E3 2016: What the Press Conferences Tell Us About the State of Gaming


Like it or not, the onus of a successful E3 is on the “Big 3.” Despite the dozens of new companies, titles, and techs making stellar showings, the industry and media will always look to Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo to compass the future of the industry. You can (and should) question the merit of this approach, but it’s still an effective metric for the attitude of the majority of the industry. If most of the money is saying “jump,” you can bet a lot of developers will be making motion controlled exercise games.

For the 10 or so years I’ve been following the event, the three companies have always brought different mentalities to the show. Microsoft has always been about user experience, focusing on connecting with friends, customization, and multimedia functionality. You want to make a Sons of Anarchy fan group in Call of Duty playing with custom controllers that have thumbsticks modeled after motorcycle wheels? The Xbox is your place to be. Sony always focuses on games, with a spread of new IPs, announcements, and major updates on long awaited titles. Is there going to be a new Kojima game? Sony has the answer. Nintendo has always focused on being different. If this were “rock, paper, scissors,” Nintendo would be an octopus.

With no major console releases on the horizon, E3 2016 was positioned to be a filler year. It would have been acceptable for each major power to come out, announce a couple new predictable installments to major franchises, talk about a new partnership with some subscription service most people will never use, and call it a day. We haven’t quite reached the point where they are desperately trying to latch onto new trends to maintain relevance, so the “comically watching a shitshow implode” option wasn’t on the table.

So no Twitter-crashing news this year, but it made the show more interesting for people who read way too much into things for a living (i.e. me). It’s easy to plan a press conference when you are dropping the bomb of a new console. Just show the graphics, announce a few titles, and Bob’s your uncle. When you don’t have that, you have to rely on the excitement over your existing product and its upcoming features.

It’s in this that we can see how a company’s direction has shifted and grown. Year after year, fan feedback and market success will force companies to either rethink their model or doggedly stay the course. For Microsoft, the message this year to tell their fans that they hear them loud and clear.

After what I would consider an anemic showing at E3 2015, I didn’t have high hopes for the Microsoft press conference. Their focus last year was user experience, headlining with backwards compatibility, and the vague promise of cross platform play between PC and Xbox One. Since my Xbox 360 is still working fine, the backwards compatibility didn’t really wow me the way they hoped it would, and cross platform hasn’t really come to full fruition yet.

This year’s show started kind of similarly. After a long and initially impressive trailer for Gears of War 4, we saw a lot about individual designed controllers, a new Xbox One S, and more promises of cross platform interconnectivity. There was some pretty cringeworthy Minecraft play, which promises to deliver on mod support “sometime in 2017.”

But then, something incredible happened. They started revealing games. Along with a cavalcade of indie projects (I recommend you check out The Culling, it’s my current addiction), we saw Dead Rising 4, State of Decay 2, Tekken 7, and Scalebound. There was also an extended spotlight for We Happy Few and a peak into Playdead’s new title Inside. It was an incredible, gamer-centric show.

It was still distinctly Microsoft, though. I can’t tell you how little I care about how fat my Xbox One is or the pinkness of my controller. This fluff side of user experience that keeps getting people to shell out more cash has always baffled me. It also seemed kind of funny that Microsoft was pushing things like mod support and visiting other players’ Minecraft servers, i.e. shit you could do on the PC since it first came out. Still, it’s nice to see that they care about closing the gap between the inferior console and superior PC experience.

Speaking of closing that gap, there is a piece of user experience that I am excited about. For a long time, Microsoft has teased support for both their PC and Xbox markets. It’s been a farce, with every E3 being an Xbox parade, and piss-poor services like Games for Windows Live making the once revered company a joke in the PC gaming community. As a primarily PC gamer, I would actively avoid any game that required me to use their toxic service, gamerscore be damned.

