It began almost exactly three years ago, on May 20, 2013. Since then, Microsoft's march through the current console generation unfolded in at least three phases.
There was the introduction, which critics said focused too much on entertainment and too little on video games. There was repentance, where Microsoft refocused its management, software and hardware on games, games and more games. With that ensconced, Microsoft began the latest phase, in which Xbox clearly means more than consoles. Since even before Windows 10's release, head of Xbox Phil Spencer appeared onstage at events about the operating system talking about gaming and using the Xbox brand. To Microsoft, Xbox is synonymous with gaming on console, PC and beyond.
With Spencer at the helm, Xbox press conferences at E3 have been unfailingly focused on games, and there's no reason to think that will change this year at 12:30 p.m. ET on Monday, June 13. But which games will it focus on? Many are easy to predict, like Halo and Gears of War.
Of course, there will almost certainly be surprises, too. We're years into the console generation now, and we could see surprises on the hardware side, too.
Also, Microsoft's press conference historically takes place earlier in the day than Sony's, so the Xbox keynote will almost certainly include the debuts of highly anticipated third-party games. Last year, for example, Dark Souls 3 had a strong E3 presence, and we saw it first at the Xbox media briefing. (Sony's E3 2016 press conference begins at 9 p.m. ET on the same day.)
So let's talk about what we're likely to see, what we're maybe somewhat less likely to see and what might be a bit of wishful thinking.
The Xbox brand owes much of its success to the Halo series. It was so important that, when original developer Bungie moved on, Microsoft purchased the franchise and spun up a new studio, 343 Industries, to make new games. Halo 4, released late in the Xbox 360's lifetime, was well-received. Last year's Halo 5: Guardians, the first created exclusively for Xbox One, didn't have the impact of its predecessors.
We already know that Halo Wars 2 is in development, and it'd be surprising if we didn't see that at E3. We don't know where the franchise is going next, though. Expect to learn about spinoffs and possible expansions to Halo 5.
How could we not see Gears of War 4?
In January 2014, Microsoft acquired the third-person, cover-based shooter from its creator, Epic Games.
Last year at E3, The Coalition studio head Rod Fergusson — who came to Microsoft alongside Gears of War — announced that Gears of War 4 would arrive on the Xbox One this holiday season.
We've seen glimpses of Gears of War 4, and we even got a taste of the franchise on current hardware with Gears of War: Ultimate Edition. With the game slated for an Oct. 11 release, its appearance is as safe a bet as you can make.
We expect to learn more about Gears of War 4's story, characters, campaign and multiplayer. And we wouldn't be surprised to learn that Gears of War 4 is headed to Windows PC, perhaps a bit later than its console debut. After all, Gears of War: Ultimate Edition hit PC this March, about six months after it arrived on Xbox One.
For decades, racing simulators have been among the best examples of consoles' graphical prowess. PlayStation had Gran Turismo from its earliest days, and Microsoft has nurtured the Forza series in much the same way.
The most recent proper entry in the franchise, Forza Motorsport 6, hit Xbox One last year and Windows PC this year. But the driving franchise isn't limited to its core series. Two Forza Horizon games from Playground Games and Turn 10 Studios gave the series an open-world component.
Although past performance isn't a guarantee of future performance, the Forza franchise has seen tick-tock releases, alternating between Motorsport and Horizon. Consider the last few games: Forza Horizon in 2012, Forza Motorsport 5 in 2013, Forza Horizon 2 in 2014 and Forza Motorsport 6 in 2015.
If Forza appears at E3 2016, Horizon is the safest bet.
First revealed at E3 2014, Crackdown 3 is in development at British developer Reagent Games, where series creator David Jones is resurrecting the Grand Theft Auto-like open-world series.
Crackdown 3 skipped E3 2015, but last year at Gamescom, Microsoft used it as a tangible demonstration of its cloud computing prowess. In short, Phil Spencer told Polygon that the game wouldn't be possible without arrays of servers crunching physics for the destructible world.
