A few years ago, there was something of an unspoken question hanging over the E3 conferences: did the audience have a genuine appetite for a new generation of consoles? In 2015, it seems clear that the answer, broadly speaking, is yes - meaning that, for the third-parties, the blockbuster is centre-stage again, even if the fundamentals that underpin it have shifted slightly with an emphasis on fewer, bigger bets. At E3, where two more publishers have decided to stage their own conferences this year, it's increasingly all about mega-games whose release dates send competitors scurrying, in much the same way that an extinction-level meteor scatters clouds as its entry sets the surrounding atmosphere on fire. Will there be genuinely new stuff on show at the conferences? Hopefully - but it might be hard to find space for it amongst all the behemoths we already know about.
Fewer and bigger? E3's about cannier bets, too, and exhibit A in this regard is Bethesda, which has been smart enough to control the headspace of E3 - before the first lanyard has been checked at security - with the reveal of Fallout 4. If you're playing trends bingo - and what else is there to play when so much of the games industry's attention is focused on one spot? - this is a board filler: open-world, story-driven, gritty, post-apocalyptic, sprawling. Fallout's always been beloved, but in the hands of the Skyrim people this is now a blockbuster pitch of such megawatt assurance that it risks turning the new Doom into a sort of arty side-project. Never underestimate the allure of one of gaming's most primal titles, mind: it may be curiosity as much as enthusiasm, but at Bethesda's conference, Doom would follow up Fallout 4 very neatly. Much more neatly than The Elder Scrolls Online, anyway, which, regardless of any success it may find on consoles, continues to feel like a game that missed its bus. Elsewhere, it's probably too early to hear something new from Shinji Mikami, but we can hope. Still: Dishonored? And oops - I almost forgot Battlecry.
EA's likely to play it safe, too, after a strange showing last year that suggested the publisher was so in thrall to Early Access that it had decided to ship a half-finished presentation that it would later patch. BioWare was present, art designers' eyes glittering in the half-light as they sketched concept Krogans on tablets. Casey Hudson (now off to Microsoft) whispered soulfully, as if beckoning you into the world's gentlest cult - but, as with a lot of cults, tangible details were hard to come by. An interesting approach, and yet the biggest takeaway from the whole conference was probably that Criterion now works in a pub, or something just like one. Criterion's game looked great - a sort of demolition derby where you could turn up in a chopper or riding a jetski if you fancied - but it also looked like a project that was still very early on in its development. Just beyond the back-of-the-beermat point. Hence the pub?
That was the sense in general from EA, really: a company that likes to work in bulk, but sometimes has to pay the price in terms of logistics. In something of a transition, EA simply didn't have very much to show at that point in time. Entertainment isn't always art when you're working at this scale; sometimes it's manufacturing - and sometimes the SKUs aren't ready to tumble down the conveyor belt when people are ready to catch them.
I wouldn't expect to see Criterion's game in this year's conference, sadly, and we suspect Mass Effect 4 will only be present in a teasy manner. Still, EA's probably going to be back to its old approach, which means it's focusing on brands. Star Wars should lead the way - we may even get a Battlefront beta as a mic drop, but who knows? - and while the attention's on DICE, the Jedi could be backed up in this capacity by The Old Republic, which will surely be angling for a bump when J.J. Abrams releases the new film at Christmas, despite the fact that EA's game trades in the kind of involuted Star Wars stuff that the Force Awakens, with Han and the gang, seems to be smartly side-stepping. What about that Amy Hennig Star Wars project that currently rules the designer's Google auto-complete? (The runner-up, intriguingly, is 'Amy Hennig wrestler'.) Probably too early. Probably.
Elsewhere, there's Madden and FIFA - topical! - and that Need for Speed reboot to show off, so it's hard to see where anything genuinely new might fit in. Maybe the publisher's hoping to capture a sense of newness, or at least extreme shininess, with Mirror's Edge, freshly open-world and sprawling and lumbered with the subtitle Catalyst, which makes it sound like a second-tier celeb fragrance: Little Mix - Catalyst. Battlefield will probably get the night off, as will Dragon Age. And where's PopCap these days?
Square Enix is also having a conference, and it appears to be bucking a couple of trends, making plenty of bets instead of a few, and placing a real emphasis, unsurprisingly, on games from Japan. It's hard not to get excited at the prospect of seeing Kingdom Hearts 3 on-stage in LA, and you never know if we might get a whiff of something Dragon Questy to go with it, or perhaps a Final Fantasy remake. Then, in the West, it's got Just Cause 3 and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided - and we wonder if it's time to find out what Io Interactive, the house of Hitman, is up to next. Just Cause 3 could be the one thing from Square Enix's show you end up remembering, though: John Bedford's just got back from a press visit and there's been an uncharacteristically childlike glint in his cold, dead eyes.
Tomb Raider will probably be reserved for the Microsoft conference, I'm told - by Martin, not a shadowy insider or anything - while Final Fantasy 15, after its recent demo, could be waiting for a different show entirely. It's tempting to dream that the blossomy goodwill generator Life is Strange could make an appearance, as a nod to its surprising connection with players. Still, it's a bit weird to think of Max Caulfield blinking under the harsh lights of E3. She could use her time-control powers to skip past the boring bits in the presentations though.
Speaking of a bit weird, the highlight of recent E3s has undoubtedly been Ubisoft's conferences, which have an enviable knack of combining money-in-the-bank military blasting and open-world shiv-kills with the sort of stuff that sounds like it emerged from an adventure playground's concrete pipe after a particularly protracted period of huffing hairspray. Assassin's and Rainbow Six are both inevitable, particularly since Siege stole the show last year, and as far as Syndicate's concerned, it will be interesting to see whether Ubisoft's learned its lessons in terms of presenting games in a way that more closely matches the finished code. Watch Dogs was a former show-stopper, after all, but it paid for its gleaming, rain-slicked initial impression in terms of goodwill when the final discs were printed. If Ubisoft is being more transparent about what it shows on stage, The Division could be a good place to start. Another ambitious mega-project, Ubisoft really needs to offer people a clearer idea of how this game is actually going to work, let alone how it will actually look. Either that, or the publisher simply extends its patented approach of throwing people at a development until everyone in the entire world is working on it. Then we can all hear about it in a breakout meeting!
But yes, what's exciting about Ubisoft is that the blockbusters are offset by the kind of risks that no other publisher's quite as willing to take these days. Simply put, you never know what's coming next. It could be a new Far Cry (probably too early?). It could be a fan favourite like Beyond Good & Evil 2 (probably cancelled again?). It could be another dreamy oddity like From Dust, a numinous sandbox about God and destiny - not that Destiny - from gaming's foremost vulcanologist, Eric Chahi. Who could guess? With Ubisoft it could be anything: an art installation made of burning flip-flops, or Ubi chief Yves Guillemot presiding over the live dissection of a leopard.
And we need this stuff - even if the leopard probably has other things it could be doing. Ubisoft has brands just like everyone else, but brands come dropping thick at E3, and it's nice to remember that there is more to games - so much more - than the careful bets, whatever their size and frequency.