Think Piece – To What Do We Owe This E3?

As Los Angeles deflates again, the 2018 E3 conference left a lot of software to behold from most of the usual suspects. By the time this goes up, I’ll have walked the showfloor myself and stolen as many goodies as I could stuff into my cargo shorts pockets. I’m sure the splendor will be there and, as with years such as this, the software is the main ammunition in each salvo aimed towards the consumer base of choice.

By this type of year, I mean all there was on offer was software in its various forms ranging from the immediately released to the dateless titles from the mist. As I’m walking that show floor, I will be wondering which games and companies will benefit the most from E3 and the natural push this size of event gives to all products in attendance.

Unfortunately for this year’s software, there wasn’t anything new in the ways of hardware to help fling more units out the door.

Excitement is already percolating for the end of this generation of consoles, despite how recent the Switch and Xbox One X have hit shelves. The horizon seems to be coming nearer and faster for lots of consumers ready for the jump to true 4K or just another jump in technology, which can hamstring the group of video games under the spotlight at E3 by and large.

The question then becomes, by and large, how do you successfully marry the hardware announcements together with the software? And do these companies really even need to have both at once?

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Each is clearly trying to make the effort to reach the other, but the E and the 3 just aren’t on the same page.

To me, a unified, “this is this” vision of these conferences would play better to audiences as wide and varied as the one that E3 gathers digitally every year. It’s not that the message becomes scattered if the industry giants talk about hardware alongside software but there always seems to be a larger potential for mixed messaging when you throw a lot of cooking dishes in front of hungry viewers. Take a watch of the Wii U reveal for exactly what I’m talking about.

So I took to this small study that knocks against the idea of how stimulated software can be when there’s hardware announced alongside. How I took to gathering data is looking at 10 games presented at E3 conferences from 2013-2016 that released before the next E3 conference came around. From there, I just took their base game sales numbers – no Game of the Year editions, re-releases, or expansions – and put that against what hardware was detailed at that year’s conference. I did my best to include similar titles (ex: Ubisoft open world games, Bethesda first-person shooters etc.) across the years and grabbed Just Dance and Call of Duty as yearly controls.

For further removal of numerical bias, these sales numbers were only gathered from third-party games that released on the most current and popular consoles at the time. I also excluded Grand Theft Auto V as an outlier due to it being cross-generational and a sales juggernaut that would skew data. No more shelving, let’s break it down.

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The busiest place in the house.

2013

While the Wii U had beaten the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One into the eighth console generation, this E3 fully unveiled each contender’s hardware and details. Both consoles came and made their mark with a healthy mix of first and third-party games, which made gathering data nice and simple here.

Overall, the main software attendees of the 2013 E3 conference totaled 94.88 million units sold. Call of Duty, which will lead the way each of these years, had its highest sales total in our range after the conference with just about 28 million. That couples with the fact that this is one of the lowest reviewed – both by critics and by fans via Metacritic – series entries in our range, only missing rock bottom by 1 point and .1, respectively. The dishonorable holder, 2016’s Infinite Warfare, sold only 13.33 million units across a much wider install base while holding a popular remake hostage behind its collector’s edition.

This was also the year with the most units sold amongst our qualifying titles by about 9 million.

 

2014

This year saw nothing at all announced from a hardware perspective. This served as a nice control group as last year’s consoles were hitting their markets in stride and selling very well to this point.

The ten from this year combined to 76.22 million units sold, which is the second lowest recorded here. Despite the lack of hardware, Amiibo did make their debut alongside Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS to an eager crowd that made them high-priced collectibles soon after launch. Due to them being locked to a single console family, our data didn’t feel the impact of Nintendo’s colorful lineup.

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2015

The world was looking very virtual at this conference with not only the successful Kickstarter Oculus Rift making its full-fledged appearance, but also Microsoft’s Hololens with a small Minecraft demonstration. Oculus felt especially long-awaited as Facebook, who’d just acquired the company, was set to be the first to enter the VR arena.

