E3 Review: Industry plays it safe

Michael French
E3 Review: Industry plays it safe

This year’s big LA show had the highest quality line-up ever seen at our annual trade event, says Michael French, but the best games were also me-too games, and the biggest announcements only addressed bigger broken promises

Straight from the Games Journalist Book of Clichés Vol 2, I must begin my annual E3 review piece with the question ‘Who won E3?’

But the only reason I use the clichés is because this year there’s a twist: no one ‘won’.

Companies like Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft, EA and Ubisoft were simply too busy competing with… themselves.

Forget the Modern Warfare vs Battlefield bombast. This was not really a year of publishers going head-to-head. No competing strategies for new controllers or new devices. It was a year of entrenchment, with eerily familiar products addressing old claims, settling grievances created by E3s past, and recapturing former glories. Innovation? This was hardly the show for that, as proven by the run of pre-show press conferences before anyone got to step on the showfloor.

RE-KINECTING
Microsoft’s Xbox showcase has become the week-opening event for E3. Rightly so for a company that has defined ‘spending big to make it big’ in games, and more importantly done that and won. Its E3 press conference was, typically, full of strong games. But two were the third iteration in blockbuster series (Gears of War, Modern Warfare), one a reboot of an old franchise (Tomb Raider) and yet another racing sequel (Forza 4). All were emblematic of a theme running through the event, from press conference to showfloor: this E3 was one about showing you what you already knew. Surprises were scarce.

The rest of Microsoft’s offering was a dollop of Kinect titles. All tasty, but nevertheless more intent to not outline the peripheral’s future potential, but validate its past. Kinect Star Wars, Fable: The Journey and Fun Labs, plus subtler motion/voice control in third-party games, all proved that the showy, questionable ambitious 2009 ‘Project Natal’ demo was no lie. Immersive experiences, finger tracking, object scanning, voice control; that was all part of the original pitch, remember? For Microsoft last week was, to all intents and purposes, a move to address and make real wild claims from two years ago.

Good for them, of course, and good for players, but the big Kinect strides and wow moments came from Microsoft Game Studios’ commissions, not third-parties; and the firm didn’t seem interested in updating that ‘10m units sold’ claim for the device, either. In the context of innovation, it appeared to be more a format-holder on the backfoot, settling old scores, not looking ahead.

Nevertheless, it ended on a typical Microsoft note. Xbox chief Don Mattrick said 360 “will go from being the number one selling console in North America to the number one selling console globally”. Even if we’d seen it all before, its mix of core and family games seem likely to give it an edge this Christmas to achieve that aim.

REVITALISED
Sony, meanwhile, also demoed a parade of sequels and franchise revivals, plus detailed at length the many great things about its own hardware. These were chiefly 3D gaming, PlayStation Move and PS Vita, the final name for NGP.

All of them were solid when they weren’t spectacular. Uncharted 3 wowed the same way Uncharted 2 did in 2009 (even if it was another of the ‘part three of a trilogy’ titles that could be found everywhere on the showfloor).

News that Move has found 8.8m owners in less than a year was also impressive (remember, Microsoft didn’t update that Kinect number), as was the proprietary 3DTV that will be released under the PlayStation label. But then again what does it say about 3D games content when Sony has to release their own bargain (and I should add: from my demo, very well made) 3DTV to entice use?

Vita, meanwhile, was a show-stealer. It’s one of the most accomplished games devices ever produced. All the software for it legitimised its many, many diverse capabilities, and even validated its more questionable ones. Turns out that the unlikely-placed rear touchscreen is a stroke of genius. And for £229, it’s a steal (although maybe I would say that, I paid £500 for an import PSP).

That said, everything about Vita seems designed to address all the many problems – including a cultural glass ceiling in the West – faced by its predecessor, the PSP. “We think there’s plenty more life left in PSP,” defended PlayStation boss Kaz Hirai. But if that’s the case why name its successor with a word that very literally means ‘life’, as if you’re Frankensteining a category back to life before our very eyes? Signs are good this lazarus trick will be achieved, but the irony’s there if you want to find it.

WII REVISITED
There was no shortage of irony on Nintendo’s stage the next day, either.

We’d known for weeks that this would be the place to get the first real look at a new Nintendo console. But when it came to the crunch, confusion reigned. Was it a new controller, or a new console? It’s both.

Wii U is a console that, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata said, will ‘change games’ by “making titles that appeal to everyone”. That, er, was the pitch for the Wii back in 2006, but by ‘everyone’ Iwata now means ‘every third-party’. And they have flocked back, encouraged by Nintendo’s willingness to correct a past perceived mistake, that the the hardcore market is lost to things like Wii and DS.

Wii U itself is a graceful piece of kit, the classic Nintendo surprise coupled with a genuine reaction to the disruption in its kingdom; not the mushroom one, the living room, where family activity is being eroded by distracting multi-screen play and ‘event’ reality TV. Questions remain as to whether Wii U’s arrival some time next year will be quick enough to stem a flood of users moving to increasingly game-centric non-game platforms, but conceptually it is near-perfect.

