E3: Eyes on the Horizon Line

By Noah J. Nelson (@noahjnelson)

The thing you have to remember about the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo which takes place in Los Angels every year is that it's a time machine. Oh, I know that it is set up as a trade show -- the main stage for the multi-billion dollar video game industry -- where buyers from major retailers go to get a handle on what will be on their store shelves for the next few holiday seasons.

But that's not where all the heat gets generated, and it's far from the messaging that gets blasted out onto every blog, Twitch channel, and mainstream news source.

No, E3 is all about the future, and an increasingly in-the-future one at that.

This has almost always been the case with E3.

The major platform holders -- Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo for well over a decade now -- have grown adept at spinning visions of distant horizons while trying to distract attention from thin line-ups in the months ahead. The insane costs of development are partly to blame: it takes armies of artists to bring games with the depths of virtual worlds to life.

Sony, champion of the current console generation, are past masters at the future horizons game. They used that technique long ago to strangle Sega's Dreamcast before it could become a threat to the Playstation 2. This year the company turned to nostalgia, third-party exclusives, and crowdfunding in order to "win" the PR cycle of the press conferences. Judging from the reaction on social media to the re-announcement of The Last Guardian (first glimpsed in 2009), and the promise of a remake of Final Fantasy VII and Shenmue III were enough to win the heart of gamers.

Never mind that none of that will see store shelves this year.

Nintendo, for their part, are treading water and talking up fun. Which has been their role for a few years now. Good thing for them that they remain the game maker most likely to actually capture the spirit of fun.

That they've parlayed their entry into the "toys to life" genre pioneered by Activision's Skylanders is a testament to their prowess for making beloved characters. Only Disney holds more IP dear to the heart of youngsters and the young at heart. The fact that some of Nintendo's Amiibos -- the figures at the center of their toys-to-life initiative -- are going to crossover with Skylanders is a sign that the veteran game maker is becoming more agile as it faces a fragmented game market.

As certain industry observers like to say: the Nintendo that is backed into a corner is the best Nintendo.

Microsoft was more focused on the near-term than it's chief rival. The biggest surprise of the show was that the Redmond giant was enabling backwards compatibility for some titles from the Xbox 360. One gets the sense that the machine that the Xbox One that will be on store shelves this Christmas is the one that should have been there all along. Even then, the buzz about Microsoft was all about the whiz-bang Hololens demo that took place on their press conference stage featuring Minecraft.

Minecraft is the most valuable Intellectual Property in gaming. Making the pitch for "mixed reality", as Microsoft likes to call the Hololens technology, using Minecraft is the equivalent of establishing a wire transfer protocol directly with the bank accounts of parents everywhere. The news from back room demos isn't so great for the tech though: the current Hololens field of view is terrible, and apparently isn't likely to get better before the consumer version. (Frankly, I can't believe that.)

Whether or not Hololens is a hit may not matter, as Microsoft appears to be hedging it's bets in the Augmented vs. Virtual Reality debate. They've announced partnerships with both Oculus -- the consumer version of the forthcoming Rift VR headset will come with an Xbox One controller -- and Valve to support their head mounted displays with Windows 10. That operating system is being positioned by Redmond as the key to VR, and it's probably the most brilliant old-school Microsoft move in ages.

On the show floor you could feel the gravitational attraction of the PC market everywhere. Strangely enough, the clearest place to see that was at the Sony booth. With the exception of first-party exclusives and the console-only Destiny pretty much everything that was in the Sony booth is also available going to be available on PC when it is finally released. That includes the indie game No Man's Sky that has been a major presence in Sony's PR messaging.

Microsoft almost seems more interested in the PC games market, with the Xbox being an extension of the Windows battle plan, at this point. Third party publishers just need strong ecosystems to publish into, and Nintendo's greatest enemy is the strength of the mobile market.

Looking across the landscape of the Convention Center the message is clear: this is the twilight of the console era. We've reached that point where the life spans of dedicated gaming hardware isn't long enough to keep up with the technical demands of the high end of the market, and the power of smartphones is enough to keep the less demanding fare running.

What we're left with is a series of questions about the future of the electronic entertainment market. Will it be AR or VR gaming that takes off? Will non-gaming applications gain a foothold in either of those platforms? If not dedicated gaming hardware, then what do the platforms look like?

Like Tomorrowland -- both the film and the theme park attraction -- by the time we get to the future the visions that led us there are going to seem quaint, a little naïve, and maybe a little too optimistic.

Public media's TurnstyleNews.com, covers tech and digital culture from the West Coast.