With Sony's showcase upon us, a look ahead to what's in store at not-E3 2023.
Well hello, everyone! The sun is shining in the UK, and has been for a while. A suspiciously long time, in fact. I expect we will, eventually, look back and realise this was our summer. I shall try to enjoy it while it lasts.
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Right! Not-E3 season is once again upon us, with Sony getting us off to an earlier-than-usual start with its showcase doodah later today. As such I thought it would be worth discussing what we can expect from the major industry players over the next few weeks — what I hope they’ll do, what I think they ought to do, and what my inner realist acknowledges they will end up doing instead.
You could look at this as a version of the vaguely lazy ‘E3 preview’ issues that games mags used to do back in the day, or of the sort of early play for SEO wins from today’s click-hungry websites. Really, though, it’s just that as soon as the sun comes out and I hear Solange’s ‘Losing You’, my brain activates its E3 mode and my brain just floods with this stuff. It will do me some good to get some of it out. Perhaps you’d like to do the same — leave a comment, hop in the Discord, or reply to this very email to tell me how right/wrong (right, please) I am.
Surely the most delicately poised and most intriguing showcase of them all. There is a parallel universe in which Phil Spencer and his T-shirt collection come out swinging at not-E3 2023, buoyed by the surprise-and-delight success of Hi-Fi Rush, the seamless global approval of Acquisition Blizzard, and a firstparty operation finally getting to the sort of release cadence required to keep the Game Pass membership fed and watered with regular exclusive bangers. Back in the real world, the Activision deal is highly uncertain, Redfall’s launch was a disaster, and Minecraft Legends has come and gone with barely a whisper of buzz — which, given it bears the name of one of the biggest games on the planet and is available for free to Game Pass subscribers, is arguably a fate worse than Redfall’s.
As such I am fascinated by how Microsoft intends to approach this not-E3 in terms of tone. Its traditional ‘best year ever’ schtick simply will not fly when it has spent the past 12 months presenting itself as a struggling minnow to antitrust regulators. It cannot wheel out the ‘best place to play’ line so soon after Redfall, nor can it project optimism mere weeks after Phil Spencer prostrated himself on a podcast and gave us all the impression the sky was falling in on the Xbox business. Splashy acquisition announcements have been a feature in recent years, and have helped paper over the cracks of a spartan firstparty release schedule. But how exciting can more of those be when regulators have spoiled the party over the Activision deal, and Microsoft has done so little with the studios it already owns?
The only pathway to success I can see here is games. Not CG trailers — I hope they’ve learned that lesson from Redfall — but actual games, that are actually up and running at firstparty studios and coming out quite soon. I expect that will be too much to ask, particularly since Starfield has been punted out of the Xbox event for a dedicated showcase right after it. Bah. Maybe next year.
With Spider-Man 2 the only firstparty PS5 game currently confirmed for 2023, Sony’s mission here should be pretty obvious, though for me this is not a question of volume but… character, for want of a better word. The Sony of old was unpredictable when E3 rolled around; were you getting a cinematic showcase from Naughty Dog, or some outré fare from Team Ico? More often than not, you’d get both. But as the PS4 generation progressed, and particularly after Jim Ryan took over, Sony’s output skewed increasingly western and, inevitably, rather more conservative. The PS5 is two-and-a-half years old, and the only firstparty exclusive that has really surprised me — that has stepped out from that comfort zone of big, shiny, safe western blockbuster — is Returnal. The closure of Japan Studio sent a pretty clear signal of Sony’s intended direction of travel, and it has shown us nothing since to suggest that signal was wrong.
Could 2023 be the year that changes? I rather hope so, and certainly think it should be. Ragnarok and Forbidden West are on shelves, The Last Of Us has been successfully tarted up in time for the HBO show’s success, and there’s another Spider-Man on the way. As such I would argue Sony is past the point of needing system sellers. And we are now at the point where generations often start to get a little weird. Will Sony continue to play it safe with more western-focused blockbusters, or will it let its talented studios stretch their legs a bit? With PlayStation Studios head Hermen Hulst trumpeting the dozen live-service games his teams have got up and running over the past year or so, we should probably keep our expectations in check.
