The last time we had a show like E3 2014, it was 2007 and Nintendo was trying to sell everyone on Wii Fit being the future of gaming as we know it.
Times have changed since then—Sony and Microsoft's positions have reversed, and Nintendo isn't riding the high of an unexpected hit console—but the same basic rules apply. Now that the early adopters are out of the way, Sony and Microsoft will be out to convince the holdouts that it's worth investing in a next-gen console. Nintendo, as usual, will be dealing with its own set of expectations; specifically, fans crying out for a high-definition The Legend of Zelda.
With that in mind, each platform holder has a best case and worst case scenario for the upcoming show. True, not every E3 is as apocalyptic as Microsoft's showing in 2013, nor as positive as Nintendo showing in 2004, but the stakes will nevertheless be high. More than most shows, this E3 will be the one that sets the tone for the entire generation. So no pressure or anything.
Here's what to expect from each platform holder going into the show.
Nintendo: Zelda or Bust (Always Zelda or Bust)
Things are looking up for Nintendo of late. Mario Kart 8 is already the Wii U's fastest selling game to date, having sold some 1.2 million copies since launch. The Wii U also benefited from some positive press recently with the announcement that Super Smash Bros. will be supporting the classic GameCube controller, which is still easily the most popular way to play the series.
Of course, Nintendo will have a tougher time than its competitors riding that momentum into the show proper, since they have opted to rely on digital streams and tournaments for the second year in a row. Nintendo will have a large presence on the show floor though, and they will also be hosting two developer discussions in the evening. I have every intention of dragging my coworkers with me to the Nintendo booth and crushing them in Super Smash Bros. Work be damned.
As this is E3, there are persistent rumors that Nintendo will announce a new Legend of Zelda title for the Wii U during the show. If it looks anything like the impressive demo that was shown during E3 2011, then Nintendo should be in good shape with the fans and the press. To be honest though, I would rather see a Metroid revival on the 3DS in the vein of my favorite game from last year—The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds.
Even if Nintendo does show a new Legend of Zelda at E3 though, don't expect too many details outside of a trailer. Nintendo is increasingly reliant on its Nintendo Directs to convey information, and this show belongs to Smash Bros. I don't think it'll be low key exactly, but I also wouldn't be surprised if they didn't have much in the way of big announcements for the show. This is Nintendo, after all. Whenever we get our hopes up, we inevitably find ourselves asking, "That's it?"
Whatever they do, Nintendo should get a better reaction than when they used their E3 2007 press conference to showcase Wii Fit and the Wii Balance Board, simultaneously confirming the Wii as a mainstream darling and enraging fans hoping for (wait for it) a new Legend of Zelda. Man, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Best Case: Nintendo continues their positive momentum and announces a new Legend of Zelda while finally confirming a price drop for the Wii U. Fans rejoice. Naysayers temporarily reduced to wondering why Nintendo relies so heavily on its established franchises rather than making anything new.
Worst Case: Nintendo doesn't announce either of those things and instead keeps their head down while Microsoft and Sony hog all of the headlines, followed by another round of the press gleefully asking when Nintendo will finally become a full-time mobile developer.
Microsoft: The Need for Fresh Blood
The Xbox One's sales have been fairly steady since launch, but otherwise this is probably a year that Microsoft would like to forget. The past few months have seen one rollback after another, from the unbundling of the Kinect to the restructuring of Xbox Live. It's a tacit admission that Sony's approach is probably the right one, as well as an attempt by Xbox One to put all the bad press behind them and refocus for E3.
For Microsoft, that seems to mean Halo, Halo, and more Halo. Halo 5: Guardians has already been formally confirmed, and a collection consisting of remastered versions of Halos 1, 2, 3, and 4 is also rumored to be in the works. Halo 5 won't be out until 2015; but despite that, it feels as if Microsoft is doubling down on its surest hit, and hard.
The thing is, the Xbox could use some new blood in its first-party stable. Microsoft was aggressive early on in acquiring studios like Bungie and Rare; but since then, they've come to rely more on exclusive agreements with third-party studios such as Epic and Respawn. It's a strategy that has mostly paid dividends for the Xbox, but it's also left Microsoft in the unenviable position of leaning more and more on Halo—a series that arguably lost some of its shine after Bungie moved on. Of all the platform holders, Microsoft is the most in need of interesting new properties.
