What did you think of the E3? Good? Okay? Notice anything unusual? While some great games were announced - some new things and fantastic looking titles - something was lacking. Mainly, the megaton, holy shit, I can’t believe this happening moments. The E3 2018 games we saw were good, solid stuff but oddly lacking the explosions of past years. And that’s because the next generation is coming and everyone’s holding back the big guns.
We know the next generation is coming, both PlayStation and Xbox has said as much. In an investment call this year, Sony Interactive Entertainment president and CEO John Kodera mentioned the PS4 is "finally entering the final phase of its console life cycle." While at this year’s Xbox conference head of Xbox Phil Spencer talked about how Microsoft is “deep into architecting the next generation of Xbox consoles.”
But to watch E3 this year was to actually see the end begin: there were no really, truly massive announcements for anything arriving in the next few years - all the big stuff appearing via logo reveals, casual mentions and promises for an unspecified future. Even Cyberpunk 2077, arguably one of the biggest games of the show, has no release date and, when asked what formats it’ll be on, CD Projekt Red said, “PS4, Xbox One, and PC. At the moment.” I’ve added the emphasise there, just in case you didn’t get the hint. Elsewhere, the games we will be playing soon rolled out with visuals that, a year ago, would have dropped jaws, but now barely raised a ripple.
We’re at a point in the cycle where developers and audience alike are casually accepting tech that would previously caused a minor freak out. The Last Us 2 rendered foliage, light and subtle, hazy air with a level of realism that already makes Uncharted 4 look a bit plasticky and fake and… no one really cared - they just expected it. While Ghost of Tsushima revealed this as a real time playable game world to polite applause and gentle muttering of ‘quite good, quite good.’
It all suggests a console cycle that’s been mastered - both in terms of developer tech and consumer expectations. When last year’s E3 seems a little subdued most people assumed that was because everyone needed time to recover from 2016’s amazing showing - a year that revealed games like God of War, Days Gone, Death Stranding, Detroit: Become Human, Battlefield 1, Spider-Man PS4, Prey, PS4 Pro and Xbox One X/Project Scorpio and so on and so on and you get the idea. But now it’s now clear after this year that the industry wasn’t resting, 2016 was the peak and, in terms of planning, developers have already moved on.
That we still haven’t seen some of the games announced back in 2016 released should serve as a reminder of how long it takes to make significant, big budget games. Many of the 2016 reveals that aren’t out yet (either through delay or design) are now largely targeting next year. Coincidentally, that’s when a lot of the games shown at this year’s E3 are coming. It’s almost as if everyone’s trying to get all their current gen games out in the next couple of years for… no reason.
Sony’s choice to focus almost exclusively on four big game for its PlayStation E3 2018 conference - The Last of Us 2, Ghost of Tsushima, Death Stranding and Spider-Man PS4 (all games announced two years ago) - isn’t because that’s all they’ve got, it’s all they’ve got that they want you to know about right now. As we speak there are plenty of other games that might have been heading for a 2018 reveal, quietly being shuffled and reconsidered for PS5 launch titles.
There was really big stuff this year, like The Elder Scrolls 6 or the new Halo Infinite, but even those suggest a new gaming future is close, with little more than logos and promises. When Bethesda’s Todd Howard introduced The Elder Scrolls 6 he did so referring to it as “the game after” to Starfield, another big game teased with a logo and little else. And, while Todd describes Starfield as “in production,” the Elder Scrolls is “in pre-production.” For reference, Bethesda started pre-production on Skyrim when Fallout 3 development began in 2006 and released it in 2011, so don’t expect to see a new Elder Scrolls game this side of 2023 at the earliest - and at that point do you honestly think it’s going to be a PS4/Xbox One game?
Which just leaves Microsoft's E3 2018 show: its entire conference was largely a mission statement for the future. Halo Infinity arrived via a tech demo for a new Slipspace engine, and Xbox’s Phil Spencer started the company was “deep into architecting the next generation of Xbox consoles.” More importantly Microsoft announced the acquisition of five studios, finally giving MS some first party weight. However, even if one of the new studios has already started making something, chances are it’s 3 years out and Microsoft isn’t going to try and stage a comeback on the Xbox One X with new exclusives in 2021.
And at this point I've really touched on the games. There was plenty of other hints at the big shows. Mention from Xbox of streaming games to any device - bringing the promise of a real Netflix like subscription service ever closer (EA is also working in this direction). Then there was all the talks of games as a service. It's not the first time it's been mentioned but more talk of online connectivity (Forza Horizon 4 and Fallout 76's always online worlds are prime examples) suggest a change in the landscape is coming.
Of course the whole ‘final phase console life cycle’ is actually great news for the immediate future. Right now the development pipeline is as smooth and accessible as it’s ever going to get. The coming few years are going to see games effortlessly achieve technical highs that previously only the biggest budgets and studios had the resources to reach. The next generation might be getting ready in the background, but this is the best bit of the current one - we’re about to play stuff that’s as good as the PS4 and Xbox One is ever going to look.