E3 is finally far enough behind us that I can start to make sense of it. Taken all at once – it pretty much sounded like a bunch of ungodly screaming occasionally punctuated by the word “transfarring” (which isn't even a real word). You tried to roll with the punches, I'm sure – to stand before News Godzilla without fleeing while shouting something in badly lip-synced Japanese – but it eventually broke you. So, what happens next? Now that the news/preview/interview barrage dust has finally settled, what does it all mean? Well, since I did one of these things last year and I'm nothing if not a slave to habit, here are a few thoughts on this year's show.
Now: Nintendo took the wraps off its latest box-shaped chunk of insanity incarnate, christening it the Wii U. The machine's controller, however, stole the show, best resembling an iPad, but with buttons and sans, well, guts. That's right: the second this thing parts ways with the main console, it becomes nothing more than a Nintendo-branded paper weight. Meanwhile, Sony fired the next shot in the handheld war with the PSVita, which probably had Nintendo sweating bullets with a $250 price point, gorgeous graphics, and touch screens, like, everywhere .
The Forecast: The future is now, and for the precise reason, these new consoles are already living fossils. First up, the Wii U, because yikes. Where to begin? With cloud gaming coming into prominence, what did Nintendo do? It unveiled a system with similar functionality (“Play your high-end HD game in another room!”) but with all sorts of extra strings attached. Wii U games on the go? Forget about it. The second you step outside your front door, your game hisses at the sun's hateful rays and scampers back inside.
And then there's the mentality behind the console itself. Allegedly, Nintendo hopes to be everything for everybody. Want hardcore HD muscle men with guns and stubble and cursing? Tuck the kids in tight, because Nintendo has you covered. But what if you just want to pet a Nintendog or work up a sweat with your Wii Balance Board? Well, the Wii U's got your back as well. In theory. But really, a bunch of third-party Xbox/PS3 ports (the bulk of Nintendo's E3 showing) and a nebulous online setup aren't going to woo hardcore gamers away from their current console loves. And a controller without the gee-whiz-gotta-have-it appeal of the original Wii – or, of more current relevance, Kinect – isn't going to have casuals turning Wal-Mart parking lots into warzones. It's a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none, and these days, that simply won't cut it.
Also, the Wii U controller's touch screen is based on original Nintendo DS tech. As in, it's optimized for a stylus and completely lacking in multi-touch. That may not seem like a deal-breaker, but in a world where six-year-olds are finding shiny new iPhones and iPads under the Christmas tree, there's a hardwired expectation that simply can't be ignored. If you leap into the tech world's fast lane and can't even keep pace – let alone speed ahead – you'll get trampled. It's as simple as that.
As for the PSVita, it's the same argument you've heard a thousand times, but it doesn't ring any less true: smart phones. They are the mobile gaming market now, and the 3DS is currently learning that the hard way. The PSVita, meanwhile, is what the original PSP needed to be, you know, back in 2005. From the looks of things, it'll be a fantastic platform, but it's also big, bulky, and unable to function as a be-all, end-all on-the-go device. This portable rally, then, appears to be a case of too little, too late. Why? Because Sony is going to be selling hardware at a tremendous loss with that $250 price point. Put simply, it needs a homerun here. Anything less just won't do.
Now: Microsoft and Sony went on and on and on and on about motion control. If you listen hard enough, you can still hear them going – whispering quietly into an uncaring, unfeeling void.
The Forecast: This ship has sailed – especially for Sony, except instead of sailing, it sort of just idled for a while and then got yanked under by an errant Kraken, never to be seen again. Microsoft stands a better chance, but it might be barking up the wrong tree. Kinect's potential as a gaming device – at least, at this point – is profoundly limited by its lack of force feedback and relative imprecision. However, E3-goers were able to catch glimmers of the tech's potential, as Mass Effect 3 vocal squad controls and things of the like seem quite capable of changing the way we play these games for the better. Also, Kinect Fun Lab deserves special mention, as it could turn Kinect hacks into a legitimate business.
For now, however, developers and gamers alike are still making primitive grunts and shaking makeshift spears at the ever-evolving device, so if you're not convinced, try waiting another year. So long as developers keep Kinect controls optional during this experimental phase, I'll be sitting on the sidelines, shouting “Go team! I'm cautiously optimistic about your success. Unless you screw up, in which case, I hate you.”
