I'm packing my bags for LA right now, like most of the games industry is. We've all seen enough E3s by now to know roughly what to expect - ostentatious dick-waving from the big players, trailers with lots of bass, cringeworthily awkward press conference jokes, the odd enduring meme. I feel like this year is especially important, though: last year the new consoles dominated everything, exciting by virtue of their very presence. This year, the challenge is for them to really justify their existence.
In April, I had a think about whether the Xbox One, Ps4 or Wii U were must-buy consoles yet - and the answer was pretty much "no" for all three, with the possible exception of the Wii U for Nintendo fans (Mario Kart 8 has tipped it further, since). They're good, but they're not essential yet. This console transition has been slow and cautious; with games like Watch Dogs straddling the console generations and others that we've already played padding out the release schedule, plus all the high-profile delays for eagerly anticipated "next-gen" games like Batman and The Witcher, there still aren't a tremendous number of compelling reasons to upgrade. This E3 is a chance to change that - to make those of us who were early PS4 and Xbox One adopters feel justified, and push those people who are waiting to upgrade towards a decision. If that doesn't happen, it will probably be 2015 before the current generation really kicks off.
What about Nintendo?
I'm not forgetting about Nintendo. Despite the Wii U's horrible first 18 months, Nintendo shows no signs of abandoning it, either for a new console or for some other strategy. "The fate of a video game system is often influenced greatly by the introduction of a single title," Nintendo President Satoru Iwata said last month in an investor Q&A. "As many of you probably remember, before the release of the Pokémon game, Game Boy had been showing slow growth, and many people wondered whether it was the end of Game Boy... we do not believe that this year’s estimate of 3.60 million units of Wii U hardware will be the peak of its lifecycle, and we would like to work hard to make sure that we give sufficient momentum to the system so that we can expect good results in and after the next fiscal year, too."
Nintendo will no doubt be hoping that "single game" could be Smash Bros or Mario Kart, but if it isn't one of those two, Nintendo has an excellent chance to announce more games - more games for this year, even, whilst the big hitters on the PS4 and Xbox One slate aren't coming until 2015.
The Wii U currently has the strongest game line-up of the three consoles, and this is an excellent time for Nintendo to capitalise upon that and tempt people towards a Wii U whilst they wait for the next Halo or Uncharted or whatever else Sony and Microsoft will announce for 2015. I think most of us can agree at this point that the Wii U will never be a world-dominating console, but it can certainly achieve respectability.
Xbox One: time for a strong message
As for Microsoft, in the year since last E3, almost everything about the Xbox One has changed. Don Mattrick is gone, along with all his promises of always-online gaming and console-locked purchases and unpopular restrictions on trading and sharing. Even Kinect - an integral part of the console, as essential to it as Halo, if you listened to Microsoft last year - is gone, to the disappointment of Kinect developers and the relief of pretty much everyone else.
What's left of the Xbox One is a box that's largely the same as its main competitor, but that has Titanfall. It needs direction. Last year there was a lot of talk about the cloud, about connectivity, about Kinect; a lot of that is gone now, so there needs to be something new to talk about. This E3 is Microsoft's opportunity to assert its authority again, to present a vision for the future rather than frantically back-pedalling on past mistakes.
The Xbox One itself is in a stronger position now than it was when it launched - and a much stronger position than when it was announced. But people need to know why they should buy it over a PS4, and surely the answer can't just be "you can watch TV through it". Microsoft has made a lot of noise about Xbox Live, and deservedly so (it's an excellent service, and was world-leading in games for years), but seems not to have noticed that Sony has quietly caught up over the years with PlayStation Plus. If the Xbox's unique selling point isn't Live, or TV, or Kinect, then what is it? Now is the time to tell us.
Sony must keep it going
Sony enters E3 2014 off the back of a tremendously successful E3 2013, but you could argue that the hugely positive reaction to the PS4 had as much to do with Microsoft's mistakes as it did with Sony's clever positioning. PS4 has won the first round of the sales war and the first round of the perception war: the challenge now will be to keep it going. Oddly enough, despite that, PS4 still lacks in system-selling exclusive games - in place of Titanfall/Super Mario 3D World it has Infamous and a re-release of The Last of Us. We need to see those games, and ideally - unlikely though it is - we need to see them this year.
I want to see how the PS4 is going to evolve in the near future: I want to see PlayStation Now running with a library of interesting heritage games, I want to see the indie games that Sony has supported so enthusiastically flourishing on the console, and most of all I want to see what Sony's second-party studios can do when they're not looking backwards towards the PS3. Unlike Microsoft, Sony has a strong message - the PS4 is all about games, big and small - but if it's to maintain its lead, Sony must not sit back and relax.
The current generation has been a runaway success so far - more of a success than anyone was banking on, it seems. Sales estimates were conservative, but it turned out that we were more than ready for new consoles, and we leaped upon them eagerly. It's time for the platform holders and publishers to commit with similar enthusiasm.
I'm excited. Are you?