E3: Video game industry takes breath before wave of blockbusters

If this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, wrapping up today, were to have a catch phrase, “setting the stage” would be it, writes Peter Nowak.

The don't-miss buzz from the Electronic Entertainment Expo show floor

If this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, wrapping up today, were to have a catch phrase, “setting the stage” would be it.

The annual Los Angeles show normally sets up the expectations for the rest of the year in video games – and that certainly did happen – but E3 2014 was mainly about clearing the runway for next year.

Case in point: Nintendo.

Heading into the show, questions swirled around the Japanese games stalwart’s future. As E3 concludes, it's evident that any concrete answers – or big games for the Wii U, for that matter – aren’t likely to materialize until at least 2015.

Nintendo executives have talked in recent months about the company getting into the health and fitness business, indicating that its long-term future might not involve mainstream games. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

The company got a jump on the next-generation console battle by launching its Wii U in late 2012, a year ahead of Sony and Microsoft, but poor sales have led to big third-party game developers largely abandoning it.

Nintendo executives have talked in recent months about the company getting into the health and fitness business, indicating that its long-term future might not even involve competing against the other two console makers in mainstream games.

There was little clarification on that front at E3, with Nintendo signalling that it isn’t abandoning the Wii U. The company announced a number of big games, including a new open-world Legend of Zelda and the innovative Mario Maker, which will allow players to create and share their own custom Super Mario levels. Splatoon, an upcoming game where teams of players shoot coloured ink at each other, also turned heads at the show.

All three games are scheduled for 2015, however, with only the brawling game Super Smash Bros. due this winter. That means Nintendo is short on sure-fire hits for another year.

That dearth of blockbusters for the rest of 2014 is mirrored at Microsoft and Sony, which are also light on heavyweight first-party titles for the rest of this year. The companies have some respective big guns in the works, such as Halo 5: Guardians and Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, but they're scheduled for release in 2015.

With relatively brisk sales of the powerful next-generation Xbox One and PlayStation 4 consoles, however, both companies have the luxury of taking their time with big games.

Nintendo’s comparatively under-powered Wii U, in contrast, will look even less capable than its rivals as time passes, meaning it can’t afford to wait much longer to get compelling titles to market, especially as financial losses mount.

Even long-time Nintendo supporters such as Ubisoft aren’t exactly sure of what to make of the Wii U's future.

“We have a lot of games that we are waiting [to release] when the machine gets more popular,” said Ubisoft chief executive Yves Guillemot in an interview. “It’s not yet there.”

Microsoft rights the ship

The other big question heading into E3 was whether Microsoft could regain its mojo.

A prop depicting a character from the video game Titanfall towered over visitors at E3. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

The software giant bumbled the Xbox One launch last year and alienated many gamers, first by focusing on television and entertainment content rather than gaming, and then by tying several unpopular policies - including restrictions on used games - to the console.

The company eventually relented on some of those consumer unfriendly efforts, but the Xbox One still came bundled with the voice- and motion-sensing Kinect peripheral and a price tag that was $100 higher than Sony’s rival PlayStation 4.

The result is that while the Xbox One has sold faster than the Xbox 360 at five million units so far, it has still moved two million fewer units than the PS4. The big gap speaks to that lost mojo.

At last year’s E3, there were concerns that Microsoft was after a larger entertainment market and that the games industry might be neglected. At this year’s show, there was an almost palpable sense of relief from attendees that all is again as it should be.

Changes began to happen in March when long-time Microsoft executive Phil Spencer, known as a champion of games, took over the Xbox operation.  Spencer wasted no time in making Kinect optional, thus lowering the Xbox One’s price to match the PS4, and stressing a clear message – while it’s nice that the console has all sorts of other entertainment capabilities, games are its core function.

That was certainly the focus for Microsoft at E3. TV features weren’t even mentioned during the company’s one-and-a-half-hour press conference on Monday, with Microsoft instead talking up more than 20 upcoming games.

“We didn’t even talk about all the platform improvements to improve the all-out gaming experience that we’ve made or will be making,” said Mike Nichols, corporate vice-president of Xbox and studios marketing, in an interview. “We wanted to shine a light on the games.”

Controversy as usual

Aside from the manoeuvring by the console makers, it wouldn’t be an E3 if there weren’t some controversy, and there was no shortage of that this year.

A woman dressed as Marie Antoinette from the video game Assassin's Creed: Unity promoted the game at the Ubisoft booth. (Kevork Djansezian/Reuters)

Ubisoft stuck its figurative hand in the figurative wasp’s nest when a developer from its Montreal studio admitted that plans for a female protagonist in the upcoming Assassin’s Creed: Unity had been scrapped because it would supposedly have been too much work.

Internet commenters savaged the company for its virtual sexism, backed by former Assassin’s Creed animation director Jonathan Cooper who suggested on Twitter that adding a female character would amount to only a few days of work.

Legendary Japanese creator Hideo Kojima also had to defend the torture scenes in his upcoming Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, starring Canadian actor Kiefer Sutherland, which upset some viewers.

Kojima said he felt the graphic scenes were necessary to explain the main character’s motivations, and that games will never be taken seriously as culture if they can’t deal with sensitive subjects.

And among the usual crop of violent shoot-‘em-up titles, previews of Electronic Arts upcoming Battlefield: Hardline hint that the game is likely to stir up its share of controversy when it’s released this fall. The game puts players in the shoes of cops and robbers as they blow each other away in the virtual streets of Los Angeles. Military shooters are one thing, but killing police will undoubtedly rankle some feathers in the real world.

Virtual reality a virtual hit

The other topic generating talk at the show was virtual reality.

A man plays a game on Sony's Project Morpheus virtual reality system. (Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters)

“We’re booked solid for the week,” is what anyone attempting to take the Oculus Rift for a spin at E3 was told by its developers.

The virtual reality headset, recently bought by Facebook for $2 billion, was undeniably the hottest thing on the show floor, and understandably so. Everyone who tried it seems to have some variation of, “Whoa!” or “That’s amazing!” in response.

Sony also wowed attendees with demos of its own VR headset, Project Morpheus. While the PlayStation maker’s effort isn’t as far along in development as the Oculus Rift, it does work and adds legitimacy to the VR field.

Virtual reality may turn out to be a fad, but it’s also clearly the hottest new thing going in games right now.


Peter Nowak


Peter Nowak is a Toronto-based technology reporter and author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species.


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