E3 2013: What we know and what to expect from the big three

The annual game industry trade show that's spawned thousands of memes is just around the corner: E3 2013 kicks off on Monday morning with a quartet of press briefings. In another 72 hours, we'll have a full day of liveblogs for you that'll no doubt reveal much more about Microsoft's and Sony's intentions with the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, respectively, along with Nintendo's press not-so-much-a-conference event the following day addressing the Wii U.

Though the latter is a somewhat known quantity at this point, there's considerable promise of major game announcements and a first look at the much-anticipated next Smash Bros. entry. Microsoft and Sony, on the other hand, have a lot more blank space to fill in. We're here to explore what we know about all three, but more importantly, to identify what we expect to find out at the big show. Join us past the break and dive into the next wave of the console wars.

Microsoft - What we know

Microsoft's next game console is not necessarily a traditional game console. At the company's big coming out party last month, Interactive Entertainment Business head Don Mattrick introduced the console as an "all-in-one entertainment system," and Redmond went light on details about games. In fact, when we crunched the numbers post-event, the most prevalent theme was television -- the word "TV" or "television" was mentioned a whopping 54 times -- which is no doubt a nod to the system's HDMI-in / -out functionality, meant to facilitate the Xbox One's role as the centerpiece of your home entertainment center.

The Xbox One is certainly powerful enough to run next-gen software, with fancy new in-house chips and an updated, much-improved Kinect. The console's architecture (x86) is the same as Sony's PlayStation 4, and the new gamepad is laser-focused on minute improvements directed at "hardcore" gamers. Microsoft is officially conceding the HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray war once and for all by including a Blu-ray disc drive in the Xbox One, paired to a 500GB HDD which will auto-rip all your disc-based games for faster load times. What we know about the Xbox One, essentially, is that it's a powerful little computer that specializes in switching quickly between applications. It's got Skype and Netflix and television and a bunch of football stuff, and it jumps between these various apps quickly by running multiple OSes (including one based on Windows 8).

It can even run two things at once, side by side, with a function called Snap Mode. It can't, however, play Xbox 360 games -- on-disc or XBLA / digital games -- though it will carry your Gamertag and Gamerscore over. There'll even be "more dynamic Achievements," apparently, and a much larger friends list.

We also know that it looks... distinct. The jury's still out on whether the Xbox One is an attractive piece of electronics, but it's certainly recognizable.

What we want to know

Even after a detailed list of specs came about, and even after our deep dive into the SoC that's driving the Xbox One, there are still plenty of unknowns about the hardware. When Microsoft's Yusuf Mehdi took to the event's stage and showed off the speed at which Xbox One is supposed to jump from application to application -- including a wake command in "Xbox On!" -- many a brow furrowed at the demonstration. Was it a ruse? Did Mehdi's voice actually guide the Xbox One through the demonstration? It's a giant unknown thus far, and one we're looking forward to exploring at next week's show.

Another such vagary is Microsoft's digital approach for games. Xbox Live Arcade is sure to return, but it remains unclear exactly how that'll play out. All we know thus far about digital is that full retail games will be offered in digital form on launch day. (But will there be pre-loading? How about digital trade-ins?) Things get even more complex when it comes to the Xbox One's required internet connection:

" With Xbox One you can game offline for up to 24 hours on your primary console, or one hour if you are logged on to a separate console accessing your library. Offline gaming is not possible after these prescribed times until you re-establish a connection, but you can still watch live TV and enjoy Blu-ray and DVD movies."

Sadly, Microsoft won't say what this means for folks without stable internet connections (not only those living in less technologically inclined parts of the planet, but also members of the armed forces the world over). Nor will the company say what happens if Microsoft's (approximately 300,000) servers go down.

We have similar questions about Microsoft's cloud and streaming services going into E3. We know that the cloud will be used for both offloading (some) local processing and for storing player information, but it's unclear how much space each user is allotted. What if a game requires cloud processing and you're offline? Will player content in the cloud somehow tie into Microsoft's SkyDrive? And as for streaming, we know that it's technically feasible, and that the console acts as a "game DVR," but there isn't a complete picture just yet.

What we expect to hear

Above all else, we expect Microsoft to talk (at length) about the reason we buy video game consoles in the first place: video games. The whole point of Microsoft's big Redmond debut event for the Xbox One was to get the mainstream stuff out of the way; E3 is about the meat. Xbox Chief of Staff Aaron Greenberg explained as much to OXM during the aforementioned event. "When we go to E3 you'll see us go almost all gaming, and that'll be our main focus there," he said.

