So That Was E3 2012

This week went by super fast for me. Some of that was because work was a non-stop cascade of crazy but it was also because of E3. For as many faults as the show’s structure has, I love it. It’s loud, rambuncious, obnoxious and serves one singular purpose: To scream “VIDEO GAMES ARE AWESOME!” It’s funny because during the week of the big show, I get so caught up in consuming press conference streams, trailers, articles, podcasts and discussing everything at length on forums that it takes up all my free time and for that week, I never actually play any games. This year was no different, aside from a couple of tiny play sessions with my Vita during lunch. There’s always a lot of excitement and anticipation around E3 but this year had a very weird vibe both leading up to and during the show. There was the whining about the show’s relevance, but beyond that, there was a lot of uncertainty about what exactly we’d see. Vita aside, Sony and Microsoft are still flogging what is positively ancient hardware at this point and Nintendo was going to talk about the new WiiU and hopefully breathe some life into the 3DS but last year’s showing (filled with info that was subject to change) really had people confused on what to expect.

Now that the show’s over, I’ve been seeing a lot of really perplexing opinions from the enthusiast press. Many are complaining that the show was disappointing, nothing really impressive came out of it, that Nintendo disappointed really badly and the rest of the makers are pretty clearly just coasting until next year when they’ll presumably announce the next generation Xbox and PlayStation home systems. I’ll admit that this wasn’t my favourite E3 and there are past shows that have been better than this one but once again, the whining from the segment of the press who drives most of their traffic and hype from this show–who indeed should thank this show as a big reason for their field’s existence–really frustrates me. Also guys, what’s with the clapping at press conferences? When you’re there in a coverage capacity, you’re supposed to be journalists first and fans second. Applauding at what are really fancy sales pitches don’t do wonders for demonstrating your integrity. Stop it.

As a superfan of this medium and the AAA segment of it, I’d have done some morally questionable things to be able to attend that show and while I understand it’s bloody hard work for the press, seeing them pimp their coverage all week and then whine about how there wasn’t anything good to see drives me mad. Anyone who says there was nothing interesting at this year’s E3 either didn’t look hard enough or is outright blind. Several of the bigger publishers are certainly coasting on established brands while their front line teams crank away on next-gen hardware but that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone and in spite of that, we’ve seen several new IPs this year and the unique re-imagining of others. The amount of originality on display was more than I was expecting and even though my expectations were low, that’s saying something.

Not everything was as encouraging however. Those that coasted this year really coasted and some of those who really needed to hit their messages out of the park botched the swings to the point where they ended up being little more than bunts. The “big five” press briefings are always a good way to form some top-down impressions of the show as a whole so let’s start there. There were shining highlights but they were almost universally disappointing for different reasons. I’ve heard it speculated on podcasts that a lot of this was because the briefings are being aired on TV to a wide audience and as a result, they’re more strictly crunched for time and are focusing them around more mainstream appeal than they did before. If this is true, then I say they need to stop being aired on TV because all that makes these shows interesting was largely sucked out this year.

Microsoft – This beats EA as the most disappointing, only because EA actually showed games. This year, Microsoft was almost entirely focused on media features and their briefing gave a strong vibe that games were basically an afterthought. We got no new game announcements, some new (but largely old) footage of games we already knew were coming, a smattering of Kinect lip service and from then on it was media, media media. One can only imaging the bazillions of dollars that Microsoft must have spent to secure some of the content deals they announced but as someone who doesn’t give a crap about sports and who doesn’t live in the US and thus, won’t be able to get many of these, I just don’t care. Their SmartGlass feature which will allow supplementary content to appear on your phone or tablet looks like cool tech but the main thing I took from that was “Oh great, yet another thing to distract me from watching the damn show.” They even released the video showcasing all their cool looking Summer of Arcade titles after the show, they didn’t even run it as a sizzle real which would have taken two minutes. Microsoft pretty clearly thinks they’ve already got the gamers locked in for the rest of this generation and now it’s time to broaden to non-gamers to try to keep moving hardware until next year when I’m sure they’ll laser focus on the games again for Xbox: The Next One. There’s probably numbers that indicate this makes sense in some way but as a hardcore gamer, I was pretty annoyed. Gamers are what made the Xbox 360 the success it is and we’ll be what drives adoption of the next system. To leave us out in the cold to showcase a bunch of media features that you can get on boxes that cost less and have no subscription I don’t think is necessarily a willing formula.

