The next generation, and 2020 in the games industry at large, are already shaping up to be more unusual and controversial than those that have gone before – and we love unusual controversies in gaming. Microsoft have dropped a seemingly huge clanger by telling us that there’ll be no Xbox Series X exclusive games coming out within the first year of its life – which obviously has brought the cries of “what’s the point then?!” from people that have never bought a new graphics card.
Sony meanwhile have confirmed at least one PS5 exclusive in Godfall – which is undeniably a stronger start for drawing customers in – but as of yesterday they too have made a conscious decision that could scupper their own plans, by giving E3, the biggest games industry conference of the year, a miss for the second year in a row.
The move brings into question the viability of E3 as a trade show. It’s not the first time that its relevance has been thrown into doubt, from its bizarre decision to scale down in 2007 to EA sidestepping the show floor fees and holding their own EA Play event. Besides the lack of Sony, last year’s event was a farce for many of the content creators and members of the press that attended, especially when the ESA leaked thousands of attendees personal details onto the internet and into the hands of people you’d largely not want to have your address. There are plenty of people in the industry who’d now rather watch E3 drift into obscurity, and they’ll shed few tears over Sony giving it a helping hand.
2019’s event was one clearly situated at the end of a console generation. Sony had next to nothing new to show – a fact proven by the dull trailer stream they put out instead of a conference – and they weren’t the only ones. Bethesda spent most of their conference apologising for Fallout 76, and even the manic Devolver Digital did little to raise the pulse.
It was left to Microsoft to shoulder the weight of expectation, but even as they were given free reign over headlines around the world they still didn’t see them score the almighty slam dunk that they should have, rather opting for the safety of a two-point layup off a Keanu Reeves assist. Microsoft have long struggled for exclusive games, but with a strengthened roster of first party studios you’d expect them to have much more ammunition for 2020, what with the release of a new console and all.
Sony will undoubtedly announce and hold their own reveal event, a PlayStation Meeting as they had for the PS4, and they’ll likely steal some of E3’s limelight with a State of Play stream and a bunch of trailers like they did last year. All those have managed to prove to me is that they’re not Nintendo. Ah yes, Nintendo. A fellow Japanese company that shunned hosting an E3 press conference to no real detriment, it’s their Nintendo Direct streams that Sony have now started to mimic, but even Nintendo doesn’t really shun E3. Their special Nintendo Direct broadcasts are followed by days of in depth streams with developers showing off their games, and still with a presence on the show floor.
Sony are trying to pull a similar trick, but Nintendo have proven time and again that they dance to their own tune and really couldn’t give two hoots about what their supposed competitors are doing. Sony don’t have quite the same luxury, as they’re going to be flogging a console that’s architecturally closer than ever to their American foes, and which will play host to a large proportion of the exact same games.
Even if it’s no longer the place for those initial hardware announcements, E3 is still a great place to show off the new hardware, with a glitz and glamour that rubs off on the item itself. For third parties in the past, there would have been a decision whether to partner with Sony or Microsoft and appear on their stage to debut a new game or show off a sparkly new trailer. But now there’s only one choice, and it means that, even if it’s a cross-platform game, all those game debuts that will be vying for attention on Microsoft’s stage will be happening on Xbox Series X hardware, not PlayStation 5.
And therein lies the big question. Why aren’t they just doing both? A separate event and a spot at E3 would cover both bases, just as it has in the past. It gives Microsoft less chance to dominate E3, robbing them of any impetus they might derive from the event, and in turn gives consumers the world over a chance to take a good long look at the new machine and its games.
Going toe-to-toe with Microsoft holds its own risks though. Who can forget the moment the other shoe dropped as Sony undercut Microsoft’s Xbox One pricing by $100? That could so easily happen in reverse, whether it’s a performance deficit, a poorly considered price point, a limp slate of exclusive games. Sony must feel that not attending E3, that potentially limiting their exposure to press and public is the better option. It’s not as if people don’t already know that the PS5 is coming and that every detail, right down to the logo can be teased out to generate headlines.
However, there’s a reason E3 has managed to stay relevant for so many years though, despite various missteps and scandals, and it’s because the world turns to look at the industry as a whole for one week in June. It’s the biggest and the most widely followed event for gaming, setting the tone for years to come, none more so than at the beginning of a console generation.
There’s hints of the hubris that surrounded Sony’s PlayStation 3 reveal, where complacency was allowed to sneak in. They spent much of that generation playing catch up, much to the detriment of anyone that had to play third party games developed primarily for the Xbox 360.
Last year’s no-show made a degree of sense as the generation is winding down, but for Sony to skip E3 in 2020 feels like a much bigger risk to run as Microsoft try to steal the lead in the next generation. Undeniably, it’s a risk they don’t need to take.