The annual gathering of video game developers, publishers, and press known as the Electronic Entertainment Expo is just a little more than a week away, and like previous E3s, this year's show should have no shortage of new software and hardware announcements, as well as plenty of surprises. But E3 2011 is a little different from shows in recent years as one of the three console manufacturers, Nintendo, plans to take the wraps off of the successor to the Wii. These console announcements usually signify the beginning of a shift in the video game industry--the ushering in of a new cycle that will be inevitably peppered with even more new hardware and accompanied by changes in strategy in an attempt to maintain relevance with currently existing hardware. What else to do we expect to happen this year? Which company has the most at stake? Read on to find out.
The situation: The Wii is all but dead. The reality is that system sales are in sharp decline, third-party support is nearly nonexistent, and even Nintendo's own support comes in the form of one last hurrah: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. This scenario was all too familiar to Nintendo fans when the GameCube neared the end of its life span and Twilight Princess was the last gasp until it suddenly became a Wii launch title. Fortunately, Nintendo has the DS and the 3DS to fall back on in the lull between the Wii and its successor, but sales figures would show that even the 3DS isn't quite living up to the lofty expectations set by its predecessor. Still, it's helpful to remember that the original Nintendo DS got off to an incredibly slow start, and it wasn't until key games were released that the system started to hit its stride.
What we expect: Wii HD. Wii 2. Stream. Cafe--whatever you want to call it, Nintendo's code-named successor to the Wii will be the star of the company's press conference, if not E3 entirely. Nintendo representatives have gone on record saying the system will be playable in some form at the show, so we at least expect demonstrations of actual working games as opposed to just a tech demo reel (we'll probably get that too). Then, we'll finally get to see if the rumors about a screen and front-facing camera-equipped controller are true, as well as whether or not the system is on par with or surpasses the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in performance. More important than all of that, we expect Nintendo to try to convince third-party publishers and consumers that this new system is worthwhile and that it's something to keep an eye on in the months and weeks leading up to the system's release next year.
Of course, Nintendo will also come out with some strong 3DS support, which will undoubtedly be tied to the then-recently-launched eShop. But of stronger concern is the lineup. Super Mario Bros. 3DS is an obvious choice as a flagship 3DS game coming down the pipe, but quite honestly, we need to see more high-quality games from third-party developers at the show too--stuff that makes us think that they're more than a stopgap in between the Nintendo releases.
And finally, there's that whole business about it being The Legend of Zelda's 25th anniversary this year. Nintendo already said it has something in store to celebrate this landmark, but we're guessing it will fall somewhere in line with what the company did to mark Mario's birthday.
What it has to lose: Nintendo's in an odd position. It cracked into a new market with the Wii but failed to take a lot of the traditional market along with it for the duration of the Wii's life cycle. Its next system is rumored to cater more to the traditional market, but given how successful the Wii has been, Nintendo's not going to abandon those that became new fans. Ultimately, can lightning strike twice for a concept that falls outside of the traditional gaming console model? We'll have to wait and see, and we'll be interested to see how the battle between the NGP and the 3DS pans out throughout the course of the show.
How Nintendo could surprise us: It's never been easy to predict what direction Nintendo will take. It has a history of forming partnerships that initially seem implausible and revolutionizing hardware with unheard-of feature sets. There's a good chance Nintendo will announce something no one thought possible, but we have a few ideas about what it could show. First, with the Wii clearly in its dying stages, Nintendo could release the Cafe in the autumn of this year. Once it ports over Skyward Sword, that would ensure at least one huge game is available at launch to get people excited. Maybe it will announce partnerships with Western publishers who previously shied away from their consoles. Epic and Rockstar are great candidates for delivering a big-name game to the Cafe.
Or maybe we'll see a blast from the past. A sequel to Eternal Darkness would cause quite a stir, and creator Denis Dyack has been anxious to return to this franchise. Finally, the one area where Nintendo has struggled has been with its online integration. It could trot out Gabe Newell to announce Steam integration with the Cafe. Hey, it would be a surprise, wouldn't it?
The situation: Microsoft has the oldest console hardware out of the three platform holders, but the company successfully pumped an extra year or two into its life span with the addition of the Kinect camera. The only problem is that outside of the launch, Kinect support has been absolutely abysmal with nothing new or noteworthy hitting shelves for the past several months. Additionally, Microsoft has enjoyed tremendous third-party support, but its first-party schedule is seriously lacking outside of such key releases as Gears of War 3, Forza Motorsport 4, and the rumored Halo: Combat Evolved remake.
What we expect: There's no doubt that Microsoft recognizes the sizable gap between its first-party slate and its Kinect lineup. And it will promptly address these issues at its E3 press conference, particularly with the Star Wars Kinect game and Kinect Sports 2. It will be interesting to see if Microsoft tries to double-dip on the problem--release high-profile first-party games that also happen to have Kinect support--though we do know that Kinect-only games are a high priority and will be a large part of the strategy. Still, third-party support has always been an important aspect of Microsoft's E3 presentations, so it wouldn't be surprising to see Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and perhaps even the next Assassin's Creed be an integral part of the program as in years past.