The 2015 E3 participants managed 85.48 million units sold. Not unlike Amiibo, the institution of virtual reality didn’t show much effect on the main console crowd mostly due it being locked to PC. That’s not to mention the trampled expectations of the interested general populous who were hoping for a more affordable entrance into the cutting-edge technology.

 

2016

This is the year that saw each of the main three and more introduce new devices. Those looking for that entry level virtual experience were met with PlayStation VR, Microsoft offered one slimmer model of their console while promising a much more powerful hardware setup coming, and the Nintendo NX – the successful Switch to be – mystified with its name constantly coming up without a full reveal.

Coming along with all the hardware announcements actually came a sharp dip in unit sales to 53.99 million. The aforementioned Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare barely edged out Battlefield 1 to take the sales crown, both serving as the only two recorded to break 10 million in sales. It should be noted that this year had an especially strong showing of console exclusives that likely contributed to such a dip with some examples being Uncharted 4 and Pokemon Sun/Moon.

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As a summary, let me start with 2016 as it represents very fully what I mean with a unified, complete picture of what your message truly hopes to accomplish. All three of the major platform holders, when it comes to a layman tuning into the conference or reading a wrap-up article, couldn’t message themselves consistently because they were creating more questions with every answer.

Was Sony moving to VR completely? Would all of their games be VR soon? Was VR the future of gaming that 3D couldn’t be?

What was Microsoft really offering between the Xbox S and Project Scorpio? What makes me want the former over the more powerful latter? Was cross-play going to support all of these graphical updates to come as well?

Where was Nintendo’s NX? Why weren’t we shown any hint of it? Are any of these games running on NX hardware?

There was no end to the questions until multiple follow-ups occurred, both Microsoft and Nintendo having to take further conferences and reveals to uncork the excitement of fans completely. As I read the data for 2016 and recall the atmosphere, I see confusion and hesitation with the changes in hardware clearly coming but with no real target audience. Too many options came out with not enough explanation to benefits and drawbacks, so the market seemed to respond negatively.

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As you can see, unified mission statements come to the floor to die.

To the opposite side of how to present hardware effectively, we can go to 2013’s E3. Xbox One and PlayStation 4 were clearly laid out with price points and even used game policies coming through. There were no mysteries on the horizon of either release; you were getting upgraded consoles, which was enough. Microsoft, infamously, had to do a lot of back-pedaling to get to that simple of a concept from their entertainment trappings, but the point is that there wasn’t any other hardware waiting to be revealed at the time. There was just a box and peripherals to help ship the software.

The Call of Duty numbers put weight to that year being where the new hardware drew excitement and fervor at its peak at a new console generation. Of course, no one can know a game is going to play favorably or unfavorably to reviews before release, but the point of E3 isn’t to bring you good experiences as a point of principle. The convention itself is and was constructed with its millions of cynical little bulbs to simply sell a product, for better or worse. The sales rebound in 2014 and 2015 tell me that this wasn’t the beginning of a downward trend for the franchise either.

What I see is the difference in fan perception between two nearly-identically scored games in Ghosts and Infinite Warfare and a huge sales difference between them. That gap can be greatly attributed to the excitement in hardware; 2013 was the beginning of a new generation to where 2016 was questionable even for Call of Duty as a staple franchise. People didn’t know if they’d be facing a VR question with COD soon or if Activision were going to listen to their aching for a formula shake-up because the company, in both of these years, chose to focus on curious details such as dog models and the Modern Warfare re-release as conference sticking points.

The combination of hardware and software, the former a missile and latter planets for us to visit, show under the best light when placed together on a dedicated stage with clarity. All of this isn’t to mute the over 11½ months of gaming controversy and changes as superfluous to a game’s success or failure, but E3 is the grandest American stage for gaming. I want to know what I’m watching for and what new technological wonders can do to get me into those new worlds and possibilities. If the purpose of E3 is to sell with pomp and circumstance as the hook, then developers and publishers owe it to their software to present hardware with as much clarity as humanly possible.

Otherwise, we’re likely to get more information from a YouTube ad than a multi-million dollar conference, which I don’t need the numbers to see as bad for the industry.

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