Last week, I dusted off my crystal ball and took a long, hard look at the future of gaming. This week, I'm doing it again, because the remainder of Time As We Know It is sort of a lot of ground to cover. On the docket this time around? Everything from games that may actually justify forging your own Dream Machine with parts from the Heavens to the industry's continued, none-too-pretty war against the hacker menace. Read the full thing after the break!
Now: Battlefield 3. Metro: Last Light. Far Cry 3. Those are the names of major triple-A releases that are eschewing the conventional “all PC gamers are pirates and also probably horrible racists” mantra in favor of a PC-first mentality. Sure, it's not much, but it's a start.
The Forecast: Slowly but surely, major developers are beginning to take interest in our humble (read: greatest) platform in the world again. Why? Oh goodness, let me count the ways. I mean, they've got tons of potential – and now well-tested – business models to work with, for one. Gaming is, after all, a business foremost and when a green pasture presents itself, your “???” suddenly transforms into “profit.”
Also, there's the matter of showcase potential. Modern top-of-the-line PCs are experimental hotrods to consoles' cars from The Flintstones, and there's no better way to wow a crowd than by aiming for the top. Plus, with new consoles just beyond the horizon, PC is the perfect testbed for new development techniques. No, PC's not suddenly going to become every triple-A title's lead platform again, but a modest crop of new benchmark bench-pressers is definitely on the way.
Toss in indie overnight success stories like Minecraft, Amneisa, and Terraria, and you've got a platform that sends a very clear message: thar's gold in them thar hills. Or, translated out of cartoon prospector, PC gamers do spend money after all. Oh, and PC's installed base eclipses that of consoles and then hurls it into the sun. Ignoring it, then, would be astonishingly foolish.
And have I mentioned Facebook yet? I haven't? Hmmm. That's a problem. Wait, what's this? The next entry's devoted to it almost entirely? How convenient!
Now: Social features. Social features everywhere. Soon, your toaster will feature full Facebook integration. People will be to follow a live feed of your bread's journey in search of crispy nirvana. This is a brave new world we live in. And one in which hundreds of eyes are watching you always.
The Forecast: Social networks have – quite obviously – changed the way we communicate and go about our day-to-day lives. Facebook, especially, has zillions of its own games – most of them incredibly cutesy to cover up the cold, black heart of capitalism. But those games didn't show up at E3. Instead, the real story was core gaming's newfound love affair with all things social. Call of Duty: Elite led the charge – binding the absurdly popular series together with a host of near-OCD stats, group features, and Facebook options – but it was hardly alone. EA unveiled similar feature sets for its Madden and Need for Speed franchises – in addition to its Origin marketplace, which it hopes will serve as a hub for its entire operation.
The take-away? No matter where you are, you will be connected to the games you play and the people who play them. However, these services walk a very thin line between always having your back and never leaving you the hell alone. As time goes on, the industry will begin to establish standards in this area. Fingers crossed that they tend more toward the former.
Now: It's a good time to be a smaller developer. E3 gave premium real-estate to not-so-big-budget hits like Minecraft, Bastion, Papa and Yo, Journey, and many more, and – for many attendees – they were the most exciting games of the show.
The Forecast: For years, people have predicted the rise of small-time development as a fertile soil for creativity, but this year's E3 absolutely drove the point home. Fact is, most modern triple-A games simply can't afford to throw caution to the wind and hedge their bets on an idea that might send piggybanks squealing for the hills. So – both financially and creatively – a lot of developers are simply finding the prospect of smaller teams more attractive. A recent spat of lay-offs and studio closures all across the industry has only fed the fires of that movement. Also – and I can't stress this enough – Bastion looks f***ing incredible.
That said, E3 didn't even come close to capturing the full impact of the indie and small-scale development scene. Having attended the Game Developer's Conference earlier this year, the difference for me was night-and-day. While GDC was absolutely bursting at the seams with excitement, passion, and optimism, E3 just seemed to be going through the motions – treading water desperately just to stay afloat. Make no mistake, however: I'm not penning an obituary for big-budget gaming. Rather, I think the picture of the industry that E3 paints is now entirely inaccurate, and the show's mounting irrelevance is just further evidence that the gaming industry is in the middle of a huge transition. As for how that'll wind up, it's almost impossilble to say at this point. One thing's for sure, though: it certainly won't be boring. Having paid attention to this year's E3, however, you could be forgiven for thinking differently.
Now: Hollywood-style hackers didn't access E3's kitchen appliances and terrorize attendees with magical toasters or anything, but the specter of hacking certainly loomed heavy over the show. Sony, especially, had to publically yank its pants back up after hackers caught the publisher with said trousers around its ankles for a painfully lengthy month.
The Forecast: Sad to say, hackers didn't send the gaming world an apology cookie basket and ride off into the sunset after pulling the plug on PSN. Nope, that whole debacle pretty much painted a target on the gaming industry's back, and in just a few weeks, hackers (by which I mean mostly LulzSec) have punched nice, big holes in Nintendo, Epic, Eve Online, Minecraft, BioWare, Battlefield Heroes, and more. You'd think, then, that reading between the lines would be simple. But since hackers keep barging in with relative ease, it's evidently not. So here, let me spell it out: Get better security. Dig a moat. Plant landmines. Breed a giant, three-headed dog. But don't just leave customers' data flapping about in the breeze. This sort of creaky complacency kills user trust, and in an increasingly online-centric environment, that may as well be a death sentence.
As for Sony itself, I can't complain too much. Yet. Initially, the console-maker dropped the ball, grabbed a shovel, and attempted to direct the ball into the center of the earth, but it at least acknowledged its screw-up. After that, Sony smartly dedicated most of its press conference to a solid-ish game lineup, forgoing a two-hour grovel-fest in the process. Because, seriously, what would have been the point? You can only say “sorry” so many times before everyone decides you're an extremely broken record (See also: Microsoft's track record with Games for Windows). On top of that, the gaming industry is – for better or for worse – quite forgetful. As a result, a large number of gamers are quick to forgive, even if they don't mean to, per se. So then, depending on where you're standing, Sony's either moving forward or sweeping its problems under the rug. Maybe a little of both. Regardless, it looks to be on a decent (if not exactly mindblowing) track so far.
Now: Quick! Press “A” or this paragraph will throw snakes at your face! Oops, too late. But it's OK, because a roving honey badger snatched the snakes out of the air at the last possible second. So what was the point of all that again?
The Forecast: For years, gamers and critics alike have derided “pointless” mechanics like quick-time events. For years, the gaming industry has somehow misconstrued that as “Oh yeah, we totally love those stupid, terrible things. We also enjoy punches to the gut and long walks on the beach shortly after having our legs broken.” During this year's E3, though, things reached a fever pitch, with games like Need for Speed: The Run upping the ante with “variable quick-time events.” In other words, even if your fingers grab a nearby phone and dial 911 for crimes against decent game design instead of hitting the “A” button in time, the QTE still goes on – just with a slight variation. Oh no! Your character sustained a minor wound, etc. Meanwhile, Tomb Raider was an especially harrowing series of QTEs and – shortly before the show – LA Noire frustrated players with oftentimes nonsensical “everybody wins anyway” interrogation sections.
Why? Why do these things at all? Sure, I'm all for cinematic flair and allowing a wider audience to experience your game, but this is just lazy. Instead of designing an engaging game, you're just putting the whole thing on autopilot. If you're so worried about non-gamers dropping dead and then dropping their controllers, you could always make some sort of optional QTE-heavy “cinematic” mode. But don't use accessibilty and whatnot as an excuse to skip out on the part of game design where you, you know, design a game.