But Microsoft turned a corner this year, billing exclusives as for Xbox One and Windows 10. It seems a small change, but for a demographic that has been largely ignored over the past several years, it was sorely needed. Talks about cross platform play are always nice, but it’s the dedication to releasing content that matters. Also, the ability to play Xbox titles on my PC will open the door to all sorts of games that I just couldn’t bring myself to play without Netflix open on my other monitor. #justpcgamerthings

Finally, the hardware. Microsoft’s “Project Scorpio” was unveiled, promising “4k gaming” and the best pixels your eyes could ever witness. But it isn’t a new console. It’s a souped-up, “VR ready” Xbox One. All of your Xbox One stuff will work on it, and all of its stuff will work on the Xbox One. It’s a really wierd announcement that I’m not sure how to get excited for. If Toyota told me I could trade in my Prius for a model that costs twice as much and was covered in glitter, I wouldn’t be rushing to my dealership. It also comes off as kind of defeatist, like, “sorry the Xbox One wasn’t good enough, here’s a better one.”

What is interesting about Scorpio is that they’re billing it as part of the “Xbox Family.” Similar to the inclusion of PC/Windows 10 in their announcements, Microsoft is pushing for a more unified experience over multiple platforms. Supported by the upcoming Universal Windows Platform (UWP), you can purchase a game on your Xbox, play on your PC, stream it on your tablet, and then play it in VR on your Scorpio. It’s a bold strategy, changing the mindset from, “let’s get as many people as we can on Xbox” to, “let’s reach as many gamers as we can.”

Finally, woeful news for the single fan out there, but the Kinect seems to be dead. The Xbox One S is shipping sans the port for the controversial bit of forced hardware. There’s still PC support coming for it in the UWP, but without any announcements for game support we can safely say that the Kinect is a failed experiment. I won’t be shedding any tears for it, but it’s an ominous omen given the nascent future of VR.

Clocking in at an hour and a half, the Microsoft press conference was a talk heavy spectacle that clearly showed the company’s commitment to the promise of a unified gaming experience. We’ll have to see in the coming months how much of these promises come true and how much of a splash they make.

Sony, on the other hand, had about seven minutes of spoken dialogue their entire show. In typical Sony fashion, their show was a bombardment of epic trailers and announcements that had me grinning like a panda at a bamboo convention. It was an especially fantastic year for Dread Central fans, with announcements for Resident Evil 7, Days Gone, Death Stranding, Farpoint, God of War, and new trailers for Horizon Zero Dawn and Detroit: Become Human. They even gave an October 25th release date for The Last Guardian. Guess I can start sinning again, because hell froze over.

Along the way, they also took a moment to announce that the Playstation VR would be dropping on October 13th and it would only cost $399. With the HTC Vive still at $800 and the Oculus Rift at $600, this is a game changer. I’ve been saying for some time that VR is too expensive to succeed, but at $400 even my cheap ass is tempted. Resident Evil 7 might have something to do what that, too.

The Sony press conference was an exciting spectacle that I greatly enjoyed, but just like a firework show, I don’t have a lot to say about it. I liked all the pretty colors, and am looking forward to being able to see them in my living room. While Microsoft worked hard to show their audience that they were moving in a new, exciting direction, Sony is staying the course by delivering game after game into the hands of gamers.

Nintendo, too, stayed their recent course, by removing themselves even further from E3. Rather than a press conference, they had an event-long stream with Nintendo Treehouse. Their big announcement of the show was The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. They also showed some Pokémon stuff. And probably something about Mario Party. If you couldn’t tell, I don’t really follow Nintendo.

It’s another step on the long road of Nintendo distancing themselves from Sony and Microsoft. There were rumors that the Nintendo NX would be making an appearance, but at this point it seems like Nintendo is content just not competing with its rivals. Nintendo took a big risk with the release of the Wii by forgoing the typical graphics and power rat race, and it payed off in a big way. They reigned in the quirkiness a bit with the Wii U, but the mindset of a three-way duel is all but dead. It’s safe to say that the next Call of Duty won’t even be on the Wii U, let alone be in the running for exclusive DLC or content reveals.

