E3 2016: What's Next for Video Games?

The Xbox One S, revealed at E3, is 40 percent smaller than the original. Credit: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg/Getty

Gaming conference reveals potential road ahead for games, esports, the future of consoles and VR

Gaming conference reveals potential road ahead for games, esports, the future of consoles and VR

The Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) is the biggest event on the gaming calendar. A trade event in Los Angeles that attracts more than 50,000 attendees from around the world that includes game developers, publishers, retailers, influencers and media. If there's an event that shows the way ahead for video games, this is it. While the main expo starts today, June 14th, there have already been huge showcase events for new games and hardware. Here's what we've learned so far.

"Platforms" are Replacing "Consoles"
Trying to explain the nature of the video game console business to someone unfamiliar with it can raise some eyebrows. The notion of bespoke pieces of relatively expensive gaming hardware being used to attract millions of players, only to abandon them all after five, six or seven years seems like utter madness. If gaming was the movie business, it would be like Hollywood insisting that every movie theater in the world was torn down and rebuilt  every 10 years because the new movies won't play in theaters with chairs that are the wrong color.

This time around, things are changing though. Just prior to E3 this week, Sony acknowledged that its "high-end" PlayStation 4 is coming later this year, and at its pre-E3 event this week, Microsoft talked about not one, but two new variants of its Xbox One console, each more powerful than the last. It also laid out its plans for blurring the lines between Xbox and Windows.

A key element was the company's new "Play Anywhere" initiative, which allows new games released for one to be played on the other. Buy Gears of War for Xbox One, and you can also play it on your Windows 10 PC. If you buy Dead Rising 4 for PC, you'll also be able to play it on your Xbox One, or your Xbox One S when it's released this August, or the new super-powered, VR-ready "Project Scorpio" Xbox, dubbed "the most powerful console ever," set for release next year.

Ultimately, all this means that Microsoft now views the Xbox as a task-specific gaming PC, and it's massively expanding the potential audience for games made for its ecosystem by saying that, essentially, a PC is an Xbox is a PC.

What does it mean for you?
There are certainly benefits to the new iterative approach from both Sony and Microsoft, chief of which is the fact that you won't have to worry as much about your games collection becoming obsolete. With both Xbox and PlayStation viewed as "platforms" rather than "boxes," your games are pretty much guaranteed to work when you buy the more powerful consoles.

Virtual Reality is Here to Stay
Until recently, one of the chief complaints about the first batch of virtual reality games was the lack of any big budget blockbusters. Independent game developers have been doing some fascinating and innovative stuff with the technology, but big name game franchises have been conspicuous by their absence.

That's starting to change at this E3. Ubisoft's Star Trek Bridge Crew has ably demonstrated that virtual reality games can be exciting, simply by placing you in an iconic location. Meanwhile, Sony announced that it will have 50 games available for its upcoming headset, due this October, and showed a brief glimpse at some big names. These included Star Wars Battlefront X-Wing: VR Mission and Resident Evil VII, which reimagines the iconic horror franchise as a dark-and-creepy virtual reality adventure. It also showed a brief glimpse of a Batman Arkham title.

What does it mean for you?
In the short term, and while game studios get accustomed to the huge differences between designing for VR and PC or console, there'll be a lot of virtual reality experiences that are like mini amusement park rides. The last time there was a shift on this scale was when games "went 3D" back in the mid-Nineties. If you were playing games on the original PlayStation back then, or on a PC with an early 3D card, you'll no doubt remember a lot of directed experiences that were fairly limited in scope because the conventions for 3D controls and camera work were still in flux. Virtual reality today has a lot in common with this period.

Cooperation and Teamwork Is Key
The idea of games requiring more cooperation among players is far from new. Some of the most popular games in the world, like League of Legends and Dota 2 are built on the principal, but what we're seeing at E3 this year is an approach to game design that places trust, teamwork, and coordination at the very center of the experience.

The trend is manifesting in a number of ways. Several games demonstrated at E3 so far have relied on the concept heavily, most notably Ubisoft's virtual reality game Star Trek Bridge Crew, in which four players must communicate and work together efficiently to run the bridge of the USS Aegis.

Elsewhere, demos of Ubisoft's impressive open-world military action game Ghost Recon Wildlands clearly showed that teammates will need to coordinate closely in order to take out targets and complete missions.

What does it mean for you?
These new games are going to be much more enjoyable if you're playing with friends, or like-minded players. If you've ever wanted to run a raid in Destiny, but can't find anyone to play with, you know the experience can be miserable. Fortunately you're not necessarily going to be out of luck. Microsoft announced new features for its Xbox Live multiplayer service this week, all of which are designed to improve the social and collaborative experience for both Xbox One and PC players. The new "Clubs" feature on Xbox Live is basically a Facebook Groups style community tool for games, while "Looking for Group" helps players find like-minded players.

