E3 2012: The Crowd, the Blood, The Screen
Pay attention to the rumblings of E3 2012 and you'll hear what may be a series of forthcoming storms.
Jorge and Scott attended the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) this year. Here are some expanded impressions on some of the show's biggest stories and trends.
E3's Identity (Scott)
I was both impressed and confused as I wandered through the LA Convention Center. It's hard to overstate how massive everything is. One doesn't often encounter multi-story posters and stadium-size displays dedicated solely to video games. Equally massive are the crowds, which is where the experience starts to fall apart. You can easily wait hours for a short demo of a popular game like Halo 4. If you're better connected, you can get private appointment with a smaller group. Often, these demos are played by the developers, so you're really only watching these games. Before the proliferation of online video, you had to go see things in person, but today, the best seat in the house is often in your own home. The question then becomes: What are we all doing here?
Well, judging by the ridiculously long line of people waiting to get Oswald the Rabbit hats from the Disney booth, there is a sizable population that's in it for the swag. It's easy to spot the swag hunters. They're usually young, a bit sheepish looking, and weighed down by ten extra pounds of t-shirts and promotional bags. For these people, E3 is a fan show in the same way that PAX is. It makes for a weird dynamic when these folks are rubbing elbows with journalists and industry types attending for professional reasons.
If the Internet is making it less important to physically attend such events and if fan culture seems just as important as "business", then why go? For me, it was about the rare opportunity of getting a chance to talk with the game developers. Most of what they say is mediated (either directly through or via instructions from) corporate PR folks, but there are still plenty of opportunities to hear interesting things directly from the people that make the games. The person demonstrating Assassin's Creed 3 chatted with me about the decisions that were behind what dictates the change in the weather and the seasons in the game. On the opposite side of the corporate spectrum, I got to hear about how Australian aboriginal creation myths inspired the mechanics of Songlines, a game created by independent developer Samantha Vick. These are the types of things that get lost in huge press releases and sizzle reels.
There's also another side to E3's identity, one that I still know very little about. I call it the "shadow E3", and it's the event meant for investors, retailers, outsourcers, and middleware technology companies. It's the event all of the people in suits and ties are attending. It's the reason why all those Asian companies have so many meeting rooms. It's the reason why some of the biggest booths are for free-to-play MMOs most people have never heard of. While most of us are obsessing over small details in the Watch Dogs trailer, there are people making deals behind the scenes: deals that will have ramifications for how the art assets for triple-a games are generated, deals that may influence what hundreds of millions of people in China will be playing for the next ten years, deals trying to assure investors to keep their money with Nintendo. It's almost overwhelming to think about.
Of course, most regular people don't think about it; their interests are elsewhere. Many of the non-gaming enthusiast LA locals I talked with had a different view on the medium. My favorite conversation was with a woman running a hot dog truck. As I was waiting for my food, we started chatting about games. She said she "used" to be a gamer, but she liked more classic games like Ms. Pac-man. These days, she said, she usually plays games on her phone. She said that it seemed like most of the big games these days were about shooting and killing things.
After running a gauntlet that included Far Cry 3, Spec Ops: The Line, Crysis 3, Tomb Raider, Borderlands 2, Aliens: Colonial Marines, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, and Gears of War Judgement (to name a few) I wholeheartedly agreed. As the days wore on, I became increasingly unsure of E3's target audience. The video game audience grows broader every year, but so does the laser focus on shooters aimed at core gamers.
Once again, the “shooter” genre invaded the LA Convention Center with the loudest, biggest, and most ubiquitous presence on the show floor. We were greeted at every turn with an audible hail of gunfire and the disquieting sounds of vehicular explosions. Small, charming, and delightful Ni No Kuni felt at odds with the surrounding environment of artillery and weapons fire. In a year so flooded with first-person and third-person shooters, I felt a palpable sense of desperation emanating from the ceiling-high monuments to military fanaticism. "Shooter fatigue" has never been more threatening than today.
Yes, there are always intriguing and even exciting shooters coming in the near future. Those waiting for Halo 4 have every right to be thrilled about 343’s approach to the long running franchise, and yes, I will admit, the new Borderlands looks like a marked improvement over its predecessor. It's not the quality of the games in question, but the genre’s omnipresence in the medium and these games' similarities that have built the genre into a monolith in serious risk of toppling.
