The nature of E3 is almost like a game industry version of the State of Union address, revealing what we should be excited about as an industry until next year’s conference, and in the short-term future. Of course, like the State of the Union, E3 is a throwback to a time when the internet wasn’t the main source of exchanging information.
There Will Be Games
Rockstar Games, notable for the ‘Grand Theft Auto’ franchise, takes the approach that its releases don’t need E3. The fate of ‘Grand Theft Auto V’ with critics, fans and sales charts doesn’t rely on a big E3 announcement or the release of new footage and a demonstration. Maybe that’s a smug approach, but a lot of the biggest releases this year and every year are sequels to big franchises that hold little drama, at least for me. Franchises like ‘Halo’, ‘God of War’, ‘Super Mario Bros.’, ‘Assassin’s Creed’, ‘Madden’, ‘Call of Duty’, ‘Medal of Honor’ and ‘Gears of War’ are well-known, and I expect a continuation of gameplay and visuals that have made them hugely successful in the past. EA made a big announcement that I didn’t realize was a surprise with the acquisition of the ‘UFC’ licensee.
Fortunately, several new titles including ‘Last of Us’, ‘Watch Dogs’ and ‘Beyond’ were revealed to capture our imaginations this year, and generate some fresh excitement for this generation of games. Any fear that gamers might not get to fight zombies was dispelled by the announcement of ‘Dead Island: Riptide’, the demonstration of ‘Zombi U’ and the rumor of a ‘Left 4 Dead’ prequel.
Pay No Attention to a 360 or PS3 Successor
I called out ‘Medal of Honor: Warfighter’ for looking so much nicer in the demo than I expect the final game will really look, but the rumors that some of the big games at E3 are really for the next generation of consoles were wishful at best. Microsoft treated Kinect last year as a kind of console re-launch, and stayed on that theme here in Kinect’s second year.
Is the Xbox SmartGlass a technical gimmick to steal the Wii U’s thunder? For now, I have to say yes. CVG reported that there was a ‘Watch Dogs’ proof-of-concept demonstration behind closed doors that involved a tablet. For my money, Microsoft could demonstrate something ten times better than what was shown here with three months of work from a few people. Until I see something more serious, Xbox SmartGlass is going to stay at the level of a Windows 8 app. That kind of demonstration would mean pulling three people off something more important like a not-quite-ready-for-primetime 360 sequel.
In contrast, Sony put time and money into the ‘Wonderbook: Pottermore’ demo, which looks about as user-friendly as a Nintendo Power Glove. Sony as an entity suffers from fragmented departments that frequently work against each other and whose projects are tied to the fate and personal interest of various executives. A PS4 will not be finalized until the last possible minute. In the meantime, Sony needs to make money off of its desired ten-year life cycle for the PS3. Where the PS2 and PS3 brought DVD and Blu-Ray playback into millions of homes respectively, the PS4 is in no rush to exist.
Subscription Money Is Where It’s At
In what appears to be a direct response to the ‘Call of Duty’ Elite service, Electronic Arts announced its ‘Battlefield 3’ Premium service. In terms of numbers, these services are win-win. For $49.99, ‘BF3’ players get five expansions packs featuring new maps, weapons and modes, while becoming part of an exclusive club that tracks their stats. EA gets money upfront that funds this content and future ‘Battlefield’ content, and ensures that its audience will be compelled to stay involved with the game. Valve has a different kind of strategy, wherein the company is constantly releasing new content for ‘Team Fortress 2’ in order to convince more and more people to by the game and use Valve’s Steam service.
Sony has made a bold move with the PlayStation Plus service. Members new and old are this week receiving twelve games: ‘Infamous 2’, ‘LittleBigPlanet 2’, ‘Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine’, ‘Virtua Fighter 5’, ‘Ratchet and Clank: All 4 One’, ‘Just Cause 2’, ‘Saints Row 2’, ‘Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light’, ‘Hard Corp: Uprising’, ‘Choplifter HD’, ‘Zombie Apocalypse: Never Die Alone’ and ‘Sideway: New York’. All of these games are included for the $49.99 per year membership. (Prices and games are for the U.S. market.) Sony will add 1-3 new games every month, and has promised more big name releases. This is in addition to the free game trials, cloud save service, PSN discounts, and automatic downloads and updates. Sony knows that Microsoft rakes in huge profits from the Xbox Live service, and this is Sony’s attempt to lure as many PlayStation Plus members as possible. I joined PlayStation Plus in March just to back-up a few game saves, and I already have over two dozen free titles. The one catch is, if my subscription ever lapses, then I lose all the free games and have to start over.
3D in the Game Environment
Outside of some very slight demonstrations involving the 3DS, 3D with or without glasses was barely, if ever mentioned at E3. The PS3 and to a lesser extent the 360 will continue to have 3D titles, but there doesn’t seem to be any momentum for 3D as a must-have feature.
BioWare showed off a preview for content that’s being added to the ‘Old Republic’ this year, while LucasArts showed gameplay for its mysterious ‘Star Wars 1313’ title. Is it only me, or has the art of the ‘Old Republic’ gone completely ‘Clone Wars’? Either way, I really like what’s happening visually in ‘Stars Wars 1313’.
What is the Secret of the Wii U? Whom Does It Serve?
In March of last year, Nintendo launched the 3DS in North America a price of $249.99. The following July, Nintendo cut the price to $169.99 and announced that early adopters were entitled to 20 Virtual Console titles. The public recognition of the company’s missteps was no less severe than the shifting that Nintendo did behind the scenes to make sure that the 3DS game line-up got a lot sexier quickly.
Keeping that sequence of events in mind helps to understand why Nintendo has not yet revealed several important details about the Wii U. Namely, we still don’t know the price point or the upgrade path for WiiWare and Virtual Console items from the Wii. The details about technical aspects (e.g. the specs of the Wii U) are even more problematic from a PR perspective.
I’ve written previously about the performance costs of supporting Miiverse features in-game, not to mention the growing amount of time and effort that goes into getting Nintendo to certify a game for all this added support. The system spec issue, however, involves the system architecture. For Nintendo, this means a dedicated processor for the Gamepad, and an architecture that doesn’t translate well in a press release. Furthermore, regardless of the complexity, it’s unlikely that Nintendo would allow a game where the Gamepad’s screen is disabled and the resources are instead put towards rendering the game on a single display.
The Wii promised a new experience for family members of all ages, a museum of games for fans in the form of the Virtual Console, and a console, games and accessories that were all cheaper than the competition. Plus, the Wii had a new ‘Legend of Zelda’ title available on launch day. In comparison, the Wii U has promised mostly just confusion in the form of so many different control options.
Now, Nintendo’s immediate goal is make the Wii U a hot holiday item, and the price point will probably be the deciding factor for most parents. But what happens if Nintendo is still producing and selling Wiis? You can be sure that they won’t go on clearance the week before the new system’s release and then disappear like the N64 and GameCube did. The Nintendo DSi and DSi XL continue to sell at a profit for Nintendo alongside the 3DS. I have to think that Nintendo has one other card to play, one more surprise between now and the Wii U’s release.
One Last Thing
Finally, without anything firm being mentioned out about ‘The Last Guardian’, I fear that the long-awaited spiritual and developmental successor to ‘The Shadow of the Colossus’ and ‘Ico’ may have died quietly. As I mourn that particular title, at least we can look at another Japanese developer’s flirtations with breaking ground.