"You say 'cloud,' you can talk about it in a nebulous way, and it doesn't really have an instantiation that a gamer is going to say, 'Oh I get the value of that,'" Spencer told Polygon at Gamescom 2015. "And, frankly, I stopped talking about it, not because we weren't still working on things like Crackdown, but I knew that until I had something where I could put it in front of people and say, 'This is what we mean,' and then let people decide based on the quality of what they saw, 'Hey, this is actually working for me or it's not.' So I went, 'I'm going to be cloud-free for a while until we actually have something to demo.'"
Two years ago, we saw a trailer. Last year, we saw destruction in a sandbox. As the game without a release date creeps closer to consoles, E3 2016 seems like the perfect place and time to take a deeper look at Crackdown 3's specifics.
ReCore answers a time-honored question: What do you get when a creator of Mega Man and group of Metroid veterans build a game together across an ocean?
Based on the debut trailer, ReCore follows a female protagonist set in a desolate world of robotic enemies. At her side is a sidekick, who seems to hold the key to the game's name. Its robotic core could be inside a mechanical dog or a robotic, humanoid guardian. Either way, it's there to protect her. And that's about all we know right now.
The last we heard of ReCore, it was slated to be released this year on Xbox One and Windows PC. Whether or not that release date holds true, we'll almost certainly get a closer look at the game at E3 2016.
Dean Hall, the creator of DayZ, left the studio and the wildly popular game to form RocketWerkz in his native New Zealand. At this new studio, we know that he's working on an "intense virtual reality strategy game" called Out of Ammo.
That seems to be something like a side project for the studio, which is also developing Ion, which Hall revealed during the 2015 Xbox E3 press conference.
"I wanted a game that wasn't a game," Hall said. "For the past year I have been working with a team … to make my prototype into a long-term project. We have the technology to create this universe, but you — through Xbox One Game Preview — will govern its destiny."
According to a press release, Ion is "an emergent narrative massively-multiplayer online game in which players build, live and inevitably die in huge floating galactic constructions, tracing humanity's first deadly steps towards colonizing the universe. Thanks to technology from Improbable, Ion is a massive interconnected universe with fully simulated real-time environments, including air pressure, heat and cold, power grids and much more, which all must be carefully balanced to keep the unending vacuum of space at bay."
Developer Aurora44 revealed Ashen, an Xbox One console exclusive, at last year's E3.
Ashen is set in a sunless world. Its light comes from eruptions that, as the game's name implies, also cover the world in ash. Derek Bradley from Aurora44 said Ashen is about forging relationships with other characters in the harsh open world. According to an official description, players will be able to guide others they trust to their camp in an effort to survive together.
The open-world role-playing game is headed to the console thanks to Microsoft's ID@Xbox independent developer program. Microsoft has carved out some time in its last few E3 media briefings to highlight independent games, and Ashen could make a repeat appearance.
Revealed in 2013, Capybara Games' Below is headed to Xbox One and PC via Steam this summer. The procedurally-generated, survival-focused dungeon crawler inspired by Dark Souls could make its last big appearance before it arrives on consoles and computers.
Last year at Microsoft's E3 press conference, Rare revealed what it called "by far the most ambitious game" it has ever produced: the pirate-themed Sea of Thieves. This year, we could learn a lot more details than the debut trailer below showed us last June.
While Oculus, Sony, Valve and others have spent the last couple of years forging ahead with virtual reality headsets, Microsoft is focusing instead on augmented reality with HoloLens. Ultimately, just like other companies see VR, Microsoft sees AR's potential stretching far beyond gaming. Still, gaming is a core component of Microsoft's headset.
We've already seen several games and game-adjacent demos, including Halo Warzone, which brings Halo's holographic interfaces to life; Minecraft HoloLens, which superimposes the blocky game onto real-world locations like your living room coffee table; and Project X-Ray, a first-person augmented reality shooter.
