E3 2011 Thoughts

So, even though I don’t think anybody knows this site exists, I figured I would post some thoughts about this year’s E3 expo, the game industry’s annual trade show.

On the whole, it seemed like a very sedated show.  Even just 5 or 6 years ago, there was a real, palpable sense of excitement post-E3 that propelled the industry forward through the long, barren summer months ahead.  Sure, you may have to suffer through both unbearable heat and cynically produced licensed dreck, seeping from the glistening fat folds of the bloated Hollywood industrial complex, but fall promised a cleansing bounty of “gamer’s games”, appointment games.

But nowadays, and this year in particular,  E3 suffers from an amazing dearth of surprise and excitement.  There are plenty of causes: an expansive gaming media/blogosphere/Twittersphere that almost completely negate the possibility of “surprise announcements”, a significant shift in recent years away from publishers dog-piling everything worth playing into the 3 month span between late August and Black Friday in November, with big budget “Triple A” games from name brand developers popping up at every time of the year, and perhaps most importantly, a shift for the big 3 console manufacturers away from “gamer’s games”, with their big conferences focusing as much if not more on stuff with broad appeal (motion games, peripherals) and more general non-gaming content updates (media streaming, social networking, etc.).

To put it more succinctly, gaming has become big business, where every financial quarter matters, and E3 reflects this, moving away from being a direct appeal to the enthusiasts and becoming more a general status report for stockholders and mainstream media.  It’s understandable, and even reasonable, but it becomes an issue when gamers still imbue the event with the gravitas of being THE gaming culture event of the year, something meant to excite and inspire us instead of simply telling us “Things are going A-OK!”.

Gaming is changing.  Expanding, growing, branching out from a centralized, easily-definable base, and that’s ultimately a good thing.  It’s time that our perception of E3 changes along with it.

Nothing highlights this better than the rather tepid response to Nintendo’s new “Wii U” console, though ironically enough, even the business world seems turned off by the reveal. Everybody knew it was coming, as pretty much all of the significant details of the system (HD output, tablet-like controller, coming in 2012) were leaked months ago, and Nintendo failed to add any truly compelling twist to the formula, falling back on their odd, decade long fascination with dual-screen gaming (started back in 2002 with Gamecube/GBA connectivity, executed more successfully with the DS, but never really standing out as a necessary feature in and of itself).  An E3 console reveal is supposed to be a “BIG FUCKING DEAL”, caps intended, but this year it felt more perfunctory than revolutionary.

Even Sony fleshing out the details of it’s new Vita handheld failed to get temperatures rising, it seems.  It comes across as PSP2: unfathomably sexy hardware, again promising “console gaming on a handheld”, but failing to realize that “console gaming on a handheld” is a lot like cost cutting social services to lower the deficit: people like the idea but recoil when presented with the realities of it.  With the rise of smartphones and the iOS and Android platforms over the last 5 years, the very idea of a dedicated gaming handheld, having to pay $30+ for games and carrying around physical media to play them, seems sort of quaint.  Plus, sexy hardware today is going to have trouble keeping up with the exponential processing power growth of the smartphone market.  It’s feasible, and likely, that iPhones 2 or 3 years from now will make the Vita look like a Gamegear, and still sell for less money when bundled with a wireless service contract.

But enough rambling.  I need to rest up for marathon sessions this weekend of Acclaim’s awesome new Mister Popper’s Penguins game, followed up by a playthrough of Midway’s treatment of Bad Teacher.

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