E3 Rant

So another E3 has come and gone and for a lot of younger gamers, this may very well be the worst one they’ve ever experienced.

It was clearly a transitional year, as both Sony and Microsoft shore up their hardware, software and marketing resources to usher in the next generation of consoles, while Nintendo debuted their own new machine. It was, like some E3s before it, a year in which some new things were shown, but nothing shocking, and certainly not in the great numbers of revelations of past years, when a console generation is going strong. Instead, this E3 sent one clear message to the gamers; for 2012, we are winding DOWN.

It’s a natural thing. Developers—particularly first party ones—are dividing their resources now. They are dealing with new technology, coming to grips with it, exploring the potential, and finally applying that to new engines and finally the laborious task of conceptualizing and producing a brand new game. This is all in addition to their ongoing commitment—if they have the resources—to the current console and those last few titles of the twilight years that truly see the hardware at its best now that all its power has been understood and unlocked. Studios like Naughty Dog and 343 Industries are in this situation, both of them being stewards to swan song titles for both the PS3 and Xbox 360, while undoubtedly cutting their teeth on the new hardware their publishers are have put in their hands. It’s a difficult time, even for studios as large and heavily favored as the Naughty Dog and 343. It’s even harder when you’re talking about smaller studios without massive teams or funding, such as Factor 5, a company that bet the farm in 2007 on the PS3 exclusive Lair, only to have the spectacular failure of that game lead to closure of their entire studio.
This transition period is both an exciting and a scary time for developers. If they don’t have the luxury of working on both a current generation AND next generation console the way top tier studios do, they must now choose. Do they continue to do their best work on systems that are going to be irrelevant in another couple of years? Or do they take a chance on the massive amounts of time for R & D required, possibly upping the risk even more by trying to stake a claim to a new franchise as BioWare did with Mass Effect?

watch-dogs-gameOn the other hand, we also see that the “end times” for consoles can also free up developers to experiment with some interesting concepts. This year’s E3 saw a few pleasant surprises here and there, most notably from Ubisoft, the publisher that many are now saying “won” E3. Watch Dogs is the upset here, a brand new title and concept that no one was expecting, combining the now standard cover-based shooting mechanics of conventional 3rd person action games with a unique ability to hack into any nearby device and manipulate it for various effects. Dishonored, by Arkane Studios, takes the Deus Ex and Thief experience of its crew and puts that sense of lethal speculation into a steampunk-esque setting with cops on mechanized stilts. Unfinished Swan, by Giant Sparrow is another example of a game that doesn’t push boundaries, it makes them invisible, asking the player to fill in the forms by throwing paint around a white void to see what takes shape.
And finally there was the Wii U, and what can really be said about it? As with previous Nintendo ventures, I am skeptical. I don’t know who the audience is for the new controller, and I’m not sure the casuals or the hardcore will really find it all that compelling. But then I was wrong about the chances of success for the DS and the Wii, so I’m reluctant to pronounce the Wii U as a failure when the casual audiences have proven me reliably wrong about such matters.

It was not the best of E3s, but neither was it the worst, though people whose memories don’t stretch back to 17 years of past E3s may not remember the far less accomplished, less polished affairs of the 90s. I wouldn’t say this was the worst E3 ever, but perhaps it was the least ambitious.