In the months following the launch of the Xbox One and PS4, I told anyone asking which system to buy: "Wait for E3. That's where the big guns will be coming out."
And for the most part, that's exactly what happened. Microsoft announced more Halo, and then threw in a new Platinum exclusive and Crackdown for good measure. Sony teased Uncharted and Bloodborne, the latter being a new game in the Dark Souls style. Nintendo showed a slew of intriguing new games while showcasing a few new ideas for the Wii U. All three more or less subscribed to the "Content is King" strategy, embracing sheer quantity wherever possible. The Sony booth in particular bordered on the absurd for the number of indies it highlighted.
Following the show, the mood was buoyant among both the media and developers. Jeremy noted the sense of relief that seemed to permeate the show floor: "You can almost hear them saying, 'Thank god we can finally show some new games.'" True, mainstays like Assassin's Creed and Call of Duty were once against on center stage, but newcomers like Sunset Overdrive were equally impressive. There was a sense of verve and creativity at this show that has been missing from the last couple years.
For all the good feelings in the industry though, I'm left pondering my original question for the show: Is a new generation of gaming truly upon us? Or does the latest batch of games represent more of the last generation, but with a better coat of paint? Actually, I'm kind wondering what "next generation" even means now. With each successive round of consoles, the gap between the old and the new gets smaller and smaller. Near as I can tell, the "next generation" constitutes the following:
1. Social Gaming in all its Forms
Social media has come to permeate everything. I'm actually surprised it's taken this long to be able to share video clips and screengrabs on Twitter and the like. Twitch.tv culture has rapidly expanded from its eSports niche and into the general culture as bored financial analysts and insurance specialists the world over have increasingly tuned in to watch 16-year-olds in Canton, Ohio do Mario speedruns. Part of the genius of streaming that it works with all types of games, both old and new. But the flipside is that while it's changing how we consume games, it's not necessarily changing the games themselves.
2. Asymmetric Multiplayer
Everyone loves asymmetric multiplayer now. Probably the best example of this trend can be found in 2K's Evolve, which pits four players against a human-controlled monster. I played it during E3 2014 and ended up really liking it, despite it not being my usual cup of tea. Along with Titanfall, Evolve is testing our assumptions of what competitive and cooperative multiplayer should be like. If there's a real paradigm shift to be found in this generation, it's probably in the trend toward asymmetric multiplayer.
3. The Continued Rise of the Indie
Xbox Live started the trend toward smaller, more compact gaming experiences that could encompass a variety of gaming experiences. Steam built on it with a service that promoted indies while freeing them from onerous certification restrictions. And now we've come full circle with Sony bringing Steam's model to PlayStation platforms. With the cost of development steadily rising in the AAA space, publishers and platform holders have come to realize that indies are a cheap way to build up a library while garnering critical acclaim. Tentpole releases like Call of Duty still get most of the buzz, but indies increasingly comprise the backbone of most of the major consoles.
4. The Usual Graphics Bump
There's no denying that games on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 look better, though the impact of the graphics bump has steadily decreased from generation to generation. Thus far, most of the debate around the gaming community has centered on issues of framerate and resolution. The graphics will only get better as the generation goes along, but we're also a long way from the days when better graphics were all a console needed to sell itself.
The games themselves have mostly taken incremental steps forward. Looking at this year's slate, it's mostly a grab bag of established franchises (Call of Duty, Assassin's Creed, Forza, Smash Bros.) and indies, few of which have the generation-defining potential of a Call of Duty 4 (the jury's still out on Titanfall). The one game that has a chance to really make its mark is Destiny, which mixes open-world and MMO elements with those of a more traditional shooter. Activision and Bungie are betting that it will be this generation's Call of Duty, and it will certainly have the marketing budget to match (it's already reportedly one of the most expensive games ever made). But it's also so big that it's hard to say whether it can actually be replicated.
I will say that I think it's on the right track. I've long felt that seamless online integration represents that next wave of really interesting game design. Dark Souls has been a leader in that category for some time now with its allies, invaders, and ghosts, all of whom are represented by real people. It's still a very personal quest, but it does a lot to break down the walls between single player, multiplayer, and MMO. I think Destiny has a chance to do much the same, creating a living, breathing world without forcing players into a contrived competitive or cooperative mode.
Beyond that, I think this generation is still looking for the one game that can justify an upgrade to the new round of consoles. A game like Modern Warfare, for instance, which completely changed the way we thought about multiplayer and made people judge shooters differently. Or Gears of War. Or game like Halo, Final Fantasy VII, and to a lesser extent, Metal Gear Solid. The sort of game, in other words that makes us rethink an entire genre. Titanfall had aspirations to that effect with its fascinating take on asymmetric multiplayer, but I'm not sure it's had the impact that EA, Microsoft, and Respawn hoped. It feels more like a beginning than an end. For now, we're still playing last generation's games; literally so with Halo: The Master Chief Collection, The Last of Us, and Grand Theft Auto V.
I suppose you could argue that my expectations are too high. All of the games I listed above are genre-defining classics, and those certainly don't come along every year. But I've also talked to a lot of people outside of the industry who are wondering why they should be dropping more than $400 on a new console. Thus far, all I've got is, "Uh... Titanfall. And maybe Destiny." And with most of the best-looking games being held back into 2015, that answer doesn't look to be changing any time soon.
There's a part of me that hates being so cynical about all the great looking games I saw at E3. Evolve and Sunset Overdrive really do look terrific! And just so I look like more of a hypocrite, I've always argued that it takes way more than one game to sell a console. It takes a strong, diverse library, which the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and even the Wii U are building as we speak. But as a fan of the medium, I'm also wondering what's next. I had hoped that I would see it at E3 this year, but unless Destiny pans out (we'll see), it looks like I'll have to wait a little longer.