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Xbox won E3 2021 but the only loser was the show itself

GameCentral looks back at the recently concluded E3 expo and laments the fact that Sony and others did not engage with it.

E3 is over for another year and the biggest takeaway is… at least there was one, sort of. The pandemic clearly played havoc with companies’ plans, but the sparse line-ups of most publishers was not due entirely to the coronavirus. Multiple publishers, most obviously Sony, have been undermining E3 for years and under the additional stress of the pandemic this was the year it finally fell apart.

Xbox and Nintendo did make an effort, as did Square Enix, but other publishers managed to show little or nothing that was genuinely new. The Summer Game Fest, which technically isn’t E3 at all, tried to make up for things, with its highlight being the Elden Ring trailer reveal, but there were too many disappointments and underwhelming showcases for it to hold together.

With so few new announcements to go around it became obvious that the problem wasn’t the pandemic but the games industry’s refusal to co-operate. If every publisher had been at E3, as they used to be, then they would’ve made up for each other’s reduced line-up and E3 as a whole would’ve been a success. Instead, the opposite happened.

The entire games industry coming together for E3 is more than just a cosy concept. For a start, it’s better optics for everyone if the various publishers don’t seem like bickering children, sulking if any of their peers get a minute extra in the limelight than them. More importantly though, working together means they can compensate for each other’s weaknesses.

When Sony and Microsoft are both present third party publishers can show their games at either one of their showcases and not have to put on their own – which is how even very large companies like Activison have worked for years. But when Microsoft are the only option that becomes politically awkward, and so the Xbox showcase had far less third party games than would be normal.

Sony is the key problem, since they haven’t attended for the last few years anyway, and this meant there were no PlayStation 5 first party games, or hardly any PlayStation 5 exclusives of any kind, shown for the entire four days. That’s likely why even those publishers that did take part in E3 seemed to have nothing new to show and why E3 without Sony will be forever broken.

There is a bigger problem with E3 being reduced to its current state though, one more important than not having any new reveals to get excited about. Moving everything online was the only option during the pandemic but from the publisher’s perspective it had the benefit of ensuring that journalists and the general public never got to play the games and tell other people what they thought of them.

Instead, publishers controlled the narrative entirely and you only got to see and hear exactly what they wanted you to. Starfield was one of the major reveals of E3 and yet all you got was a two-minute trailer that explained almost nothing and seemingly just two interviews for the entire world. Elden Ring seems to have had only one.

As a result, you learnt nothing other than what you could discern from the trailer itself and it’s that which drives the final nail into E3’s coffin. Especially if, as seems likely, publishers will not want to go back to the old ways now they see there is an alternative. But if you might as well just watch the trailer on its own, then E3 might as well not exist.

How much any of this is intentional is hard to say. Sony’s primary motivation is seemingly that they want to be seen as separate from the rest of the games industry, not just one of many but a singular entity that is too important to be mixed in with the rest of the rabble (which is also why they don’t like cross-play). Other publishers would just prefer if E3 didn’t make it so easy to compare their game with another, for fear that they come out worse from the comparison.

The frustrating thing is that the one reason that Microsoft were pushed to make a decent effort this year is because they knew all eyes would be on them. Since no one can ever predict what Nintendo will do they knew they would be the biggest show in town by default and that they had better make a good job of it. Which is exactly what they did, with the benefit to them immediately obvious.

The pre-rendered Bethesda trailers for Starfield and Redfall might not have been terribly exciting but Forza Horizon 5 at last gave a hint of what the Xbox Series X is capable of. After months of doing nothing but quoting tech specs everyone got to see what the next gen Xbox console can do and it was highly impressive.

It’s a shame it was only a driving game, but while Halo Infinite continues to underwhelm Microsoft offered clear proof that they can compete with Sony in terms of graphics and talented first party developers.

As a result, Xbox’s reputation saw an instant boost, with people talking about them in far more enthusiastic tones than before – the reward for any company that manages to ‘win’ E3. And that’s what makes Sony’s disengagement from E3 so baffling. E3 2013 is the exact point at which Sony won the previous generation, before it had even begun. By mocking Microsoft over their always-online policy, that made it impossible to borrow physical copies of games, they delivered a sucker punch that the Xbox One never recovered from.

When a couple of years later they showed off ‘impossible’ games like Shenmue 3, The Last Guardian, and Final Fantasy 7 Remake at E3 2015 it was the final twist of the knife that ensured the PlayStation 4’s future success. Nobody has benefited from E3 more than Sony and it is hard to understand why now, when Xbox is offering real competition again, they suddenly feel it is beneath them.

Who knows what will happen next year, assuming that by then the coronavirus will no longer be a major factor, but it seems unlikely that Sony will be a part of E3 2022 and probably not EA or Activision either.

That won’t affect the quality of the games – so some people will say it doesn’t matter – but it will affect how much you know about them before they’re released. Publishers and developers will also get less feedback and that’s a shame as, beyond the spectacle and the celebration of gaming, E3 served a useful purpose, one which it can no longer fulfil in its current diminished state.

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