The annual videogame trade fair the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) starts in Los Angeles today, and it promises to be one of the most newsworthy E3s in years. The industry stands on the precipice between this generation and the next, with Sony and Microsoft both releasing new consoles this year. Both are positioning their new systems as home entertainment centerpieces, multimedia machines that do far more than just play games. They’re still counting on the traditional console model of costly and time-intensive AAA development to drive early sales, though, even as mobile gaming and independently developed games continue to thrive. Nintendo will try to right the wayward Wii U ship while celebrating the delayed commercial success of the 3DS. The virtual reality headset Oculus Rift will plunge directly into our eyeholes with whatever it is that it does, and the affordable, Android-driven console Ouya will continue to try and define itself. Publishers will launch a thousand Neogaf threads with their meticulously planned unveilings of upcoming games. Somewhere someone might try to suck down a tube of Gamer Grub. Between the new hardware and Nintendo’s console struggles, it’s a time of great upheaval that should make E3 far more interesting than the giant week-long commercial that it usually is. Paste will be in Los Angeles for daily updates, and here are a few of the stories we’ll be following.
1. Can Microsoft defuse the bad buzz surrounding the Xbox One?
Microsoft’s unveiling of the Xbox One has been disastrous. The initial announcement press conference was concerned primarily with the system’s multimedia features and barely mentioned any games, provoking widespread hostility from the core videogame audience. After giving conflicting statements about several controversial facets of the One, Microsoft took over two weeks to announce firm details on such hot-button items as its ability to play used games, whether it required a persistent on-line connection, and if it was possible to play it without the Kinect motion sensor looking and listening in to your living room. Those details aren’t particularly friendly to users. The Xbox One has to connect to the internet at least once a day or it will be locked from playing games. Games can only be loaned or traded once and only to people who have been on your friends list for at least 30 days. Trade-ins and used games sales will be available at “participating stores”, but third-party publishers can opt out of that. (Imagine the used bin space that would be freed up if EA made used copies of Madden or FIFA unplayable.) It seems to effectively kill off eBay, Craigslist, independent stores and flea markets as resale markets. Beyond that, will any of these games even be playable in fifteen or twenty years, after Microsoft has shut down the Xbox One servers in favor of whatever comes next? And although Microsoft says users can deactivate the Kinect’s ability to see and hear into our living room, and that it won’t record or upload video or audio, how can we trust them in light of the news of the company’s involvement with the NSA’s PRISM program? The core Xbox audience is extremely disenchanted with the company right now—what can Microsoft do at E3 to smooth out the legitimate fears of their customers?
2. Will the PlayStation 4 be any different than the Xbox One?
Sony focused on games when it announced the PlayStation 4 in February, and perhaps that’s why they’ve largely been spared the ire directed at Microsoft over the Xbox One. They haven’t answered some of the same questions that Microsoft was avoiding, though. Sony says they won’t require a persistent online connection for the PlayStation 4, but what’s their policy on used games? It’s possible that the ability to sell or play used PlayStation 4 games might be limited in similar ways to the Xbox One. It also stands to reason that third party publishers would expect the same ability to control the retail afterlife of their games on the PlayStation 4 as they’ll have with the Xbox One. If Sony’s online policy is more consumer-friendly, expect them to hammer home that comparison next week. If it’s similarly stringent, we can probably expect the same kind of muddled and non-committal response that Microsoft has shuffled through.
3. How can Nintendo get people to buy the Wii U?
The Wii U isn’t doing so well. Nintendo’s latest console is off to a more sluggish start than the 3DS, which sold so poorly at first that Nintendo quickly slashed the price and offered a number of free games to early adopters. The 3DS has gradually turned into a genuine success, but Nintendo has always dominated the handheld sector. Can they turn the home-bound Wii U around, especially with high-profile third party publishers like Electronic Arts backing away from the platform? With promises of new Super Smash Bros. and Legend of Zelda games, Nintendo should be announcing familiar favorites for the new system this week. That might rope in whatever portion of the Nintendo faithful hasn’t picked up a Wii U yet, but what can the company do to convince others to buy their system?
4. How serious is Sony’s commitment to indie games?
Sony has devoted much energy to courting and promoting independent developers. Whereas the Xbox One’s debut press conference focused on sports, TV and Call of Duty, Sony’s PlayStation 4 announcement gave time to Braid designer Jonathan Blow to talk about his upcoming game The Witness. This commitment shows that Sony either understands the importance of supporting creativity within the industry or the value of the positive press they receive from such efforts. Will their courtship of independent developers, which is probably the most encouraging trend from any of the major publishers, lead to commercial success, or will it remain a loss-leading attempt to regain some of the respect Sony lost during the PlayStation 3 era?
5. Whatever happened to the Vita?
Sony’s underperforming handheld is barely a footnote at this point. Beyond Media Molecule’s beautiful Tearaway, there aren’t many games to look forward to this year. The fact that every PlayStation 4 game will be playable on the Vita via remote play might make the Vita attractive to PS4 owners (and vice versa), but if Sony wants it to be more than a PS4 accessory it’ll need more exclusive games. Will Vita owners like what they hear from Sony this week?
6. Can the Oculus Rift make virtual reality work?
If you believe designers like Gabe Newell, Cliff Bleszinski and Dean Hall, among others, the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset might change the way we play games. With a seven-inch screen and head tracking, it promises to offer a functional and affordable taste of three-dimensional virtual reality within our homes. Players old enough to remember the brief virtual reality fad of the early 90s (remember that pterodactyl shooting game that cost like five bucks a minute at Dave & Buster’s?) might be hesitant to tangle with this boondoggle again, but the buzz for the Oculus Rift is extremely positive so far. Paste will get its first taste of the Rift later this week. Will it live up to the hype?
7. How will the retail version of the Ouya differ from the poorly reviewed “preview” units?
The Ouya, the cheap console that runs Android on your TV, was a Kickstarter success in 2012. Backers received their systems earlier this year in what’s amounted to an unofficial beta period as the company prepared for the official retail release later this month. The critical response to these “preview” systems has been largely negative, with complaints ranging from controller lag to a confusing interface to a lack of software. Ouya will be hosting a free and open-to-the-public preview event across the street from E3 this week, letting potential consumers form their own opinions in advance of this month’s release. Will the retail version address the critics’ complaints, or will the Ouya still unfinished, as the Verge’s Dave Pierce wrote back in April? By avoiding the E3 show-floor and reaching out directly to the public, Ouya’s either confident in its hardware or hoping to minimize more bad press. We’ll find out this week.
8. What can we expect from the Horizon press conference?
Many major publishers are holding press conferences today, the day before E3 officially begins. If these events are anything like they were last year, or the year before, or the year before that, you can expect an almost non-stop stream of digital violence. Last year felt worse than ever when it came to the glorification of violence at these events, and that directly inspired the aesthetes behind the Venus Patrol website to organize Horizon. This so-called “alternative E3 press conference” is being held in conjunction with the Museum of Contemporary Art’s MOCAtv video channel and promises to highlight what Venus Patrol calls “beautiful games” from Double Fine, Media Molecule and other developers. Details are scarce, and Paste isn’t quite sure what to expect from the event. Based on Venus Patrol’s track record, the announced roster of top-flight designers, and the participation of a legitimate art museum, Horizon could be the perfect antidote to E3’s juvenile excesses.
Check Paste throughout the week for answers to these and other questions in our regular E3 reports.
Garrett Martin is Paste’s games editor and the videogame critic for the Boston Herald. He first went to E3 in 1997, when it was in Atlanta, a city it should seriously consider returning to on a regular basis.