The general mood around the show floors of the Los Angeles Convention Center was that this year’s E3 –the gaming industry’s biggest convention– was an odd one.
Partly it was because of marquee absentees. PlayStation were not there, Activision limited its presence to a (controversial) panel on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, while other gaming companies brought less to bear. Schedules did not seem quite so packed, while the almost viral excitement of “must-see” games emerging from closed demonstrations felt few and far between.
But this kind of transitional show is notable because it is the calm before the storm. The gaming industry is about to enter not only a new generation of consoles, but seemingly a new way to access games altogether in the form of multiple, Netflix and Spotify-style subscription services.
Yes, E3 2019 may have seemed quieter than usual, but perhaps because we are on the cusp of one of the most significant sea-changes in the industry for a while.
Microsoft’s Xbox briefing best encapsulated this potential future. The headlines were grabbed by the appearance of Keanu Reeves announcing his involvement in Cyberpunk 2077 and the reveal of Project Scarlett.
This is Microsoft’s next-generation Xbox console, complete with all the fancy technical upgrades that you expect from new hardware. But Microsoft spent only a little time extolling the virtues of its new SSD (faster load times) and ray-tracing capabilities (better lighting).
Instead, the one constant throughout was the focus on its Xbox Game Pass subscription service. As it stands, Game Pass allows players to pay a monthly fee to access a library of games to download on both Xbox and PC.
What makes Game Pass stand out, in particular, is that Xbox are determined to put games on the service as soon as they are released at retail, rather than simply offering a back catalogue of older titles. All of Xbox’s first-party offerings, of which the company is expanding with its splurge on buying new studios, will be available on Game Pass from day one.
Xbox is looking to position itself as more of a service across devices, rather than an arm of Microsoft looking to sell consoles. The boundaries between different platforms such as Nintendo’s Switch and Sony’s PlayStation seem to be softening, while it is also readying its streaming service Xcloud to stream games directly to mobile devices.
Project Scarlett is an important step, with fixed hardware still likely to be the place where games play best, but it is as much a vessel for Game Pass and a technology driver for Xcloud.
Xbox Game Studios’ Matt Booty told The Telegraph that Game Pass is the ‘centre of gravity’ for Xbox. And Microsoft is not the only game provider looking at joining the subs rush.
Ubisoft announced its own service for PC called UPlay , Japanese publisher Square Enix has said it was looking into its own version, EA already has one and no doubt PlayStation will be cooking up its own expansion to its current PlayStation Now service.
Apple and Google, meanwhile, are also set to spin up their own gaming subscription strategy with Arcade and cloud-gaming platform Stadia respectively later this year.
Ubisoft’s executive director for EMEA Alain Corre told the Telegraph that streaming services and subscriptions will help expand the gaming audience if not everyone needs an expensive box to play top-end video games.
“If we consider some countries which are mainly playing on mobile games, like India or some countries in Africa and the Middle East, I think these streaming technologies – and also 5G, which will spread progressively throughout the planet – will permit them to explore our worlds on their telephone also. Which is a new possibility to have new fans which we like very much.”
This fuels part of Corre and Ubisoft’s desire for the world to have as many as 5bn players, with 2bn people around the globe currently playing games of some description. Moving to a more service-based idea of playing games, rather than focussing on hardware battles is where that expansion lies, or so the theory goes.
But what does it mean for players? There is no doubt some consternation about adding yet more subscription services to your monthly direct debit, but blockbuster games are unquestionably expensive to buy and the biggest games have a habit of gobbling all of the attention.
A subscription service for games, again in theory, could offer good value (though perhaps not if you’re on four or five at at time) and encourage players to experiment with smaller, more inventive games.
The likelihood of the latter is looking fairly promising, if Microsoft’s acquisition strategy is anything to go by. It has bought several new studios recently including Leamington’s Playground Games, Cambridge’s Ninja Theory and now Tim Schafer’s Double Fine Games.
Usually such acquisitions are greeted with trepidation, but Double Fine is perhaps the perfect example of a developer that could benefit from a subscription model. It makes quirky, critically-acclaimed games that have never found a mass-market audience. On Game Pass, it could stretch its creative muscle without having to worry so much about sales figures.
The flip side, of course, is the question of where success is measured on a subs service. If it comes down to hours played, or sheer numbers, then it could lead to the ‘service game’ model that has started to dominate the industry only becoming more prominent.
It is all up for grabs. But at least the intention signalled by companies such as Microsoft is that diversity is what will make subscription services sing.
And the variety across the showfloor at E3 was evidence that games are still finding new ways to thrill and delight. While you can’t escape the industry’s penchant for violence as a core mechanic, it is finding ways to serve it up in increasingly interesting ways.
Cyberpunk 2077’s neon city tale is one of the most ambitious games we have seen for a while. Post-Brexit techno-thriller Watch Dogs Legion is not only creating a fascinating spin on our capital, but is allowing you to take control of more or less everyone in it.
Dying Light 2, meanwhile, has the air of a standard zombie action game, but has your decisions affect not only the character and story but the entire gameworld itself.
Nintendo is continuing its own tradition of tactile and inventive games with titles like Luigi’s Mansion 3 and the surprise announcement of a sequel to Breath of the Wild, while around the showfloor inventive independent highlights were everywhere.
Spiritfarer –a cozy management game about dying– and smart timeloop mystery 12 Minutes were highlights at the Xbox conference. BAFTA-winning Sam Barlow is pushing interactive fiction far further than Black Mirror’s BanderSnatch with his new game Telling Lies. And if that’s not your thing, maybe Simogo’s psychedelic ‘pop album video game’ Sayonara Wild Hearts is.
And that’s just for starters (for a deeper look, our list of the best games of E3 is here). With such variety and ambition, even in a supposedly quiet year, then anything that fosters that creativity is to be championed.
There’s no guarantee that companies will follow through on such promises –the gaming world, despite its artistic values, can be a cutthroat and merciless industry– but if they do, another monthly fee might be a small price to pay.