Once again, we have arrived at E3, the time of year when the biggest publishers in video games get together in Los Angeles to pump screenfuls of flashing lights and pounding sound at audiences to create one of the entertainment world's loudest sets of commercials.
Since the event, as always, is an indication of what the next year of the industry's mainstream is going to look like, we've sifted through the bulk of publisher press conferences held over the last few days, streamed out by companies such as Microsoft, Ubisoft, Bethesda, Square Enix, and more, to bring together a selection of the most important takeaways from the show.
EVERY GAME WANTS TO BE THE ONLY GAME
For years now, video game publishers have been trying to create the one game that players would stick with for years, spending a slow drip of money and increasing the mindshare of their work.
This E3 saw one of the fullest expressions of how close some of them have come to realizing this: Electronic Arts spent the bulk of its time talking about new updates to Battlefield V and Apex Legends; Ubisoft had lots to say about what's coming to Rainbow Six Siege, The Division 2, and For Honor; and Bethesda devoted a bunch of its conference to news regarding the years-old The Elder Scrolls Online and Fallout 76.
EVERY PUBLISHER HAS ITS OWN SPECIAL SERVICE
For years now, publishers have scrambled to get players to sign up for their specific services in order to play their games. Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, Valve, and Epic all have their own computer game launchers and stores, but this tendency is growing further through a variety of subscription and streaming services that are starting to resemble the fragmented landscape of TV and movie access.
A few days before E3 began, Google provided more information about Stadia, the console-replacing streaming platform it's launching this fall. While this represents just about as big a corporate interest in the space as could be expected, it's Ubisoft's announcement of a monthly subscription service that shows how eager even entrenched video game companies are to get in on a new sales model.
EVERYTHING IS COMING TO XBOX GAME PASS
The most noteworthy of these services — for now at least — is Xbox Game Pass, which provides access to a substantial library of Microsoft and non-Microsoft games for a recurring fee. This E3, the service was properly brought over to Windows PCs, roping in so many more games that Game Pass is starting to look about as domineering in the games space as Netflix is in film and TV.
A whole lot of upcoming games shown at Microsoft's conference — The Outer Worlds, Wasteland 3, Psychonauts 2, Way to the Woods, Blair Witch, the new Gears of War, and many more — are set to be released on Game Pass on the day of release. Added to plenty of already released games, such as Metro Exodus, which only came out a few months ago, the service looks like a pretty seismic change in how games are made and sold.
THE NEW SONY AND MICROSOFT CONSOLES LOOK LIKE MORE OF THE SAME
Sony has already given a few details for its upcoming PlayStation 4 successor, so it wasn't a big surprise when Microsoft introduced its new console — code-named "Project Scarlett" — at its conference by outlining some technical specs and setting a late 2020 release date.
As with Sony, Microsoft's sales pitch basically boils down to a promise of faster loading times and better visuals and sound. This is hardly exciting stuff given the fidelity already achieved by big-budget games on current hardware. Combined with the ballooning costs that go into creating work on the scale of most mainstream games, a set of new consoles that look to be bringing little more than fancier tech doesn't seem like the healthiest choice for a medium whose highest-profile efforts have been confined for years to largely bet-hedging, risk-averse concepts.
THERE ARE STILL SOME ORIGINAL GAME IDEAS
Amid the usual sequels and series revivals that filled the conferences, there was still a bit of space made for a few welcome left-field announcements. Some, like a Blair Witch game made by the hilariously named Bloober Team (who made the excellent sci-fi game Observer and the wild horror of Layers of Fear), aren't completely original concepts, but feel fresh next to lots of announcements with ever-higher numbers tacked onto the end of familiar names.
The most compelling were, unfortunately, presented mostly through cinematics instead of footage of the game itself being played. Still, the premises of some of these were intriguing. There was Elden Ring, a collaboration between A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin and From Software's Hidetaka Miyazaki, whose studio is best known for creating the Dark Souls series.
Ghostwire: Tokyo, by the creators of The Evil Within and Resident Evil series; People Can Fly's hellish shooter, Outriders; Way to the Woods, which casts players as a cartoon deer navigating the ruins of a post-apocalyptic city; and Deathloop, a pulpy-looking game about time-traveling assassins, all looked novel, too. It's just a shame that these, with the exception of Way to the Woods, didn't have much to show off outside of the bare-bones concept trailers introducing their tone.
... BUT SAFE CHOICES DOMINATE THE MAINSTREAM
If anything defined this year's press conferences, though, it was that this has been another year where safe, predictable choices prevailed over originality. Aside from the concentration on updating existing games mentioned above, the bulk of the conferences' attention was paid to sequels and revivals.
Whether they turn out to be worthwhile on their own merits, games such as DOOM: Eternal, Chivalry 2, Watch Dogs Legion, Wolfenstein: Young Blood, and Dying Light 2 are continuations of ideas we're already familiar with rather than anything new. There was also a lot of attention paid to resurrections of older series through remakes and long-awaited sequels with Baldur's Gate III, Final Fantasy VII Remake, Shenmue III, and Commander Keen.
Even one of the conference's most notable original announcements — an Avengers game made by the studio behind Tomb Raider — hardly represents a compelling new idea.
A lot of it feels like trademark maintenance — brand exercises designed more to check boxes on spreadsheets than to take advantage of game makers' creativity. It isn't that all of these games look bad (some of them, in fact, look really good), it's just that, like the details provided for new consoles that are sure to be promoted heavily at next year's E3, none of it seems especially necessary.