The 5 key questions at this year’s E3 Electronic Entertainment Expo: Peter Nowak

Plenty of games on display, but the trends are more interesting

Halo screenshot

Microsoft unveiled plans for the next game in the Halo franchise at E3. (Microsoft)

Another Electronic Entertainment Expo is upon us, which means the nerd news cycle of the next week will be dominated by a steady stream of video game information and hype, not to mention a decent share of child-like squealing as the latest alien-shooting, terrorist-killing, football-throwing, aristocrat-stabbing and Italian plumbering titles are announced.

I’m not as interested in the individual titles themselves, but rather the larger trends that they’ll inevitably amount to. Every E3 has some sort of unifying story behind it – last year, it was obviously the showdown between Microsoft and Sony over their next-generation consoles. With no new hardware this time around, it’s fair to question whether there will actually be a narrative this year.

I’d posit that there isn’t just one interesting story that could unfold, but five:

1. Can Microsoft right the ship?

Microsoft dug itself a really deep hole with the Xbox One right from the get go. Starting with the console’s introduction more than a year ago, the company initially alienated many gamers by positioning it as an all-in-one entertainment device, with its television capabilities stressed over its actual ability to play games.

Then, shortly before E3 last year, Microsoft also announced a number of policies—like how the upcoming console would need to authenticate itself online daily and restrict used games—that inspired a veritable revolt. The company was forced to reverse on a number of points after gamers screamed bloody murder.

Nevertheless, Microsoft still insisted on bundling the motion- and voice-sensing Kinect peripheral with the Xbox One, thus raising its price tag up to $499. The result is rival Sony has sold 7 million units of its PlayStation 4 so far, while Microsoft has managed only 5 million. While it’s true the PS4 is available in more countries, there’s no doubt Microsoft has inspired some ill will with its strategies so far, hence its recent decision to finally unbundle Kinect and lower the console’s price to $399.

What can the company do at this year’s show to win back the hearts, minds and wallets of gamers? Surely there will be some footage from the next Halo game, expected next year, and possibly an early look at an upcoming Gears of War installment, but beyond that, will the company refocus on games or continue trying to position the Xbox One as a living room device that the whole family will want?

2. Is Nintendo relevant anymore?

With the unequivocal bombing of the Wii U, this is obviously a rebuilding year for Nintendo. With no major press event scheduled, aside from a video presentation that will doubtlessly show off yet more Mario and Zelda games, the venerable Japanese company looks to be on life support until it figures out what it wants to do next.

Executives have talked about veering the company toward fitness- and health-oriented products, which might not be a bad idea given that it has all but worn out its welcome with the core gaming audience and third-party developers.

Will Nintendo talk more about its next steps and acknowledge more of its bleak reality, or will it continue to insist that the Wii U and 3DS portable platforms are viable tentpoles on which to stake its future?

3. Will there be any games out this year?

An awful lot of the games being shown off at this year’s show are destined for release next year, which brings up the question: will gamers have anything to play this year?

Batman: Arkham Knight, The Order 1886, Mortal Kombat X, The Witcher 3, Dying Light, Tom Clancy’s The Division, Mad Max, Halo 5… that’s an awful lot of games already scheduled for 2015, with more to be announced at the show. Big games that are fairly likely to be released this year include Destiny, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Battlefield: Hardline and Assassin’s Creed: Unity (I’m willing to bet Far Cry 4, currently scheduled for a fall launch, gets delayed). That’s not a lot.

It’s already relatively late to announce any new big titles for 2014, which means this is looking like a relatively light holiday season.

That brings up an interesting chicken-or-the-egg question: are publishers waiting until there are more Xbox One and PS4 consoles in the wild to maximize their sales, and if so, why would anyone buy the machines if there aren’t many games to play on them? Or are developers simply having a hard time designing on the new consoles?

4. Is Morpheus for real or just a dream?

Sony is in fact showing off some new hardware – its Project Morpheus virtual reality headset. But is the device for real or is it just a opportunistic knock-off of the Oculus Rift VR visor, which Facebook recently acquired for $2 billion?

Sony wheeled Morpheus out shortly after that acquisition was announced, making for some interesting timing. The Kickstarter-originated Oculus Rift has been generating buzz as the next big thing in gaming for a while now, while Sony has a habit of, shall we say, doing what the other guys are doing (PlayStation Move, anyone?).

I’ll be getting a look at Morpheus, so these are questions I’ll hopefully be able to answer firsthand.

5. Who will “win” E3?

There’s a debate every year about who “wins” the show, which is always rather silly since there’s no actual prize, nor is there any way to conclusively decide such a thing. It is, however, fun to debate who had the better showing and which publisher appears to have the best slate of games.

Personally, I’ve been impressed with Ubisoft’s presentations for the past few years running and the company – which has more than half its employees in Canada – is once again looking strong for 2014 and 2015. The Division and Far Cry 4 both look great while The Crew, an open-world racing game, has promise. I’m also a fan of Assassin’s Creed and am looking forward to seeing how the new setting, during the French revolution, will work. Ubisoft also tends to have a big surprise or two up its sleeve too.