E3 2011 Press Conferences: The Biggest Loser

Compared to other mediums like film and television, video games are relatively young, and the industry is still trying to figure itself out.

E3 2011 Press Conferences: The Biggest Loser

Widely regarded as the most important trade show for the video-game industry, the Electronic Entertainment Expo brings developers and media every year to the Los Angeles Convention Center, giving large hardware companies space to show off consoles and innovations, and publishers an opportunity to parade new games and reveal future software lineups. There’s an enormous show floor where trailers are screened and upcoming games can be played, but for the gaming press E3 is mostly about running back and forth between live demos, presentations, and press conferences. These conferences have become so prestigious that they can now be streamed live over the Internet, giving gamers the chance to experience new announcements at the same time as the media.

Two thousand eleven is an important year for video games. Compared to other mediums like film and television, video games are relatively young, and the industry is still trying to figure itself out, struggling to adapt and survive. Just years ago it would have been unfathomable that a graphically underpowered movement-controlled “gimmick” device would outsell mainstream games and consoles, yet Nintendo’s Wii annihilated its competitors in sales, carving out an entirely new audience separate from core gamers. Ditto the rise in mobile games and Apple’s handheld devices as exceptionally popular—and exceptionally profitable—gaming platforms. Trying to rationalize these changes and simultaneously appeal to a core and mainstream audience is the problem faced by the holy trinity of industry juggernauts (Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo) as well as the hundreds of publishers and developers struggling with the rising costs and team sizes required to create games. Games themselves present a series of quandaries, with so many different platforms and genres and budgets, from mobile games to big-budget blockbusters to smaller indie and arcade games; achieving success and profit can involve walking a fine line between familiarity and innovation, but neither originality or pre-established interest guarantee success in the current difficult market.

Although estimates of a console’s life cycle are fairly pointless (e.g. the decade-old PS2—and its games—are still selling, and well), we are undeniably past the halfway point for the current generation of console hardware: Wii game releases are somehow more scant than ever before, and many of the mainstream console’s biggest franchises have ended or are building toward the release of “final” chapters over the next 12 months (Halo, Mass Effect, Uncharted, and others). All three major players had a new hardware release since the last E3, and all three were failures. Sony and Microsoft released their motion controllers, the Move and Kinect, respectively, both with limited software lineups (and even less quality releases), and Nintendo released its 3D-touted handheld device, the 3DS, in a wildly unsuccessful launch due to a limited software lineup. With this, and many other factors in mind (such as the astonishing PlayStation Network security breach), we were all set for a series of interesting and tantalising briefings addressing the future of video games, including the potential announcement of future consoles; unfortunately, the end result was just as scattershot, confusing, and bewildering as ever, with mistakes destined to repeat themselves and a surprising lack of things to look forward to.

Konami Pre-E3 Press Event

Everything got off on the wrong foot with Konami’s malnourished pre-E3 press event, filmed prior to the expo and distributed online before the weekend. Konami revealed spectacularly little in the way of announcements and new products, revelling instead in a masturbatory celebration of its own past library, an approach that would be consistent across all of the press events. In a similar vein to the rabid demand for remakes by movie studios, desperate to create films with pre-established audiences and thus guaranteeing financial returns, Konami announced three HD collections: Zone of the Enders, Metal Gear Solid, and Silent Hill, the latter two missing pivotal first-series entries. This is especially confounding considering that a very good-looking version of the original Metal Gear Solid was created for the GameCube, Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes, which wouldn’t be too hard to give the HD treatment—and the very aged PSX classic Silent Hil also demands remake, if only because it’s a bloody good game. The trend of HD remakes has become commonplace to the point of nausea: While it makes sense to make an HD package out of the brilliant Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, two games whose graphics haven’t aged well and few have played, there’s little reason to remaster the Metal Gear Solid or Silent Hill series when one can already upscale them on the PS3 or 360. Desperation and greed are also consistent themes across the briefings.

Upcoming releases from Konami include NeverDead and Silent Hill Downpour, two underwhelming games announced previously and previewed at the pre-event with little new information, as well as enigmatic self-congratulation over Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater 3DS. The choice to remake this game on handheld is puzzling. Metal Gear Solid 3: The Snake Eater and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time are two of the finest video games ever made, and both are getting 3DS remakes. But when the majority of gamers own sizeable HD devices, why would one possibly want to play such important and influential games on a screen smaller than their fist? This was a problem faced by the Sony PSP, which attempted to sell itself as a portable device that could play games akin to those on its home-console brethren, despite the fact that no one wanted to play those games on a handheld. Silent Hill 0rigins, for example, loses all of its impact played on public transport, but is a surprisingly potent entry in the series when played on a large screen with surround sound. Conversely, the Nintendo DS, with its innovative touch screen and implementation of unique experiences suited for a handheld device, flourished by giving us games that could be played in short bursts. Considering the laughable and pathetic battery life of the 3DS, a better alternative already exists to attempting 30 hours of either 3DS remake, and that’s playing those games on current consoles in one’s house on an HD screen.

