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Brief Published: 2 Jul 2021

Takeaways from E3 Online 2021

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E3 2021

After a 2020 pandemic cancellation, the Los Angeles-based Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) returned for an all-digital edition (June 12-15). While fans showered trailers of long-anticipated games with attention – Nintendo's E3 showcase topped 3.1 million streams across Twitch and YouTube – there's reason to look beyond big blockbuster titles.

Due to more accessible distribution systems and the rise of mobile gaming (72% of all mobile software revenue in 2020 was generated by mobile gaming, totalling $81bn in consumer spend), the gaming landscape has fractured into smaller studios. As the sector converts its huge pandemic gains into sustained growth – US May 2021 sales increased by 3% month-on-month (NPD, 2021) – we highlight four directions that will shape gaming this year.

Microsoft’s Ambitions for Universal Gaming Access

As we discussed in Entertainment in the 5G Era, cloud gaming is the supercharged game changer that will bring interactive entertainment into the hands of every web-connected consumer.

Microsoft has begun the work of expanding its gamer community beyond owners of its high-end gaming PCs and Xbox console with the announcement of an Xbox Game Pass smart TV app. Empowered by Microsoft's Xcloud tech, this will let Game Pass subscribers stream games straight to their connected TVs. To further entice gamers into ongoing relations through its subscription service, a whopping 27 of the 30 games the tech giant teased at E3 will be available to Game Pass holders.

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Microsoft XBox

Non-Violent Gaming on the Rise

Thirty-three per cent of games presented across E3 had non-violent game mechanics and objectives, up from 17% at the previous E3 event in 2019. Only 5% of those came from major studios (GamesIndustryBiz, 2021), as independent developers lead with gameplay that explores everyday life, gamifies real-world skills, or immerses players in calming fantasy realms.

Highlights from E3's independent developer showcase Day of the Devs include Behind the Frame from Taiwanese developer Silver Lining Studio. Players drive the story of a painter who wants to become a professional artist through gameplay that includes mundane tasks like brewing coffee. Manila-based developer Chikon Club's Soup Pot is a cooking simulator that lets players try their digital hand at over 100 Philippine, Korean, and Japanese recipes. Finally, The Wandering Village is a city-building simulation set on the back of a giant creature whose travels, health, and mood influence how players' villages grow – and vice versa.

For more on gaming's diverse audiences and engagement opportunities, check out Women in Gaming.

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Behind the Frame

Endless Casual Competition

Phantom Abyss from Austin-based games publisher Devolver is aiming for the huge audiences of casual online competitive gamers (see Gamescom 2020). Phantom Abyss challenges players to make their way through a bottomless pool of procedurally generated ancient temples (think Indiana Jones). Players only get one attempt per temple; when they die, they can never come back. However, they leave behind ghostly imprints of their game avatar. Any player that comes after them will see how their predecessors failed. Only one person in the world can beat each level – once they do, the level is sealed and the victorious player claims it as their own.

The slapstick comedy of gaming failures has big potential for livestreamers' audience appeal, while the one-and-gone shots at glory will keep players coming back to try and conquer new levels.

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Phantom Abyss
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Phantom Abyss

Film Franchise Crossovers

Microsoft's open-world pirate game Sea of Thieves (15 million players) launched a game expansion that ties in with Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise. A Pirate's Life lets players set sail alongside Pirates of the Caribbean's lead character Jack Sparrow, adding hours of Disney-branded gameplay through five new storylines.

French developer Ubisoft, meanwhile, will return consumers to the lush alien jungle worlds of the 2009 hit film Avatar. Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora will not only make the most of next-gen console computing power with stunning visuals, but also create gameplay conditions that were previously impossible. For example, non-playable characters will understand the state of the world and react naturally to weather, player progression or time of day, creating seamless natural immersion. The game will coincide with the release of Avatar 2 in December 2022.

We will be sharing in-depth analysis of the macro trends in gaming at the end of the summer. In the meantime, follow our regular Pop Culture Pulses to stay up to date on how gaming is shaping online communities.

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Sea of Thieves
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Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora
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