There are already announced games like Forza Motorsport 5, Call of Duty: Ghosts, Battlefield 4 and Quantum Break, but there's also a bit of the unknown. We'd call it more than likely that a handful of casual Kinect-specific titles will be announced (a new Kinect Sports or Kinectimals entry, perhaps?), and it looks like Respawn Entertainment's Titanfall (from the folks who turned Call of Duty into a household name) may be headed to Xbox One as a major exclusive. There's also a strong possibility that Bungie will show off its Xbox One version of Destiny, and it looks like Crytek's Ryse will appear once again. And hey, there are supposedly 15 exclusives in the oven, so it's possible there will be much more than we're bargaining for in the games department next Monday.

While it's always possible that Microsoft won't offer more definitive information on a release date or price for its next game console, we'd sure like to know more. Thus far we've got a "holiday 2013" release window and, given the street dates of a handful of major third-party games, it's looking like a fair guess that we'll see a launch in early November at the latest. With all that horsepower under the hood, there's also a distinct worry that the Xbox One will carry a hefty price tag at retail this holiday; that's to say nothing of the rumors about a contract-subsidized option via cable providers (not exactly a new move considering such a plan existed late in the Xbox 360's lifecycle).

Finally, and most importantly, we'll get a chance to go hands-on with games on the Xbox One. We're holding fast to hope that we'll get to put the new Kinect through its paces, especially on the bass-pounding bedlam that is the E3 show floor.

- Ben Gilbert

Sony - What we know

Earlier this winter, at the PS4's official New York coming out party, Sony pulled off an impressive feat: it reversed the negative tide, nearly a decade in the making, of press and consumer perception. With a next-gen approach that seemed to check all the boxes of hard lessons learned, Sony showcased a console (well, everything but) formulated in direct response to the hubris, hyperbole and mismanaged expectations that marred the company's reputation for the duration of the PS3's prime life cycle.

The PS4 represents an about-face for Sony, one that sees the PlayStation brand returning to its gaming roots, while also neatly bundling in all of the multimedia features (i.e., social networking and mobile, streaming and cloud-based services) that've come to mark our modern consumption habits. Sure, Sony's left some lingering tidbits unknown -- we don't yet know what it looks like nor how much it costs -- but we do know what's inside, how it'll work (for the most part) and, more importantly, where it's going to this generation.

Without doubt, the upcoming DualShock 4's Share button has come to be the most polarizing feature of the PS4, dividing opinion amongst those who question its utility and those that view its inclusion as an evolutionary response. Whether you intend to use it or not, the PS4's sharing functionality will always be running in the background via a dedicated chip, recording up to 15 minutes of gameplay without any impact on the console's processing power. So you can edit and share your recent gaming moments (i.e., up to 10 seconds of video and screenshots) or, thanks to PS4's Gaikai underpinnings, broadcast your session live and even hand it off to friends. The PS4 also makes game saves a thing of the last-gen past, incorporating a suspend state that'll have you picking up right where you left off, whether you've previously powered down the console or indulged in some lean back entertainment.

But what of the console, itself? Well, it's safe to say Sony's somewhat future- and developer-proofed the still unseen PS4, arming it with 8GB of high-speed (and more expensive) GDDR5 RAM to last the console until its latter days. Which, if the current PS3 / Xbox 360 generation is any indication, could drag on well past the five-year mark. Sony's also based the console on developer-friendly PC architecture, hooking up with AMD for an eight-core x86 CPU setup and Radeon graphics chip to keep the programming easy and the ports flowing (note: the Xbox One shares a similar AMD-based CPU arrangement).

Thought it still relies on Blu-ray and DVD for physical media, the PS4 won't be backwards compatible with PS3 titles, nor will your PSN purchases carry over (more on that later). And you can forget about keeping that DualShock 3 -- only Move, Sony's wand-like motion peripheral, has made the next-gen cut. How it intends to configure the PS4's storage remains an unknown, but we do know the console will keep an Eye out for gamers -- literally. That's right, much like Microsoft's revamped Kinect, Sony's introduced a new PS4 Eye; an unobtrusive peripheral that packs dual 1,280 x 800 cameras and four mics for hands-free motion control, controller detection and other unspecified uses. As for connectivity options, you're looking at HDMI- and composite optical-out (you can direct your attention to the Xbox One for HDMI-in), a host of USB 3.0 ports, plus Bluetooth 2.1 and 802.11b/g/n.

Now about that DualShock 4. It looks... just... like... every other DualShock (and Sixaxis) that's come before it, albeit with minor, but important tweaks (i.e., headphone jack, player-identifying light bar, advanced rumble). But let's be real, the well-being of your thumbs is the main concern here and Sony's addressed that PS3 gripe head-on. With a new, inverted pad design, your thumbs shouldn't be slipping off the DualShock 4's dual analog sticks anymore. But if they do stray, it's probably to stroke the touchpad that the company's built into the controller's midsection; a design change that's eliminated the traditional placement of the Start and Select buttons for an Options soft key on the upper-right corner.