Sony – They had one of the more engaging presentations and it was book ended by awesome new IP (Beyond: Two Souls and The Last of Us, both of which I want in my eyeballs right now). Like Microsoft though, they also dropped the ball in key areas to focus more on mainstream stuff, though at least it was focused on games. As a Vita owner itching for new content, I was both stunned and frustrated at how little they talked about the system. Most press and Vita owners left that show thinking Sony has basically left what’s far and away the best portable system out to die. It was later revealed that they had something like 25 games at their booth and more announcements were made during the show itself. They also have a ton of really interesting downloadable indie titles in the works, which weren’t even hinted at. They also waited until later in the week to reveal an incredible list of free AAA and downloadable titles that were already available and will be rotated on a monthly basis for PlayStation Plus members, something which finally made me pull the trigger on it. This neglect was apparently in service of doing a nearly 20 minute embarrassing glitchy demo of an augmented reality storybook for kids and pimping their PlayStation Suite service for Android smartphones, which has been a complete flop so far and I think will continue to be. They even went as far as to apologise for not giving the Vita the attention it deserves. They also waited until after the show to reveal a massive list of free Sony as a company is bleeding badly right now and largely ignoring the device they need to get their investment back on quickly at their press briefing was nothing short of idiotic. As the show progressed however, I quickly realised that Sony platforms are getting a ton of compelling content this year and I’m excited for it now, including the Vita.

Nintendo – They without question had the most to prove this year. The Wii has flared out badly, the 3DS had a bad start and the WiiU is their big chance to shut up those who are saying Nintendo should get out of hardware and make iOS games. They had not one but 3 different briefings, a video one talking about WiiU’s online features on Sunday, their main WiiU briefing on Tuesday and a dedicated 3DS show the following day which I missed. From what I understand, there’s a lot to be excited about for 3DS this year and Nintendo seems to have finally found their stride with it (funny how all the gaming press who said the handheld market had “moved on” last year were silent on that issue this year). They did a decidedly worse pitch for the WiiU. I went into this show excited to get one pre-ordered and probably still will but came out the other side pretty deflated. There were far fewer games announced than people were expecting and some heavy hitters were missing. One big pleasant surprise was the announcement that 2 WiiU GamePad tablets controllers can now be used simultaneously. Up to now, the announced limit was 1 so this is nice to see, even if it comes with the caveat of cutting the frame rate on the GamePads by half if both are in use. Pikmin 3 looks cool (though I’ve never been a huge Pikmin guy) but there was no mention of Retro Studios’ new title, there’s yet another New. Super Mario Bros. game coming (I like the series but the formula is getting tired), Ubisoft has a couple of neat titles on the horizon with ZombieU and Rayman Legends but other than that, the big third-party title they spent many minutes on was Batman Arkham City Armoured Edition, an update to a game that has been out for almost a year with gimmicky WiiU map and inventory features tacked on. I fail to see how they expect to find a new audience for this title on the platform but they seem confident. Their big closer was NintendoLand, supposedly their answer to WiiSports. It’s yet another minigame collection centred around the core idea of a theme park and though it seemed neat, most press who played the games thought they were underwhelming. There simply weren’t enough game announcements. They needed to rapid fire them to show how committed both Nintendo and third parties are to the platform and they failed at that, to the point where Nintendo’s stock took a hit after the show was over. Some in the press have said that Nintendo has been focusing on very short PR cycles lately, not talking about games until much closer to release. Since the WiiU isn’t due to ship until the holiday season, they theorise that we’ll see many more announcements before then and that they were light on announcements at E3 because it simply comes too early. That may be true but to give such a paltry offering at the show where mainstream media is watching seems like a massive missed opportunity.

EA – After their briefing, one of their executives did some damage control and came out saying that EA has several new IPs in the works but that they were all for next-gen systems which is why they weren’t talked about here. That was slightly reassuring but it didn’t really detract from the slimy feeling one gets from watching this conference. At least for 2012, EA is showing itself to be a company that’s creatively bankrupt. Their entire hour plus briefing did not talk about a single new IP. Everything was sequels, add-ons, stapling mobile/social garbage onto every title whether they needed them or not and putting on a brave face while begging people to resubscribe from Star Wars: The Old Republic.  Their announcement that it’s going to be free up until level 15 is cool and will get me to try it but I’m sure I won’t end up subscribing and I think it’s going to be fully free to play by the end of the year. They put a big bet on the subscription MMO segment and there’s just no success to be found there anymore. SimCity looks really cool and I love some of the new mechanics they’re introducing. But I don’t trust EA to do always-on DRM in a consumer friendly way (Blizzard does it best and they can’t even really do it right) and the inability to revert saves has killed the best part of the game, manually triggering crazy disasters on your established cities. I’ll probably end up skipping it. I do like the new Need for Speed meets Burnout idea that Criterion is taking with the new instalment in that series that’s inexplicably sharing the same name as the one that came out only 2 bloody years ago but it’s going to be yet another driving game I’ll probably get distracted from before I can finish it. The announcement later in the week that it’s getting a Vita release perked me up. Their attempts to force connectivity with other platforms into everything is gross and just seems like an attempt to hit marketing bullet points and trying to keep people always thinking about their games when they can’t be around to play them. I don’t have time to check stats and play pointless little side games for Battlefield 3 on my phone and those resources are best spent on making the core games better.