It’s a big change from the days of a bitter war between Gamecube, PS2, and Xbox, but in Nintendo’s wake a new challenger has risen to the E3 arena. More and more, developers and publishers are coming out with big shows to rival those of Sony and Microsoft. EA was an oddball this year, deciding to host their event off-site (it was literally a block away, how ballsy). I can only assume that they got into a fight with the convention over floorspace to show Battlefield 1. Ubisoft returned again this year, with a huge chunk of new Watchdogs 2 info and an eagle simulator. Hot off the success of Doom and Fallout 4, Bethesda upped the ante with a dual press conference/Blink-182 concert. Also, Bethesda is going to start developing for VR. And new Quake!

The real star of E3 this year for me was the much improved PC Gamer show. Hosted by the adorably talented Sean “Day 9” Plott, it showcased the largest number of games that I was actually interested in. With a much more ameteur feel, it felt more like a celebration of gaming than a marketing stunt. It wasn’t trying to prove anything, and didn’t shove exclusivity down our throats in big bold letters. Day 9’s post trailer interviews were genuine, feeling spontaneous and giving the show a living room feel that few other hosts could pull off. There were a few missteps here and there, but it reminded me of that unpolished, unpredictable PC market that delivers full user created Skyrim expansions and Randy Savage dragons.

Not to be outdone by Microsoft and Sony, the PC Gamer show even brought their own hardware announcement in the form of an Alienware VR backpack. So now if you want to play VR games without all those pesky cords, all you have to do is strap on this backpack, put on a headset, and clear a space in your room large enough to not be constantly falling over furniture. I can count on zero hands how many times cords have gotten in the way of my gaming experience.

Long story short, Microsoft is trying to make gaming more accessible, Sony is delivering on more games, Nintendo threw Zelda at us and went back to their cave, and a bunch of new powerhouses got to be lovably awkward and disorganized in their own special way. To me, it speaks of a future more focused on games than platforms. One of the things you may have noticed is that those “Coming exclusively to…” tags that populated last year’s shows were few and far between. Both companies had a fair share of exclusive titles, but that exclusivity didn’t take center stage. Last year felt like a boxing match, with every timed exclusive and DLC being dragged out and squeezed for every drop. This year, you’d hardly even know that Dead Rising 4 is coming to PS4 a year later if you didn’t look it up.

The last point I want to address is the future of VR. For a long time, I have been a naysayer. It’s hard not to be, as in the very shows where Microsoft and Sony are talking about the bright future where we all will experience gaming heights only reachable through their particular headset, we see no mention of the previous “immersive” peripheral they tried to shove down our throats. Am I the only one that remembers the Kinect and Playstation Move? Or the Playstation Eye? Or how about when Sony tried to make 3D TVs happen? Those offered a new way to interact with your games, and were only a fraction of the price. It seems like willful ignorance to just get swept up in the hype given the history of failed experiments.

Game Boat

Like the Game Boat.

I’ve heard the argument that VR is different since it’s a technology, not a device. While the Kinect was a specific limited platform to develop for, VR can be integrated across multiple functional headsets without sacrificing too much development time. It’s a hard bargain to ask for a developer to sink money into creating for a device that is still untested, but the sheer ubiquity of a VR product would negate a lot of the risk. Another good argument is that the interest for VR is what spawned the devices, not the other way around. Most VR products exist because people demanded it, sometimes with large sums of money. From a development standpoint, many creators (especially indie) see this as a way to create a unique interactive experience. It’s easy to entice talent when you give them a totally new avenue to tell their stories.

As a gamer, I certainly want VR to work. VR and horror go hand in hand, so the gloriously dark future where I get to explore haunted locations first hand is one I dream of. But as with all things, people have to buy it for it to succeed. We’ve seen VR games for years now, but still aren’t sure how they fare in the open market. With such a limited sample size, it’s difficult to tell how financially solvent these indie projects will turn out to be.

Personally, I know a single person that owns an HTC Vive. This person also owns an Oculus, Samsung Gear VR, and in October, a Playstation VR. There are more gamers than ever now, but how many of them have $400-$800 to drop on a device that they can’t use with their friends? I can’t figure out how I would get my dad to even try the headset on, let alone convince him that this is how we watch movies now. Despite my pessimism, the industry is confident that VR will work. And if that leads to Resident Evil being horror again, then I’m happy.



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