What it has to lose: Microsoft has to prove that the Xbox 360 is still charging ahead into its sixth year of existence and that it will more than likely do so via the Kinect and Xbox Live, which usually gets new service announcements around E3 time (Skype seems like a natural choice). But it has to be mindful of the PlayStation 3's growing trend of getting the "ultimate" versions of games, which include more free content than their Xbox 360 counterparts. Its position in the industry is Microsoft's to lose, but if it's not careful, it'll lose it in quick fashion.
How Microsoft could surprise us: Between Nintendo's Wii 2 and Sony's NGP, Microsoft is facing a tall order if it hopes to avoid looking like an also-ran at this year's E3. So how will the Xbox maker get an E3-worthy "They did what?!" out of us? Yeah, it's going to take new hardware. We're thinking first word on the Xbox 720 should do the trick. But why stop there? We're also thinking 2012 release date. We're thinking Halo 4 confirmed for launch. And we're thinking…we're thinking…orange. Yes, it'll need to be orange.
Given the Xbox 360 and Kinect's momentum, new hardware may skew toward the improbable. However, the gaming company still has options. Exclusivity is always a favorite option at Microsoft, and wouldn't it be cool if Activision Blizzard hoped aboard Xbox Live, exclusively, for its upcoming massively multiplayer online role-playing game Titan? Exclusivity can also be gained through acquisitions, and independent developers Gearbox and Crytek create the kinds of core games that Xbox 360 gamers love. Or, hey, why not think big and officially bring Gears of War maker Epic Games into the fold?
The situation: Removing the PlayStation Network debacle from the equation for a moment--Sony is in a great spot. The PlayStation 3 unquestionably has some of the best and most robust first-party support right now, and Sony has secured some major exclusive content for the PlayStation 3 version of multiplatform games. Still, PSN is a big issue and its problems have taken quite a bit of attention away from some of Sony's more recent successes, if not some of the trust from its loyal users. It's definitely a problem it'll need to address at E3.
What we expect: Sony's strong first-party and smart third-party deals should remain an integral part of the company's strategy in the coming months, so don't be surprised to hear about more multiplatform games getting PlayStation 3-exclusive treatment on release day. But really, Sony should take the time to celebrate what amounts to a great first-party lineup, starting with games like The Last Guardian, Journey, Twisted Metal, and Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception. It's likely that there will be some previously unannounced projects involved as well, but Sony already has some great games in its lineup.
Of course, the NGP (or PlayStation Vita, as it's likely to be called) will also play a prominent role in Sony's E3 plans. We'll probably get the official name and a better idea of a release date, as well as launch and upcoming games that feature a healthy mix of most of the first-party stuff we've already seen (like Uncharted). We'll probably also find out about some previously unannounced third-party games that may include some remakes. But the big question is the price. Sony has an opportunity to position the Vita in a favorable way against Nintendo's 3DS, particularly if it keeps the price hovering around that of Nintendo's handheld. At any rate, there are certainly shades of the battle between the PSP and DS at this stage with the Vita and 3DS, but we're guessing Sony has learned much from that experience, as well as what it needs to do to have a handheld that successfully competes on a sales level.
And what of the Move? Sony's motion-control platform has seemingly lagged behind the competition despite the fact that a couple of high-profile games use the technology. We can't help but wonder if the company is ready to take a different approach and start making software specifically built for the controls as opposed to using it as an extra selling point on the front of the box.
What does it have to lose: In a word: momentum. Again, Sony has been doing great on a product level, but it took a massive stumble with the PSN security breach. E3 will give the company an opportunity to pick itself up and hopefully explain in no uncertain terms that the PSN is as secure as possible. If Sony manages to shake it all off, its long-term prospects look brighter than perhaps any other currently existing system.
How Sony could surprise us: With all the headlines surrounding the PlayStation Network outage these past few weeks, Sony could truly shock the world by simply…not acknowledging it. Or at the very least, waiting until the end of its press conference to address the issue. This is a huge weight around the company's neck, so for Sony to do anything else but take the bull by the horns at the very beginning of the show would be a huge shocker.
Then there's the NGP. Most of us are under the impression that this thing's going to cost an arm and a leg, so what if it doesn't? What if Sony copies the cell phone business model by offering the NGP at a heavily subsidized price (say, $150) in exchange for customers signing up for a two-year 3G data contract with a carrier?
Sony could also take a massive swing at Microsoft by locking up an exclusivity deal with that other big shooter on the horizon: Battlefield 3. Microsoft's deal with Activision to release Call of Duty map packs on the Xbox 360 well before the PlayStation 3 has, by the look of things, proved to be quite a boon for Microsoft. So what if Sony locked up the same deal with EA for Battlefield 3 DLC? It would make business sense, but the sheer boldness of such a move would certainly take us by surprise.