Even so, E3 showed that hardcore gamers are going to need a lot of convincing before they stop telling these Kinect-loving kids to get off their lawns. Yes, in some places the tech worked, and in others (Disneyland, Star Wars), it fell flat on its face. Regardless, it drew more eye-rolls than it did “I wants” from conference attendees, and that's telling of the skepticism and fear surrounding tech that's – so far – proven largely optional in the games that matter to core-types.
All-in-all, the air surrounding motion control during E3 was one of begrudging impatience – like everyone had seen the writing on the wall, yet Sony and Microsoft didn't get the memo. But was that a sobering sign of things to come, or evidence that the mighty E3 is one ill-advised Rickroll joke away from being a lumbering, out-of-touch giant? At this point, only time will tell for sure. But, to be completely honest, I'm leaning toward the latter.
Now: Who doesn't like a good knock-down, drag-out slugfest between two earth-shakingly heavy hitters? This year, EA and Activision are going toe-to-toe with Battlefield 3 and Modern Warfare 3, respectively. And Activision will fall and good will triumph over evil, right?
The Forecast: Haha, no. Yes, Battlefield 3 will probably be orders of magnitude prettier. Yes, it will probably try new things and be heralded as PC gaming's new Chosen One. But here's the thing: Modern Warfare will still win – by a landslide that'll be visible from space. And, odds are, it'll continue to do so year-after-year for the exact reason that you despise it: Because it's simple. No frills. You can shoot dudes in the face without any of that pesky teamwork or strategy nonsense. That's why the same crowd that exalts Transformers 3 as cinematic brilliance, unironically tunes into Jersey Shore on a regular basis, and consumes every other piece of media that you don't particularly care for will eat it up. Sad to say, fancy wine and a four-course meal are nice and all, but interesting things are hard. Most people are more-than-happy to settle for a greasy cheeseburger.
Now: Guns! Shooting! Fun and interesting attempts at genre diversification! Just kidding about that last one. I actually meant “knocking down a door and gaining magical slow-mo powers for no adaquately explained reason!”
The Forecast: E3 absolutely reeked of this odd misperception that appeasing hardcore gamers is as simple as dropping another same-y first-person shooter into an already overflowing bucket. For example, when people accused Microsoft of catering largely to casuals, its go-to response was “But look! We have Call of Duty and Halo and Gears of War!” Meanwhile, Nintendo outright stated that it went HD with Wii U to attract first-person shooters. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Problem: Mr. Biceps McFPSFanatic and John Q. Hardcoregamer aren't necessarily one-in-the-same. And given that hardcore gamers are still the most consistently lucrative audience in gaming, a vocal minority's far from the only thing at stake here. So we end up with a situation where publishers are catering to a crowd weaned on a steady diet of Call of Duty and, well, that's about it. As a result, these players can be just as spendthrift as casual gamers; they just let their gaming platforms gather dust between different games, is all. And all the while, the real hardcore crowd – that is, you fine folks – grows ever more cynical and disenfranchised toward loud, guns-a-blazing blockbusters, because you've shot so many dudes that it could technically be considered genocide at this point.
Similarly, all casual gamers are expected to either be so young that Kinect's necessary because they'd eat the controller otherwise, or adults paradoxically obsessed with fitness and never leaving their living rooms. The gaming industry's rife with cynical stereotypes of what “hardcore” and “casual” should be, and it seems like – at some point – everyone decided to declare war and turn any sort of middle ground into a nice, smokey crater. That's downright awful, because it means this medium is basically giving the cold shoulder to millions of people – and setting gobs of money on fire in the process. And last I checked, money is good.
Now: The first-person shooter genre's like a party where everyone showed up wearing the same dress. Including the men. So somebody was like “Well, one of us is gonna have to change.” And then everybody wore the same exact outfit for three years.
The Forecast: Color is the new gray. While the likes of Battlefield 3, Call of Duty, Gears of War, etc are still aiming for gruff, shouty, and shooty, games like the new Brothers in Arms, Insomniac's OverStrike, BioShock Infinite, and Monolith's Gotham City Imposters displayed a refreshing willingness to paint the town whatever color they damn well felt like. Taking into account Bulletstorm's addition of some creative new curses to gamers' vocabularies earlier this year and Team Fortress 2's perennial popularity, could we finally be on the cusp of dispelling the Rain Cloud of Absolute Seriousness that's been keeping the FPS genre cooped up for the past many years? If this year's E3 is any indication, things are looking up.
Check back early next week for part two!