Virtual reality in spotlight at videogame trade show

Paul Bettner helping E3 attendee with virtual reality headset
Kevork Djansezian | Reuters

The video game world is getting ready for its next big revolution.

Two-and-a-half years after the launch of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, virtual reality headsets are about to take the stage in the gaming universe. And at this year's E3, the annual convention of the video game industry, they're going to demand a lot of attention.

Forthcoming products from Facebook-owned Oculus and Sony are going to have some stiff competition, as the eighth generation of home consoles starts to spread beyond core gamers and into homes of the larger mass market—and publishers are welcoming them with new installments of some of the industry's biggest franchises.

And some analysts say it's none too soon.

"The big thing that we have yet to come across with this new [console] cycle is the killer game," says Eric Handler, senior equity analyst at MKM Partners. "We just haven't had that must-have game."

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There are certainly plenty of contenders for the title this year, though. Microsoft will debut "Halo 5: Guardians," the debut of the iconic Master Chief on next generation consoles. The Xbox One is also the exclusive platform this holiday for "Rise of the Tomb Raider," the follow-up to 2013's 8.5 million copy-selling reboot of the storied franchise.

Electronic Arts, meanwhile, could have one of the year's hottest titles in "Star Wars: Battlefront." The multiplayer action game, developed by the same team that oversees EA's "Battlefield" franchise, will let up to 40 people compete simultaneously as Rebel soldiers or Stormtroopers—and, in select cases, as Darth Vader or other iconic characters themselves.

"Battlefront," which will benefit from its tie-in with the release of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," is expected to be one of the year's biggest games. And that could be good news for Sony, since the PlayStation 4's big exclusive "Uncharted 4" was, earlier this year, pushed back to 2016.

Disney Interactive will also be riding the "Star Wars" train at the show, showcasing "Disney Infinity 3.0," the latest in the company's franchise that mixes video games and real world toys. This year's installment will focus heavily on the "Star Wars" franchise, with figurines from the original trilogy, the prequels of the early 2000s and the upcoming film.

Bethesda Softworks, one of the industry's larger private publishers, could steal the show, though. The company, which will hold a media event for the first time this year, will have the reboot of the seminal "Doom" shooter series and "Fallout 4," a game that core players have been demanding for over five years.

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"It's maybe going to be our biggest E3 in the 16 years I've been here," said Pete Hines, vice president of marketing at Bethesda.

One lingering question is what sort of impact Nintendo will have at the show. In the past 18 months, the company has announced plans to release a sleep sensor device and revealed that it is working on a new game system called NX but has said it will not discuss either at E3. Its biggest game, a long-in-the-making, high-definition installment in "The Legend of Zelda" series, is MIA this year, having been delayed once again. And company president Satoru Iwata will not be attending.

Virtual reality, which has had a growing presence at the show, will have a chance to shine, now that launch dates for the most-anticipated headsets have been announced. Both the Oculus Rift and Sony's Project Morpheus are due out in the first half of 2016—and Valve and HTC's Vive is slated to be available by the end of the year.

Sony will have several demonstrations of its technology at the show and is expected to give more insight into its launch plans. Oculus is expected to be on hand as well and may divulge information on pricing or more details on its software distribution platform.

Big games and new technology are expected at E3, though. What will really make this year's show stand out from those in the past is the attendees. For the first time, the show will open its doors to 4,000 to 5,000 fans not professionally affiliated with the industry.

That might make E3 more competitive with the several fan-friendly exhibitions that have popped up in recent years, including PAX and the GameStop Expo, but long-time attendees—who remember E3 years like 2005, which had 70,000 attendees—say they hope it doesn't result in gridlock—as those fans will co-occupy the floor with 50,000 or so industry insiders.

"My only concern [with the limited opening to the public] is we've had issues in years past ... where E3 was far too crowded," said Hines. "I want to make sure we don't go back to that."

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