E3 2014 is less than three weeks away. That's...well, it's kind of crazy because it doesn't seem like a whole year has past since then. But the truth is, a lot has changed.
For reference, here are some facts about E3 2013:
PS4 and Xbox One were still unreleased consoles
Nintendo hadn't released any of these games: The Wonderful 101, Super Mario World 3D, Pikmin 3, Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD, Wii Fit U, or Pokémon X & Y.
Sony hadn't released any of these games: Puppeteer, The Last of Us, Gran Turismo 6, Tearaway, Beyond: Two Souls, or Killzone: Mercenary. And, of course, any of the PS4 games.
Microsoft...well, all of their games were for Xbox One, so obviously none of them had released yet. They didn't show any first-party Xbox 360 titles.
Oculus Rift was still a small-ish, independent company not owned by Facebook.
Clearly, a lot has changed in less than a year. I wanted to take a little time to ruminate on the upcoming conference, what with its megaton announcements, awkward executives giving speeches, and the inevitable week-before leaks. It's a special time of year for gamers to pull together around their collective screens (be they computer, tablet, mobile or television) and get really excited about their hobby.
Here are a few things I'm looking forward to from each of the big players:
LEARNING WHAT THE HELL MICROSOFT'S DOING
The last year has been a strange one for Xbox One. Before it even released, it was inciting rage and excitement simultaneously, it's seen more policy reversals than a bad day in Washington, and it's recently been announced that the once-vital Kinect sensor will become an optional accessory. For Microsoft, this E3 is a time to set the record straight and paint a clear strategy for the future of the console.
Kinect becoming a sideshow is a big deal. What will happen to games being developed for the One that required Kinect? Sure, developers can slap a "Kinect Required" tag on the box (that happened on 360, too), but that will start to become a consideration for publishers seeking the widest audience. Most everyone can agree that Microsoft did very little to prove the necessity for Kinect 2.0 other than for menu navigation and "Xbox On"-style voice commands, but I liked their strategy of making sure every box had one. Surely, some developers can finally crack the code of how to make this an awesome gaming companion. Will that potential die with the Kinect being sidelined?
Another big aspect of Microsoft's early Xbox One strategy was the TV integration, and this has been a bit of a non-starter in terms of gathering mindshare for the console. Yes, it works as promised...assuming you still have cable and haven't turned into a Netflix/Hulu household (we have). But will Microsoft continue to innovate on other non-gaming uses of the console? Will the TV integration find a way to work more with services like Netflix? Yes, the console has Netflix, but you can't just say "Xbox, Watch Orange is the New Black" and have it launch the streaming service; rather, you need to launch Netflix as an app, then navigate more menus, find your show, etc. If they can bring the sleekness of the Xbox One TV experience to non-cable households, that could start to be a bigger selling point of the console for the savvier audience that is likely become an early(-ish) adopter.
However, with all the pages Microsoft has taken from Sony's playbook over the last year, I fully expect Microsoft to wizen up and focus on games in a much bigger way. We already know that Halo 5 has been leaked, but Microsoft's first-party studios haven't seen many announcements since the twelve or so exclusives revealed last year, a number of which have already released. I hope we learn more about Remedy's Quantum Break (even though I lament the lack of Alan Wake 2), but I mainly want to see Microsoft Studios continue to expand its reach and scope, much like Sony has done with its stable of developers over the past decade.
NINTENDO'S WII U STRATEGY
Yes, I've already written about Nintendo and E3, but I'm really curious to see what the House of Mario has up its sleeve to invigorate the gaming world about Wii U. They're taking a typically-different approach to the conference with their Digital Event, Smash Bros. invitational, and "Live from the Treehouse" series (which is still unclear to me), but that's all just the method of communication. I want to know what they can say or announce that could turn the tides for the struggling Wii U console.
The last few months have been filled with bad news for Nintendo's latest console, with sales expectations getting drastically reduced and unachieved nevertheless. Third party relations have gone south quickly, with EA pulling support from the console entirely, Ubisoft delaying a number of key games for the system, and EA's Frostbite Engine team even tweeting a pretty mean April Fool's Day joke at the Wii U's expense. Shareholders aren't too excited about any of this news, and there are rumors that Nintendo President Satoru Iwata may have a pretty rough road ahead of him if things don't turn around for Wii U--and fast.
