EP@E3: The Current State of Affairs

State of Affairs

June is one of the most exciting months of the year, for it is the month of E3.

For gamers, it’s exciting. For Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo however, it’s a deal-breaking time of year. The announcements made at E3 have a huge influence over which of the big three has the upper hand for the rest of the year. Deciding on where to focus their efforts is critically important when competing for consumer dollars. Should Microsoft continue focusing on the Xbox 360 as a media hub as well as a game machine? Where does Sony need to take the Vita to revitalize its troubled launch? What does Nintendo need to announce in regards to the Wii U to make it as successful as its predecessor? These questions and more are going through everyone’s mind right now. Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft however, have been mulling them over for months and months.

As we gear up for E3, we want to examine where each company stands right now, where their obstacles may lie, what successes they should build on, and what they may need to do to be number one this holiday season.

Microsoft

For the last half of this generation, Microsoft has been the one to beat. At least in North America (Japanese sales figures tell a very different story), Xbox 360 consistently sells the most consoles on a month-to-month basis. By and large, multi-platform titles also sell most units on the 360. Coming off of a very rocky, red-ring-of-death-laden launch in 2005, Microsoft continued to spend buckets of money cementing its role as the console to have, especially for third-party titles.

Halo 4You only need to look at one title to see this loud and clear: Call of Duty. While CoD comes out for pretty much every platform under the sun, Microsoft has slowly and systematically been positioning itself as the Call of Duty machine. Even last year at E3, Microsoft opened its press conference with announcement and premiere footage of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. Here they also announced that 360 would have a timed exclusive window for all of Modern Warfare 3’s downloadable content. Opening with Call of Duty footage was a risky move considering it isn’t an Xbox exclusive, but Microsoft saw the huge opportunity in having the first footage of such a seminal franchise at their show. They have done an excellent job of positioning the Xbox and CoD brands together so that if you are to buy the game, it just makes sense to get it on 360.

The Call of Duty move extends into Microsoft’s whole strategy in the last half of this generation: they want to be the box you go to for not just games, but all entertainment. The success of Microsoft Kinect may be a thorn in the side for hardcore gamers, but the fact remains that it has put the Xbox 360 in the enviable shoes of where the Wii was just a few years ago; it is the family entertainment box. Since the birth of the 360 we have seen it evolve into a single machine that houses Netflix, Hulu, HBO GO, MLB.TV, ESPN, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and literally dozens of other entertainment channels. This, along with the fact that buying a new Xbox 360 these days usually includes a bundled Kinect motion sensor, shows Microsoft is covering its bases. Gamers may scoff, but to the parents deciding which of these costly investments to place in their living room, that’s a long list of enticing features on the back of the box.

For the past couple years, Microsoft has been shying further and further away from console exclusive titlesFable (Halo, Gears of War and Fable are the only main heavy hitters these days) towards building itself as the reason to play all third party games. Call of Duty has proven that the days of needing console exclusives, the Marios and Sonics of the world, are passing by. Games are becoming too costly for developers to place bets on a single console’s worth of sales, and Microsoft has been keen to notice this. Microsoft has proven that positioning yourself as the place to be for multi-platform releases can be just as profitable (not to mention less costly, since they don’t foot as high a bill for development or marketing) as having it all to yourself.

So the question stands, what does Microsoft need to do at E3 to “win” the show? It’s known that exclusives like Halo 4 and Forza Horizon will be shown, but what more? What else does MS have up its sleeve that no one else does? They have already announced no next-gen console will be announced, is that the case? Microsoft may just continue on the trajectory they are on, focusing on being a family box, and continue honing the vision of the Kinect. Microsoft’s entertainment-heavy E3 conference of last year was widely considered underwhelming to gamers, but they went on to own the year in sales. With Nintendo launching a new console that not everyone is sold on, and Sony trying to keep their shiny new troubled handheld above water, will Microsoft just back and watch them duke it out for silver? We shall see…

Sony

Sony has had better years to be sure, having last year posted a record loss just shy of $6 billion US. Now keep in mind that’s Sony as a whole, not the Playstation brand. In fact, their gaming division was strong enough to become one of the pillars of their focus going forward in the near future. When it comes to their gaming side however, they still remain firmly behind Microsoft’s Xbox 360 in sales. Not bad sales, and definitely better than it used to be, but not where they want to be. They also have a new handheld in the Playstation Vita, their new portable powerhouse that bleeds excess features, and has graphics comparable to the PS3. Despite the technical feats of the device, sales have been disappointing; especially in Japan where a lot of Sony’s PSP success stemmed from. The Vita is currently on life support (ironic, considering the system’s name) and this E3 is going to be a make-or-break point.

ps all starsBefore we talk about the Vita, however, let’s hit on the PS3 which has actually been a gamer’s paradise. Despite the 360 regularly trouncing it in sales, it can be argued that in terms of quality exclusive games released the PS3 is the reigning champ. Since last E3 we have been treated to SOCOM 4, inFamous 2, Resistance 3, Uncharted 3, Ratchet and Clank: All 4 One, Twisted Metal, Starhawk, and Sorcery. Beyond these, Sony has franchises like LittleBigPlanet, Motorstorm, Sly Cooper, Killzone, Jak and Daxter, and Gran Turismo in its back pocket. Between these and all of the major third party releases, Sony has the hardcore gamer covered. The PS3 also gets to be the only system to boast a built-in Blu-Ray player, something it probably won’t be able to brag about next gen. Let’s not overlook that Playstation Plus, Sony’s premium online service, that nets you extras like store discounts, beta access, etc and adds up to a shockingly large value.