You can't talk about the next-gen without mentioning mobile. Thankfully, for the PS4, that second-screen strategy has nothing to do with the footnote (and punchline) that is PS Mobile. Referred to simply as the PlayStation app, Sony's focus seems to be on extending non-critical features to smartphones and tablets running iOS and Android, like access to the PlayStation Store, in-game maps and social networks. What's not clear is if Sony will allow gamers to place-shift and actually play PS4 games on that second screen -- we assume its E3 presser will clear that up. But that's where the PS Vita and that Gaikai acquisition come into play (yes, we're punning). Shuhei Yoshida, Sony's Worldwide Studios head, has already confirmed that all PS4 games will support streaming Remote Play via Vita with one major caveat: the games in question cannot rely on PS4 Eye support, or Move, for that matter.

Now here's the part that stings: because the PS4 is based on x86 architecture, your existing PSN library will remained locked to your PowerPC-based PS3. And since Sony has its eye on efficient power management, it's only committed to porting over select (read: AAA) games. There is a fix in the works for access to previous-gen games, one that had Yoshida hard-winking towards cloud-based streaming (perhaps, this is where PS Plus factors in). Unfortunately, the exec didn't elaborate on the planned service further, but it's that same cloud tech that'll have you playing PS4 games purchased from PSN while they're downloading. That's something Sony's only recently begun to test out with the release of the PS3's The Last of Us, though it's unclear if it's Gaikai-powered or some other experimental solution.

What we want to know

Where Microsoft's Xbox One used-game strategy has recently become crystal clear, Sony's still keeping its PS4 plans shrouded in mystery until E3. Yoshida's gone on record to coyly admit that used games will play on the PS4, but it's the how we're more concerned about. Will Sony go the license route, charging gamers a fee for used discs? Or, like the Xbox One, will it allow trade-ins and free transfers within your friends list, as well as remote access to your library? For sure, it appears there's a strategy in place, but we assume Sony's leaving that for its larger E3 talk around "system services."

What we expect to hear

As for actual PS4 games, there are plenty on the way -- about a dozen have been announced since the console's February reveal, featuring a healthy mix of first- and third-party support. Sony, unlike Microsoft, has been way more forthcoming about its initial launch lineup, going so far as to showcase some of these in-production games. Again, this is a testament to the company's next-gen focus on gaming, as opposed to the Xbox One's all-in-one living room hub approach. How many of these games will actually appear on PSN and retail shelves on day one is still up in the air. But, from the jump, the PS4's catalog already surpasses the pithy selection Sony had for gamers at the PS3's launch.

If there's one thing for certain, Sony will not / should not repeat its most egregious PS3 launch misstep: exorbitant console pricing. So, where does that put the PS4? According to Jack Tretton, Sony's US head, it shouldn't hit the $599 mark, or at least he "hopes" it won't, when it launches this holiday season. Reassuring words, no? Rest assured, with all the tech Sony's engineers have crammed into that unseen black box, you can bet it won't be a bargain. Which brings us to another lingering question: what about the PS4 Eye? Is that to be a standalone peripheral, or a pack-in? Could Sony opt for a PS4 Eye-less bundle, thus keeping costs down? Or will the real retail damage depend on storage configurations? Anything's possible, but it's unlikely Sony's willing to, once again, eat the cost of its hardware for the sake of an install base. Whatever the case may be, we'll know what it looks like and how it's going to be packaged come next week at E3.

- Joseph Volpe

Nintendo - What we know

There's little left unanswered in Nintendo's corner: the Wii U hit the market almost seven months ago, and critics haven't been kind. Few will argue that it's a bad console, but its launch was mired by excessively large patches, missing features (hello, Nintendo TVii!) and a lackluster launch lineup. Between the console's notoriously long load times and floundering support from third-party developers, team Mario found it simply wasn't hitting the sales numbers it had hoped for. Today, Nintendo is faced with a self-perpetuating conundrum: developers won't make games for the system until users buy in, and users won't pick up the Wii U until it has more games.

Nintendo's made efforts to make amends, of course. Updates eventually tacked on the company's promised Nintendo TVii functionality, sped up load times and even introduced an improved version of the original Wii's Virtual Console setup. These concessions helped, but weren't enough to distract Nintendo fans from the fact that several of the company's own first-party launch titles were delayed into late summer. Despite being the first console of its generation out the door, the Wii U played second fiddle to Nintendo's 3DS handheld in 2013. Nintendo's latest console is in a bit of a weird place on the eve of E3, and without a traditional press conference scheduled at the show, we're not sure what the company's strategy is for the rest of the year.

