E3 2015: The Great Console Circus Rides Again

bbaileyThis year’s E3 trade show in Los Angeles, which I’ve just finished attending in person, was an interesting one for the video game business. While there’s been a lot of talk of the rise of mobile, indie, VR, or what have you, E3 itself has reinforced its focus on the core console gamer. And it’s emerged as a dynamic force in that particular space, which is still an incredibly important part of video games.

After a lot of painful consolidation (of both publishers and independent console developers), we’re down to just a few ‘big’ console game publishers and platforms – who are also the financial backers of the ESA, the trade organization which organizes the event. They’re notably led by Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, EA, Activision, and Ubisoft, with Disney, Warner Bros, Bethesda, Square Enix, Capcom, and Take-Two also having significant show-floor presence.

What’s missing is the second-tier console publishers. Remaining midsize publishers like 505 Games took space, but the bankruptcies of the past few years – Midway, Acclaim, THQ and many more – has meant that, besides a handful of Japanese publishers, it’s largely ‘go big or go home’ in the console world for large companies. The reduced list of publishers showcases that.

(There seemed to be some gaps around the edges of E3’s show floor this year, artfully concealed by lounges or exhibits like the Video Game History Museum. But the show still felt vibrant from a ‘gamers enjoying games’ perspective, especially after consumers were added to the mix late this year.)

In most cases, the top games showcased were made by partly or wholly owned subsidiaries of these very publishers, of course – the previous independent console developer ecosystem has almost completely collapsed or been subsumed.

But to their credit, many of those publishers or platforms have kept some cultural spark intact within individual game studios. Some of the standout titles – for example, Guerrilla Games’ robo-dino hunting game for PlayStation 4 Horizon – feel like products of a carefully nurtured development culture in one physical location.

In other cases, companies like Ubisoft continue to spread development out over multiple studios in multiple continents. This is a much more industrialized approach, but one that may allow for more brute force to ship games. And specialization in particular studios helps solve common problems – such as multiplayer map design – that might otherwise have to be re-examined every time a new game goes into development.

In any case, for the first time that I can remember, it didn’t feel like there were ‘too many’ big-budget console titles at E3 this year for the market to bear. The ‘last man standing’ trend has worked itself out, so there’s no longer 6 or 8 big budget military first-person shooters fiercely competing for the same market at the show.

Instead, there’s Call Of Duty, Star Wars Battlefront & Destiny in the front seat, and a handful of twists on the genre, like Plants Vs. Zombies Garden Warfare 2 or the new FPS x MOBA mashup – Battleborn, Gigantic – at that AAA level of fidelity.

Of course, there may be as many developers’ games represented as ever, despite less publishers, including indie pods in the PlayStation and Xbox booths, and the large Indiecade area, which showcased a multitude of neat-looking titles. And as we know – thanks to the easy, cheap tools – games made by just a handful of people can look almost as good as AAA blockbusters.

But many of those games – from what I’m hearing – are now having some trouble breaking through and selling decent amounts of copies. This is due primarily to the fact there’s so damn many good games out there, and secondarily the concept that indie titles will be in a bundle, or a flash sale, or in some kind of special ‘subscription’ package like PlayStation Plus. If that’s happening soon, you might as well wait for it, right? And with many indie/new titles, the ‘fear of missing out’ (FOMO) is much less strong.

So how do you deal with that glut of games and stoking the FOMO, as a big publisher at E3? Well, with franchises that your core audience already know and love, and with developers that they adore. Pedigree has never been more important in console games, as showcased by Bethesda’s debut of Fallout 4 around the show – one of the most rapturously received titles in the history of E3.

Sure, there’s others who can recreate the graphical fidelity or general concept of that game. But they can’t recreate the good vibes created by the last 20 years of Fallout games, and how they radiate around, even to new fans. (And, in fact, indies can’t create the amount of detail that Bethesda lavishes on its open-world experiences, another key differentiating factor that only money and time can provide.)

The other thing you do is to make sure everyone knows how much your fans love your game. Although E3 is still technically a ‘trade show’, it’s clear that a lot of the people on the show floor are fans first and foremost, and their enthusiasm shines through.

You need excited fans to fuel the excitement online – and the streamed press conferences in particular have an increasing ‘preaching to the converted’ feel to them, if you look at how the audiences are behaving when games are announced. And you’ll get that multiplicatory ‘hype’ effect with another Gears Of War game, a new Uncharted title, and the next Halo.

That’s just fine, if you understand it for what it is. A layer of the onion is being peeled away – you no longer need a third party to explain the games you’re launching to your audience, you can video simulcast it to the entire world. So the in-person audience at E3 press conferences is – increasingly – a gleeful ‘you had to be there’ accoutrement to help everyone get excited. The fans aren’t looking for criticism here, they’re looking for affirmation. (Mind you, if publishers don’t ‘get’ what gamers want from your franchise, as happened with Metroid at E3 this year, watch out!)

As for whether a lack of mobile or PC stalwarts on the E3 show floor is an issue, I don’t think it’s an issue for the ESA’s major financial contributors and E3’s big exhibitors. They really want the spotlight to themselves – to talk about the state and future of console gaming. It may mean that E3 is no longer a ‘state of the entire games industry’ show, as it was when console was a lot more of video games’ total spend – but that’s not something that your average player looking forward to Uncharted 4 has an issue with.

Sure, there were some nods to a non-‘console on TV’ future in there – especially a high-end ‘core market’-compatible one. Oculus did have a large booth tucked away in a corner, and there were a number of more experimental and increasingly well-formed VR demos, with PlayStation’s Morpheus and Microsoft’s Hololens AR device also on display.

And where is the core console game market going? The new consoles – at least Microsoft’s and Sony’s – appear to be selling well, but the willingness of PC games to get more diverse, more experimental and cheaper, is putting some pressure on the traditional console market. We’re seeing more flash sales on console, more attempts to transfer some of PC’s innovation (whether positive or negative!) to console with Microsoft’s Early Access-like ‘Xbox Game Preview’ program, and a general attempt to stabilize the economics of the business.

There’s a bit of a knife-edge to be walked here. Free to play and cheaper ‘pay once’ games on PC and mobile have changed sentiments about how much you should be paying for video game entertainment. And it’s difficult for console games to raise the maximum amount you can pay for them, because of (quite reasonable) core gamer sensitivity to F2P mechanics/payments, after paying a large sum for an existing game.

So we’re getting prices creeping up on console Season Pass DLC, and almost WoW-expansion style monetization for Bungie’s Destiny, which is testing the very bleeding edge of lifetime pricing for a non-subscription console title. That’s only possible because Destiny is one of the most expensive games of all time, made by a high-quality team who are iterating an ever more-well crafted title.

These are problems that both publishers and players will have to listen to each other very, very carefully about in the future. And what I learned at E3 is that in many ways, console games are in rude, hit-driven health.

But in others, they’re clamoring to compete in a market where your cellphone and PC have cheaper (or even free!) video game entertainment, and as a midsized console game publisher, you’re only a couple of flops away from serious trouble if your games cost $50-$100 million each. It’s a strange time indeed.

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