Ubisoft – Ghastly hosting choices aside (I couldn’t stand that YouTube flavour of the month but nothing is as bad as Mr. Caffeine), this was far and away the best show. When Yves Guillemot briefly came on stage to introduce the incredible looking new IP Watch Dogs, really all he should have done was yell “Triple A bitches!” and dropped his mic. Beyond some nods to casual franchises like Just Dance and an embarrassing, borderline sexist demonstration of ShootMania which did that game no favours, this was all about top-shelf, mirror shine polished titles for hardcore players like me. No unnecessary social and mobile connectivity, no  Assassin’s Creed is one of my favourite series of this console generation so I was already sold on the new one coming this Fall but their demonstration just blew me away more, unnecessary animal killing aside. Rayman Legends on the WiiU was almost enough to sell me one of those systems and from what I’ve been hearing of ZombieU, that might seal the deal in spite of its dumb name. They closed off with Watch Dogs which looks like Assassin’s Creed meets Deus Ex and I couldn’t be more excited for it. It looks like the kind of game I’ve been dreaming of for years now. Ubisoft clearly believes there’s a future in AAA and is driving almost all their company in that direction which is a very refreshing change. This is a company that doesn’t always do right by their customers but in terms of new ideas, they are the ones to watch in 2013.

There’s so much more that happened during the week beyond these press briefings but if you combine the vibe they all gave off into one, you get an idea of the show as a whole. They (plus a number of other surprising new titles that were discussed throughout the week) to me indicates an industry that’s in a bit of a holding pattern while it waits for the next generation  (even Nintendo, who should be in anything but that) and sees how emerging platforms continue to grow (or not as I think the next couple of years will show). Nonetheless, the industry still has some new and different ideas left in it that’s it’s working on them full steam ahead. Personally, this year has been a bit of a AAA drought for me so far (not that my pile of shame is complaining) but the second half of this year and in particular, the first half of next year is shaping up to be bonkers with a huge number of titles coming I think I’ll be really in to as well as a wide variety of people with different tastes and genre preferences. For all the questions of the show’s relevancy and whining that there was nothing interesting here, I’ve found tons to be excited about and if the future of all video games is dreck on iOS and Facebook, no one seems to have told the people at this show and they aren’t exactly stupid people who don’t know how to turn a profit.

With the economy still not improving and another recession possibly on the horizon, the stakes for the AAA industry have never been higher. There’s definitely some creative seizures taking place due to that but there’s still a market for new ideas and those trying them aren’t just dipping their foot in the water, they’re diving in deep and making substantial and in some cases, ballsy bets. For me, the biggest disappointment this year was in the coverage itself. I’ve been following E3 closely for years now and never before have I seen such a ho-hum, torpor response from the people who like to call themselves the enthusiast press. Maybe they know something they aren’t sharing with the rest of us but what I took from this show was that there’s few new ideas, the console companies don’t care about gamers anymore and that the new and shiny platforms like the Vita are apparently dead, even though there were 25 games at the Sony booth and I rarely read a story about any of them. I’m not sure how you can call a platform dead when it’s screaming at you for attention and you just ignore it.

I’m actually sympathetic to a degree in that I think the enthusiast press is hearing a lot of the same unfounded and frankly dumb rhetoric about how AAA gaming is dying and iOS and Facebook are taking over the world and is beginning to drink some of the Kool Aid. I can personally attest to how it definitely seems like no one’s backing what you like when that’s all you see everywhere. For the fault of this year’s E3 (and there were many), it’s the one time of year when the AAA industry can scream about all the incredible gaming experiences you can’t get anywhere else and they still came out swinging this year. It’s an industry that’s in a hard place right now but they’re nowhere near dead yet and even if that’s their ultimate fate, they are going down in one Hell of a blaze of glory. Point out the faults when you see them but this is an event that should be cherished, not admonished. If you’re in the enthusiast press but can’t find your enthusiasm even at this time of year, then maybe you need to start writing about something else.

I see a great year ahead for those of us who love AAA gaming and I can’t wait for what’s to come.

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