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Next generation consoles are heard, but not seen at E3 2018

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E3 has broken the seal: The next-gen conversation has begun

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One of the most surprising aspects of E3 2018 is how openly companies are talking about the next generation of consoles, even if they’re years away from being released. But the eyes of the industry and fans have absolutely shifted to whatever comes next.

And it all started with Microsoft.

During Microsoft’s press conference — the first of the console manufacturer’s during the show — Xbox Chief Phil Spencer began to talk about the company’s followup to the Xbox One. “Our hardware team, the same team that delivered unprecedented performance with Xbox One X, is deep into architecting the next Xbox consoles, where we will once again deliver on our commitment to deliver the benchmark of console gaming,” he said.

That plural — consoles — might be hinting that multiple versions of the next console will be released, just as Microsoft upgraded the Xbox One with the Xbox One X during its lifecycle. It’s possible that the next Xbox may not wait a few years to introduce an upgraded version, and will instead ship in multiple forms at multiple prices from day one, like a smartphone.

Phil Spencer at E3 2018
Phil Spencer is excited about “console quality games streaming”

But Microsoft sounds like it’s shifting away from the traditional definition of what we consider to be a console generation. And that shift involves ... your phone?

“We pivoted about three or four years ago to thinking about the gamer first, not the device first,” Spencer told the Guardian. “I still see remnants of that: what can you do to force somebody to buy a device, and then once you’ve bought it, own the store and the services? [But] this limits people on the creative side because you have to build games for specific devices …”

Trying to get players to buy a device in order to sell them games and services through the device is kind of how console generations work, which means Spencer is talking about a much broader way to think about how gaming consoles operate as platforms.

“Our focus is on bringing console quality games that you see on TV or PC to any device,” Spencer continued. “I want to see the creators that I have relationships with reach all two billion people who play games, and not have to turn their studio into something that makes match-3 games rather than story-driven single player games. Because that’s the only way to reach a bigger platform. That is our goal: to bring high-quality games to every device possible on the planet.”

There’s something else going on here: Spencer is talking about erasing the difference between what we expect from portable gaming on our phones and what we expect from the games we play on our consoles. Not only is this a big shift for the Xbox platform, it could be a way for Microsoft to compete with Nintendo.

And publishing giant EA is on board. These press conferences are laying out a plan for a version of the gaming industry that’s very different than what we see today.

“The greatest disruption to the consumption of entertainment media in the last five years is the combination of streaming plus subscription,” EA CEO Andrew Wilson said during EA’s press conference. “As consumers watching movies, watching TV, listening to music, reading books, has never been easier. And we believe that disruption is going to have a profound impact on our industry in the next few years.”

In May EA acquired a company that it hopes will help make that streaming future a reality. “Based in Israel, the acquired technology and team members deepen EA’s capabilities and expertise in cloud gaming, and enable the company to continue exploring new ways for players to access and experience games from any device,” EA said via a press release.

Here we have another company making the case that the next generation of consoles may not be as tied down to specific hardware as it has been in the past. EA and Microsoft are talking about console generations as platforms, rather than specific physical boxes. E3 is giving us some very powerful companies that seems to want to give you the option to subscribe to their offerings as a service, and play it on whatever hardware you have near you.

This isn’t just Microsoft and EA

Bethesda was also upfront about talking about the next generation of consoles.

“We’ve also been working on a brand-new, next-generation single-player game,” Bethesda’s Todd Howard said during the press conference. “But this one is in an all-new epic franchise. Our first wholly original franchise in 25 years.”

The teaser shown for the long-rumored game — confirmed as being called Starfield — didn’t give us a lot of information. But it may have been one of our first looks at a PlayStation 5 or Xbox Two game.

And Bethesda didn’t stop there; Elder Scrolls 6 is the game Bethesda will be working on after that. It’s odd to see a company announce two next-generation games without the conversation among fans getting louder about the future of gaming hardware.

This is a developing story, and we’ll be asking a variety of developers and executives what they think about the discussion of the next generation of consoles becoming so public.

Sony is handily beating Microsoft in terms of console sales, so it’s very possible we won’t hear anything about a new PlayStation platform during its press conference this evening. Sony simply doesn’t have as much reason to try to correct the present and rush into the future.

But the company has already talked about what’s coming next for the PlayStation brand, and even before E3 it’s clear that Sony is thinking along the same lines as Microsoft and EA. The subscription model is only going to become more important in the future.

“We need to depart from the traditional way of looking at the console life cycle,” PlayStation CEO John Kodera told the Wall Street Journal. “We’re no longer in a time when you can think just about the console or just about the network like they’re two different things.”

And Sony has also stressed the importance of your portable devices in the future of PlayStation. The Wall Street Journal has reported that Sony is also looking into how to connect your games to your existing mobile devices:

Sony sells the hand-held PlayStation Vita, but Mr. Kodera said that when it comes to mobility, the company doesn’t want to limit itself to a single dedicated device. “We need a broader perspective than that because so many things are now connected via the internet,” he said.

While we won’t be seeing new consoles in the next year, the shift has begun. At E3 2018, people are finally talking about it, and that talk often includes a very different way of thinking about hardware and the services that drive it.