E3 Press Day: At The Halfway Mark (XBOX and EA)

By Noah J. Nelson (@noahjnelson)

Two down, two to go.

The first two big press conferences for the 2014 Electronics Entertainment Expo have come and gone and so far no major shocks, even as some old traditions die hard.

I took in the Microsoft Media Briefing at USC's Galen Center in person, in part to get the vibe in the room. After all, the home audience has a better view of the games and developers than those of us up in the cheap seats. Last year's event, which was the E3 launch of the new Xbox One platform was a kind of cavalcade of disappointment. The standard Microsoft formula of big franchise announcements laced between mass market consumer targeted demonstrations didn't play well with the room, the gaming press snarking along on Twitter, and ultimately with the majority of early adopter consumers, who the Redmond giant so desperately wanted to impress.

What a difference a year makes.

For starters this was the first Xbox press briefing in recent memory that was solely focused on games. Not one app or media service was touted. There was no pitch for Xbox Live services. The work Kinect was only mentioned once. As someone who enjoys the more out-there parts of the electronic entrainment industry I'm a bit personally disappointed there wasn't something for the weirdo set, but given Microsoft's position in the current console war it makes sense to focus on the desires of gamers.

Game after game was shown off. From the blockbuster antics of the Call of Duty franchise to glimpses of indie titles that defy expectations. Amongst the indies the most exciting peek was at a 2D-platformer that looks like a 1930's style cartoon you can play: Cuphead. The E3 trailer for the game gives more footage than what was shown at Microsoft's press conference, and the deep stirrings of geek need grips my heart just thinking about what we've seen so far.

The chatter on Twitter by the games press bent back towards two things: the amount of dismemberment that was taking place on screen and the dearth of female spokespeople. The later played worse online than it did in the room, with the social media interpretation being that there were "no women" on stage until 343 Industries chief Bonnie Ross took stage. Those of us in the Galen Center could see that there were a good number of women playing games during the co-operative game demos, but that doesn't read well, nor does it make up for the lack of women in positions of power in the industry.

I feel that it is worth noting, however, that the person in charge of the most important piece of intellectual property that Microsoft owns is a woman. We may be past the point in this industry where role models are enough, but it's a damn good thing that there is one at the head of a very big ship. It will be worth watching to see if Sony can best Microsoft on gender representation this year. Nintendo isn't playing the giant press briefing game, so they get something like a bye on this issue. Last year, if memory serves, Sony didn't have any female execs on stage. Microsoft managed two, which means they're doing worse than they did last year on that count.

The one real problem with the all-games format is that a half an hour after the briefing the announcements started to blur together. Sunset Overdrive stood out for being self-aware and leading with "the fun." Call of Duty looked like it takes visual inspiration from  Halo: ODST and Metal Gear. There was a lot of buzz online about the game Inside, but that was based on some stylish footage that showed very little variety in terms of gameplay. In other words: gamers are suckers for style. There were a LOT of dragons and monsters (Scalebound, Witcher 3, Dragon Age: The Inquisition), a couple of "available now" announcements and the completely expected announcement of a remastered collection of the core Halo games for this holiday season. The last will come with beta access at Christmas time for the next Halo game, and so will sell a ton, and possibly shift some systems for Microsoft.

The biggest gameplay trend was four-player co-op, with a twist. Evolve, Fable: Legends, and Assassins Creed: Unity offer four player co-op as a core experience of the game. Fable: Legends and AC: Unity were demoed on-stage with that as a focus. Evolve and Legends also feature a twist: players can take on the role of the antagonist, making both "4 v 1" experiences. Fable's take is a kind of asymmetrical experience where the villain player takes the role of "dungeon master" for lack of a better term. That player gets to place enemies and, it seemed, place traps. The prospect is intriguing, and scratches some of the same itches that Nintendo helped us find during the debut of the WiiU with the Nintendoland mini-games.

Finally, in a bit of news that was revealed on the "green carpet," the indie mobile hit Threes is coming to Xbox and will feature the ability to play the game in "Snap" mode on the box. So you can play Threes while watching TV, or even playing another game. Something I already do with my phone, but hey: any chance to give the guys who were ripped off by 2048 more money and props is okay by me.

Microsoft's game library for the Xbox One has never looked stronger... then again we've only had a year of serious talk about the Xbox One. So let's go one further: this is the strongest Xbox lineup that I've seen across the generations. Will that be enough?

EA was the second presser, and while I didn't attend in person the big news was sortable on Twitter. The largest appeared to be EA showing very early prototypes of games, so much so that the lead-off announcement was one such trailer. That would be for the highly anticipated Star Wars: Battlefront. What little was shown hit the heartstrings of Star Wars fans, and the closing tag line--quoting Yoda's "Do or do not. There is no try." was a clear gauntlet.

Having so many "conceptual prototypes" on display did not play well at home, and perennial target for gamer-hate EA is already feeling the burn on social media. Gamers may be excited by the prospect of a Mirror's Edge 2, a new Star Wars game and a new branch of the Mass Effect series but they tend to despise promises without followup.

One game that EA will be delivering this year that has a potential to be a huge hit is The Sims 4. If you have a computer, you probably know what The Sims is. Of course the usual suspects from Electronic Arts, FIFA and Madden (the global and American football franchises, respectively) will sell a gajillion copies this year.

Sometimes I wonder why EA doesn't play it as safe as their biggest rival, Activision, and just not bother with a press conference. The lack of a big presser doesn't stop Activision from making mountains of money or having their games prominently displayed by the console makers. What it does manage to provide is cover from the career snark snipers in the gaming press and on forums.

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