Fall 2018 has been great for gaming in general, with a large variety of major, long-awaited titles flooding store shelves and draining gamers’ wallets everywhere. Whether you’re a Nintendo stan, a J-RPG junkie, or a lover of major AAA blockbusters, there’s been something for everyone–oftentimes several somethings. But as good as things have been for actual gaming, it’s been pretty terrible for “gaming hype”, or reasons to be excited about things to come.
Indeed, barely a week into the fall season, Sony put a serious damper on everyone’s excitement for the latter half of the year when they announced that they would be cancelling their Playstation Experience event, an annual two-day event where the public could get their hands on playable demos of unreleased games and attend an array of panels with developers. For people at home, the event also garnered attention for its opening keynote, where Sony would put on something of a secondary E3 show, announcing more new games and elaborating on titles coming in the following year. Playstation Experience began in 2014 and was well on its way to becoming a tradition for Sony and gamers alike, but after a disappointing 2017 show, Sony’s Worldwide Studios Chairman Shawn Layden decided to put things on pause this year, explaining they “wouldn’t have enough to bring people all together in some location in North America to have that event. […] We don’t want to set expectations really high and then not deliver on it.”
While gamers were disappointed by this news, it came with a belief that Sony was being strategic, not wanting to disappoint again with another PSX that contained few announcements and served mostly to rehash things they already knew about. Surely this meant they were saving everything to give us a much stronger E3 presentation, right? Well…maybe not. This past Thursday, Sony announced they not only wouldn’t be holding an E3 conference in 2019, but they wouldn’t even be present on the show floor, something Sony normally dominates in terms of floor space with displays and demo systems for their upcoming titles. This sent a seismic shockwave through the gaming community, as Sony had been participating in E3 events for over two decades.
Meanwhile, over in Xbox world, Microsoft has been making moves. In March of this year, they began working on the Nintendo Direct-like Inside Xbox, a program where they could discuss everything major coming up for Xbox fans, from new games to sit-downs with developers new information on their favorite existing titles, like new maps, weapons, and characters coming to their favorite multiplayer titles. It’s all a part of Microsoft’s new attitude towards their fans and gaming in general, attempting to foster a sense of community and appeal to gamers by offering forward thinking, if obvious ideas like backwards compatibility, and a service like Xbox All Access, where gamers can finance a brand new console while also gaining access to Xbox’s online service Xbox Gold and their Netflix-like GamePass.
Despite trailing behind, Microsoft has felt like they were making all the right moves lately, even right up to this year’s E3, where they put on a vastly better and more entertaining show than Sony. So when they finally announced they were doing their own version of Playstation Experience in X018, gamers everywhere took notice. But after the event ended, it was difficult not to walk away with a sense of disappointment. The entire thing felt more like a commercial–which is what these things always are, but this felt far more blatant than usual, complete with a moment where they told us about their Black Friday deals with the same presentation of a used car salesman. They announced sixteen new titles for their Xbox GamePass service and the purchase of talented RPG developers inXile and Obsidian, but very little in the way of actually new video games. (Though Void Bastards, the new game from Jonathan Chey, a co-founder of Irrational Games, looks pretty sweet.)
Admittedly, the best part about these back to back disappointments is they’re all happening in the midst of one of the busiest Fall seasons we’ve seen all generation. But why are they happening at all? To my eyes, the answer is two-fold.
For one, the hype becomes a lot less necessary when you’ve got actual games. I’m one of the first people to admit this generation had a slow start–as much as I enjoyed 2014 in retrospect, many people couldn’t tell me a single great game to emerge from that year. For most people 2015 is basically Bloodborne and the Witcher 3, the end. And while 2016 had some quality titles like Uncharted 4, OverWatch, and The Last Guardian, they were still few and far in between. It wasn’t until 2017 began that publishers began not just delivering, but doing so on a consistent basis–nearly every month since January of last year has had at least one major title to dominate the discussion. From January 2017’s Yakuza 0 and Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, to last month’s Red Dead Redemption, we’ve been swamped in quality games.
