As part of my experience at the E3 2015 show in Los Angeles, I wanted to share industry activities, trends, and potential client relationships formed last week. As usual, E3 was held at the Los Angeles Convention Center and has been widely regarded by outlets like IGN and The Verge as one of the best E3s in years. This year’s record attendance and my own experience speak to that.
The Press Conferences
Each of the press conferences held by the top first-party publishers, like Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo, and third-party publishers such as Ubisoft, Bethesda, Square Enix and Electronics Arts, introduced crowd-pleasing video games and technologies. Many highly anticipated titles like Star Wars: Battlefront, Forza (staffed by our own Ford team), Halo 5 and Uncharted: A Thief’s End brought many rounds of applause. Additionally, new virtual reality and augmented reality technologies like Sony’s Project Morpheus, Oculus Rift and Microsoft’s Holo Lens, were available to demo. Ultimately, Sony and Microsoft both could be considered to have “tied” this year; the former for its heavy focus on games that fans have been desiring for years but were relegated to industry rumor and myth: The Last Guardian and Final Fantasy VII: Remake, and Microsoft for its HoloLens tech and the latest entries into its Halo and Forza franchises. Many journalists and industry professionals I spoke with at the show noted that it felt like for the first time in years, publishers were understanding their primary audience: gaming enthusiasts. In the past, there had been a tendency to position gaming consoles as portals to wider entertainment experiences.
Progressive Trends and Renewed Rhythm
After a particularly vitriolic controversy last year known as #GamerGate, this was one of the most progressive E3s in memory. Several new games demoed, such as Rise of the Tomb Raider, Horizon: Zero Dawn and Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, feature strong female protagonists. In a 180-degree turn from last year’s controversy about the lack of female characters in Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise, Ubisoft had several female presenters, including celebrity host Aisha Tyler and actress Angela Bassett, and is making a big push to be more inclusive. Additionally, more video games are including characters with complex stories and backgrounds that are inclusive of the LGBT community. Nintendo will be introducing same-sex relationships to its Fire Emblem series, and rumor has it same-sex marriages will be possible in Bethesda’s Fallout 4. However, some booths still had scantily-dressed “booth babes” in keeping with the theme of their games.
This year also introduced a new wave of rhythm games, with new versions of Guitar Hero and Rockband. Neither of these IPs has seen a new game in nearly four years, indicating both a desire for consumers to play rhythm games on new consoles like Playstation 4 and Xbox One and a move by publishers to bring back the trend. The Rockband party included an on-stage band and live competitions of playing the game, and the anticipation for the new release amongst the crowd was palpable.
Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality Is Now Reality
As mentioned, virtual reality also had a very real presence. Sony’s Project Morpheus will work exclusively with the PlayStation 4 console, while Facebook-owned Oculus Rift from Oculus VR will be compatible with PC at launch and is reportedly in talks with Microsoft for use on Xbox One. I had the opportunity to use both products and they truly do feel immersive and futuristic, making games on televisions feel like a thing of the past. Oculus’s partnership with Microsoft will bring a TV experience to VR and has the potential to let everyone experience big screen entertainment without buying the big screen.
All of the upcoming VR OEMs include some form of motion tracking and high definition displays with low latency, rendering motion sickness practically non-existent. Additionally HoloLens looks like it will change how people interact with games in a way no one has really thought of yet. My words can’t do it justice, so take a look at this stage demo to get an idea of how this could change the industry.
For all of these technologies, it will ultimately come down to price and the software and games available. While they have potential to be game-changers, publishers are approaching them with optimistic caution. No major publisher, aside from Sony, announced any games this year for any VR headset, so it’s establishment as a consumer trend is far from assured. The first consumer VR headset, SteamVR/HTC Vive, is due from Steam and HTC later this year, with Oculus and Morpheus launching next year. Microsoft hasn’t announced a date or price yet for HoloLens, though industry chatter suggests it will be around $1,000.
While mobile gaming was present at the show, it has mostly been met with skepticism and crickets by games media. Mobile is more of a mass audience vs. a core audience platform due to the cost per user acquisition and high risk. Many E3 attendees, developers, and journalists alike simply aren’t interested in those issues or the games they produce. During EA’s press conference, there was a notable silence and lack of applause by attendees and media during their mobile slides. The standout is free game called Fallout Shelter from Bethesda, which rocketed to the top of the App Store, beating out Candy Crush in gross sales. Its success and accolades at the show are mainly due to two main factors: Firstly, monetization in the app is minimalized; and secondly, it capitalized on a beloved gaming brand with a long history: Fallout. The game is simplistic, but addictive (I am up to about 20 hours playing it myself) and its lack of drive to purchasing additional content has actually driven people to spend money on it. It seems that with mobile gaming, less is more when it comes to pulling money from gamers’ digital wallets.
All About Those Booths
E3 wouldn’t be complete without thematic booths and props. Each booth was meticulously constructed to represent the brand and the games being introduced. Bethesda had the most compelling props, including a “floating” talking robot. Traditionally, booths at E3 have enormous budgets and are more experiential, conveying a real-life feel of video games, similar to how Disney theme parks do build-outs to bring Disney’s films to life. Additionally, many of the publishers also held their own extravagant parties and showcases. Microsoft reportedly had more than 1,000 media and influencers attend their showcase the Friday prior to the show’s opening.
What’s In Store Through 2015?
E3 is a preview of what is to come during the next year. Sometimes video game publishers meet the promises they make, sometimes they don’t. It will be interesting to see how VR and augmented reality pans out with more fully-baked demos by the end of the year, and whether the goodwill the publishers gained will last. Already, Activision and developer Bungie have come under fire for a developer interview about upcoming content expansion that went poorly, and partner integrations for Destiny haven’t helped. They had to quickly whip up an apology and revise their business strategy as a result.
Overall though, everyone from publishers and developers to media and influencers won this year’s show. But most of all, the consumer won.
Image credit: http://www.polygon.com/2015/6/22/8826103/e3-2015-show-floor-photo-tour