#16: Show and tell

A mood:

It’s not exactly an E3 for the ages, this, is it. If there’s a bright side, it’s that this year the viewer experience more accurately matches what it’s like for press working the show floor. Traditionally, those watching at home only really see the highlights: the relative handful of games that are of sufficient quality or profile to warrant a slot on a platform holder or major publisher’s stage. This year, fans are also getting to experience the other, lesser side of E3. The appointment for ‘Unannounced Project A’ that turns out to be a terrible anime RPG; the overlong gameplay demo for the fifth game in a series you’ve never played; the inflexible two-hour block booking in which you are led through a mid-tier publisher’s entire slate before finally getting five minutes with their one decent game.

That was what defined this not-E3 weekend to me. Now you at home will also see everything, whether you want to or not, and must do your best to make sense of it all amidst the rising exhaustion and ennui. That the UK was in the grip of a heatwave was just the atmospheric cherry on top. All that was really missing was the constant nagging sense of always being somewhere near Hip Hop Gamer. I gave the youngest a big belt to sling over his shoulder and he made a decent fist of it, but it wasn’t quite the same.

I thought the Xbox presentation was very good, continuing the reliably upward curve they’ve been on ever since Redbubble’s Phil Spencer took over. The focus on Game Pass, backed up this time by a raft of exciting exclusives, rammed home the Xbox value proposition more clearly, and more convincingly, than Microsoft has managed at any E3 I can remember. Yes, the line-up was a little too western, and while there was a lot of good stuff there was nothing that truly set the hairs on my neck on end. There is still no outright system seller for Xbox Series, in other words, and on last night’s evidence I’m not sure there ever will be. I’m not sure it particularly matters, either. There is at least one high-profile new release coming to Game Pass every month until the end of the year, with many more planned for 2022 and beyond. That’s remarkable from a sheer value standpoint, whatever you think of the games themselves.

Watching as a Series X owner was a strange feeling. Normally I watch these shows and wonder whether a certain game is going to be any good, whether it will find an audience, whether I personally will buy it. None of those things really mattered last night, because I’d effectively already bought them (my Game Pass sub is paid up until 2023). I didn’t see many games last night that I’d pay full price for, sure. But I’ll take them all for ‘free’ and be very happy with my lot. I’m not sure Stalin was talking about E3 briefings when he said ‘Quantity has a quality of its own’, but it’s certainly relevant here. And I suppose the bodycounts are comparable.

So I turned in last night thoroughly satisfied by Microsoft’s showing — and gently furious at Sony for not having a response. On several occasions over the years, I’ve walked out of the Xbox briefing thinking about what a good job they’d done, only for the PlayStation conference to absolutely blow it out of the water a few hours later. There will be none of that this year, the PlayStation overlords seemingly having abandoned the most important gaming event on the calendar because they no longer see enough value in it. I wonder whether they may come to regret it.

When Sony skipped E3 2019, you could see the logic. It had long since announced the final run of PS4 exclusives, but wasn’t yet ready to talk about PS5; it had won the generation handily, and had nothing left to prove. It was a decision born, I felt, out of confidence. This year the picture is very different.

Call me old-fashioned — better yet, make me one — but I feel that platform holders have a sort of duty to their players at E3 time. Whether we’re contemplating a console purchase or have already made one, we want to see what’s coming up. We want things to get excited about. We want as clear a picture of the state of things as we can get. What is Sony’s response to Microsoft’s showing? A couple of safe little interviews, some deals with new studios that won’t bear fruit for years, and some piggybacking tweets. The impression I have is of a company that is either trying to avoid scrutiny, or simply considers itself above it.

The value propositions of the two market-leading platform holders have never felt so different. Last night Microsoft promised me a reliable stream of attractive new games, and plenty more besides, for £11 a month over the next 18 months and beyond; its vision of the future, I feel, is quite clear. Sony will sell me two or three games a year — likely of higher quality, sure — for £70 a pop, but won’t tell me what’s coming or when. Just as Microsoft is breaking free of the technical shackles of legacy hardware by announcing Series-exclusive games, Sony is quietly admitting that some hotly anticipated PS5 titles are coming to PS4 as well. And while Microsoft seems laser-focused on making sure Xbox is, as Spencer puts it, ‘the best place to play’, Sony seems distracted — talking up its movies and TV shows, tripping over its own messaging, plotting another foray into mobile. The same sort of stuff that Microsoft got slammed for last time around, but with better sales figures. For now, anyway. Funny how the pendulum swings, isn’t it.


  • I’m a little worried about Ubisoft. A sequel to the brilliant Mario + Rabbids is wonderful news, and I’m sure Ubisoft Massive will do some characteristically fine work with the Avatar licence. But beyond that I see a company going through the motions. Whatever the changes they’re making following the departure of Serge Hascoët, the way the company is structured pretty much requires that every studio in the group has to work on a certain variation of the same fundamental idea. Something new is sorely needed — we have all climbed enough towers / captured enough outposts / hacked enough doodahs to fill out the map by now — and with their creative talisman gone, I’m not sure where that’s coming from. Based on what I saw this weekend, I’m not sure Ubisoft does either.

  • The Square Enix broadcast has been widely pilloried, but as someone who’s sat through plenty of terrible E3 presentations down the years I didn’t think it was quite as bad as people are making out. I’m even weirdly fascinated by Stranger Of Paradise Final Fantasy Origins, a game whose name I just googled and alt-tabbed back to three times while typing, and am still not entirely sure I’ve got right. It really has the lot: terrible name, loathsome protagonist, shonky visuals, the worst logo I’ve seen in years and a shadow-dropped demo that doesn’t work. Just stellar stuff all round. I must have it.

  • Microsoft isn’t finished with not-E3: it’ll be back on Thursday with the Xbox Games Showcase: Extended, which sounds like it will be the same as last night’s with alternative outfits, an art book and a special gun.

  • Three hearty cheers for Sam Barlow’s new thing

Now watch, as Sony suddenly drops an E3 State Of Play and makes me look like a mug.  (I’d be delighted with that, to be fair.) Before that happens, if you’ve enjoyed this, do share it with the button below, or forward the email to a pal / your entire contacts book. If you’re not already signed up, please do so! See you tomorrow, hopefully with exciting news from Capcom.