Like a melodramatic boss fight, we thought E3 was dead, and then it came back bigger and stronger. After its meteoric rise in the mid ’90s and early 2000s, the annual annual four-day video game conference known as “E3” downsized back in 2006, leading many to declare doomsday. And indeed, the years that followed were marked by Sony and Microsoft’s confounded attempts to appeal to a wider audience while still appeasing their “hardcore” fan bases.
So after nearly a decade of increasingly stale franchises, not-so-big next-big-things (motion control, anyone?) and PR nightmares, why are some calling E3 2015 the best installment in years? That depends who you are.
Franchises Were Out in Force
Like sequels? Then steel yourself: Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. Call of Duty: Black Ops III. Fallout 4. Gears of War 4. Just Cause 3. Kingdom Hearts 3. Uncharted 4. Dishonored 2. New installments and expansions for franchises like Star Wars, Destiny, Deus Ex, Fable, Hitman, Need for Speed, Mirror’s Edge, a slew of Tom Clancy games (some new, others, a long time coming). Hell, even Shenmu, a cult favorite from the Sega Dreamcast, is getting a sequel, albeit a Kickstarter-funded one.
But Indie Titles Are Still Making Waves
Bored with sequels? You’re not alone — but fortunately for you, the championing of indie games that we saw at last year’s E3 is holding strong, which means new IPs. Fullbright Games, the team behind 2013’s milestone Gone Home, showed new footage from Tacoma, their much-anticipated sci-fi title. Electronic Arts, one of the largest companies in the industry, is distributing Unravel, a game by a small Swedish wherein players guide an impish figure made of yarn through a vast world of puzzles. And Plants vs. Zombies Garden Warfare 2 was revealed for the PS4 — which, yeah, is a sequel. But it came from one of 1,000 indie developers licensed to self-publish on the platform, according to Sony, so rest assured you’ll have alternatives.
Taken as a whole, you could read all of this as a sign that the promise of gaming’s “New Hollywood” phase is being fulfilled. As the whole industry grows, so too does the inclusion of new talent via small studios, who then gain access to more resources; likewise, established creatives, like Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune, can strike out on their own to form small teams and put out passion projects. More voices, more variety.
Modding Comes to Consoles
Along those lines, modding culture is becoming less of a niche as modding tools grow increasingly common in AAA titles. The new Doom installment boasts a feature called Snap Map, with which players can make and share their own playing fields. Fallout 4 will host player mods entirely for free, part of Bethesda’s increasing (albeit problematic) focus on user-created content. Nintendo announced Mario Maker, which lets players make and share their own sidescrolling Mario levels using assets from virtually every 2D main entry in the Mario franchise (one of the only enticing announcements in Nintendo’s e-conference). User-created content is not only a hell of a money maker (as it cuts down on development costs related to level design) — it’s also a great way to foster new creativity in an increasingly large pool of potential talent.
Xbox Refocuses on Gaming
Meanwhile, Microsoft brought the focus of the Xbox One back to games: along with backwards compatibility for Xbox 360 titles, Microsoft announced Xbox Game Preview, which gives players early access to games that are still in development, much like Steam Early Access on PC. Just like direct downloading a few years ago, this is yet another step towards the informal, decentralized distribution PC gamers know well.
Virtual Reality Gaming Inches Closer
Virtual reality, which has loomed large on the horizon for years now, was quietly the most important attraction on the show floor. Sony’s Project Morpheus headset, the near-final version of the Oculus Rift (and Oculus Move, the new controller to pair with the headset), and Microsoft’s HoloLens were all on display, and impressions have — well — impressed. These devices will almost certainly be a shakeup when they finally hit the market, though it’s hard to gauge just how.
Granted, none of this should suggest the video game industry has become utopia. In the PC marketplace, small developers are still sweating, and as of now the new focus on modding offers only a paltry profit for the content creators; harassment continues to be an issue; and, yeah, that’s a lot of sequels. But above all else, whereas E3s past reeked of stagnation, this year’s conference marked a period of transition. Let’s enjoy it for the time being.