VERDICT: E3 2011

New hardware, new games, flashing lights, corporate big knobs and lots of excited yet excruciatingly tired journalists. It’s E3 as we know it and 2011 ticked all of the boxes.

But now that the curtains are being drawn on this year’s event, what impression has been left? To my mind a very clear and simply one: Core gaming is back in fashion.

Somewhat irritatingly, when posting up Michael French’s E3 review on the site this morning I noticed that he has come to the same conclusion. Where we do differ, however, is our hypothesis as to why we’ve seen this strategic shift.

Ever since the arrival of the DS we’ve seen a sea change in the traditional console sector. Platform holders have been fighting hand over foot to tap into what has been the massive success of both the WIi and DS.

We’ve seen the successful global launch of Kinect, the arrival of a PlayStation motion controller and a host of titles designed to place the games console at the heart of the living room.

However, in the last year we’ve seen something else. Wii sales have collapsed. DS has lost its momentum. And its successor, the 3DS, has yet to spark any fires at retail.

There are a number of possible reasons for this but here’s my guess as to why that has happened – the casual gamer.

Not that there’s anything wrong with casual gamers. They are a huge market and will only become more important. But they’re also easily swayed. They may have received a Wii on their birthday, lost 10lbs on Wii Fit and played Wii Sports bowling to death, but then the last series of Big Brother started and they started watching that instead.

Then, of course, there’s the back garden that needed repaving. Oh, and that new novel from Kathryn Stockett is a must read. And I MUST get around to watching that Lost boxset.

That’s the thing with casual gamers. They are only casually into games. Getting 200 quid out of them for a console isn’t so tough. But do you reckon you can get a further 200 of games out of them? Good luck with that.

The casual gamer is far more likely to spend two hours ploughing fields in Farmville or trying to beat their mate’s score on Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook than hooking up a console and taking over the entire front room. After all, the kids are watching Peppa Pig and mum’s doing the ironing.

That’s where the future of casual gaming is. Browsers, social networks, smartphones.

This is where Michael and I disagree. "In these austere times, the industry goes back to basics," he writes. I counter, however, that having realised the true nature of the casual market publishers have returned to the people they can rely on – hardcore gamers.

These are the people who will queue up in the rain and cold (and in the UK, the snow!) to get the latest big release at midnight. Yes, a whole nine hours before they could have got it if they had chosen to spend the night in their warm and comfortable beds.

These lot will endlessly discuss which online retailer will get new games to them at the earliest possible opportunity. They’ll pre-order 150 Special Editions and if that doesn’t turn up on day one they’ll go and buy it from Tesco anyway and just trade that copy in at a later date.

They’ll drop 180 on a new version of a console because it’s a slightly different colour. Or has a different spec internal DVD drive. They’ll re-buy a game they’re previously traded-in just because they fancy it. They will defend your brand TO THE DEATH.

The hardcore gamer is one of the most dedicated consumers in the world. It’s no wonder that publishers are returning to them.

And that’s what E3 2011 was all about. The Vita is any hardcore gamer’s portable dream and Sony’s entire line-up was like an ode to everything a core gamer represents.

And how many times did Reggie use the word "gamers" in Nintendo’s E3 conference? Have you ever seen Iwata so keen to stress that as well as remaining accessible, his latest piece of hardware is also for the core Nintendo market. That’s the market that has been crying betrayal for the last five years.

The one exception to this is Microsoft. Now, I’ve been criticised a little for claiming in my Microsoft E3 Press Conference opinion piece that the most notable thing about the show was the increased family-focus.

And yes, it’s true that a large chunk of the presentation was reserved for highlighting all the core brands coming to Kinect – FIFA, Mass Effect, Tom Clancy, Fable. And in addition to that, Halo. Halo Halo Halo.

But what’s the enduring image for me of that 90 minute slot? THAT woman holding THAT blue cuddly toy.

And I would question how pleased core gamers are with the swathe of core titles introducing Kinect support. Do you think Mass Effect’s adoring legions have been preying before bed at night for BioWare to somehow introduce some element of voice or motion control into the next game? Did anyone not wince at that Fable: The Journey demo?

In what is in all honesty a quite amazing transformation, the most hardcore brand of them all now finds itself standing somewhat alone. Kinect has been a great success out of the blocks. The question now is has it got the stamina and in which markets will it prosper?

That’s one conclusion.

Anyone who knows me well will know that I’m a pragmatist. And perhaps while I don’t subscribe to this second verdict I’m about to offer, I’m also open to the idea.

Perhaps Nintendo was right.

Right in its belief in that opening up console gaming to a wider audience it has in fact created a brand new generation of core gamers. Perhaps that’s why Xbox 360 sales continue to rocket year-on-year and why both Xbox 360 and PS3 sales are up year-to-date so far in the UK in 2011.

Perhaps all these people still buying Xbox 360 over a half a decade after its launch are Wii owners who tried a bit of Wii Fit and Super Mario Kart and have graduated into "proper" gaming.

Perhaps the console sector’s flirtation with the mass market has been more than a lucrative but temporary experiment. Perhaps, in fact, it was was a vital step in keeping the core market alive that has resulted in a bigger, better and healthier core market than we’ve ever had before.


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