As the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3 2015) draws to a close, the games industry will be taking stock. It was a year when not only were there no major hardware announcements, but the two new consoles have had some time to bed in; now the full attention of the industry is on the potential for games.
That opportunity was seized, with blockbuster games on the schedule in the coming months for Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. While it seemed like 2015 was the year of the sequel, with new versions of Fallout and Doom announced by Bethesda, and Just Cause 3, there were still plenty of developments to watch out for, from console games to virtual reality titles.
There was the usual sparring between rivals too, with both Sony and Microsoft getting in some barbs during their press conferences.
It was Microsoft that struck the first blow. The company was keen to stress that as far as it was concerned, it was all about gamers.
And while the games got a good reception – Halo 5: Guardians was a particular favourite, as was the HoloLens Minecraft demonstration – it was Xbox 360 gaming that grabbed everyone's attention.
The announcement that Xbox One would deliver backwards compatibility for Xbox 360 was one of the biggest reveals of the show – and one that Microsoft had managed to keep under wraps. In one fell swoop, Microsoft had silenced critics of the decision not to support older games on the system, while also opening it up to a library of popular titles.
It’s an addition that should hit consumer consoles by the end of the year, with participants in Microsoft’s Preview programme getting the capability earlier. The compatibility extends to both digital and disc-based games, which means players can start dusting off those neglected titles. Up to 100 games will initially be made available to play on the next-gen console.
One thing was clear from Xbox head Phil Spencer: the days of paying to play games you already own are over, at least as far as Microsoft is concerned.
By the time it got to Sony’s press conference later in the afternoon, the weight of expectation was heavy. For some, it was a foregone conclusion: Microsoft had won.
But it wasn't over yet. Focusing on games, Sony set it up with the long-awaited announcement of The Last Guardian for PlayStation 4 before smashing it out of the park with the return of Shenmue through a Kickstarter campaign that passed its $2 million goal in a matter of hours.
And then, just when you thought it was done with the big reveals, Sony gave fans a glimpse of the Final Fantasy VII remake to a deafening roar of approval from the crowd. Sony knows its fans, it seems, and it was happy to deliver what they wanted.
There was a coup too for Sony as it announced a deal with
that would see its players get exclusive access to
Call of Duty: Black Ops III
content and early access to betas.
Microsoft has been relying on its exclusives such as Halo to pull in the players, but it also scored a few wins on the exclusives front. Rise of Tomb Raider will be exclusive to Xbox when it launches, providing Microsoft with a bit of competition for Sony's Uncharted 4. Meanwhile, ReCore is new IP for Microsoft, while Sony has Horizon: New Dawn in its arsenal.
“Investing in and shipping new, exclusive franchises is critical to our platform’s success,” Xbox’s Spencer told E3 attendees.
Both firms are offering augmented or virtual reality gaming, though Sony was quick to point out that some of its titles can be played with those outside the Morpheus headset.
The console market has essentially become a two-horse race between Microsoft and Sony with Nintendo lagging behind with the Wii U. And up until recently, Xbox One was behind Sony’s PlayStation 4 in sales.
That could be attributed, at least in part, to some unpopular choices initially by Microsoft. The company chose to pitch the Xbox One as an entertainment hub rather than concentrating purely on games. The decision to integrate more tightly the Kinect motion controller was not popular in some quarters.
Then there was the initial decision to have consumers install games on the hard drive of the machine and associate them with an Xbox Live account. While that had the benefit of being able to access games on any console just by logging in to your account, it also meant problems for those who wanted to trade games or buy them secondhand; it also required regular access to an internet connection. Add in a higher price for the console, and it all added up to a shakier start than Microsoft would have liked.
Since then, most of those decisions have been reversed. Microsoft has focused its attention more on games and developers; the Kinect is now available as a separate accessory, and games are still played from discs. Add in a price drop and the figures show that sales of the Xbox One are starting to catch up.
But is the ability to play your library of older games enough to tempt more players to buy the Xbox One? Sony initially offered backwards compatibility between the PlayStation 3 and its predecessor’s games, a feature that was dropped to cut costs a while after its release.
It doesn’t offer it natively on the PlayStation 4, although the PlayStation Now subscription service allows gamers to stream titles to their console, including PS3 games.
It’s an acknowledgment that the desire to play older titles is there, but PlayStation Now is only available in the US and Canada; the service hasn’t made its way to Europe yet.
Bucking the trend, Nintendo’s Wii U supports its predecessor’s titles. However, that hasn’t been enough to lift its sales to a point where it would pose a real threat the Microsoft or Sony.
But if an internet hoax is anything to go by, it’s something players want. After the launch of the Xbox One some owners were tricked into inputting a code under the false pretext that it would bring backwards compatibility to consoles; what it did instead was force the consoles into an endless shutdown loop.
It will take a while for dust of E3 to settle and start to show some real impact on the consoles’ uptake.
However, one thing is clear: with Microsoft and Sony battling to win over gamers, the standards are rising. And that can only benefit gamers in the long run.