Yet it’s a machine, like 3DS, with total continuity to its predecessor. The name says as much. Because Nintendo just won’t (and who would?) move on from the glories Wii once had. Cutting ties with the past generation, as the company did in the four gaps between its other consoles, just isn’t an option here.

FORMER GLORIES
So Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft were, one and all, fixated on the things that haunt them. Total demon-exorcising self-involvement, but thankfully one that benefits retailers and publishers.

Similar themes can be spotted at the two third-party pre-show conferences from Ubisoft and EA.

For Ubisoft, Assassins Creed Revelations simply has to outdo Brotherhood, Just Dance 3 must trump Just Dance 2 and prove the genre isn’t a flash-in-the-pan, Rayman is expected to re-establish a 10-year-old franchise which most of us had thought had transitioned into Rabbids.

Elsewhere, Ghost Recon stepping out beyond console into adjoining free-to-play PC, Facebook and mobile spin offs – all of which are linked in clever ways – is another crack at the ‘social wrapper’ gimmick Ubi pioneered with Uplay but which hasn’t caught on.

(It’ll be interesting to see if EA’s similar Origin – references to which it Origin shoehorned Orgin into Origin every one of its E3 demos – will do better.)

Even Tintin felt like it wants to shrug off the heavy weight of year after year of playable if not deeply commercial movie adaptations like King Kong, Beowulf and Avatar.

And EA? Its many sequels and updates were all about one-upmanship for former glories or failures.

Battlefield 3 is being pitched as a Modern Warfare 3 rival not just because it is excellent, but because Medal of Honor misfired last year; Mass Effect 3 stole the show, but is being pitched as a ‘perfect starting point’ for new fans – this, the third part of a sci-fi saga; Need For Speed operates on a scale of perpetual reinvention now where previous games’ god honest good ideas are ditched for new ones for the sake of it; and the more we see The Old Republic the more it is apparent this is a well-made retort to WoW’s grip on the market.

One of EA’s few original games, Overstrike from  developer Insomniac published via EA Partners, was funny and memorable. But it has probably the most generically derivative name for a video game since 2004’s Men of Valor, presumably in an attempt to remind everyone that EA has, more than most, successfully courted the mass market young male gamer audience our industry built its business on.

REPEATED HISTORY
So: much of last week’s key software was high-quality and eye-catching, if unoriginal. Meanwhile the hardware was pitched to balance the scales – legitimise Kinect, course-correct PSP, prove the life of Wii.

Is unoriginality a crime? Nope. Is it wrong for the format-holders to validate their hardware? Nope. In all, the sheer bounty of games and hardware on show meant E3 was, more than ever, a retailer’s paradise.

But this sameyness of ideas and tone – 10 of the top games were similar-looking shooters – plus the widespread bid to re-engage or lock-in core gamers, should be interpreted as big a warning sign as it is a testament to the industry’s abilities.

Just take the number of remakes and revamps that filled out the list of new games on show. We saw as many HD games replaying past achievements from PS2 and earlier as we did new Q4 releases.

Sony re-confirmed that the Shadow of the Colossus and Ico releases were due for PS3, and in 3D no less, with more re-releases of classic God of War games on the way (this time in 3D, natch), while BioShock is released free to PS3 buyers of sequel Infinite.

Nintendo revelled in the original Game Boy Zelda coming to 3DS, plus Four Swords arriving revamped and free for all 3DS and DSi owners later on (in fact Nintendo’s software line-up for the most part has always been the same set of ideas refined and repeated –this is its business model).

Microsoft’s been doing it to, spending the last five years encouraging countless remakes for XBLA, and this year announcing a port of PC indie hit Minecraft before the coup de grace: Halo, remade and re-released to celebrate a 10th birthday.

All of that is the very definition of money for old rope. You couldn’t sum up E3 2011 better.

Thankfully, there are a lot of very, very good games due this year and the next. Pretty much every game – original or remake – I mention above is of a level of polish hitherto unforeseen by this business. And ones I’ve not mentioned yet – Batman: Arkham City, Saints Row, Mario & Sonic, Skyrim and many more – are destined to be hits, too.

But this industry really needs more games as original as those which spawned these franchises or which feature in the HD remake packs. They need to be commissioned. They need to be showcased at the next E3s and put to market quickly, because publishers, developers and third-parties are going to run out of good games to resurrect and tart up. Blinx HD or Driv3r HD, that’s not an option. We need new stuff as well as the glut of quality franchise stuff.

I know there’s a contradiction here. As Nintendo America boss Reggie Fils-Aime put it “you want what you’ve always wanted, but you want something new. You want comfortable and surprise”. His tone was a little mocking of the tricky gulf between the core fans and the new ones Nintendo and the industry have attracted. But this was the truest statement spoken at the show.

I didn’t leave E3 questioning the games industry’s ability to engage and entertain in the here and now, the fixation with the past certainly left me wondering where it will go in future. Because there weren’t many answers on the showfloor.

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