The Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) is like the Super Bowl, New York Fashion Week and the Detroit Auto Show all rolled into one for the video games business. Now entering its 21st year, the show serves as the games industry's premier occasion to make a big noise about all the latest games and associated technology. Though traditionally a trade-only affair, it's a huge production. Each year it fills the cavernous Los Angeles Convention Center to its bursting point, and routinely sees more than 50,000 attendees.
What's the deal with E3 2016?
This year things are changing, though. While the show runs from Tuesday, June 14th, through Thursday, June 16th, the news stories will start coming thick and fast this weekend. Sony, Microsoft, Electronic Arts, Ubisoft and Bethesda are all holding huge, splashy press conferences and media events, which kick off on Sunday afternoon. There's a public component this time too, dubbed E3 Live. Lucky gamers that were able to snag a ticket in time will be able to check out the show floor until 10 p.m. and get their hands on games that won't be available until much later this year, or early 2017.
Big publishers, like Electronic Arts and Activision, are also changing their approach to the event. This year, Activision isn't showing anything on the main floor, choosing to book meetings in private rooms, while EA is moving out of the convention center entirely, and setting up a public event right next door at the The Novo in L.A. Live where fans can check out Titanfall 2, Battlefield 1, Madden, FIFA and NHL.
Nathan Vella, president of independent studio Capy Games, sees parallels between the way the whole games business is changing, and the necessary shift that the event is seeing. "To me, it seems that E3 is in a transition that matches the transition games promotion is going through," he says. "We want to build community, to speak directly to fans, to invite players into our development and offer them a chance to know more about our games and our teams. We see the value in traditional media, but we also want to see our games in players' hands. E3 isn't that type of show, and I don't even know if it wants to become it."
What's all this we hear about new consoles?
The biggest stories of the event will no doubt concern new hardware announcements from both Sony and Microsoft. For a deeper look at why this is happening less than three years after the current consoles were launched, you can check out our story here.
Sony has confirmed the existence of a "high-end" PlayStation 4, but PlayStation boss Andrew House told the Financial Times that no announcements will actually be made at E3. Software support for the system will begin later this year, suggesting a release around the same time as the PlayStation VR headset, maybe in October. "We want to ensure we have a full range of the best experiences on the new system that we can showcase in their entirety," House said. As expected, the new console will be more expensive than the current PS4, House said, but it is not a replacement. "It is intended to sit alongside and complement the standard PS4," he continued. "We will be selling both [versions] through the life cycle. All games will support the standard PS4 and we anticipate all or a very large majority of games will also support the high-end PS4."
Meanwhile, rumor has it that Microsoft may very well have two console-specific announcements to roll out at its media event on the morning of June 13th. Less exciting of the pair is a slimmed-down version of the Xbox One. The company trimmed some fat off the original 360 back in 2010, releasing it as the much more svelte and shiny Xbox 360 S. Given that the Xbox One is often criticized for being especially bulky, and the constituent technology is now cheaper and easier to produce, don't be surprised to see a leaner new case to accompany the recently announced price drop to $299.
Much more exciting is the prospect of an upgraded Xbox One, designed to battle Sony's new box. Rumors suggest that we won't see this until next year, so what details we get may be vague, but given the arms-race that's developing, you can bet that Microsoft won't let it's chief rival hog the limelight.
Sadly, the new hardware that we won't see is arguably the most exciting. Nintendo has already confirmed that it won't be showing its upcoming console, codename "NX," at E3 this year. Instead, it'll focus squarely on the next Zelda game.
"There's going to be a lot of angst over what a console is in the modern era," says The Guardian's Keith Stuart. "We may see more traction for VR and augmented reality tech, peripherals and applications, and this will all contribute to a general feeling that the traditional idea of games machines is coming to an end."
What about Virtual Reality?
While some companies are moving out of the main halls of E3, the Entertainment Software Association, which organizes the event, has been keen to attract more virtual reality and mobile games. This year there will be more than 90 mobile games exhibitors, and more than 50 parties showing virtual reality software and technology.