An amusing Mega64 skit proved to be the only real highlight of the entire pre-show event. The poorly named and misspelt concept of “transfarring”—that is, being able to play the same game across home and handheld consoles—was introduced in the most embarrassing way possible and was later quickly devalued when other companies announced the same thing, solidifying the fact that such “innovation” was inevitable and not really innovation at all. Ultimately, embarrassment is exactly what the Konami pre-E3 press conference is going to be remembered for, assuming it will be remembered at all.

Xbox 360 E311 Media Briefing

Monday morning brought the first real press event of E3, the Xbox 360 E311 Media Briefing, which was spoiled ahead of time when Microsoft updated their website a few hours too early. In our Internet age, it’s impossible to avoid information being leaked early (anyone invested in the industry knew well head of time about the PlayStation NGP and the new Nintendo console Project Cafe), but with barely any announcements as it was, the early release of information rendered the press conference even more worthless.

Opening with a lengthy demo for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, the briefing was divided into three equally disappointing parts. The first demonstrated games that had already been previously announced: Tomb Raider, Gears of War 3, Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, Forza 4, and Mass Effect 3. Gears of War fans might angrily remember how the amazing second game was partially spoiled by an E3 demo that played through much of the finale, specifically the fall of Jacinto; similar stupidity was in full effect here, wherein exciting and important parts of the games are demonstrated to pointlessly incite interest where interest already exists, ultimately doing little but spoiling games that fans are guaranteed to buy anyway. It’s also worth noting that every one of these games is a sequel—not a promising sign in regards to original titles and new franchises.

The second part was dedicated to the Kinect, the motion controller that so many bought and then had only one game (Dance Central) to use it with. Call this “Wii Syndrome,” a particularly apt moniker considering the long lineup of awful Wii-like shovelware that was subsequently demonstrated. Consider Ryse, a Crytek medieval fighting game set on rails, or Star Wars Kinect, which looks similarly atrocious, or the shameless Disneyland Adventures, a disconnected collection of awkward mini-games set in Disney theme parks. Cheap products like this offer little to anyone. Ditto a baffling on-rails version of Fable: The Journey, and the superfluous addition of Kinect capabilities for Mass Effect 3’s conversations and combat. (In addition to BioWare having designed the game to be perfectly intuitive with a controller, rendering such implementation moot, I have serious doubts as to whether the Kinect can do what was claimed during the exhibition: The player tells the other characters where to go and what to do during a battle, activating dialogue options during conversation. The Kinect voice command is so limited that English speaking countries with different accents can’t use the functionality yet, for fuck’s sake.) What should be an impressive, innovative demonstration of new technology instead comes off as desperate, and dedicating such a large portion of the conference to games of no interest to the core audience effectively snubs the vast majority of the people viewing the conference, especially when there are few other games to announce and show for the core gamers.

It’s important to note that negative reception to the Kinect isn’t in any way a blanket condemnation against causal games or motion controls in general, rather a response to the poor software offerings for the new technology. On the other side of the coin, Dance Central 2 shows that Harmonix is as on top of their game as ever, improving and building on their already phenomenal franchise. The always fantastic Tim Schafer demonstrated Double Fine’s Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster, which appears to be a game with mass appeal: the graphics are gorgeous and accurate to the source (they managed to get Cookie Monster’s googly eyes just right), the silly gameplay will appeal to players of all ages, and the sense of humor is perfect. For Double Fine, this project is a labor of love, and Schafer amusingly recounted his pleasure in being able to make this game for his own family; this would have been the correct path for something like Disneyland Adventures, as Double Fire proves that motion games (and licensed games) don’t have to be shameless cash grabs. The Kinect exhibition concluded with a series of intriguing tech-demos called Kinect Fun Labs—now actually available on Xbox Live to sample. This is one of the few high points of the Xbox 360 briefing, an additional level of interactivity for those outside of E3, as it gives those who invested in the Kinect something to try until more software comes out—in so many months.

