E3 Preview: The Videogames and VR Tech That Will Turn Heads

E3 Expo Virtual Reality
Christoph Hitz for Variety

The videogame world demands a spectacle when it introduces fresh tentpole titles — and E3 2015 should certainly be able to deliver. Big games, bigger crowds and new offerings in virtual reality will take centerstage for what promises to be one of the more impressive shows in recent memory.

This year’s confab, which kicks off June 16 at the Los Angeles Convention Center, will serve as the marketing launchpad for some of next year’s top VR headsets from Sony and Oculus — thought to be the next big thing in interactive entertainment. E3 also will provide advance looks at the top vidgame titles of the 2015 and 2016 holiday seasons and, for the first time in the show’s history, crack open its doors to the general public.

Between 4,000 and 5,000 fans who aren’t professionally affiliated with the industry will be invited onto the show floor this year, an acknowledgment by the sponsoring Entertainment Software Assn. of the competing, fan-friendly exhibitions, including PAX and the GameStop Expo, which have popped up in recent years.

At its core, though, E3 remains an industry-focused event. An estimated 50,000 videogaming insiders will be on hand to get a peak at the future of the business.

“There’s no bigger week for videogame news than E3 week,” says Tony Key, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Ubisoft. “For us, it’s an opportunity to put something new on a big stage and get high awareness across the world in a matter of minutes.”

E3’s expansion comes amid a resurgence in industry growth. And the number of console sales is likely to keep rising, as publishers now have had sufficient time to understand the capabilities of platforms like the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, and will showcase titles this year whose graphics rival the best CGI.

Microsoft will debut “Halo 5: Guardians,” the latest installment in the $3.5 billion franchise, as well as “Rise of the Tomb Raider,” which bows exclusively on the Xbox One. Sony, meanwhile, will showcase “Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End,” its flagship title, due out in 2016. Nintendo once again isn’t planning a media event, opting instead to show its big games directly to the public via an online broadcast.

Celebrities, as usual, will be on hand. Aisha Tyler returns to host Ubisoft’s media conference. And EA regularly brings out athletes to support its “Madden” and “FIFA” franchises.

The real star of the show, though, figures to be the “Star Wars” franchise. Between Electronic Arts’ highly anticipated “Star Wars Battlefront” and Disney’s “Disney Infinity 3.0,” which features characters from the tentpole, the series will be well represented. Lucasfilm officials will join Disney Interactive at the show.

Also worth watching is Bethesda Softworks, which will hold a media event for the first time to introduce the reboot of the “Doom” shooter series and “Fallout 4,” arguably one of the titles most in demand by players over the past five years.

“You come out of E3, and you have a very good idea of what everybody is up to, and what the space is like,” says Pete Hines, VP of marketing and PR at Bethesda. “You see what the big shooters are, (and) the big (role-playing games). You find out what the new initiatives are for the consoles. It’s important for setting a tone. We’re going to be showing stuff that no one outside of this company has seen.”

All of those games, while eagerly anticipated, are sequels to properties from previous generations, which  experts say is holding back the current generation of consoles. As a result, the real goal for forward-thinking — and risk-taking — buyers at E3 will be to find the next great franchise.

“Someone’s going to have to roll the dice on something new and original, and it will become the defining IP of this generation,” says Ophir Lupu, head of videogames at United Talent Agency.

On the hardware side, expect details from Sony on Project Morpheus, its virtual reality headset for the PlayStation 4, and likely some additional clarity from Oculus about its dual product rollouts later this year and early next.

But while the videogame industry continues to become a more powerful force in the entertainment world, there’s still some uncertainty surrounding the future of E3 itself; the show’s contract with the city of Los Angeles expires in 2016.

“Los Angeles has long been the home of E3, but we have to protect the best interest of our exhibitors and attendees,” says Rich Taylor, senior vice president for communications and industry affairs at the ESA. “We’re in close coordination with the city as they plan the future of the (convention center), and are engaged fully to present the best platform for the videogame industry.”