E3 2019 was always destined to feel like a subdued outing for the biggest gaming event of the year. With the impending death of this console generation – pour one out for the already worm-ridden Vita and Wii U – the industry’s development teams have seemingly begun to move on, with plenty of big players hunkering down and disappearing from view.
It was telling that where the big conferences were concerned; there were very few surprises, and arguably very few reasons to get that excited. It was really all about the safety of sequels and established franchises. We knew about Gears 5 from last year, we knew about Ghost Recon Breakpoint, and while games like Watch Dogs Legion looked absolutely brilliant they were sandwiched between CGI trailers and a bunch of games-as-a-service updates that might keep the hardcore happy, but which are sucking the life out of events, particularly E3.
Sony knew that this was what was going to happen and dodged a deeply expensive bullet by simply not turning up at all – arguably they’d previously shot themselves in the foot by announcing all their current upcoming games years ago. You’d have thought that this would have set Microsoft up for a massive win, but, like Jeremy Corbyn sat opposite the wobbliest Prime Minister in recent memory, they opted instead to fire gentle specification missives across the bows rather than go for the jugular. We wanted carnage, we wanted drama, and what we got was an admin update from HR.
The industry is changing though, and not for the better. Games-as-a-service is extending the life of titles for years; that’s fantastic in terms of value, but not for getting developers to move on to new ideas and fresh IPs. It’s less risky of the two, but when the landscape is dominated by a handful of publishers, all of whom are currently picking from the same playbook, it’s easy to see that it’s slowing down the evolution of the industry as a whole. If we’re not careful big budget gaming could easily start to stagnate, if it hasn’t started to already.
There’s the clear answer that modern games are just too expensive for publishers to let go. Either you stuff them full of microtransactions to make sure they turn a profit, or you’re tied in for many years to come. You can’t tell me that a decade ago trash fires like Fallout 76 would have appeared at the following year’s E3 conference alongside a half-hearted apology and given a chunk of time dedicated to showing how it’s very nearly a proper game now? It would have been a sobering footnote, not included in a conference keynote, but this is where we are now.
Besides the death of creativity – ok, maybe that’s a little overly dramatic when we’re getting games like Elden Ring, Ghostwire Tokyo and Astral Chain – the other factor that is set to utterly change the face of the industry is the rise of subscription services. Microsoft’s conference battered you over the head with the fact that Game Pass is an integral part of the future of Xbox, and PC for that matter, but that’s only the start, and it opens all sorts of questions about the sustainability of the industry.
We’ve already got PS Plus, PS Now, Xbox Live, Xbox Game Pass, Nintendo Switch Online, Humble Monthly, EA Access and Origin, and now there’s Game Pass Ultimate and Xbox Game Pass for PC – jeez – and there’s soon to be Google Stadia, Project xCloud and Ubisoft’s own take on the subscription service, Uplay+. As we’ve said before, the value of something like Game Pass is inarguable, it’s brilliant in fact, but how will this shift in business models play out for gaming?
TV viewers might have a couple of subs lined up for their smart TVs – it’s Netflix and Amazon Prime in our house, it could be NowTV in yours – but the breadth of content that a dedicated gamer has access to, especially those with more than one system, will have you staring down the barrel of a subscription-led shotgun that’s not just going to blow your wallet’s socks off, but maybe those of every publisher and developer out there.
Modern games are expensive to make – AAA titles cost more than most movies – but can subscriptions pay for their development on an ongoing basis? It’s been rumoured for years that Netflix still doesn’t turn a profit as they plough everything back into creating content for their service, but if gamers make a genuine shift to paying reasonable monthly payments, surely the only answer can be fewer games and fewer providers the longer that things go on.
It’s something that we have to be wary of. Sure, “everything changes” is the oldest of creaky old adages, but you have to ponder if the wondrous value of services like Game Pass in this moment is going to negatively affect our industry further down the line. Are we, in the here and now, ushering in the implement of our own content-driven destruction?