E3 and the Future of Games
Thanks to the Internet we are able to receive updates about events almost instantly, and with sites like Kotaku, IGN, and Gamestop covering this year’s E3 live and providing hourly updates, I didn’t see any reason to do the same. By now what was presented at E3 is fairly common knowledge, so, unlike Kotaku, IGN, or Gamestop, I won’t only be listing what happened at E3. Instead, I will list (describe) the new products presented at E3 (I will focus on the press conferences) while making statements about the past, present, and possible future of gaming.
Let me start with what was presented. In the EA Press Conference, the publisher showed what they called a “new and improved” version of Madden in the form of Madden 2012, which looked exactly like Madden 2011. It seemed to me that EA simply improved on the graphics a bit, updated the player roster, and called it a new game. This is a practice that most sports game publishers – and publishers in general – are guilty of. But more on that later.
After Madden, EA presented The Sims Social, a Facebook-based Sims game. Given the capacity of browsers to produce graphics, I can only say that it’s about time – not because I’m a “sims fan”, I’m not, but because the design of The Sims seems to be ideal for a social, browser-based game. In the video they showed how players could chat with each other – I don’t know if this was real time chat or just regular chatting at a later time about the game, but if the actual Sims Social app allows players to chat in real time inside the app, especially with players who are in the same area, then EA has a winner. Once again, I do not like Sims games, but I can appreciate when something I don’t like is done right.
Afterwards they presented a new title called Kindoms of Amur: Reckoning. They called this a “first of its kind open world RPG”, but, based on what I saw, this “first of its kind” is nothing more than a Fable that takes itself too seriously. It could also be argued that it looked like a third person version of Oblivion, but whichever angle you take the fact remains the same: the game is not a “first of its kind”.
Reckoning was followed by some full motion video of what seems to be a cartoon-style first person shooter called Overstrike, but I can’t really say what kind of game it is as they didn’t show actual game footage. My comment that it might be an FPS is purely speculation based on the kind of video they showed.
EA completed their press conference with gameplay footage of Battlefield 3, an impressive looking first person shooter in the tradition of Modern Warfare, Battlefield, and other graphics-based first person shooters.
To say that EA had an unimpressive showing would be an understatement, but as lackluster as EA’s conference was, it would be unfair to say that they were the only ones with unimpressive content.
UbiSoft opened their press conference by showing footage of Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, a title that they stated had “revolutionary gameplay mechanics”. The game, however, appeared to be nothing more than a Gears of War remake with Modern Warfare skins. They then went to talk about the “gamification” of life. I should point out that I disagree with the merits of “gamification” and think that it’s an overrated term when it’s used in the appropriate way and in the correct contexts, as Jane McGoingal (who coined the concept) does, but I can at least understand why those who don’t know any better would want to rename practices that are already widely used . When people like UbiSoft start throwing the term around, it just becomes annoying. They talked about “the gamification of life” and showed an augmented reality (I use the term loosely) game – Raving Rabbits – where the console’s camera would capture the living room and the players would play whack-a-mole with rabbits “popping out” from the ground in the “augmented” living room on screen. They then suggested that Just Dance 3 is part of the “gamification” of life. They concluded this segment by showing Rocksmith, the more interesting of the Ubisoft titles. Following the tradition of true simulation, Rocksmith sets out to teach gamers how to play guitar. Including a real guitar as a controller, the game is the natural step-up from Guitar Hero. However, despite the concept, it’s still uncertain how gamers who want to play something will take to what seems to be more of an instructional / commercial title.
UbiSoft’s best showing was in the online department, not because of anything particularly innovative, but because of the variety. They showed Ghost Recon Online and a Trackmania remake. They also announced that they will take Trackmania’s “user generated content” concept (which originated in Little Big Planet for this console cycle) and apply it to FPSMania and Questmania. I can’t say I’m specially excited about any of them, but it’s good to know that if I ever get bored I can just make my own FPS and my own RPG… oh wait… I already have UDK and Blender… I guess these titles are geared towards the casual player.
Their showing of the new Assassin’s Creed was nothing more than fanservice – a movie featuring some FMV scenes of the game, a bit of gameplay identical to the previous Assassin’s Creed, and a release date.
The Microsoft press conference was just as unimpressive. With a showing of Gears of War 3, Halo 4, Halo Remastered, Mass Effect 3, and Tomb Raider, Microsoft showed that they were proud to re-release the same game over and over with little or no changes to gameplay and a different cover. They also had a showing of Kinetic games which included Kinetic Star Wars, a game that played just like Gears of War, their own version of Wii Sports, and a voice-activated Ghost Recon. To say that their gimmics-driven section was more innovative than their “hardcore gaming” section would not be an understatement, but the advancement in “innovation” was only due to the waggle controllers applied to the same game. This, I think, is not true innovation, as in order to advance motion control game design one needs to make innovative games that revolve around motion control, not simply apply motion to the latest Ghost Recon.
Sony didn’t fare any better. You know that a press conference will fail when the speaker begins with an apology. After saying “sorry” for storing consumer data on plain text and patting themselves on the back for giving PSN subscribers a free download of old games they already own, they went on to a fifteen minute long talk about “franchises” and “economy” – things that are out of place in E3.
