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OPINION: E3 2010 analysis

Ben Parfitt
OPINION: E3 2010 analysis

It’s the first question that’s asked the very moment the curtains fall of the last of the platform holder E3 conferences – who won? It’s a nonsense. Anyone of sane mind knows it’s a nonsense.

But it’s not a completely worthless question. By asking ‘who won’ what you’re effectively asking is ‘who impressed the most’. And considering that E3 is all about setting out your stall for the year ahead – exciting retail partners, convincing analysts, getting journalists to believe in you – to ask who put on the most impressive show is a valid enquiry.

E3 2009 was notable, I would argue, for three main reasons. Firstly, the mauling that Nintendo received in its aftermath. The company's core following – the most faithful in gaming – were outraged by what it saw as Nintendo turning its back on them. The announcement of New Super Mario Bros and a new Metroid was nowhere near enough to offset the apparent hurt caused by Vitality Sensor and casual titles like Wii Fit Plus.

On the other hand, Microsoft’s surprise reveal of Natal sent the industry into meltdown. Peter Molyneux’s Milo was truly unlike anything we’d seen before. By contrast, Sony’s motion controller had been seen before by anyone who’d played a Wii.

In my analysis last year I went as far as to claim: “As expected, Sony revealed a very me-too answer to Nintendo’s WiiMote, and whilst it technologically looked impressive it was blown out of the water by Microsoft’s Natal camera technology – an advancement some are claiming will change not just gaming but the way we all interface with technology.”

It was called a Microsoft win. I’ll just say that Microsoft was the most impressive performer. But that was 12 months ago.

In the interim many things have changed. Nintendo still leads the pack, but year-on-year sales are down. It might have successfully tapped into the mass-market but there’s a problem with the mass market. The mass market now likes games, but it also likes movies. And eating out. And going to the cinema, decorating the bathroom, setting up the BBQ in the garden when the sun comes out and watching Britain’s Got Talent. The amount of money put aside for gaming is minimal. A Wii, an extra controller, Wii Fit, one of those Mario games and something from the £5 or less shelf. That’ll do.

Natal, meanwhile, has suffered a quite startling fall from grace. As impressive as Milo was, repeated reports have questioned the reliability and accuracy of the technology. And where are the games? No, not mini-games, silly. 'Real' games. Proper, shooting games. Big brands that you see on TV. The games that your son wants you to buy but you won’t get him because he’s only 11 but he then plays around his mate Jeff’s house anyway as his mum never pays any attention to age ratings.

That’s not all that has been asked of Natal, either. The idea of having your Xbox recognise you when you walk in the room is great, as is the chance to control it by simply telling it what to do. But can you really play a first person shooter without a trigger to pull?

Sony’s fortunes, in contrast, have been on an upwards trend. People are at last buying PS3s! Loads of people. Admittedly, Sony wishes just a few of them would buy a PSP as well but you can’t have it all. And Move has grown from being seen as a WiiMote clone to something very much more. Technically its hugely impressive, but Sony’s cleverest move is in its software support. Yes, we know it does mini-games – the Sports Champions box is ticked. But it also does ‘proper’ games. SOCOM, LBP, Resident Evil 5, The Fight, Heavy Rain, Tiger Woods

Leading up to E3 2010 a poll on the MCV site asking “Which of the Big Three will perform best at E3?” saw 40 per cent of the vote fall to Microsoft, 38 per cent to Sony and 23 per cent to Nintendo. Last week I probably would have agreed with them.

Now, however, I think the MCV readership got it completely wrong.

We knew 3DS was coming, but Nintendo’s reveal of the new handheld and, more importantly, the really quite astonishing software line-up announced for it was most definitely the defining moment of E3 to date. How Nintendo has convinced publishers to garnish the machine with such an embarrassment of software riches in light of how badly third party publishers have fared on DS I don’t know. But it has.

Perhaps it’s the fact that the machine is genuinely something new. It’s not a Slim-med down version of an existing machine, it’s not the same as we’ve seen before with ten times the memory and a hundred times the processing power. It’s 3D – the technological buzzword of the moment – in your hand. We don’t know how much it will cost, but you’re looking at £200 tops. £230 at an absolute push. That’s for a 3D console that doesn’t require stupid, expensive glasses.

The most striking thing about Nintendo’s E3 performance was how much it was clearly shaped by the backlash dished out after recent showa. The evil, nasty, mindless mass-market baiting Vitality Sensor wasn’t even mentioned. In its place we got a new entry in the Donkey Kong Country series, a new Kirby that doesn’t look shit, the return of Kid Icarus and, hold your breath, a brand new Zelda game (that didn’t work very well on stage, but we’ll believe in the ‘technical goblins’ for the time being). Even fan-favourite GoldenEye is being dug up to appease the faithful.

It was a very impressive display.

Sony could have stolen the show, however, were it not so stubborn in its insistence to keep backing the failing, hated, piracy-crippled, Japanese chart topping and still consistently selling PSP. The PSPgo was hardly anywhere to be seen – Sony admits that has been a big mistake – but it still very much believes that there’s life yet in the old dog yet. About three months worth, to be precise, as that’s when Sony will announce the PSP 2 at the Tokyo Game Show… I think.

As it stands, a launch date and price for Move was a great show stopper, particularly as Sony has priced the device so competitively. There were more aces up the sleeve, however. The appearance of Gabe Newell and his declaration of love for PS3 was as targeted a piece of PR as you can possibly imagine, and the appearance of Portal 2 on PS3 is a real coup – though not as big a coup as the confirmation that some elements of Steam functionality will be available on Sony’s console. Steam on PS3? Not quite yet, but give it 18-24 months…

On top of that we got a release date for Gran Turismo 5. Yes, really, a release date. Really. Will it slip? Don’t be daft. There’s no way it could slip. I’m almost completely certain it won’t slip. An early 2011 release date in Europe is comprehensively, definitely, conclusively out of the question.