Competitive Gaming and Esports
This esports arms race is showing signs of escalating at E3. At its press conference on Monday, EA shed some light on its plans, and they involve big money. Microsoft is also signaling that it wants in on the action, which would indicate that platform holders are aware of the value of investing in the sector, if only for the community-building benefits. Last but not least, Bethesda, by way of id Software, is banking on Quake's legacy in competitive gaming to kickstart an esports scene around its recently announced title Quake Champions.

The biggest esports news at E3 so far is EA's Madden NFL 17 Championship Series, a yearlong competitive circuit that'll award $1 million in cash prizes to competitors throughout its course. EA is structuring its competitive efforts accordingly. For grassroots scenes, it's creating what it's calling Challenger Events, which will "give the community the ability to more easily host their own events." The next tier up is Premier Events, where EA will partner with existing organizations – think esports leagues like ESL and DreamHack, and also partners "...out of the gaming industry." Finally, EA Majors are reserved for the publisher's biggest events – and presumably, its biggest prize pools. The four tournaments that'll comprise the Madden NFL 17 Championship Series are EA Majors events.

Microsoft revealed "Arena" on Xbox Live as part of the a new suite of features coming to the platform soon. The goal is to aid players, on both Xbox One and Windows 10, in finding and registering for competitive events, logging results, and surfacing tournament-related notifications. Microsoft also announced a long list of partner organizations – like FaceIt, ESL, MLG and EA – which suggests some synergy with the publisher's Premier Events. Support sounds like it'll come on a game-by-game basis; Microsoft's announcement names games like Killer Instinct, Gears of War 4, FIFA, and H1Z1: King of the Kill.

As for Bethesda and Quake Champions, its plans appear more aspirational than concrete at the moment. Tim Willits, id Software's studio director, empathically invoked Quake's competitive legacy, assuring the audience that "Bethesda will be supporting and expanding tournaments and leagues beyond QuakeCon." Vague, but there's cause to be excited – Bethesda proved with Doom that it knows how to honor the legacy of classic shooters after a reboot.

Microsoft, too, is light on details. Its announcement that FIFA will be part of the "Arena" program is a decent signal that Challenger Events will get some concrete support.

What does it mean for you?
This is all good news if you're into structured, competitive gaming. Regardless of whether you aspire to compete at the highest levels, it looks like publishers and platform holders finally have the appetite to give you the tools you need to organize and participate in earnest competitive play.

Quality, not Quantity
At E3 2016, the game company press conference evolved into something finely honed and laser-focused. The days of droning executives reciting sales figures are long past and the big publishers and platform holders seemed even more eager this year to cut to the chase and get to the games.

Bethesda was perhaps the best example of restraint. Dishonored 2, which casts you as a mighty supernatural assassin, took the lion's share of stage time at their event (which was open to the public) with a revealing gameplay demo that showcased the nuance and possibility of its gameplay systems. Quake Champions opened the show, and though we only got to see a trailer, the class-based shooter nonetheless made clear that Bethesda has esports aspirations.

In this sense, it's got something in common with EA. Beyond simply detailing its esports plans around Madden 17, EA anchored its showing on two of its biggest competitive games: Battlefield 1 and Titanfall 2.

Project Scorpio undoubtedly stole the show at Microsoft's press conference, but some big-name releases managed to sneak into the spotlight, not the least of which was Gears of War 4, which featured a (spoiler) last-minute cameo by Marcus Fenix himself. Scalebound, in the cooker since 2014 from gonzo developer Platinum Games, continues to get more absurd. This time around, its demo focused on a cooperative boss battle against a colossal glowing crab. As for Ubisoft, it's no surprise that we saw the French publisher double down on what it's been trying to perfect for years – expansive open worlds teeming with activities. In Ghost Recon Wildlands, this takes the form of a vast wilderness populated by a drug cartel that needs eliminating. You and your friends will have a host of tools with which to do so. Watch Dogs 2 isn't quite as vast but it's no less ambitious. It looks to have taken its stodgy predecessor's focus on hacking the urban fabric and imbued it with some much-needed life.

Sony had both quality and quantity and its showcase started in probably the most forceful way possible with a reveal of the new God of War, which will evidently pit Kratos and his son against the Norse pantheon. The expansive world on display was an intriguing divergence from the linear framework we've historically associated with the series. From there, Sony went on to flaunt a veritable embarrassment of riches. Highlights included a Spider-Man game from Insomniac, and Hideo Kojima's mysterious new Death Stranding (starring Norman Reedus). When The Last Guardian serves as a footnote at a Sony press conference, it says something about strength of the showcase.

What does it mean for you?
For one, there's a good chance that publishers will invite you to check out their games first hand at events like EA's and Bethesda's, provided you're willing to travel and lucky enough to score tickets. Also, the majority of titles listed here are sequels, spinoffs or reboots. Publishers are risk averse by nature – and an established property is the ultimate safe bet.