That’s a lot that the PS3 has going for it. Yet month after month it lags. The 360 provides scant exclusive games yet is so far ahead. Sony puts the gamer front and center with the Playstation 3 and pays for it by not being as accommodating to the rest of the audience. There are a lot more people out there who own television sets than there are “gamers”. Nintendo took note of this and gambled with the Wii and it payed off in spades, with their casual games targeting a demographic that once scoffed at the idea of picking up a controller. Microsoft evolved this thinking by turning the 360 into a home media box that can run whatever type of content you want, pleasing the hardcore and casual alike. Sony hasn’t quite been able to take a slice of that pie in the same way though.

And then there is the Vita. It’s hard to say exactly what Sony isn’t doing right with the Vita; especially in Japan which has always been a market critical to Sony’s success. The Vita came out strong with a healthy lineup of great launch titles. However, since then the games have stalled with very few releases. The quality titles that do come out (Mortal Kombat Vita, for example) are often ports of existing games. The Vita needs games, plain and simple.

Sony is also in a weird spot regarding the PS Vita’s identity. Recently one of PS3’s big games this fall, Sly Cooper Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time, was announced for Vita as well, launching day and date alongside the PS3 version. While this is great news, when we say, “the Vita needs games,” we mean Vita-exclusive games that make use of the plethora of features the systems boasts. Having you flagship Vita titles be the same as your PS3’s titles might give the handheld an identity crisis to consumers. The last thing Sony needs is for the Vita to be seen as a port machine or as a PS3 replacement. It’s an incredible machine, but Sony needs to give gamers reasons to own it.

At this E3, it’s safe to say that it will be largely Vita-centric. Sony needs to put favourable eyes on that machine, and it needs to do it fast. Analysts have long been predicting a price cut for the Vita, as it’s resting uncomfortably in home-console territory right now. Regarding the PS3, Sony is in a good spot. It just isn’t in the top spot. Considering how late we are in the life cycle of the PS3, it’s hard to see them pulling anything huge out of their hat now. They may just focus on putting out quality games and leave the big announcements for next year when the PS4 will likely be unveiled.

Nintendo

When Nintendo announced the Wii-U at last year’s E3 it was met with mixed reactions. For every HD Zelda demo getting people pumped, there was footage of people playing New Super Mario Bros much like they already do on their Wii. The most common reaction was confusion: Nintendo failed to make it clear what exactly the Wii-U was. Footage of games being played by an intriguing new tablet controller alongside standard Wiimotes and Nunchucks made people wonder if it was indeed a new console or just a tablet accessory.

Ever since then Nintendo has been at once cleaning up its mess and drumming up excitement. They haveLuigi gone to lengths to clarify that it is indeed a brand new console with new games, albeit one that can also use Wii controllers. Besides that, there have been rumours in regards to the actual power of the system, while some developers say the Wii U is slightly more powerful than the Xbox and PS3, others believe it doesn’t even reach those heights. Nintendo has long been past releasing consoles that are the high watermark of tech, choosing instead to focus on games and innovative play methods, but the worry still lingers in gamers heads.

The good news is, in the past few months Nintendo has been saying a lot of the right things including announcing that there will be Nintendo franchises backing the Wii-U at E3. Pikmin 3 and New Super Mario Bros are officially showing at E3. Hopefully even more are in tow to make gamers’ mouths water. It already looks like third-party support is strong, which has long been the bane of Nintendo consoles. If they can have strong third-party support as well as consistent first-party titles, Nintendo may be able to reach the highs that the Wii had while also keeping the momentum that it couldn’t.

Looking over to the handheld side, the 3DS has come a long way since this time last year. Overcoming fate with a “Rocky”-style comeback, a hefty price cut, and a strong slate of fall games (take note, Sony) sent the 3DS from dead in the water to being Nintendo’s fastest selling handheld ever. Nintendo learned a harsh lesson with the 3DS launch, in that their brand alone isn’t enough to sell systems. People want to play games on those systems, and the 3DS has been consistently churning out solid first-party exclusives (like the recently released Mario Tennis Open) ever since. The results have shown. Later this year we are already expecting Luigi’s Mansion 2, Animal Crossing, as well as a brand new New Super Mario Bros (separate from the Wii-U game, take note again Sony). We can’t wait to see what surprises are in store.

God of war

This is a big E3. Each company has lots at stake, and each for different reasons. Microsoft sits comfortably on top in North America, but Nintendo wants to reclaim its throne, and Sony is just a couple moves shy of getting its underdog PS3 into checkmate. What are your thoughts? Who will win E3 and how can they do it? Let us know on Facebook and Twitter!

-Jamie Chapman