Though HoloLens isn't a shipping project, Microsoft already has developers exploring the hardware. With another year of development time under its belt, expect more HoloLens at this year's E3.
Up until now, we've talked about safe bets. Let's talks about unsafe bets, which can be just as much fun.
Update: Since publication, reports have surfaced (confirmed by Polygon) that Microsoft has plans for two new designs of the Xbox One: a slim unit, supporting 4K resolution, and "Scorpio" which would be a full-size console that has more processing power than the current Xbox One. That, however, is not due to launch until 2017 and may not be discussed in Los Angeles. But the slim version is expected later this year, and if so should get some stage time.
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The past few months have been full of rumors about hardware upgrades from both Microsoft and Sony.
Just a couple of months ago, head of Xbox Phil Spencer poured a little fuel on the fire.
"We see on other platforms, whether it be mobile or PC, that you get a continuous innovation that you rarely see on console," Spencer said during his Xbox Spring Showcase event keynote. "Consoles lock the hardware and the software platforms together at the beginning of the generation. Then you ride the generation out for seven or so years, while other ecosystems are getting better, faster, stronger. And then you wait for the next big step function.
"When you look at the console space, I believe we will see more hardware innovation in the console space than we've ever seen. You'll actually see us come out with new hardware capability during a generation, allowing the same games to run backward- and forward-compatible, because we have a Universal Windows Application running on top of the Universal Windows Platform that allows us to focus more and more on hardware innovation without invalidating the games that run on that platform."
What, exactly, Spencer meant is up for debate. It could be a substantial hardware upgrade, something like an Xbox Two. What seems more likely is that, two and a half years into this console cycle, we could see the first hardware efficiency upgrades. Like Sony and Microsoft did in the last generation, we could see an Xbox One "slim," with smaller, more power-efficient hardware inside.
In the upcoming virtual reality showdown, Sony has PlayStation VR, while Xbox One has … well, nothing.
Maybe Microsoft isn't all that concerned with VR, preferring to focus on its augmented reality hardware with HoloLens. Or maybe it's going to team up with an established VR partner.
The most likely candidate seems to be Oculus. After all, the creators of the Rift headset shipped their product with an Xbox One wireless controller. Plus, the Xbox One runs a version of Windows 10, where the Rift already has a home.
Whether the Xbox One has the power to run a Rift is unclear. The Rift's PC hardware requirements are beefy, and that makes Xbox One compatibility seem somewhat unlikely. Still, it doesn't seem inconceivable that Microsoft and Oculus could make it work.
There's another possibility, too — and this is where the speculation gets really interesting. Microsoft could release upgraded Xbox One hardware designed, in part, to make console VR possible. Imagine an Xbox One that is fully compatible with existing hardware, but with a few upgrades that would make running VR a breeze.
It's not without precedent … sort of. Remember that the Xbox One launched with Kinect 2.0 in every box. Eventually, Microsoft decoupled the two, making Kinect an optional upgrade. Maybe the future of the Xbox One's optional upgrades includes a system built for VR and 4K video and other emerging technologies.
Looking back can be instructive when looking forward, too. We could see a lot of things that build on the relationships that Microsoft has with third-party developers and publishers. Those could include:
Microsoft unveiled a new Phantom Dust at its E3 2014 press conference. What appeared to be an upgraded remake of the original with new gameplay and graphics skipped E3 2015, implicitly calling the game's future into question.
Earlier this year, Phil Spencer told Polygon that the game hasn't been canceled, though its development hasn't exactly been easy.
"So … we started down a path with a developer, and it didn't work out. There's no — on my side, at least — nothing negative about that: It just doesn't always work out. [Microsoft Studios head of publishing] Shannon Loftis and I talk often about what we want to do with Phantom Dust, so it is a thing from the conversations. She has ideas that she's working on that she won't show me yet."
That doesn't seems to make Phantom Dust's appearance this year at E3 likely, but it could be a dark-horse surprise.
For more details on E3's livestreaming schedule make sure to check out our one-stop shop for the show's streams.