For me the most significant thing about Microsoft's E3 conference this year wasn't that mind-melting Minecraft Hololens demo, or Gears of War 4. It was the absence of Call of Duty. Over the past five or so years, we've come to know what to expect from Microsoft: the biggest games, front and centre, bolstered by the odd indie game, remake or new announcement. It's always been centred on COD, FIFA, Battlefield, Forza - but not this time. After years of pretty conservative E3 showings, tonight Xbox is looking exciting again. Technologically and creatively, Microsoft outlined a future for Xbox that has vision and purpose.
Central to this was Microsoft's decision to put its own, exclusive games at the centre of this conference. It gave Xbox a sense of creative identity that it has been sorely lacking so far in the Xbox One era, as its marketers have swung wildly between trying to sell it as a TV box, something to watch the World Cup on, or a Titanfall machine. With Halo 5, we saw a confident 343 taking one of the world's most popular game franchises forward; with Rare's new multiplayer shared-world pirate game, Sea of Thieves, we saw something bright, colourful and new, alongside a tribute to the studio's history in the Rare Replay collection of its older games. New games were given a lot of time in this presentation, rather than making tokenistic appearances.
Rise of the Tomb Raider - not a real exclusive, but still clearly central to Xbox's self-image this year - looks like one hell of an action blockbuster. There was a wonderful run of indie games - Takoma, Ashen, Beyond Eyes, and whatever Ion turns out to be. This, to me, is moving away from the image of Xbox as the safe option for all the biggest games, and toward a version of Xbox that has a creative identity. This was sorely needed.
Then there was Hololens, which is the most exciting technological innovation I have seen in video games since... well, since Oculus Rift, but the difference between this and Oculus Rift is that I can't even understand how this Hololens stuff is possible. I don't understand it, and that makes me hugely excited about what it might do for games, either to enhance them or to change the kind of things that they are capable of doing. This - alongside Microsoft's partnerships with both Valve and Oculus on the virtual reality front - gives the impression of a company that's looking forward, technologically, and being open-minded about where the future of games might be.
Some of Microsoft's other technical innovations have hardly been world changing, of course. Kinect - mentioned not once at this conference - appears to have been acknowledged as an ultimately dead-end innovation. Games for Windows Live was a terrible, terrible attempt to steal back some market share from Valve in a post-Steam world. It frequently drops things without really doing much to help out those who've already bought into it (as happened with XNA). Other Microsoft ideas, though - like Xbox Live - actually have been world-changing. Hololens shows that the company is still trying things out.
It's as if Xbox has actually been thinking about what people want, and what they are tired of. Backwards compatibility is a huge deal, although let's not forget that the Xbox 360 was "backwards compatible" too, and it was hobbled. People were tired of Kinect, and tired of seeing the same big franchises every year at the same time. Big games were very much in evidence at this conference, but Microsoft was concentrating on its own big games, not other people's.
There was some pandering, sure. Halo 5 was always going to be a safe hit with the Xbox crowd, and Gears of War 4 was a great thing to end on, playing to Xbox's heritage. But what I saw tonight felt like a credible future for Xbox and for gaming, one that doesn't rely so heavily on the predictably big games of the present. There was no positioning of the Xbox One as an "entertainment solution". There was no TV, no sports, no out-of-place brand partnerships. And no Call of Duty.
This is the best Xbox conference I've seen at E3. It is wonderful to finally see Xbox showing some vision.