The final part of the briefing demonstrated a new Kinect-based dashboard as well as the YouTube and Bing integration no one in their right mind wanted. I, for one, can’t wait to stream low-quality video through my HD console to my HD display, and use Kinect to search on Microsoft’s horrid Bing search engine. An astonishingly pointless UFC application was demonstrated in which all the features UFC fans can and do get elsewhere can now be acquired on a gaming console. Finally, a Halo HD remake was announced, and the Halo 4 teaser closed out the conference, promising a new Bungie-free trilogy that does away with the satisfying conclusion offered by the remarkable Halo 3. But that isn’t the real problem; the issue with the teaser is that it was awful. Poor CG, bad voice acting, shitty editing, and awkward music amounts to the opposite of the great teaser trailer Bungie produced for the series, now no longer theirs and existing solely to make Microsoft money.

EA and Ubisoft Press Conferences

Following Microsoft, EA and Ubisoft both had press conferences. EA’s was dominated by introductions to upcoming games, including the promising Mass Effect 3, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Battlefield 3, but little else.

Need for Speed: The Run was demonstrated, merging Hot Pursuit’s gameplay and Autolog with blatantly moronic QTE on-foot chase sequences that couldn’t be more out of place if they were Manhunt executions in Disneyland Adventures. SSX is rebooted and Kings of Amalur gets a kind-of release with the standard-looking, single-player action-RPG Reckoning. EA also talked about Origin, a new website for information about their games unlike all of the other websites that have information about their games. (Wasting the audience’s time instead of announcing new games is another running theme of these briefings.)

Ubisoft’s flaccid press conference is best summarised by the video above, a compilation of the atrocious “Mr. Caffeine,” who was brought in for the conference and was later killed in the backlot. Among the unexciting game announcements: the prequel Rayman Origins, Borderlands-by-way-of-Tarantino Brothers in Arms: Furious 4, a new Kinect-supported Rabbids game (Alive and Kicking), and the completely redundant Rocksmith, a music game “featuring a real guitar” (finally!). But at least Ubisoft had plenty to show; even known quantities like Assassin’s Creed: Revelations added to the variety of their presentation. For some reason it seems that most of these briefings were more interested in pointless spin, feebly justifying new hardware instead of actually announcing and showing products. The number of titles Ubisoft showed was substantial, whereas every other press conference barely scraped a dozen.

Sony Press Conference

The first critical sin of the Sony press conference was not to acknowledge the damage done by the security breach and subsequent removal/rebuild of the PlayStation Network. A suitable apology was required of Sony here at the first major press event since the breach, and what was given was pathetic. Referring to the weeks-long incident that affected millions as a diminutive “outage” was disrespectful to their core fanbase, who had suffered plenty already, and to the third-party companies who incurred major financial losses, of whom SCEA President Jack Trenton didn’t even apologize to directly, instead working irritating and pointless statistics about the PlayStation’s success into his opening speech. If you disagree with what I’m saying here, go back and watch it again. There’s no acknowledgement that Sony did anything wrong, not with the way their data—our data—was insecure and not encrypted, not in the way they chose not to reveal the extent of the breach to their consumers, not in any way at all. It’s damning. Further missing was an actual substantial guarantee that such a breach would never happen again (as unrealistic as such a claim might be, at least it would have been a sign of good faith), and that precautions had been taken in the weeks since the incident took place. No doubt we have heard these things prior to the conference, and the premise of the conference was to look toward the future, but to gloss over the breach is pitiable.

Beyond the expected unspectacular videos of Uncharted 3 and Resistance 3, Sony’s press conference primarily focused on the genuinely embarrassing Move software. NBA 2K12 showed exactly how one can combine a lightgun game with sports “so that anyone can play it”—which is why they needed pro-basketballer Kobe Bryant onboard for an unreal demo, producing nothing but unintentionally awkward hilarity. Then, in an attempt to one-up the embarrassment of Microsoft’s mostly awful Kinect lineup, there was Medieval Moves, a frankly discomforting rail-shooter that has one swing the Move controls around to simulate melee attacks. The game’s graphics, like its controls, recall the Wii; this is exactly what the Move needed to avoid, and for such awful shovelware software to appear on the PS3 may prove to be the nail in the coffin for the already failing Move controller.

The best part of the Sony press conference, and potentially the entire E3, was Ken Levine’s startling BioShock Infinite teaser, which promises a genuinely fresh and unique experience—exactly what new games should be looking to offer. But at this point it’s a known quantity that everyone is already excited about; Sony lacked new game announcements, with only Star Trek standing out, a game that looks suspiciously similar to Mass Effect—which, if you think about it, is already a Star Trek video game. Also dominating the conference was the announcement of the PlayStation Vita, the next-generation handheld with all the trappings of a mobile phone (when Kaz Hirai announced they were partnering with AT&T, the audience groaning was enormous) while carrying on the foolish PSP agenda of bringing next-gen console gaming to a portable. Sony wins for persistence (demos of Uncharted, ModNation Racers, and Street Fighter x Tekken showed just how great games will look on the Vita, but they all look better on a regular console. I’m not prepared to write off the thing just because of this, but that’s all they really had to show, and it isn’t anything new or impressive, and it was exhibited for a long long time. Further tech demos padded out the endless conference until the expected self-congratulatory wank finished out the day. (Incidentally, the press in attendance was then invited backstage to a wildly inappropriate party featuring Jane’s Addiction, burlesque dancers, and vintage softcore. Hoo-fucking-ray for Sony.) With little to offer the core audience outside of pre-announced titles and a painful dependence on new and unimpressive hardware, Sony’s presentation was just as disappointing as Microsoft’s.

