First off, I had originally hoped to have this done much closer to the end of E3 but between the new house and work stuff, life just got too crazy. It’s good though because a ton of new stuff has happened since E3 that I can now talk about! Secondly, yes indeed there is a video to go with this! I’m trying out another little experiment with my YouTube channel. For certain entries going forward, I’m recording what I’m calling the Geek Bravado Ramble which is mostly me verbalising my thoughts are I come up with the content for the post. I’m doing it to expand out my entries into more detail, to give people an idea of how I reach the conclusions I do and I also find it just helps me write better. The videos will be verbose, rambly and likely pretty long (this one’s over an hour) so they definitely won’t be for everyone. I think it’s kind of a fun thing to do though so I’ll see how it goes but this will definitely only happen once in a while. It’s not necessary to watch it before reading this post but if you want, check it out below:
So another E3 has come and gone and man, what a year it’s been! We got a ton of details on new consoles, a bunch of new games were shown (many of them new IPs) and no there was no shortage of shots being fired and controversies being stoked. I’ve been paying attention to E3 for a long time now and I can’t remember the last one I saw that was this exciting and which has some very large, normally slow corporations putting up some rabid fighting prowess. Sony man, the brass balls those guys have grown are incredible! I’m not really here to recap the show or talk about what games I’m interested in. Suffice it to say, there’s a lot of them and when I look at what I potentially spent during Future Shop’s E3 discount pre-order sale, it’s probably well over $1,000 if I keep everything. And that doesn’t include console pre-orders. Yowch. There are plenty of good places to find coverage of the many things shown at E3 so you can make up your own mind. I also did my rapid-blogging experiment where I talked about the three big press events based on notes I took of them in real-time. That worked out OK but not nearly as well as I wanted. I think I’m going to try to do the same thing next year but with video instead. What I am here to discuss is the overall tone of E3, both from what was shown and the way the press and gamers seem to be reacting to it. As is the case most years, there are some common takeaways and themes that are interesting and I think are worth point out as potential signs of where things are going.
Before I delve into anything else, I do want to address the elephant of this year’s show which is Microsoft controversial DRM stance, which they completely reversed yesterday. I have said I believed their original stance was dumb and anti-consumer and I still believe that. I also believe them backing off it was the right thing to do and as a result, I’m much more likely to keep my Xbox One pre-order now. What I didn’t care for were the number of people who came out of the woodwork to admonish those who fought for ownership rights, saying that we’ve put the final nail in the coffin for triple-A game development and that as usual, the industry’s mismanagement that’s led to an untenable financial situation for it is somehow the fault of the consumers and not those running things. A big proponent of the industry point of view is Epic Games alumni and noted game designer, Cliff Blezsinski. I’m a huge fan of his games dating back to Jazz Jackrabbit and Jill of the Jungle and have bought and still own the entire Gears of War series, except Judgement which I will purchase one day. I also respect his willingness to bluntly state his opinions in a very public manner, regardless of how they go against the grain. I can also appreciate that he’s now out of the industry, probably in no small part because of its inability to make money and unwillingness to take risks and foster original ideas for the most part. As someone who claims he has first hand knowledge of how many people played his games without paying Epic for them (largely from buying used), I can imagine his unique position but I can’t claim to have experienced it.
Where he and I disagree is who is to blame for this situation. His stance is pretty clearly to blame consumers and mine is not. He says that used games have to be stopped and that if gamers want big, triple-A games to continue, it’s the only way forward because the economics simply don’t work any other way. My problem with this point of view is when did the industry’s financial problems become the customer’s to solve? This is an industry where in this very console generation, a million sales of a triple-A game was considered a smashing success. Now we have Square Enix calling Tomb Raider a failure after it sold 3.5 million copies, more than any previous entry in the series ever did, in it’s first month. What the Hell happened and why did it happen so fast? It’s true, game sales are down. Some (including me) attribute that to a combination of people getting bored with a generation that went on too long, stagnation, over reliance on sequels and the fact that the world economy is still in the toilet. Yet many games are still selling better than they did years ago and being considered a financial failure. Gamers aren’t the ones who set the budget for these things and I don’t think the ever-increasing bloat of these projects can be laid at our feet.