This isn’t an accident–the first half of this generation was marred by delay after delay, pushing games months (sometimes years) down the line, then suddenly they were all coming out at once. 2017 and 2018’s glut of amazing games is the result developers finally delivering on the promises we’d seen from 2013 to 2016. Even next year this doesn’t really slow down, as January sees the launch of Kingdom Hearts III and Resident Evil 2 Remake, February will see Crackdown 3, Dead or Alive 6, Anthem and Metro Exodus, and March will give us Devil May Cry 5, The Division 2, and FromSoft’s next opus Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. We’re not just drowning in games right now, but we know for a fact we’ll be drowning in games to come, and that’s part of the problem.
While a number of trigger-happy Sony fans are under the impression that Sony is skipping E3 to announce the existence of the Playstation 5, the information we have now doesn’t seem to back that up. After all, back in 2013 Sony had enough time to do their own Playstation Meeting where they announced the Playstation 4 was coming, but they also appeared at E3 that same year to give us specifics on the system–the cost, what it would look like, and the launch titles for their next-gen system. Sony’s never avoided E3 before when they had a new system, because it’s too large of a conference to disseminate news, and the resounding success of the 8th generation means gaming audiences are bigger than ever.
Instead, I would draw attention to the games we’re already aware of coming from Sony: Days Gone, dreams, Concrete Genie, Medievil, Death Stranding, Ghosts of Tsushima, and The Last of Us Part II. Of those seven, four of those are due next year: Days Gone, dreams, Concrete Genie, and Medievil. Alongside the annual MLB title The Show, that’s very likely Sony’s complete slate of internally-developed titles for 2019. The other three–Death Stranding, Ghosts, and TLOU2–are lacking release years, meaning they’re probably at least two years out and will likely close out the PS4 generation in 2020. There’s rumors of one final PS4 exclusive left unannounced, but even if true, is that enough to build a show around?
That’s not to say Sony Interactive is “out” of games–they’re a game publisher, new titles are constantly in development. But when the audience you’re marketing towards is aware of your slate for the next two years, what’s the point of showing up at E3? Wouldn’t that money be better spent advertising those titles towards less hardcore fans, through commercials on cable and ads online? As E3 becomes more popular, boasting larger streaming numbers and becoming open to the public, it becomes that much more important to have a strong messaging at these conferences. And that messaging probably shouldn’t be: “here’s a selection of games you’ve seen for the last two years”.
As for showing something new, well…as games get more complex, they require longer gestation times. Where titles once took a year in the PS1 era or two in the PS2 era, they can take anywhere from three to seven years to develop now, depending on the genre and complexity of the title. And the longer the development time, the more you run into issues like having games you can’t talk about yet…because they aren’t for the console you currently have on the market. With both the Playstation 4 and Xbox One celebrating their fifth year on the market this year, we’re edging closer to the point where both Sony and Microsoft are likely working on the next iterations of their consoles for a likely 2020 release, ending the eighth generation at the usual seven year point.
And while Sony’s problem is that we’re aware of their release slate for the final years of the PS4 as a current-generation console, Microsoft’s problem is they didn’t really come to play until a couple years into the current gen. Skeptics constantly criticize Phil Spencer for Microsoft’s overall lack of games despite his constant promises of them working on stuff, but the company was officially working with only a handful of studios until this year, where they announced the purchase of a total of seven new studios. Even with making all your assumptions in Microsoft’s favor, the moves they’ve made since 2016 likely won’t pay off until after the Xbox One’s successor is already on the market.
That’s why Microsoft’s E3 and X018 looked the way they did. At E3 they claimed all the third-party announcements to buoy a presentation that otherwise would’ve mostly just announced Gears 5, Halo Infinite, and five new studios that were bringing no new exclusive games (yet). Meanwhile, X018 was designed to get more people into the Xbox GamePass ecosystem, which will likely be even more important to Microsoft’s plans for their next console. These moves are meant to generate more confidence and excitement about the brand as a whole, a crucial strategy for when they inevitably announce their new system in the next 18-20 months.
That’s not to say we’ve got nothing to look forward to. Though it might prove difficult for an industry that’s trained us to constantly wonder what’s over the horizon, it’s probably best if we all stay focused on what’s happening in the moment. An upcoming SGC will even delve into what events we can look forward to for the month of December. While Sony and Microsoft are looking towards tomorrow, their third-party partners are still very much focused on the next two years of development, and there’s still a lot of cool stuff to come.