We know that Smash Bros. is going to be a big area of focus at the conference, and it will certainly move systems when it releases later this year. Not only that, Mario Kart 8 will have just released for the system (don't forget to read my Mario Kart May retrospective series!), and Nintendo will no doubt be looking to brag about the game's (hopefully) stellar sales numbers. We also know that a new Zelda game is in development, but it's definitely not coming this year. If we're lucky, we'll see a short trailer for this maybe with gameplay, but we'll probably just get a tease of the art style. So what else is coming? It's been too long since we've heard about a new Metroid title, but that series doesn't do huge numbers for Nintendo, sales-wise. Their recent tease of the NFC (Near Field Communication) figurines will undoubtedly be given more context during the Digital Event, but it's hard to say how much that will ignite the hardcore fan base or what the corresponding game(s) will look like.
Is any of this enough? I don't honestly think it is. If Nintendo wants to really get more consoles in people's homes, they need to really shake things up in a major way. Maybe they release a darker, grittier title with a second party studio that really takes aim at the Sony faithful. Maybe they announce a competitive service to Sony's PlayStation Now streaming service with a subscription model for Virtual Console games. Maybe they reveal a new, iconic character or series that isn't just relegated to an under-the-radar release on the 3DS eShop. Maybe they secure a series of must-have third party exclusives (hey, remember the Capcom Five?). Whatever they do, it needs to be big, bold, and ballsy if they want to compete against Microsoft and Sony.
DOES SONY HAVE MORE GAMES TO ANNOUNCE?
Look, the PlayStation 4 is a really awesome system. I love the user interface, the sleekness of the box, and inFamous: Second Son is a stunner. It just...doesn't have that many big games for it. Sure, it's a young console with a few big exclusives, a handful of great third party content, and some great indie titles. For its age, that's not too bad. But the horizon seems pretty quiet for big, AAA exclusives, and that's something that Sony needs to rectify come June.
We know that The Order: 1886, #DRIVECLUB, and The Witness are all on-track for 2014, but what else is coming? Will The Last Guardian finally be revealed as a PS4 game with a release date? How much of Uncharted 4 will be shown considering all the departures from developer Naughty Dog? Are there new franchises that Sony might announce? And then there's Project Morpheus, Sony's VR headset announced at this year's Game Developer's Conference (GDC). You can bet that at least twenty to thirty minutes of the conference will be dedicated to this upcoming (and quite exciting) peripheral for the PS4, but we have very little info in terms of the games that might utilize it. I'm hopeful that this apparent dearth of content is merely Sony doing a really job good of keeping secrets because, as much as everyone loves a good leaked story, they really love being surprised even more.
But we shouldn't forget about Sony's other consoles: the handheld PS Vita and the still-kicking PlayStation 3. While the PS3 is still getting some ported and original content, I expect the show to be light on reveals for the now-last-gen console. Sony has great momentum and hype in the console space with the PS4 compared to the Xbox One, so it just makes sense that they will keep the PS3 news to a minimum. But the PS Vita just got sleek new redesign, it plays quite nicely with the PS4, and the 3DS has proven that dedicated handhelds are far from a relic of the past.
So what can Vita owners look forward to?
The truth is, Sony has been pretty tight-lipped about any major first-party games for the device. Ever since the PS4 released, they've been touting how great the PS Vita is for remote play, but I think that's just been a new "trojan horse" strategy to get gamers reinvigorated for the system. Now that they've launched the Vita Slim, it's the perfect time for Sony to wow the E3 audience with a few new first-party titles that capitalize on the on-go-nature of the Vita's unique blend of console power with tablet-esque portability. That's not to say that the Vita has no games coming up--there are definitely titles on the horizon--but it feels like the recent port Borderlands 2 was a bit of a statement by Sony that its original promise of the Vita bringing console-quality game to your pocket (or bag, really) might become more of a focus after well over a year of getting primarily smaller, indie games (most of which, by the way, are pretty damn awesome).
What else does E3 have in store? I will be paying close attention to how much of a presence Oculus Rift has at the show now that it's under new management. Besides Nintendo and Sony studios, can we expect any surprises from Japanese studios? What sort of presence will mobile gaming have? For that matter, will newer players like OUYA and Amazon Fire have a big presence at the show? Will Nintendo, having recently added Game Boy Advance games to the Wii U's Virtual Console, finally bring Mother 3 officially to the States?
Of course, I don't know--and neither does anyone else right now. And that's why E3 is so special. Sure, there are other gaming events during the year: GDC, Tokyo Game Show, and so on. But none of them capture the excitement of the industry and the wider media the way E3 does. I know I have little E3 rituals every year: trying to avoid any spoiler-y news on Facebook or Twitter during the day, coming home to watch the big events, and catching up with friends over the major announcements.
What are you looking forward to? What major surprises are you predicting? How do you celebrate E3? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and get ready for gaming's biggest week!