How many people are asking for yearly Assassin’s Creed games that are full of pointless side content most people never touch but which require 1,000 person teams to make as a result? If you look at reviews and gamer sentiment that I’ve read, not very many. I’ve bought and finished every AC game except the PSP one and AC3 could have cut out 75% less side content and I would have been happy with it. So would everyone I’ve spoken to about it and a lot of reviewers too. Yes, that series is wildly successful but Ubisoft as a whole can still barely find a profit which hurts other prospects and they’re one of the only publishers consistently making money right now. How much greater could their success had been if they cut out all the unneeded padding in AC3? How many millions less would it have needed to sell to make the same amount of money? How many less units would it have taken for Tomb Raider to be a success is Square Enix didn’t force multiplayer into it no one asked for and which when I beat the game on PC a couple of months after release, had no one playing it? Some of the most successful triple-A titles this year have been games like Metro Last Light, which are not selling 5 million copies but which are still considered big successes because they have a tight focus and are catering to and budgeted for a smaller market they know is there. Money can be made in this space and others are showing how to do it. All of these are industry problems and they’re the industry’s to solve, not us customers. If games are costing more to create and publish than they’re capable of making back, then the only solution is to make them cost less. If gamers complain, then tell them why. Despite what it may seem like on the Internet, gamers as a whole are not stupid and if people actually do complain in numbers about the lack of side content in the next Assassin’s Creed, then tell them why it’s not there.
The triple-A industry has plenty of problems right now and as someone who loves those kinds of games, I don’t want to see them go away. I also haven’t bought a used game in years and buy almost everything I want not only new but on launch day. But I come from a very privileged position where I have a lot of disposable income and few other hobbies. I was also poor once and know a lot of people who still are and if used games and rentals didn’t exist, those people would simply play less games. Forcing some of your audience out of the market because they don’t have enough money is not how you create a sustainable business. Fighting your customers is never the answer. If games are too big to make money right now, then make them smaller. Don’t feel you don’t have to change anything and that your problems are the fault of the people who are giving you their money and advocating what you make. Once you start fighting your customers, you’ve already lost. History will ultimately decide if Microsoft backing off Xbox One DRM was the right thing to do but personally, I think it was.
As for the rest of E3, there’s certainly a ton to talk about but I’m going to focus on the broader themes. The first two things I’m going to talk about are the two prevailing trends we seem to be seeing this year. Every year, there’s always a couple of things we seem to see all the big players trying at once. The first of these is the trend of making many more games that are not only open-world but connected with very meta level social hooks throughout. Many of these like Watch_Dogs are still single player experiences but they still have online hooks that allow other humans to interact with your world and your game experience without you actually being in a competitive multiplayer scenario where you’re interacting with a bunch of people all at once. Off the top of my head, Watch_Dogs, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, The Division, The Crew and Need for Speed: Rivals are just a few examples of this. I love open-world games and while I am very much a single player guy first, I think a lot of this meta social stuff is potentially very cool, especially if it’s optional and I can choose to use it only when I want to. My big concern with it of course is once again, how much is that going to bloat the budget of these games and is this something a large number of people want in almost every game? I’m not sure and it’s quite a gamble to take. I get that a lot of this is designed to drive long-term player engagement and well, keep them from trading their games in but open-world games are the most expensive type these is and if there’s too many of them, publisher risk people doing with them what they did with shooters, having the majority of the community latch on to a couple while the rest become ghost towns. It’s a bold experiment and I like it but damn if it isn’t risky to try with the industry in the shape it’s in.
The second thing I don’t care for nearly as much though in some ways, it ties into the first. That is how every game has some sort of mobile component to it. I’m not just talking companion apps or some loosely related mobile game tie-in. I’m talking about apps that can tie directly into your game session, allowing other players to participate in the larger console experience in a more minimalist way from their tablet. In the case of Watch_Dogs, this was shown as someone who is able to jump into your game to assist you in taking down pursuing enemies by tapping them on their tablet. In Dead Rising 3, you were able to use your phone to hear in-game phone calls from characters or call in artillery strikes. In The Division, a tablet player could take control of a drone and scout for others. It all sounds a little different but these all have one thing in common: They’re gimmicky and completely unnecessary to the overall experience. Again, this is stuff that’s taking time and money to develop and raising the number of sales games require to make a profit. To me, I don’t see the real value these add. Like the Kinect and Move, this just feels like slapping a dumb gimmick into games that don’t need it because a bunch of executives went “Tablets are hot right now! We need to find a way to use those!” If I want to play The Division, I want to play the main game, not spend time flying a drone around with my finger while I’m commuting or at work or on the can or whatever. If I’m playing something on a mobile device, I’m more interested in it being a game tailor-made for that platform, not some lame support role for a much bigger, deeper game I already have.
