But now those machines are out on the shelves and selling in their millions. PlayStation 4 may be a good distance ahead of Xbox One, but the latter is fighting back with price cuts and tempting exclusives. Now the emphasis shifts away from technical specifications toward the one thing that really matters. The games.
Meanwhile, Nintendo may be down with its poorly selling Wii U, but it certainly isn't out. And thanks to the continuing success of the Steam platform, as well as the rude health of the indie sector, the PC is as important as ever.
Last year's E3 was a bruising face-off; this year's could be a more intriguing competition, where the future of games comes sharply into focus.
So for now, here are the key trends and showdowns we're expecting.
PlayStation 4 vs Xbox One – round two: the exclusives
The two consoles have been out for seven months, but gamers have been largely underwhelmed by the first wave of titles. Now it's time to show what these machines can do. Expect Sony and Microsoft to concentrate on the return of core franchises. For PlayStation that means Uncharted 4 and God of War 4, and for Xbox, Fable: Legends, Forza Horizon 2, Halo 5 and quite possible a next-gen Gears of War courtesy of new series developer, Black Tusk. There may be a few original titles to throw into the mix. It's rumoured that Dark Souls creator From Software is preparing next title, apparently codenamed Project Beast, for PS4 only.
As for Xbox, we already know about Insomniac's colourful Sunset Overdrive. But we may see something from Microsoft's London-based Lift Studio. "E3 is a massive opportunity for Microsoft to change the conversation around Xbox One in a positive way," says Tom Bramwell, editor of Eurogamer. "Hopefully new Xbox boss Phil Spencer will focus on games, games, games, although I think Xbox fans would like to see a bit of humility and contrition would as well after an awful 12 months."
The rise of offshoots and side-projects
We're seeing a lot of very mature "franchises" these days, some of them looking extremely fatigued – but not so fatigued that they can be retired to the old video game's knackers yard. Hence, Battlefield: Hardline, which takes the long-running shooter series and turns it into a cops-and-robbers blaster. There's also Sledgehammer's Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, which pits the player against a private military contractor, and the Borderlands "pre-sequel", which tells the backstory of Borderlands 2. Basically, this is what Square Enix has been doing with the Final Fantasy series for years – it's about maximising the revenue from those hardcore fans who just won't let go.
The search for the next big shooter
So while Call of Duty and Battlefield trade familiar blows like aging prizefighters, the hungry new kids are coming through, looking to be this generation's hot contender. The fascinating "asymmetrical" multiplayer hunt-'em-up Evolve is at the head of the pack, but there's also the third-person free-to-play 32-person melee fighter BattleCry from Bethesda and the brash, cartoon style indie blaster Loadout from Edge of Reality, which is also free-to-play, but this time on PS4. On the more cerebral front, there's Ubisoft's much-touted tactical co-op shooter, The Division.
Nostalgia strikes back
After the feisty newcomers, we have the bruised veterans back for one last shot at glory. There's Homefront: The Revolution from Crytek's UK studio, of course, as well as Oddworld: New N Tasty on the Sony Stand, and Mortal Kombat X from Warner. There are hopes for a return of the cult open-world favourite Crackdown and/or Rare's much-loved Perfect Dark. If Microsoft wants to prompt lapsed gamers into buying Xbox Ones, this would be a smart way to do it.
Nintendo has to do something
So the Big N has no press conference this year, but it will be making announcements as well as showing of the Wii U instalment of multiplayer combat caper, Super Smash Bros. Of course, what everyone wants to see is a brand new Zelda adventure, especially after the luscious Wind Waker update, but it could just as easily be a new Super Mario adventure. Whatever, the company simply has to capitalise on the recent success of Mario Kart 8, and that means a major new odyssey for Link or Mario. "I'd expect – or rather hope – that Nintendo will have a few Christmas 2014 games to announce," says Chris Dring, editor of industry news site, MCV. "But are we going to have a busy Christmas like you'd expect the year after two console launches? Or are we going to have to wait until 2015?"
Indie remains in the spotlight
Sony and Microsoft won't just be chucking multimillion dollar super-franchies at each other – for the past year they've also been attempting to seduce the entire indie development community with their self-publishing platforms and "come on guys, let's hug" approach to business. Both will no doubt be heading to the IndieCade showcase to catch promising offbeat treats like musical adventure FRACT OSC and experimental writing game Elergy for a Dead World.
Meanwhile, boutique publisher Devolver has some intirguing stuff to go alongside its obvious hit, Hotline Miami 2. Pixellated shooter Not A Hero from Roll7 and the pigeon dating sim, Hatoful Boyfriend look interesting. Oh and as a reposte to the military shooter genre, This War Is Mine, about civilians struggling to survive during an armed conflict, looks thought-provoking – and rather out of place amid the E3 jingoism.
The rise of co-op and local multiplayer
Mario Kart 8 has made everyone excited about playing against each other in the same room, and we may well see a few titles following it – or at least doing interesting things with group play. Sunset Overdrive is set to have eight-player co-op, while the latest Assassin's Creed adventure, Unity, will have four-player co-op assassination missions. Also, expect other titles to take Destiny's lead into the seamless Campaign/multiplayer crossover. Single-player is so dead right now (I'm joking).
The rise of space
Serious space games peaked in the early 1990s with the excellent Star Wars flight combat sims, then sort of drifted away, like George Clooney in Gravity. They're back now though. Destiny is the big hitter, of course, but E3 will also see a new build of Elite: Dangerous as well as a fresh demo of Hello Games' ambitious procedurally generated exploration sim, No Man's Sky. Oh and EA has its little Star Wars games, of course.
EA will have a good year
The last couple of Electronic Arts press conferences have been rather lacklustre affairs, the corporation relying on its trusted big hitters. This year, it'll have at least one, maybe two Star Wars titles: Battlefront from Battlefield creator Dice, and something else from Visceral. It may also tease Mass Effect 4 and Mirror's Edge 2. It'll have Fifa 15, of course, and Dragon Age Inquisition, and then there's the potentially franchise-saving Sims 4, which promises complex emotional AI to bring the successful but creatively stalling life sim back into the fold. Not a bad slate, really.
Virtual reality becomes an actual reality
The now Facebook-owned Oculus Rift will be at the event, showing off new demos, no doubt. However, the big question is whether Sony will be making a fuss of its own virtual reality headset, Project Morpheus. Announced at this year's GDC, the device looks slick and works well, and we may even get a release date this week – although it's more likely we'll just get a few new teaser trailers.
Actually, that's NOT the big question, really. The bigger question is whether Microsoft will announce its own VR device to compete with Sony and Oculus. The company is rumoured to be working on one and a sassy E3 reveal would change up the agenda of the whole show.
Having written that this E3 is going to be all about games, the whole thing could be virtually hijacked if two or more VR machines come face to helmeted face on the show floor.
That's the beauty of this event. Although it's an aging traditionalist, still glorifying the old school business of triple A boxed games and mega-corp publishers, it can pull out the odd firecracker now and again.
"It's easy to knock E3 for being out of touch with the wider games industry it's supposed to represent," says Bramwell. "However, for me, E3 is about the unique adversarial pageantry of the console games industry and on that basis it's still essential entertainment."
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010