Several heavy hitters made an appearance in some form at E3 this year. Halo 4, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, Crysis 3, and Medal of Honor: Warfight all bring a large fan community with them. These are big titles vying for space in an increasingly crowded shooter market. Just to reemphasize the shooter presence, here is a list of some of this genre's titles at E3, many of which are notable IPs: Far Cry 3, Dust 514, Sniper: Ghost Warrior 2, Spec Ops: The Line, Rekoil, Gears of War: Judgement, Bullet Run, Arma III, Aliens: Colonial Marines, Battlefield 3: Armored Kill DLCand the list goes on.
A huge portion of these games lay the military aesthetic on thick, and other non-shooters join them. Wargaming.net and their free-to-play games World of Wartanks and World of Warplanes were a huge presence on the show floor, dwarfing some far more recognizable titles. In the war for viewer attention, if looks can’t win you the battle, then try for sheer size.
There is a sense of feature bombardment in the shooter genre. When these gaming experiences start to bleed into each other, companies start to desperately search for an edge that sets their game apart. Spec Ops stressed how important sand would play in their game, endlessly running clips of gunfights in Dubai. Far Cry 3 brought co-op missions to the show floor and did their best to spotlight the minor competitive elements that take place at the end of each stage. Even Black Ops 2 seemed to pander to the audience by demoing a scene in the game depicting Downtown Los Angeles under attack by terrorist drones.
There is a frenetic quality to the shooter genre at this moment, as though every new shooter is frantically trying to scramble out of the dog pile. The cacophony may be nauseating at times, but this is good for consumers for two reasons. First, there are a variety of excellent shooters on the market, a buffet of sorts for the shooter-hungry consumer. Second, something has to give. When a room gets crowded, people leave. Expect to see more marked departures from the genre by even big name developers in the coming years.
The Wii U and Nintendo's Next Challenge (Scott)
One of the biggest stories of the show was Nintendo's next console, the Wii U. With the Wii, Nintendo drastically broadened their audience and now has the difficult task of convincing casual gamers who may have only bought a handful of games that the Wii U is worth their time. Simultaneously, Nintendo is trying to court the type of gamer who goes to E3 to catch a glimpse at blockbuster games like Black Ops 2. After seeing their initial pitch, I'm not optimistic about their chances of achieving either goal.
After a brief flirtation with Wii Sports, my parents' Wii has basically become a dedicated Netflix machine. When I started describing the Wii U's second screen to them, it didn't have the instantly intuitive use that the Wii Remote had. It's easy to explain why swinging your arm in a tennis game is intuitive. It's much harder to explain asymmetric gameplay or why a touch screen might be useful for games that aren't really that much more sophisticated than Wii Sports.
It's doubly hard when Nintendo itself doesn't give many good reasons. The Pikmin 3 motion controls were imprecise and the second-screen map was rudimentary. ZombiU's Game Pad screen tricks were gimmicks that could have easily been handled on the TV. Games like Metroid Prime, Dead Space, and Far Cry 2 have already demonstrated that you don't need a second screen in order to have scanning visors and in-game maps that obscure your view.
Most of the Nintendo Land games were also underwhelmin. Luigi's Ghost Mansion was imbalanced and led to lopsided victories. The Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest was little more than a slow, on-rails shooter with forced motion controls for tasks as basic as reloading a weapon. Donkey Kong's Crash Course left the player staring at the Game Pad screen the entire time, largely defeating the purpose of playing it on a television at all.
Highlights like Rayman Legends and New Super Mario Bros. Wii U closely resembled games that we can play right now. Their use of the second screen was minimal and carefully implemented. They're shaping up to be excellent games, but this is thanks to solid game design rather than to features made possible by the Game Pad screen. As of E3 2012, the Wii U looks like it's trying to please traditional gamers as well as the broader crowd brought into the Nintendo ecosystem by the Wii. The problem is that that the Wii U isn't offering either of these constituencies sufficiently novel, complex, or cleverly-designed games.
Second Screen Vendors (Jorge)
For a conference dedicated to media intimately tied to the television, a great deal of time and money went into drawing our eyes away from the screens that we know and love. The Wii U offered up the tablet controller as a new way to interact with games. Microsoft seemingly followed suit by announcing SmartGlass, their foray into the “second screen” market. But like the Wii U and Nintendo's lackluster attempts at marketing their controller, SmartGlass implementation seems to lack focus.