Nintendo Press Conference

But all other press conferences paled in comparison to Nintendo’s, which opened late with a horrible-sounding orchestra and industry legend Shigeru Miyamoto making a merry idiot of himself. It’s the 25th anniversary of The Legend of Zelda, see, an event worth bringing out a new game for—or, alternatively, remastering a previous game for the nth time and bringing it to a handheld, the place where it can be enjoyed the least.

The big announcement of the Nintendo press conference, and perhaps the entire show, was the next Nintendo console, the Wii U, a machine capable of handling the same graphics as other current consoles and featuring a lot of the same games. The crowd cheered, specifically for the notion that this would be a Nintendo console that would have non-Nintendo games for it. (Finally, Army of Two on Nintendo!) That this should be an actual selling point is sad and pathetic. Worse, the initial thrill of something like Arkham City being released on this brand new console coming in 2012 wears off the second you realise its release will be months, possibly over a year, after every other console has had the game, and subsequently after anyone with any investment in games has played it.

Worse is that it’ll be playable on the new Wii U controller, possibly the worst controller design in the history of video games. The demonstration revealed how Wii U games can be played both on one’s HDTV, and also on the touch screen on each controller—a novel concept, to be sure, without taking into account how ridiculous holding these new controllers is. The demonstrations make the handheld, which is the size of a book or small laptop, seem misleadingly comfortable to hold. Try doing this right now and see how long your hands can bear it; tablet computers are not designed to be held like a handheld console when in use. Controllers are designed to fit the contours of a person’s hands, to be unnoticeable when in use; compare this box-shaped thing to Sony’s superb PS2 DualShock, which set the industry standard. Furthermore, consider that the two analogue sticks that are standard for video-game controllers—essential for controlling first- and third-person games on a console—are replaced by two awkward circle pads identical to those encumbering the 3DS. Bewildering. This is the original Xbox Controller debacle on a grand scale; there is no way that playing a game like Arkham City will be enjoyable with this controller. Any innovation using a touch screen in a game, or using the touch screen alongside the game (like Kaz Hirai’s hilarious suggestion using a PSP as a rear-view mirror in Ridge Racer some years ago) is going to be stunted by how awkward using this controller is likely to be. Worse is how this draws attention away from what essentially undercut the life and quality of the Wii: actual quality releases over unsustainable gimmicks. As nifty as the idea of launching throwing stars from your tablet controller at your TV might be, do you want to do that while playing Mass Effect 3 or any game that actually matters?

With the failure of the 3DS release, now was the time for Nintendo to talk about further support for the handheld, and this was done with the same sad modus operandi we’ve come to expect from Nintendo. All of the old franchises are wheeled out again, with some new ones: Luigi’s Mansion 2, anyone? The follow-up to the GameCube launch title that no one in their right mind wants joins Super Mario, a 2D/3D hybrid platformer that looks fine but doesn’t excuse Nintendo’s refusal to make a proper 3D game on their handhelds (consider how quickly and early in the DS life Super Mario 64 was ported over, then wonder why this has never been followed up on). Furthermore, a perplexing remastering of Star Fox 64 with 3D-killing tilt controls and no reason to exist is shown alongside a new Mario Kart, which reuses old tracks and ignores the possibility of making a more skill-based, tight, and enjoyable Mario Kart game than the clusterfuck that is Mario Kart Wii. Hey, at least there will be a portable Smash Brothers.

This is classic Nintendo. In order to avoid the platform falling victim to the Wii’s problems, third-party support must be sought and sustained, otherwise the initial sales will drop and drop further. The Wii U’s lineup is at least a step in the right direction, despite the new console appearing to be a total disaster, and I can’t wait to play several of those games (on my 360, in a couple of months). And thus it ends, again with masturbatory commendation and the declaration that “innovation” is the constant with Nintendo, where the winning combination would be “new games and innovative experiences, not fucking retreads.” Thanks for nothing.

Ryan Aston

Ryan Aston has been writing for Slant since 2011. He lives in Perth, Western Australia.

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