With E3 just around the corner, the hype and anticipation levels continue to build. It’s set to be a curious year – what looked like being a quiet, potentially even total dud of a show could end up being monumental.
With Microsoft talking big, Google on the horizon and the early signs of a shift to a world of subscriptions and streaming it’s certainly going to be an interesting few weeks. So, with that in mind – here are the five big questions on my mind ahead of the year’s E3.
Will Microsoft seize their chance on Sunday?
Arguably the biggest question for E3 2019 is just how much of a marker Microsoft manage to put down on Sunday.
After years of being outshone or outmanoeuvred by Sony, last year’s event was finally a very strong showing from the Xbox team. With a focus on games and none of the weird multi-venue, musical interlude-based shenanigans that Sony decided to foist on attendees, it was a clear statement of intent from head honcho Phil Spencer and Microsoft. It might take until next-gen for some of their ideas to deliver, but they are very much back in the game.
So with Sony having decided to skip this year’s E3, all eyes are likely to be on Xbox stage on Sunday and any thoughts that they might hold back too were put to rest by Spencer as early as January when he stated “we’re going to go and be as big at E3 as we’ve ever been.” And he clearly meant it too, more recently confirming that Xbox will “have 14 Xbox Game Studios games in the show this year, more first party games than we’ve ever had in the show.” In stark contrast to the awful Xbox One launch event, the team know that it’s ultimately all about the games.
But which games will those be and what of the potential caveats unspoken (notice, for example, that he didn’t say “new”, nor did he specifically say these were all console titles)? Well, Gears 5 is a shoo-in and likely to be a major focus as it is one of few major Xbox titles scheduled for the current year. Halo Infinite is also confirmed to be around in some form although it’s not clear if this will be gameplay, when it will arrive or what machine it will be running on.
But, along with Forza, Microsoft have relied on these established franchises too much while cancelling or fumbling too many other titles. On Sunday, they will need to have something fresh to truly capture gamers imaginations. With that in mind, perhaps we’ll see that long-rumoured Fable reboot along with something entirely new from one of their recently acquired studios.
But it’s beyond the games themselves where Xbox could really put their flag in the sand. We’ve already seen early demos of xCloud, Microsoft’s game streaming service, and heard that it recently went into alpha testing with employees just a short time ago. But E3 is an opportunity for Microsoft to share full details of the service and perhaps get a jump on their rivals by announcing the service’s public beta. If, say, it is included within Game Pass Ultimate and confirmed for a wide variety of platforms (maybe even delivering on those outlandish rumours of the service coming to Switch?) then that might just get people’s attention.
Many gamers are understandably sceptical about game streaming but Microsoft, by positioning xCloud as complementary to rather than a replacement for a traditional console are well placed to start changing minds. And speaking of traditional consoles, could Microsoft surprise us all with specs, launch details or even gameplay from their next generation Xbox?
It does seem unlikely given distinct absence of leaks but we do know that it’s coming (they said so last year) and we also now know some details of Sony’s machine and plans. If we see an “Xbox Two” announcement on Sunday night it would be just the sort of bold move that E3 is made for – particularly one that your biggest current rival decided to skip.
Will Google’s Project Stadia have already changed the game by then?
Despite the fact that Microsoft’s conference itself technically takes place the day before E3, they won’t be the first ones out of the blocks. Whereas companies once waited politely for the show to actually open (!) now they seem increasingly desperate to jump the gun.
First, it was EA deciding to host an event on the Saturday before (which, after some debate with themselves, they are more or less doing again this year, albeit without the actual event part). And now, as I was writing this article (thanks guys!), Google have just gone and announced that their huge Project Stadia event will be at 5pm BST on Thursday 6th June.
And Stadia certainly sounded highly impressive at GDC, offering players access to 10.7 teraflops of power (more than the equivalent of Xbox One X and Playstation Pro combined) with potentially no initial outlay if you own the right Chromecast and are happy using one of your existing controllers.
Innovations in multiplayer sound appealing too, as does the ability to stream in 4K HDR at 60 FPS today (and capability to scale up to 8K 120 FPS in the future) all thanks to Google’s network of data centres. Although gamers might be understandably sceptical about Google’s claims, and reviews coming out of the beta did little to reassure them, if anyone can deliver it’s probably Google.
So Google’s event is potentially huge news for gamers but could also be a big headache for Microsoft given the listing mentions covering “pricing, game reveals, launch info & more.”
Priced and timed correctly, Stadia’s launch would not only be likely to take the wind out of any xCloud announcement but could also take valuable headlines and buzz away from any next-generation console before they are even announced. Maybe E3 2019 is not such an open goal after all? Maybe Sony actually dodged a bullet.
What will be the effects of Sony’s absence?
So with Microsoft on a mission and Google looking to disrupt the industry, it seems like this year’s E3 (and, ok, the days leading up to it) will definitely be one to watch. But it didn’t always look like being that way.
