actually brought was a montage of DICE staff talking about how much they love Star Wars in general, and some stirring musical themes. Plucking our almost universally Star Wars-loving heartstrings is a clever move, but giving us a happy feeling in our pants and then just wandering off with a vague promise of future joy isn't the way to bring us to the altar.

This is not a game! None of this is a game! Literally nothing here is actually Mass Effect 4!

Mass Effect was no better. I love Mass Effect, and I have the same reaction to the music as you do to Star Wars (never forget BioWare made Mass Effect because it couldn't make another KOTOR) but by the end I was pulling a face best described by the emoticon "D:". Footage of men sitting in dark rooms! (Guys that is bad for your eyes.) Slow pans across tiny sections of environments! Everything marked "conceptual prototype"! What?

Mirror's Edge 2 is also still very far from the finish line, clearly. Criterion's next game doesn't even have a title, for goodness sake, and Bioware Edmonton is making a "new IP". That's our info. It really was a show of teasers rather than concrete content.

EA kept talking about how excellent these games are going to be, and I am confident they will be, because it has a lot of money and tries very hard. But they're still a long way off, despite the publisher's early commitment to next-gen platforms. EA's show felt like an advertisement for the PS4 and Xbox One's future, and that tells me that EA is sweating on next-gen adoption - which is concerning, since it's been the most successful third-party on the new platforms.

"EA kept talking about how excellent these games are going to be, and I am confident they will be, because it has a lot of money and tries very hard. But they’re still a long way off, despite the publisher’s early commitment to next-gen platforms. EA’s show felt like an advertisement for the PS4 and Xbox One’s future. Ubisoft’s show was much more of the moment."

Ubisoft's show was much more of the moment; most of the games it showed are coming out soon. The publisher has mastered the short PR cycle, and it's making it work for games like Far Cry 4. Watch Dogs, The Division and The Crew have had much longer wait times, which hasn't always worked in Ubisoft's favour; I think it's learning from that.

It's interesting to compare Ubisoft and EA's shows of 2013 and 2014. In 2013, Ubisoft had a range of upcoming next-gen titles, but very little to show in the coming year. EA had a bevy of next-gen titles for the coming year, but was so focused on the present that it had little to talk about beyond that.

This year, Ubisoft has a stellar 12 months planned out, with a short but powerful list of already hype-driven releases ahead of it. But EA's sort of grinning and holding out 2015 and beyond as exciting times.

That's not to say EA doesn't have some great things on its slate. EA Sports UFC, PGA Tour, Madden 15 and NHL 15 are clearly next-gen hardware showcases. The Sims is a harder sell unless you're geeky about simulation tech, but is doing some very clever things thanks to the hardware advances since the last core release.

Dragon Age: Inquisition made a showing, much to our relief - it's coming out this year, and this is the very first time we've actually had a decent look at it. Gameplay! A trailer made of in-game graphics! I almost believe this is really going to happen and not be a balls-out disaster, which is pretty important if EA wants my pre-order money - which is a lot of what E3 is about.

FIFA 15 was another strong showing. As an annual release FIFA cops a lot of flack from its detractors but for those who are on the scene - and remember, that's millions of people - those strange little innovations and iterations that make you shrug and yawn are huge things. Konami does its best with PES but EA Sports really has no rival in football; if only it weren't on the other side of that divide with basketball and 2K, it would be the happiest girl in the world.

Oh my god yes video games video games VIDEOGAMES

Battlefield: Hardline was perhaps the belle of the ball, to the surprise of the cynical. The fact is, a Battlefield game developed by another studio - a studio not known for FPS, no less - and following so hot on the heels of the still somewhat broken Battlefield 4, is not a promising prospect. And yet Hardline's demo was spectacular, leveraging next-gen tech to crank the "levelution" concept up to 11 and putting explosions on explosions. Obviously we are all intellectual types and want games to innovate in more ways than eye candy; but did you see those explosions? Did you? (Letting you play it today was a master touch.)

So that's brilliant; it's a big line-up. But instead of just telling us about these things, EA dotted its conference with things we won't see for donkey's years (or don't care about - Dawngate, anyone? No, thought not. "Don't want to clone", my arse). This diluted its message, and left many punters erroneously feeling like EA has nothing on offer this year.

I say old chap, shall we show them
what they actually want to see, hey?

By contrast, Ubisoft started its conference with Far Cry 4, a game that'll be in your gift pile this non-denominational end of year celebration if you've been a very good little boy/girl/individual. It moved on to Assassin's Creed: Unity, Just Dance 2015, The Crew, and Valiant Hearts: The Great War, all due within the next nine months. Even The Division, the least concrete of them all, will be out before next E3.

The only ephemeral project Ubisoft brought was Rainbow Six: Siege, nee Patriots, which is forgivable given it seems to have been completely and utterly rebuilt, and may as well be treated as a new announce. Even so, if this one turns up in the third quarter of 2014 we won't be hugely surprised.

Both publishers had good conferences. Both have a number of good games on their schedules. But in terms of running an entertaining, engaging show and leaving a favourable impression in the hearts and minds of gamers, Ubisoft really won the day, despite its comparatively smaller selection of games. That's a hell of an achievement, and yet more evidence of the French publisher's rocketing climb to ascendancy over its rivals.

E3 is a reflection of the industry; if I were EA, Take Two or Acti, the last competitors standing in the "mega publisher", I'd be looking over my shoulder. France is well keen on revolutions.

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