What we want to know

Nintendo also seems more concerned about how its biggest fans feel about its E3 presentation than the general public: the company's most significant announcements will arrive via a special Nintendo Direct video stream long before any press gets near an official company venue. We know these announcements are going directly to the fans, and that some of the firm's (traditionally E3-exclusive) show floor demos will even moonlight in a number of Best Buy locations -- but the mystery here isn't Nintendo's plans, so much as whether its gamble will pay off.

We may not be confident that Nintendo's going to steal the show with its scaled-back presentation, but it's at least clear that the company is listening to some of its customers' complaints. That weak Wii U GamePad battery? The outfit's Japanese branch has already announced a higher-capacity (and user-installable) replacement, as well as a refreshed and higher-capacity variant of its lighter-colored Wii U bundle. Nintendo's clearly tweaking some of the console's current standards, and these efforts are ripe for western announcement, and recent recalls of the Wii U Basic set seem to hint that something is afoot. The company's also made quite a fuss about digital discounts -- offering sales and promotions on its eShop goods on a regular basis. Is Nintendo finally getting the hang of digital content distribution?

The preE3 triconsole roundup, featuring a bunch of words! DNP TKTK

More than anything, however, we're itching to find out what's going on with Nintendo's own content: why the delay? Shigeru Miyamoto has urged fans to be patient, and company head honcho Satoru Iwata has passively admitted that Nintendo faced staffing bottlenecks developing Pikmin 3 and other games -- but the slow release of first-party content could be hurting the Wii U even more than third-party abandonment. We're eager to see what Nintendo has to say about its bread and butter, and when the public can expect to get its hands on the content. It will also be interesting to see how it responds to its competitors' multimedia offerings -- with the Xbox One's upcoming cable box passthrough trick, is Nintendo's IR-swapping TVii app still viable?

What we expect to hear

We'd hate to belabor the point, but it seems like Nintendo's cards have been on the table and gathering dust for quite some time. It was in January that the company announced what is likely to become its E3 show lineup, promising new Wii U games for several of its biggest franchises. These are the titles Nintendo fans have been waiting for: a new Mario Kart and 3D platformer starring the plumber, a new Yoshi game in the style of Kirby's Epic Yarn and an HD remake of The Legend of Zelda: the Wind Waker. The delayed Pikmin 3 will join the ranks of these anticipated titles as well. All of these are important games for a company in dire need of hype for its fledgling console, but Link's high-definition remake is of particular importance. Wind Waker will likely provide cover for a new Wii U-exclusive Zelda title that will be teased (but not at all playable) at the show -- tiding eager fans over while Nintendo polishes the title for a full E3 2014 reveal.

We fully expect Nintendo to demo a previously announced Monolith Soft title too, as well as the delayed Wii Fit U, a Fire Emblem / Shin Megami Tensei crossover and at least two of three now-exclusive Sonic the Hedgehog titles. But these games (and quite possibly some listed above) will be overshadowed by the reveal of a new Super Smash Bros. game. For many hardcore Nintendo fans, the game's predecessor justified the purchase of the original Wii on its own, and a well-timed sequel might help the console compete in the coming holiday season. The game's announcement has already been confirmed by developers, and it will almost certainly be the highlight of Nintendo's E3 presentation.

If we're lucky, the company will use the E3 Nintendo Direct to update us on old promises. Back in January, Nintendo promised that Game Boy Advance titles would be coming to the Virtual Console for the first time -- revisiting this announcement (and announcing downloadable GameCube classics, perhaps) could drum up some notable hype for the service. It's also the perfect time to lay out the company's plans for Miiverse, penning in a hard launch date for 3DS compatibility and, hopefully, announcing a dedicated smartphone app for the social network.

Barring the remote possibility of a Wii U price drop, most of Nintendo's surprise announcements will probably come in a smaller package: the Nintendo 3DS. Lately, the auto-stereoscopic wonder has been the company's most popular and most accessible product -- filling in the gaps between the Wii U's software delays. We're still hoping that third-party developers will catch us by surprise at E3 and blow out support for the Wii U, but realistically, they're more likely to flock to the better-selling 3DS. If nothing else, Nintendo will probably use the show to hype the latest game in its adorable life-simulator franchise: Animal Crossing: New Leaf is poised to hit the market the Sunday before E3.

- Sean Buckley

Where we'll be

Of course, beyond what we already know, we're doing educated guesswork here. Microsoft and Sony could very well announce that Nintendo's buying them both and shutting down the game industry (we're calling that unlikely), or Sega could make its triumphant return to hardware (also doubtful). We know for sure, however, that we'll be boots down in Los Angeles on Sunday night, and we'll have a week of great coverage kicking off on Monday morning. Seeya then!

[Lead image credit: 'Xbox666']