E3 was fairly low key this year. In place of big reveals or surprises, we saw a solid suite of games as the current console generation hits its full stride. Two narratives stood out: Microsoft is staying in the game, and we’re getting next generation consoles sooner than I originally expected.
Microsoft’s best presser of the generation
Microsoft’s overall E3 message was one of strength and confidence for both the present and future. Their press keynote reassured Xbox loyalists and anyone else considering a dip into the Xbox ecosystem.
Granted, Microsoft’s keynote on paper shared the same DNA as their last few: trailer after trailer for solid third party games. It’s an obvious move given their competition moved in a different direction at E3 this year: Nintendo stuck to Smash Brothers while Sony focused on first party titles. But this year had especially strong game variety and pacing. The presser got virtually every third party game of interest through next year. Closing with Cyberpunk 2077 — hands down the most buzzed about game at E3 — was a masterstroke.
Microsoft’s E3 presser is a must-see this weekend, and not necessarily for any single game or hardware announcement. It’s because unlike other console manufacturers, they lack any clear long-run trajectory. As the only real wild card for E3 2018, Xbox’s positioning at the show has large implications for its relevancy over the long run.
Conventional wisdom suggests Xbox needs more killer exclusives. Offer the games, and the fans will follow. But at this stage, I don’t see Microsoft capable of making this happen. On paper, they don’t have enough first party studios, and those studios haven’t branched out beyond long-standing IP from the Xbox 360 era.
Nor are Sony and Nintendo standing still. This late in the console cycle, both platforms are hitting their stride. For Sony, the pedigree of The Last of Us II and the hype factor behind Hideo Kojima’s enigmatic Death Stranding sets a high bar. Nintendo is already riding high with a new Zelda and Mario in their back pocket. New Pokemon and Smash Brothers are out later this year with much more to come. Even if Xbox announces four big titles — Halo, Gears, Forza, and a fourth IP surprise — at best Microsoft reaches a draw with Sony and Nintendo.
Xbox is in a slump. Sales are solid, but hype and critical attention are behind rivals Sony and Nintendo. It has reached the point where Microsoft could pull out of consoles altogether over the long run with the Xbox One X their final release. But the recent announcement of an improved Xbox Game Pass subscription service (what I’m terming here “Game Pass 2.0”) changes my outlook.
Going forward, all Xbox new release first-party games (e.g. Sea of Thieves, Forza, Halo) will join the subscription service. Previously Microsoft limited Game Pass subscribers to mostly older titles from previous Xbox generations. Seen generously, this is like Netflix offering select first-run movies as they open in movie theaters, while still maintaining a flat $10 a month price. It’s a huge change from what came before.
By focusing on its subscription service, Xbox could sidestep the fragmented game landscape that they’ve faltered on for years. Console hardware sellers have always been exclusives, but Microsoft’s fall well short of the competition. Big budget moneymakers like sports and multiplayer shooters were a sure thing for Microsoft in the Xbox 360 era. Today they are a dicey investment. Budgets are out of control. Gamers are increasingly turning against loot boxes and other questionable microtransactions. Indies can grow to be a phenomenon (PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Cuphead, Stardew Valley), yet the market is getting oversaturated.
At a glance, Microsoft had a decent E3. Their presser showcased a huge number of quality games, solid genre diversity, and decent pacing. Xbox head Phil Spencer remains a great ambassador for the brand. And the Xbox One X looks to be an engineering marvel, a cutting edge console in a svelte enclosure.
But Xbox doesn’t exist in isolation. Sony is well ahead in mindshare and sales. Nintendo surprised many (myself included) with the runaway success of the Switch. With E3 over, Microsoft has two chief questions to answer. Why should anyone buy an Xbox One X? And why invest in Xbox over the PS4?
Sadly, Microsoft stumbled on both questions. Like I wrote earlier, by leaning so heavily on 4K, Microsoft has put themselves into a weak position for the holidays.
Microsoft has bet big on Project Scorpio to generate Xbox sales and hype. Their PR cycle projects confidence: Scorpio is a large focus of their E3’s presser less than a month away. They also provided an extensive walkthrough of the hardware specs to Eurogamer weeks ago.
Yet Microsoft is kidding itself if it thinks the market for Scorpio is anything larger than a small niche. Raw horsepower won’t win a console war. In fact it’s the opposite: software, not hardware, would be transformative for Microsoft in the long run.
Scorpio, like the PS4 Pro, is a non-starter for the price sensitive casual market. A Project Scorpio will cost likely $500 or more, double the cost of a baseline PS4 or Xbox One. That’s too expensive, especially given both low and high end consoles share the same game library.
Microsoft’s E3 announcement of Project Scorpio is big news. It’s the first official sign of consoles moving toward a faster, more iterative release cycle. But the announcement is also a big strategic mistake.
Not because of the Scorpio concept itself. Consoles have advantages with a faster release cadence. There’s more wiggle room for innovation and breakthrough gaming experiences. Game compatibility expands; older platforms aren’t immediately left behind.
Yet I see two big errors on Microsoft’s part. They announced Scorpio too early and are targeting a high end, costly specification.
The maturity of the console market and strong sales clearly rubbed off on the Microsoft and Sony this year. Each had their missteps, but they stayed on message and were the most interesting pressers by each company in several years.
