Pleasant Surprises at E3

E3 wrapped up last week, and I’m still sifting through all the headlines. As always, there was plenty of excitement, but this year’s excitement felt like the good kind, the kind that makes me enthusiastic about what the industry’s big companies are doing. Part of the reason that I follow E3 every year is for the surprise announcements and big reveals, but over the past few years, it had become a morbid fascination. What sort of train wreck would it be this year? Instead of watching spontaneous disasters, I spent this year pleasantly surprised by what the big companies had to show.

Of course, the conference remains bloated and packed with hype, but this year’s splashy announcements were a much-needed shift away from those of the recent years. Microsoft is a great case study for this. Over the past few years, they’ve announced plenty of big surprises: Kinect-focused consoles, an emphasis on media apps, and Halo television shows — all pretty shocking (and not in the good way). This year? Barely a peep about anything that could be remotely construed as “transmedia synergy.” Instead, the unexpected announcements revolved around the reason people buy Xboxes: video games. The player-friendly decision to make Xbox 360 games compatible with the Xbox One came out of nowhere. Presentations about Skype integration were replaced by the debut of new games like ReCore. The next iterations of classic series like Halo were positioned alongside unique experiences like Cuphead and Tacoma.

The fact that companies seemed to be fully embracing games again was a welcome development. The fact that these games showed some variety was even better. New franchises like Horizon and ReCore seem to have unique settings and competent women as protagonists. Just Cause 3 seems to be taking its cues from the player-driven wackiness that grew up around Just Cause 2 and giving people what the want: a way to tie multiple helicopters together and then launch C4 at them from a squirrel suit. The devil must be shivering because The Last Guardian, Shenmue, and the Final Fantasy 7 remake are all happening. Black Ops III covers the requisite bases in the “shoot dudes” genre, while small studios are putting out more experimental games like Beyond Eyes and Ashen.

It helps that a lot of the games being shown will actually be playable in the near future. Painful as it is to go without The Last Guardian until 2016, Fallout 4, Star Wars Battlefront, and Super Mario Maker are making it sound like the second half of 2015 will be as strong as the first half. Even something as small as Fallout Shelter being announced and immediately downloadable was a thrill. It wasn’t the spontaneous Saturn launch of yesteryear, but it was a good reminder of how fun it is to have a game unexpectedly drop into your hands.

The last surprise that I’ll mention is both the presence and the omission of virtual and augmented reality devices during this E3. Oculus, Microsoft, Valve and now even Starbreeze are all making some sort of hardware that you have to strap onto your head. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, but people still seem to be enamored with the technology, and (if anything) enthusiasm is growing. I have a hard time blaming them, as putting on an Oculus was almost a “Super Mario 64 moment” for me. Suddenly my conception of what could be done with the medium was expanded.

However, despite the fact that the first versions of this hardware should hit before the next E3, companies seem to be taking a measured pace in adopting them. Back when motion controls were in vogue, every game out there had some kind of waggle tacked on, but things seem to be going slower with VR. This may change, but I’m hopeful that it will mean VR and AR efforts will result in more thoughtful, less fad-driven experiences.

The mainstream game industry is usually a pretty slow, predictable beast. Big public companies aren’t usually as nimble or willing to take risks and it takes a long time to change course. However, it seems that this E3 was a tipping point. Companies have turned away from plans for multimedia domination and even balanced out the deluge of sequels with fresh material. Sure, some might think it sad that seeing video game companies actually focus on video games is a surprise, but right now I’m too shocked and happy to be cynical.

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