Again, I get this is about driving player engagement but I don’t at all care for this notion that every game has to have tie-ins to everything else so that they can ensure that you’re always playing the game in some way at all times because you must never not be engaged with the brand! Gaming is my primary hobby and I spent a lot of time doing it but I also like to have my game specific time and time for everything else. I don’t want to constantly be playing The Division no matter where I am, I want to play it during my game time and at that point, I’ll want to be playing the full experience on my big TV, not some gimped imitation of it on my tablet or phone. Like motion control and 3D before them, both of these ideas are definitely experiments and as usual, everyone’s trying it at the same time rather than letting someone be the guinea pig first. We’ll see if they work out but much like those previous gimmicks, I see at least the mobile device integration fizzling out without much interest.
Those are the two big common themes among publishers at E3 this year but of course, the most important part is how the press and gaming public felt after it all. On that, I have to say that people seem to have come out with a lot of enthusiasm. The press has been continuing to feed this narrative for a while now that not only the triple-A industry but the console industry as a whole is not only unhealthy but in a crash like the one of 1983 (which a cursory comparison will show is complete, lazy nonsense) and that they just refuse to admit defeat. Many continue to espouse the frankly ridiculous notion that tablets and phones are going to take everything over and that in 5 years, we’ll all just be gaming on those. Some even go so far as to suggest that tablets are already as powerful as current-gen consoles (which is absurd, I’ll just leave it at that) and some even said that the most important part of E3 was actually Apple unveiling half-assed controller support in iOS 7 at WWDC. I talk a lot in the video about why this is largely meaningless (hence why not many outside of Apple fandom, which is sadly infecting the gaming press pretty hard too actually talked about it) and I won’t go over it all here. Suffice it to say, I think people give Apple way too much credit, as usual. Unfortunately, the “enthusiast” press tends to breed narratives among itself, largely a by-product of the fact that so many gaming web sites quote and link to stories from each other. That phenomena has created this ever-expanding doom and gloom sentiment and I always said it was going to take a big, significant event to snap them out of it. I think the excitement from people coming out of E3 backs up my case. There are still some (including some I otherwise respect) who will side with the excitement with their colleagues but when talking on their own, still don’t see the point to it all. To people in the “enthusiast” press who aren’t excited for this stuff, I have to ask why they are still there writing about this stuff if they’re not into it. The audience for gaming sites is into this stuff and wants to hear about it. If someone writing for that audience doesn’t share the sentiment, I think they should get out of the way and make room for people who do. If you truly think that tablets are the future of all games, go write about that for a tablet enthusiast site or maybe even start your own. Otherwise, you’re not serving your audience.
Those people aside though, I’ve largely seen a renewed sense of both hope and enthusiasm from most press outlets and gamers as a whole. People were tired of 7 year old consoles and variants on the same few games every year. There were certainly still a lot of guns and explosions at E3 this year but there was also a ton of new IP, new ideas and new game play methods. We saw Sony become humble and simultaneously vicious, we saw indies on stage at a major press conference, we saw cool new Wii U games that are finally coming (though Nintendo is still the press’ whipping boy because they always have to have one which I won’t talk about much here but go on a rant about in the video), we saw tons of open-world games with new concepts that look amazing, we have new console hardware coming this November, we saw one of the biggest companies in the world turn on a dime on a very significant issue. Perhaps most importantly, we saw an industry that is in dire straights and fighting an uphill battle say that they still believe triple-A experiences matter, that gamers want them and that dammit, they’re going to spend buckets of money and give us a ton of it in spades.
As someone who loves big games and wants to see more of them, I haven’t been this blown away by an E3 in years and I am incredibly excited for what’s coming this Fall. As I said above, I have a rather staggering amount of games and systems pre-ordered and I’m stoked for all of them. I’ve previously bemoaned how it felt like my type of gaming preferences were being left behind and how sad I was that the types of experiences I liked first and foremost seemed to be going away. At this E3, the industry reminded me that those experiences are still there, people are still very interested in making them and there’s a tidal wave of them incoming. Whether or not this wave also wipes out the industry has yet to be seen but I can say that this is one of the best times to be a gamer that there’s ever been, whether you’re into triple-A content, indie content or a mix of both like me. Only gamers can ultimately decide whether this stuff succeeds or fails. I hope they step up and make it succeed but we’ll see what happens when it all arrives. Either way, we’ve got an amazing year of gaming ahead. Brace yourselves, this is going to be a Hell of a ride!