The second screen idea is not new by any means. Many television broadcasts have apps available that add a secondary experience to regular television watching. Sports related apps in particular have found some success in offering additional content to a television audience. While you watch some football, for example, your smartphone could highlight additional commentary or background information on players.
Microsoft showed off their television connectivity with a Game of Thrones second screen experience. While watching the Lannisters generally muck up the continent, viewers could bring the app up on a device of their choosing (the app will run on iOS, Android, or Windows 8 hardware) and view a map of Westeros, depicting icons of where in the fictional continent the current scene is taking place. Ostensibly, fans of the show could be treated to a variety of secondary content, from trivia and behind-the-scenes features to encyclopedic information on the book series or creator commentary. We can imagine any number of interesting features. But for the most part, they remain imaginings.
Microsoft has not made it entirely clear who will program content. Theoretically most second screen content could come from the creators themselves, although that is a burden not all providers can carry well. They also offered no good reason why viewers captivated by a television show or film would break their attention and pause the screen to look down at their iPhone. SmartGlass could enliven second viewings of a show, offering “bonus features” in your hand. However, this content would still be limited to material viewed on the Xbox. I have my doubts that Microsoft has enough pull in the entertainment industry to clinch lucrative partnerships with studios who are already wrestling with Netflix while venturing into online distribution themselves. How appropriate then that Microsoft should partner with HBO, a company turning away viewers with their draconian walled distribution policy.
These issues are compounded in the video game space. Games are defined by their attention grabbing interactivity. To be sold on the second screen app, we must be given a good reason to put down the controller. Of course, SmartGlass could offer all sorts of cool features, like maps, achievement guides, and access to friends' leaderboards. But the question remains, why not put that content on the screen? Even if we want to keep the HUD sparse, can the second screen offer content browsing that far surpasses the laptop open on our lap? I think that the answer is yes. Like the Wii U controller, there is a way to see second screen features, but no one has found it yet.
The Console Lull (Scott)
Judging by Nintendo's uphill battle, it's no wonder that Sony and Microsoft haven't said word one about their next consoles. The normal four or five year console lifespan has been expanded to six or seven years this generation and people are starting to get antsy. Rumors of specs, codenames, and launch predictions were whispered on the floor.
Some big developers and publishers themselves seem ready for a shift. High profile games like Star Wars 1313 and Watch Dogs seemed too technically advanced for the PS3 and 360. When asked, the developers would only say that the demos were running on top of the line PC technology. Epic's Unreal Engine has powered some of this generation's most important games (like BioShock, Batman: Arkham Asylum and Arkham City), and the company has now started publicly promoting the next version. Unreal Engine 4 will require far more powerful hardware than what the PS3 and 360 can offer, which means new consoles are inevitable, even if no one will admit it.
In the meantime, developers seem to be doing an admirable job on aging architecture. Big budget games still look outstanding, but they also pay closer attention to more subtle things that are often lost in the glow of impressive graphics. The commitment to performance capture and cinematography in Beyond and the attention to sound design and thematic tension in The Last of Us stand out as examples of games that could only be made by seasoned developers on well-known technology.
The hardware manufacturers seem to think a broader media solution is the key to preserving aging technology. Sony continues its quest to link its mobile PlayStation Vita platform to the PS3 and court a family friendly market with Harry Potter augmented reality games. Microsoft is aggressively touting the 360's capabilities as a media hub and banking on people's interest in linking their smartphones and tablets to their movie and television experiences. Game developers themselves didn't say too much about these initiatives, so we'll have to wait and see whether they will be rolled into future titles or if this is simply another step in the traditional console's transformation from a game playing machine into an entertainment hub.
The mainstream game industry is in a weird place. The proliferation of casual and free-to-play games is changing the way that we think about traditional design and player populations. We're at the end of a unusually long console cycle that has been affected by the rise of smart phones and the growing ubiquity of the Internet. There's a sense that everyone is waiting for the other shoe to drop, and since no one is quite sure what that will mean, hardware companies and big publishers are hedging their bets.
At the same time, independent game developers continue to make inroads at the show, bringing with them a greater variety of games and creative voices. Combine this with several notable new titles from larger studios and the burgeoning mobile and free-to-play scenes, and the show starts to feel more like a preview of future events. Pay attention to the rumblings of E3 2012 and you'll hear what may be a series of forthcoming storms.