Luckily, help may be on the way. In teasing Microsoft's plans for E3 2014, Xbox chief Phil Spencer has said that they will be announcing both new sequels and new IPs during the show. Rumors also abound of a "huge" third-party IP going exclusively to Microsoft. Pure speculation here, but it might be the next Mass Effect. The series did begin life as an Xbox 360 exclusive, after all. And Electronic Arts is said to be cozy with Microsoft.
In any case, I think Microsoft is happy to just be at E3, where they can refocus the conversation away from the Kinect, DRM, and every other issue that has been dogging them for the past year. This is their chance to show off a bunch of new games, talk about some new features, and assure everyone that the Xbox One will be just fine going into the fall. And you know what? I think it will be.
Best Case: Microsoft knocks our socks off with a truly staggering exclusive. No one brings up the whole Kinect thing. A surprise Panzer Dragoon Orta 2 announcement makes us forget how disappointed we were with Crimson Dragon (...sigh).
Worst Case: Underwhelming announcements accent the fact that Halo feels weirdly old and irrelevant. Celebrity Kinect demos. Another year of message board revolt and Sony brazenly undercutting thex One at every turn.
Sony: Taking the Next Step
Okay Sony, you can stop smirking now. You've certainly had your fun at Microsoft's expense this past year, but the field is more or less level again now that the Xbox One's price has been cut and its online services restructured to be more in line with those of the PlayStation 4. E3 2014 is one big reset button for both of you.
In that regard though, Sony still probably has the advantage. Though it no longer enjoys the advantage of being cheaper, the PlayStation 4 is still more powerful than its competitors, and Sony boasts a deeper stable of first-party IPs. Already, rumors are swirling that Sony is readying its big guns for the show—Uncharted 4, Last of Us 2, and possibly God of War and WipeOut as well (obviously your mileage will vary on whether God of War and WipeOut can be considered "big guns" at this point). Guerilla Games (Killzone) is likewise rumored to be working on a new IP, possibly an open-world RPG, though other rumors suggest that it won't be shown at E3 2014.
I'll personally be keeping my eye on Project Beast. Bob has his own thoughts on what it might ultimately entail, but it seems to me that this is the Demon's Souls sequel that has been rumored for some time now. It might not be that much more advanced than the Dark Souls games, but that's hardly the point. This series is crying out for a next-generation iteration, if only to take advantage of all the social features that the PlayStation 4 has to offer. If nothing else, I look forward to being able to play with my headphones plugged into my controller.
Outside of its expected first-party content, Sony has plenty of other irons in the fire with its indie program, PlayStation Now, and Project Morpheus. There's the Vita too, I suppose; but as much as I like it for its indie content, it's starting to feel like an afterthought for major developers. I would love for E3 to prove me wrong, but I can't see the Vita getting more than a sizzle reel and a pat on the back. More interesting is PlayStation Now, which could be a really fascinating way to stream retro content... assuming it works. The jury is still out on that one.
I expect Sony's press conference to be an extended pat on the back as they highlight the PlayStation 4's strong results thus far. Honestly, they've earned it. Successfully launching a console without pissing off the Internet is a worthy feat. But the PlayStation 4 remains a tad light on system selling games—certainly nothing on the level of a Titanfall—and won't enjoy a honeymoon forever. This is where Sony has to go to work and start justifying that $400 price tag.
As with Microsoft, I think they'll be fine. Sony's indie program continues to flourish, and they have a strong stable of first and second-party content to draw from. By the time the fall rolls around, I expect the PS4's library will have filled out nicely. If not, well, Sony knows the consequences.
Best Case: The good vibrations from the PlayStation 4's launch carry into the press conference. Project Beast, PlayStation Now, and Uncharted 4 are the talk of the show. The Vita gets more than a sizzle reel at Sony's press conference.
Worst Case: Sony fulfills expectations with a new Uncharted, Last of Us, and God of War, but struggles to match the momentum generated by Microsoft's earth-shattering exclusives. Far too much time is spent talking about Project Morpheus. The Vita is sad and forgotten.