But hell, E3 is our time to dream, is it not? I want to see something from AstroBot developer Team Asobi, the last surviving member of the PlayStation family who can carry the creative flame of Japan Studio. I’d like a dramatic expansion of the retro catalogue in nu-PS Plus that will see me playing God Hand, We Love Katamari and Gitaroo Man on my PS5 before the week is out. I’d like a reason to get my wallet out for PSVR 2 (ideally also from Asobi). And I’d like one of PlayStation’s western studios to show up with something I could never have expected, and that I don’t feel like I’ve already played. Sure, I imagine we’ll end up with some new cinematic open-worlders, a big-ticket remaster or two, a boatload of battle-pass bullshit and some money-hatted thirdparty exclusives but look, let’s enjoy our time in fantasy land before reality returns to us in a few hours.
A few years ago, Ubisoft had one of the finest release slates in the business; back in my Edge days we routinely crowned it publisher of the year in our annual awards, in thrall at its reliable pipeline of blockbusters and willingness to experiment with unfancied hardware and legacy IP. Over time, production problems, poor creative direction and a miserable misconduct scandal have seen almost everything that Ubisoft ever had to offer dwindle away to the extent that it can really only be thought of these days as the Assassin’s Creed company. CEO Yves Guillemot evidently agrees: last week he committed to growing AC’s headcount by 40% in the next few years (it is already at 2,000 people).
So, yes, to say we can expect Assassin’s Creed to do the heavy lifting at Ubisoft Forward would be quite the understatement. But we should not overlook how important Ubisoft Massive, developer of The Division, is to Ubi’s near-term future. Tasked with two enormous licences in Avatar and Star Wars, both running on the studio’s Snowdrop engine and both set for release this fiscal year (though Kotaku reckons Star Wars won’t make it), it seems to me Massive has as much say in Ubisoft’s fate as the Assassin’s Creed team does, and maybe even more. As a big fan of Massive, I rather hope they pull it off — but that’s an awful lot of responsibility for one studio to bear.
So, yes, we’ll see Assassin’s Creed, Avatar and Star Wars. Probably a Just Dance, there’s always one of those. Maybe we’ll see Beyond Goo- nope, can’t even bring myself to finish typing that, no chance. Really, Yves and co, just show me something new that looks like it was conceived on the floor of a development studio rather than in a marketing meeting, try not to delay Skull & Bones in real time, and you can probably call this one a win. You have, after all, set yourselves a dismally low bar to clear.
Summer Game Fest
I suppose you could call this a free hit for Geoff, who has successfully seen off ReedPop’s planned revival of E3 proper and therefore has the airwaves, the physical event space and the mindshare to himself. Personally I think this ratchets up, rather than reduces, the pressure on this year’s Summer Game Fest. Keighley has things set up just the way he wanted it. If it’s going to stay this way, he simply has to deliver.
To be clear for any lawyers who may be reading, I am not accusing Geoff Keighley of killing E3, though if this were a murder investigation I imagine he would at least be a person of interest. But he will certainly have been delighted at ReedPop abandoning the convention’s planned return this summer. If this is to become the new normal — if E3 is never to return, and Summer Game Fest is to take its place as the multiformat, multi-company fulcrum around which the rest of not-E3 pivots — there is no room for error. A repeat of last year’s overlong, poorly curated show, most notable for its bizarre overemphasis on sci-fi horror and the questionable sartorial decisions of its host and guests, simply will not fly.
This is harder than it sounds. As Hit Points has previously observed, the problem with Keigh3 as a concept is that it has far more competition than Gamescom and The Game Awards. Rather than having the schedule to himself, Keighley must settle for scraps from the platform holders’ tables, knowing that Microsoft and Sony, and publishers like Ubisoft, will naturally save their biggest bangers for their own showcases. There’s also the supporting cast, the PC Gaming Show and so on, to contend with. He didn’t set out to show us all that sci-fi horror last year; he just got what he could, and probably realised too late that he had a bit of a balance problem. I assume he has learned his lesson but, that aside, I think it’s best we keep our expectations low.
Keighley seems to agree, saying in an interview with the Epic Games Store (?) this week that his two-hour (!) show will have three or four games that are “pretty big for this audience.” He goes on to say that SGF “has a chance to talk to the developers and showcase games and give a little bit more context around games,” which is quite the upfront admission of padding. I don’t think this is really about SGF replacing E3, exactly; rather it’s about proving that Not-E3 actually needs a Geoff Keighley showcase when so much else is going on, and history tells us he has less to offer at this time of year than he does at Gamescom or The Game Awards. I will be watching with interest, sure, but without expecting to have my socks knocked off.