All the while, I kept expecting giant enemy crabs.
They then presented Uncharted 3, which looked remarkably similar to Uncharted 2, Resistance 3, another generic FPS, and yet more remakes of God of War and the Ico / Shadow of the Colossus collection. That’s right, these games that were originally put out on PS2 and then re-released on PS3 are going to be re-re-released on 3D. You might wonder “but Johan, aren’t these games 3D? Weren’t they already 3D when they came out?” Yes, but they weren’t 3D! 3D. They were just 3D, so you need to go out and re-buy them. Their Infamous 2 was nothing more than Infamous 1 with a Little Big Planet “create your own mission” user created content option, which I’m starting to think means developers got lazy, and Bioshock Infinite looked interesting only because of the aesthetics it employed.
Sony also showed a number of PSMove games, some of which should not have been made (like NBA 2k11 Move), and (at least) showed some titles that piqued my interest – namely Dust 514, an FPS that will take place in the same servers, in the same world, and at the same time as the space MMO EVE Online, and a new Sly Cooper. I understand that it may seem a bit hypocritical for me to label the Halos, Battlefields, and Resistances as nothing more than Unreal clones with new skins and then say I’m interested in an FPS, but, to be honest, I’m not interested in the game Dust 514 itself as much as I am interested in seeing how the developers will make an FPS play simultaneously in the same world as EVE Online. In other words, it’s not so much the game as the networking of the game.
Despite their failed games section, Sony did have a solid showing when it came to hardware. They presented a 24 inch 3D display TV specially designed for the PS3 that came with glasses, an HDMI cable, and some FPS, all for 500$. The most important feature of this TV was that it will be able to allow two players in the same living room to “play split screen games without playing split screen”. The TV will project both images simultaneously, and based on which glasses the player has they will see one of the two images.
They also announced that the PSP2 will be called the VITA and that AT&T will be the only carrier for wireless access. When Sony said this, people booed.
Nintendo, I think, had the best press conference in all E3. I admit, it’s likely nostalgia talking, but the Wii U had graphics rivaling, and perhaps surpassing, those of the PS3, and it had several PS3-ish titles announced for it, like Batman Arkahm City, Darksiders 2, and Ghost Recon. In addition, it will, of course, have what makes Nintendo Nintendo: Mario, Zelda, Star Fox, Kirby, and so on. I do feel that the 3DS had a better lineup than any other system. With Super Mario 3DS (and the return of the Tanuki suit), Kid Icarus Uprising, Ace Combat 3D, and Excitebike 3D, Nintendo promises to once again dominate the portable gaming market.
So, what does all this crap say about the current and possible future state of gaming? Sadly, it means that innovation is dying. Most, if not all, of the games shown fall into one of the following categories: Gears of War clone, God of War clone, Unreal clone, or waggle-motion gimmick game. I’ve gotten into a debate with a friend of mine regarding the merits of waggle controls versus those of generic GoW Unreal clones with no one quite being the victor. There is one thing we both can agree on, however: we miss the days when real innovation drove the industry. With a very few exceptions, gone are the days when a carefully thought out plot with thought-provoking situations and deep, meaningful, or unique characters sold the game. Gone are the days when innovative game mechanics were commonplace. Persona’s character interaction system, Grandia’s battle system, Chrono Trigger’s complex narratives, and (the original) Silent Hill’s chill-inducing environment have been replaced with a competition of HD waggle measuring where the key slogan seems to be “my HD is more HD than yours and waggles better”. This does not mean that HD or innovative controllers are necessarily a bad thing. We all must agree that a game as serious as Fallout 3 would fail if done with doom-like sprites, and Heavy Rain’s motion controls helped to give a real sense of urgency to a thrilling narrative with deep, meaningful characters and excellent sound. Without HD graphics, Fallout 3 would be Doom, and without motion controls Heavy Rain would not be the cohesive work of art that it is. However, a bit more HD in your battlefield will not make Modern Warfare any better, and adding waggle voice gimmicks to Ghost Recon will not make it a better title. It’s sad, because gaming innovation is in danger of altogether ending. So yeah…. There you go…
 Gamification – a highly overrated topic. Jane McGoingal spoke of “gamifying life” by giving people “tasks” to gain experience that is recorded on some platform – perhaps through their iPhone – and receive “rewards” after completing a certain amount of points. The concept is big on marketing – go to a subway, find a message and a puzzle, decipher it, send the answer to X service, get a discount at X store. More recently, Daniel Floyd suggested “gamifying education”, where he suggested that we change the grading system into an RPG-like summative experience points system. As “wow”ing as that sounds, what this means is basically keeping the exact same system of summative assessment that has been used since the late 1990s, replace A,B,C,D, and F with Level 5, Level 4, Level 3, Level 2, and Level 1, replacing the word “pass” in the report card with “win”, and adding the word “experience” before the word “points” in quizzes and tests. Thus, people who don’t know any better (about contemporary educational practices) trying to re-label things.