After a blockbuster 2020 that kept people hunkered down at home with only their devices for company, the video game industry won’t have it quite as easy this year enticing consumers to shell out for the latest titles.
The global games market is expected to generate $175.8bn in revenues in 2021, according to analytics firm Newzoo – a slight decrease from last year.
As economies reopen and virus restrictions are rolled back, competition for people’s time, attention and disposable cash is heating up. To meet the challenge, the titans of video gaming brought their A game to this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) — a trade event organised by the Entertainment Software Association and one of the gaming industry’s biggest shows.
After last year’s event was cancelled due to COVID-19, this year’s fully virtual show saw Microsoft, Nintendo, Ubisoft and more unveil fresh content to keep gamers engaged. The event also saw the industry reckon with diversity issues that predate the pandemic.
Here are some of the highlights from this year’s E3.
Games, games, and more games
E3 2021 had plenty of new game announcements, including the long-awaited Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild 2. Nintendo released a new trailer for its upcoming sequel that’s as bold and creative as Zelda has ever been.
The trailer teased a lot of the aerial action for which Zelda is known, and even new Sheikah Slate abilities (including flamethrowing) that would make even Elon Musk blush.
There are also possibilities for multiple villains, including Bokoblins and Ganondorf; the game is set to debut sometime in 2022.
Marvel has a few new releases popping soon, including a new game that features the quirkiest group of rebels in the universe — the Guardians of the Galaxy. But it’s going to take a little more than the reputation of the crew and a Marvel licence to make this game sell.
The game came under fire because although the game maker (Square Enix) has the rights to the characters themselves, it did not secure the rights to the actors portraying the characters. The game’s otherwise solid graphics, coupled with some zany shooting action and witty banter between the characters, makes for a decent game.
Marvel fans might also want to try War for Wakanda, a game featuring everyone’s favourite motley group of superheroes: the Avengers. Players can feel the weight of Thor’s hammer as they help the king of Wakanda keep the country’s vibranium stash away from the likes of Klaw. According to the trailer, the release is slated for August.
Nintendo also made some announcements concerning its favourite plumber: Mario. The company has a few new games out including WarioWare and Mario Party Superstars. Mario Party signals the return of dozens of classic mini games and boards from past Mario Party games. In this one, players can play locally or online, including with strangers. It is due to be released on October 29.
Players can visit another part of the galaxy, as they step into the world of Avatar. Ubisoft provided a look at the lush jungles of Pandora featured in Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora.
The trailer showed off the beauty of the world created by James Cameron in his 2009 blockbuster — one of the highest-grossing films of all time — but lacked a lot of game details.
According to Ubisoft, the game is a new, stand-alone story where players play as a Na’vi and explore never-before-seen areas of Pandora.
Need for diversity
In addition to hotly anticipated titles for 2021, this year’s E3 also tried to tackle festering issues around the lack of diversity and inclusion in the industry, and a toxic culture of trolling.
Grand Theft Auto developer Take-Two Interactive Software hosted a panel with participants from Games For Change, Gay Gaming Professionals, Girls Make Games and USC Games to discuss issues.
Much of the conversation focused on a 2019 survey by the International Game Developers Association that found that 71 percent of respondent game developers were male and 81 percent were white, making the “prototypical game industry worker” a “36-year-old white male with a university degree who lives in North America and who does not have children”.
Some of the panelists said it has been hard for the industry to encourage people from more diverse backgrounds to even consider a career in the industry. But others maintain that the industry is appealing to too narrow a slice of gaming enthusiasts.
“Nine out of 10 kids play video games — not nine out of 10 boys, nine out of 10 kids,” Laila Shabir, founder of Girls Make Games, told Al Jazeera. “We always think there’s a pie and everyone gets a piece of the pie, but we have to think that the pie isn’t a fixed size. By including more people, the pie gets bigger.”
Game companies have seen their audiences grow and become more diverse during the pandemic, when a lot of people turned to games for entertainment and escape, as well as to nurture a social lifeline to friends during lockdowns.
But the infamous toxic behaviour that has blotted the industry still managed to rear its ugly head on the event’s Twitch channels, which usually go unmoderated.
The vitriol clouded the very panel meant to expose it as users posted comments criticising the need for a diversity discussion in the first place.
“It’s like going to a game store where all they sell is clothing,” one user commented on YouTube.
“This is the only panel in all of E3 history that I would give a 0/10,” another user wrote.
There is still a lot of progress to be made, which is why Take-Two chose to hold the panel on the primary E3 livestream to bring conversations about diversity to the fore.
“Diversity and inclusion make us a better industry,” Alan Lewis, Take-Two’s vice president of corporate communications and public affairs, told Al Jazeera. “It allows us to make better entertainment experiences that are authentic, culturally relevant, and reflective of the audiences that enjoy them.”
Best of show
Even among all the new game and gadget announcements, the real star of E3 was the new Xbox Game Pass. With 27 out of the 30 games revealed at the Xbox E3 showcase coming to Game Pass at launch, Microsoft’s gaming subscription service earned the title of “best in show”, especially for those looking to enjoy as many titles as possible without spending a ton of money.
Some of the biggest titles that Xbox Game Pass gained include the wacky role-playing of Yakuza: Like a Dragon, the intense zombie shooting of Back 4 Blood, as well as the addictive dungeon crawling of Hades.
Game Pass works on just about any device with a screen, and it will continue to include all of Microsoft’s flagship releases on day one, including Halo Infinite and Forza Horizon 5, as well as 2022’s much-anticipated space adventure, Starfield.
All of these titles are included in the $10 to $15 monthly subscription fee.
But E3 perhaps saved the best for last: to go with the Xbox Game Pass, it unveiled an Xbox mini fridge. When the Xbox series X debuted in 2019, it became an instant meme as gaming enthusiasts compared its appearance to that of a refrigerator.
But after the company defeated Skittles in a battle of the brands Twitter poll, the mini fridge was born.
Microsoft claims it’s “the world’s most powerful mini fridge”, a play on one of the company’s key marketing points for the Xbox Series X console. With an expected Christmas release, get ready to Xbox and chill this holiday season.