A bit of a recurring theme, that, isn’t it. For once, I hope to be proven completely wrong.
HEROES OF TIME
Our mini-series of reader Zelda memories continues with this, from Sam Byford, author of the excellent tech newsletter Multicore and a much-needed Monster Hunter sensei to Hit Points on a press trip to Osaka a few years back. Sam wrote this the day before Tears Of The Kingdom’s release, so adjust your tenses accordingly.
“I was also a Zelda dabbler, having spent my '90s with the PlayStation and PC. The first one I played was Wind Waker, which came with the GameCube I bought off someone for fifty quid at a dubious Manchester club in 2004. I played it and liked it until all the shard busywork at the end. Then I moved onto Ocarina from the bonus disc, dug it for what it was, but also fell off around the Water Temple under what I'll chalk up to, er, similar circumstances.
“I bounced hard off Twilight Princess. I played a bunch of Link To The Past on the Wii Virtual Console. I poked at Phantom Hourglass with my stylus to little avail.
“In 2016, I met the woman who would become my wife. She turned out to be an obsessive Zelda fan who couldn't understand how I'd never finished the ones I'd played. We played Ocarina together on the Wii U, planning to get to the end, until that cursed machine inexplicably ate our save more than halfway through. No matter, she said. Breath Of The Wild will be out soon. We'll play that together.
“And we did, for hundreds of hours, and I couldn't believe what I was playing. I'm still in awe of the purity of its design — how its cascading structure is laid out in front of the player from the start with each element affecting the next. I only ever played it with her next to me on the sofa, and I barely thought about anything else for months. It's without question my favourite game of all time.
“And now it's past midnight in Japan and we should probably be playing Tears Of The Kingdom right this second. Unfortunately we decided to order the physical version in order to get a limited-edition Zelda spoon. But there is little I've looked forward to in life more than starting this game together once it shows up tomorrow.”
Lovely, lovely. (Here’s that spoon, if you’re curious, which I know you are.) More to come later this week.
Think you’re having a bad day? Spare a thought for Embracer Group. The sprawling holding company announced its latest financial results this morning, which include the remarkable admission that a $2bn strategic partnership that was seven months in the making collapsed last night. Within ten minutes of Swedish markets opening this morning, Embracer’s stock price had fallen by almost 40%; at the time of writing it is down more than 45%.
China has approved Acquisition Blizzard. The UK regulator grows progressively more isolated with each new approval but, as far as I can tell, that is just the way our government likes it.
Sega has laid off 121 staff at Company Of Heroes developer Relic Entertainment. In a statement on Twitter, the studio said that “following this necessary restructuring, Relic will be in a position of strength to continue delivering outstanding experiences to players all over the world.”
There have also been layoffs at Brace Yourself Games, developer of Crypt Of The Necrodancer. Half the studio is believed to have been given their marching orders.
UK ratings board PEGI has fined Activision Blizzard for flouting its guidelines by failing to disclose the presence of loot boxes in Diablo Immortal when submitting it for certification. Immortal, you may recall, brought in $100m in about two months when it launched last summer. PEGI’s fine? €5,000.
Manna from heaven for RBG-loving PC weirdos (no shade; Hit Points is slowly becoming one too) who are tired of juggling all that thirdparty lighting software. A forthcoming Windows update will allow you to manage all of your rig’s onboard nonsense, regardless of manufacturer, at OS level.
That’ll do, I think! I am struggling with what is either a bit of a cold or just some allergies (there was rather too much gardening at the weekend). I hope all the above words make some sort of sense.
A final reminder about that discount on paid subscriptions. Hit Points is going away for a few days next week, so there’ll be no free edition; paid subs will be fed and watered as per usual, naturally. If you’d like to keep up with the latest goings-on on planet videogames, kindly hit the button below. If not, I’ll see you in a couple of weeks. Paid subs, I’ll see you in a day or two. Cheerio!
I spent about an hour with the newly launched Season Of The Deep last night and hey, it’s good fun — though I’m a bit disappointed that the design goal for the underwater bits appears to have been ‘the worst bit of Sonic The Hedgehog’. I hope as the weeks progress we do more than just running down pretty corridors through air bubbles. Sorry, just needed to get that off my chest. I do, every so often, idly consider starting a Hit Points spin-off devoted entirely to Destiny. Reckon there’d be some mileage in it. Anyway this is too much typing for a footnote, bye