With a new generation on the horizon, history suggests that E3 2019 would be a pretty quiet show even before Sony announced they were giving it a miss it entirely. At the time it seemed like a pretty brave decision, presumably made on the basis that they had little to show anyway and from the comfort of being a clear number one in the market. But in hindsight (and maybe at the time), it seems like a pretty risky call.
A new generation of consoles has rarely been kind to the previous “market leader”. Microsoft appear resurgent under Phil Spencer and have been on the gamer side of the argument on recent topics like cross-play, in the process receiving more and better press reaction than they have for years. Google’s arrival could be the sort of disruptive change that Sony themselves delivered with the original PlayStation. Sony’s absence leaves a vacuum, and vacuums do tend to get filled.
And as for us, while it looks like there will be plenty to talk about, it will be strange to digest an E3 without any real word from the current industry leader. Sure, we’ve had a couple of State of Play streams over the past few months with some excellent looking PSVR titles along with a reminder that the Final Fantasy VII Remake was not a 2015 fever dream after all. We’ve also learnt that Death Stranding is definitely coming this year and will definitely be playable on PS4 – though I’m not sure how much else people got from that trailer.
But what about The Last of Us Part II, or Ghost of Tsushima – both rumoured to be delayed to 2020 raising doubts and potential questions of a move to PS5 or perhaps a cross-generation release? Without a Sony E3 conference, when are we going to see or hear more details on the next generation of PlayStation? How will we learn about the potential benefits the recent deal with Microsoft (Azure) will deliver for PlayStation Now?
Of course, Nintendo has been doing this for years and has shown that there are other ways to at least stay part of the conversation. Perhaps we will get another State of Play from Sony, timed to coincide with E3 in the same way that Nintendo do with their Nintendo Directs. Or perhaps they have something big planned for later in the year at a time when they are ready to talk more about next gen and when there is less competition for both eyeballs and column inches. In the meantime, the questions, including my own, will probably have to wait.
Is 2019 the year that gaming subscriptions go mainstream?
I’m very much on record about my love for Microsoft Game Pass – it’s incredible value, and provides the sort of convenience and variety that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. Along with EA Access, Game Pass has proved to me that subscription models can work on gaming consoles, and between the two services (and a sizeable backlog) they now make up a large part of my gaming time.
Meanwhile over on Sony’s machine, and despite concerns about the quality, price and range offered by the service, PlayStation Now already has over 700,000 subscribers and is growing at an annual rate of 40%.
However, it feels like 2019 might be the year that gaming subscriptions go truly mainstream. The deal for Microsoft to supply streaming infrastructure suggest that Sony have big plans for PlayStation Now. According to a recent Investor Relations event, these include moving to 1080p streams and beyond, improving quality of content (presumably games), “maximising off console opportunity” and a big marketing push.
EA have already announced that EA Access is coming to PS4 in July but could we also see a Premier-style tier added to both consoles mirroring the success of Origin Access Premier on PC and giving access to new titles on day one? Finally, leaks suggest that Ubisoft Pass (along with its own premium tier) is also on the horizon.
Assuming that Stadia also adopts a subscription model this could mean we come out of 2019 with at least five viable gaming subscription services and I’d expect all of these bar PlayStation Now to feature heavily over the next few weeks. I’m aware that playing most of my games via subscription is not currently typical – but I think this is the year that all changes. This feels like Netflix circa 2010 but combined with some 2019-style complications from a fragmented system. It’ll be interesting to see what happens…
Oh yes, what about the games?
Of course, as fun as the industry-watching side of things is, E3 and gaming is ultimately all about the games. In Sony’s absence and outside of Microsoft’s conference let’s not forget that there are some massive titles already announced, teased or which could potentially appear.
Thanks to on overly-specific panel listing we know that we won’t just get a reveal of the new Avengers game at the Square Enix conference but that it will be the “defining Avengers gaming experience: an epic action-adventure that combines cinematic storytelling with continuous single-player and co-operative gameplay.” It sounds like we’ll also see plenty more of Cyberpunk 2077 after CD Projekt Red’s CEO Adam Kiciński said “This year’s [E3] is going to be the most important one ever for us. We have really prepared a strong show.”
We should also see more of some other previously shown titles. As a huge fan of Star Wars and single player gaming, I’m more than ready for more details on Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order and may even be prepared to sit through an EA Play stream to learn it. It sounds like we’ll definitely see more of the Final Fantasy VII Remake at the Square Enix conference, which teased more in “in June” during the most recent State of Play. And finally, I’m also hoping to see more of Shenmue III despite it just having been delayed to November for some extra spit and polish – hey what’s a few more months when you’ve waited 18 years!
And what about all the stuff that we don’t know about? Well, Ubisoft have confirmed they have three more unannounced AAA titles to release before April 2020 – so I’ll be keeping everything crossed that Splinter Cell and a Prince of Persia reboot are two of them. Will we finally hear about whatever Rocksteady (developers of the brilliant Arkham series) has been working on perhaps? Or more on the impressive looking Harry Potter RPG that was leaked in 2018? If we can’t have Half-Life 3 how about a new Timesplitters? Pretty please? Or will we get surprised with something entirely unexpected? There is not long to go now and I can’t wait…