Yet Sony and Microsoft took different approaches. Microsoft knows it’s well behind Sony and wanted to present a wide net for potential buyers. They succeeded; onstage content was bright, fun, and diverse.
Sony had the swagger of being in the lead. While Microsoft went wide, Sony went uncharacteristically narrow and minimalist. PlayStation VR got a mention, but the focus was otherwise all on games, many of them first party exclusives.
Microsoft delivered their strongest E3 showing in years. This went beyond expected first party exclusives. Almost every element – pacing, lineup, presenters – came together to underscore the Xbox One’s strengths. Yet Microsoft wasn’t aiming new features and games at the general public. Nor those necessarily torn between the PS4 and Xbox One. It’s aimed at the 60 million Xbox 360 owners who haven’t jumped to this generation yet.
To cater to the Xbox core, Microsoft leans on sequels that call back to Xbox 360’s boom years. There’s Gears, Forza, Halo and Fable, all out in 2015. Xbox One backwards compatibility is another big feature, the most consumer-friendly announcement of E3. The initial slate of compatible Xbox 360 titles is small, about 100 by year’s end. But that’s will grow over time, and the message is less practical than psychological. You want to play your old 360 games on the Xbox One? Go for it, and do so for free. During the main presser, Xbox head Phil Spencer underlined this message: “If you’ve been waiting to move from your Xbox 360, now is the time.”
I expect stability and predictability from the big three (Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony) E3 pressers this year. First, we’re a year and half into this generation. It’s past the bumpy launch window, but not far enough for new hardware iterations. PS4 and Xbox One sales are already strong, which reinforces a conservative playbook. And many games for the show have been formally revealed early or leaked. Yet there are unknowns that the pressers next week could help answer.
The “day zero” E3 press conferences by the big two console manufacturers feel like a relic of the pre-digital era: largely predictable, bloated, expensive, and with a lot more emphasis on style and spectacle over details. Yet they’re still important to set the tone and general focus of the Xbox One and PS4 platforms over the next year. In that regard, both Microsoft and Sony had solid, if unspectacular, B grade efforts. Microsoft played it safe but remained extremely polished and focused in the process. Sony had some more interesting, diverse announcements but were marred by some poor pacing and presentation.
Judged strictly by presentation alone, Microsoft handily trumped Sony this year. To answer criticism from last year, they stayed laser focused on games. Though their briefing lasted over 90 minutes, it rarely dragged, with well-crafted transitions and trailers between the larger titles. Xbox head Phil Spencer was clearly on a mission to woo core gamers back to Xbox, and it did so by playing to traditional Xbox boilerplate: racing games, first person shooters, and fantasy medieval combat.
Yet even with a solid effort, Xbox’s exclusives felt underwhelming and almost completely unsurprising. Forza Horizon 2, Crackdown, Fable Legends and The Master Chief Collection are sequels or reboots on existing IP. They’ll likely be fun, but it felt like safe genre territory Microsoft has heavily covered in the past. Also, as more third party publishers go multi-platform, we’ll see Microsoft’s genre reboots overlapping with other publishers (e.g. Ubisoft’s The Crew in the same space as Forza Horizon 2, Bungee’s Destiny competing with Halo 5). Die hard Xbox 360 fans now have stronger reasons to make the jump to the Xbox One now versus last year. But without a clear exclusives victory on sheer numbers or originality, I don’t expect Microsoft to sway those on the fence between the Xbox One and PS4.
In contrast to Microsoft’s showing, Sony, at least on paper, presented a more interesting set of games. Their exclusives were fewer but packed serious punch: Grim Fandango is a classic, cult adventure game from famed designer Tim Schafer and was potentially the biggest surprise of the day. No Man’s Sky is a very unique, indie sci-fi darling and potentially more ambitious than any game shown at E3. Then there’s Bloodborne, a gory RPG from the creators of Demon’s Souls. Round that out with a few anticipated indie exclusives for 2014, most notably Hotline Miami 2, and Sony showed off an exclusive (albeit occasionally timed or console only) roster that was more diverse and daring than Microsoft. And Sony was able to go toe to toe with Microsoft on their own set of exclusive betas and DLC for a few big name AAA games—likely a reflection of Sony’s stronger momentum and sales heading into E3.
Almost all those news was revealed in the first hour. Then came a lackluster middle section that dragged with a scattershot focus and left viewers with more questions than answers. They hawked a graphic-novel TV series with only concept art to show; its ten minutes on stage killed the presser’s momentum. A firm date was set for an “open beta” for the Playstation Now streaming service but few details on games and pricing were offered. The Project Morpheus VR platform was glanced over while Sony’s Andrew House punched down at the Xbox’s Kinect. The PS Vita was mostly ignored; no bundle with the PS4, no price drop, and few standout games.
Overall, Sony’s presentation felt like a slightly larger missed opportunity compared to Microsoft, but neither side was particularly earth-shattering. One factor this E3 has made clear is that many hyped games have been pushed back well into 2015, so it’s unlikely Sony or Microsoft will have a big system seller on its hands this year. There are two notable exceptions: Destiny (a strong performance could overshadow the Halo series and thus help Sony) and The Master Chief Collection (which, if Halo fanatics show up in droves for, could help Microsoft close the gap.) Either way, it’s going to be fascinating to see how each company positions their consoles this holiday season. It’s smaller, intangible factors that could now make a deciding difference among those that haven’t jumped in this console generation.