"2016 is the dawn of the VR revolution and this year's E3 will be a milestone event," says Paul Bettner, the CEO of Playful – the studio behind the Oculus Rift pack-in game Lucky's Tale. Bettner is also the co-creator of the breakout mobile hit Words with Friends, so he knows a thing or two about discerning zeitgeisty moments. "I expect we'll see the biggest publishers and platforms that have yet to announce their VR strategy use E3 as that opportunity, announcing huge franchises coming to VR in the next few years." This would certainly be welcome if true, as there have been very few big name triple-A franchises announced for VR outside of Star Wars. While most of us understand the potential of VR, there have yet to be any games shown that are candidates for system-sellers. On this subject, Bettner is emphatic. "E3 2016 is going to be the event that convinces the majority of gamers that VR is a must-have."
IGN's Schneider is similarly bullish, particularly about Sony's PlayStation VR. "It's Sony's time to convince the world that virtual reality gaming is ready for prime time," he says.
But Rami Ismail, the co-founder of noted indie game studio Vlambeer isn't so convinced. "I think everybody is cautious," he says, remarking that 3D TV stirred up a similar fervor a few years ago. "PlayStation VR has the strongest consumer case, but even that is a peripheral, and the history of console peripherals is... discouraging. Combine that with how hard it is to promote or communicate VR, and you quickly realize that it's nearing a make-or-break moment in the next few years. Either it'll remain and flourish in the world of corporate use, or it'll become the hit consumer product everybody is hoping for. Either way, I don't think we'll know for the next year or two."
What games are we all going to be talking about?
Nintendo isn't normally a company that you'd accuse of hubris, but this year might be different. So confident is it in the power of its most beloved franchise, the company is devoting almost all of its gigantic booth space to The Legend of Zelda for Wii U and, until last week, had no public plans to show third-party games at all. Based on past performance, there's a reasonably good chance that a ton of attendees will come away from the event declaring it the game of the show.
While there are surely dozens of surprises awaiting us at E3, many of the highest profile games have already been announced. In some cases, they're games that were revealed at the event last year.
Microsoft's Gears of War 4 will surely garner a lot of attention, particularly as a multiplayer game, as will Activision's Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare and Electronic Arts' Battlefield 1. Sony's recently-delayed Horizon Zero Dawn will no doubt score yet more accolades for its stunning visuals, and the endlessly postponed The Last Guardian (it has been in development since 2007) will get a huge amount of attention, due in large part to the fact that it's nothing short of incredible that the thing still exists at all at this point.
The games business, much like the movie business, never passes up the opportunity to put out a sequel. Or two. Or in some cases 14. Titanfall 2, designed by much of the team that brought us the first and best Call of Duty games, will generate a huge amount of attention as will a long list of other major follow-ups including Civilization VI, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Dishonored 2, Injustice 2, Forza Motorsport 6, Final Fantasy XV, Pokemon Sun and Moon, Ghost Recon: Wildlands, the new South Park game and Watch Dogs 2.
If you're looking for juicy rumors of things we might see, there's plenty of speculation. Top of that list is a remastered version of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for PS4 and Xbox One, along with rumblings that Bethesda's previously canceled Prey 2 may be reemerging as a completely rebooted concept in the vein of a System Shock or Deus Ex style sci-fi RPG.
Although Rockstar Games has mostly stayed away from E3 in recent years, there's plenty of chatter about a Red Dead Redemption sequel, which could make a brief appearance at one of the pre-E3 media events. If it were to happen, our money would be on it being shown at the Sony event on Monday night.
One title we're almost certain not to see, is the next game from CD Projekt Red, the Polish company behind the all-conquering The Witcher 3. Unsurprisingly, following that game's enormous critical success, sci-fi RPG Cyberpunk 2077 is top of just about every wish list but won't be shown at all at E3. Still, you never know – CDP may surprise us all with another incredible teaser trailer.