Never, ever quote me on that.

PSN Plus gives the Xbots something to pick on, which is very kind of Sony. Then there were exclusive content deals for two very big games – Medal of Honor and Dead Space 2. To see EA getting into bed with Sony is all the more notable considering Activision’s current Call of Duty love-in with Microsoft. Will those two ever stop bickering?

And that doesn’t even touch on 3D. I’d say that feelings toward 3D amongst the wider games industry remain sceptical. Those who have experienced the technology first hand are almost unanimous in their praise, one or two headache or wonky-eye quibbles aside. That the technology has a far wider scope for effectiveness in gaming than it does in either TV or movies is beyond doubt.

But cost remains a big problem. Yes, I know HD TV took off eventually but I got my HD TV fairly early on in the HD revolution and it only set me back £700. A 3D TV and spare pair of glasses would today set me back not far off £2000. And on that point – glasses. I still can’t see a technology that requires the user to wear a bulky pair of specs (in my case, over the top of my normal glasses) to ever really succeed. Particularly when the glasses cost close to £100 a shot. I hear come 2015 we’ll have glasses-free 3D TVs. Ask me about 3D TV then and I reckon I will have finally bought into the hype.

Nonetheless, Sony’s drive in this sector is admirable. The list of games supporting 3D is tremendous and that non-3D PS3s can be made into 3D machines by simply plugging them into a telephone line is hugely impressive. If I’m wrong and 3D does take off then Sony is primed and ready to lead the charge. If not, then Sony has sold a few extra machines to those few thousand early adopters who’d drop £4000 on a shiny turd if it was imported from Japan.

And that leaves Microsoft. In compiling this article I made a list of the key announcements made at each of the three platform holder conferences. The Microsoft list was the longest. Yet my feeling, and judging by the comments of others the reaction of many, was that Microsoft made the least impact this year.

On the face of it there was plenty to see. A brand new exclusive game from Crytek (the current hardcore motherfuckers of leading-edge console tech), a very exciting looking ESPN content deal that will be free to Gold subscribers in America and on-stage demos of some big titles – Gears of War 3 and Halo Reach. You can add to that list a potentially very important timed exclusivity agreement on all Call of Duty DLC until 2012.

Then, of course, there was the Xbox 360 S. It’s the first time Microsoft has refreshed one of its consoles, and it has done a great job. Smaller, more USB ports, apparently whisper quiet and looks reminiscent of KIT from Knight Rider – and all at the same price of the current Elite unit. Though the surprise was somewhat tarnished by a leak the night before, the announcement that the machine was already on its way to US retail was brilliant. Very Apple.

The biggest news of all, though, was Kinect. At least that was the biggest news from Microsoft’s perspective.

Let’s not debate the name. I’m not a big believer in the importance of names. Brands, yes, but names? Nah. Wii is a great brand, but the name? Don’t forget – it means piss. But it’s great despite that. Bizarre.

At the very least Microsoft’s slick on-stage Kinect demo should have alleviated some of the concerns regarding its rumoured limitations and failings. It was certainly a smooth display. But for months we’ve been dying to see some software and even now when we’ve seen some software, well, it still kind of feels like we haven’t seen any software.

Yes, Metal Gear Solid Rising support is interesting, as is the heavy integration with Forza 4 (yes, it is Forza 4 – Microsoft’s ambiguous presentation left us wondering whether it was an upgrade to Forza 3) and the Star Wars demo would have been massive news had it not been clearly fake. I’ll tell you one thing – unless that game ships with some sort of lightsaber game it will fail. Holding thin air a Jedi does not make.

Even the news of a Kinect US launch date was sullied by the continued lack of price confirmation. All that does is make us think it’s going to be expensive. And when is it coming out in Europe? Why only give the US date? These are the scuffs that dulled what could and should have been an otherwise polished performance.

The biggest question of all, though, is what’s next for Microsoft. While Sony was happy to announce new updates to its biggest brands and some brand new IP, all we got from Microsoft was the Predictable Threesome – Halo, Fable, Gears. What comes next? More Halo? More Fable? More Gears? As big as those franchises are, nothing lasts forever. And while a Move-enabled SOCOM is totally plausible, can you see Halo embracing Kinect?

Microsoft’s unashamed pursuit of the casual audience, though inevitable, was quite startling in its nature. And potentially dangerous. PlayStation has enjoyed wide brand recognition from the word go and Nintendo’s treasure-chest of cute cuddly mascots was a natural fit for a wider audience long before the Wii or DS were even thought of.

But Microsoft’s bread and butter is the hardcore gamer.

To date every foray it has made into the casual market – Lips, You’re In The Movies, Scene It – has fallen completely flat. The driving force behind its hurdling of Sony into second place in the console market has been driven by the brilliance with which it has served the hardcore audience. While there’s nothing wrong in principle with its quest to capture the casual market, if it harms its hardcore credentials in the process things will suddenly start looking very shaky.

Quite how Microsoft managed leave E3 2010 in this position I can’t fathom. I just hope for its sake that the strategy it has outlined is spot on. In a world where Microsoft faces competition from the likes of Apple and Google in the most core of its markets, Bill Gates’ willingness to bankroll a third attempt at video gaming dominance may not be quite what it once was.

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