In a few weeks time, the great and the good of the games industry will assemble for the biggest event in the calendar: the E3 Expo. While companies have a wealth of venues to announce new projects, E3 is widely considered to be the number one platform for reaching the worldwide gaming audience. The conversation is generally dominated by the press conferences given by Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo, and this year will be no different. All three platform-holders are at a major turning point, either launching new hardware or trying to provide compelling reasons to stick with the current generation of technology.
For most people, however, E3 is entirely about the games, and 2011 promises to be a stellar year in that respect. With the prospect of a new console generation lingering in the air third-party publishers will be reluctant to announce new IP, so steel yourself for a barrage of sequels, expansions and a sprinkling of blatant cash-ins. That may sound like a bad thing, but when that list includes the likes of Bioshock Infinite, Max Payne 3, Far Cry 3, and new Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil, Hitman, Thief and Silent Hill games I’m not so sure.
Of the third-party publishers, this feels like EA’s year: Bioware is working on The Old Republic and Mass Effect 3; DICE is busy with Battlefield 3 and, I hope, a new Mirror’s Edge. Elsewhere, there are new entries in the SSX, Medal Of Honor and Need For Speed franchises, and even some very promising original properties: 38 Studios’ Kingdoms Of Amalur, for example, or its high-profile collaborations with Insomniac Games and Respawn Entertainment. Not even Activision can match the breadth and depth of EA’s line-up
Before we get to the press conferences, it’s worth mentioning some very important topics that almost certainly won’t be explored at E3: mobile gaming, social gaming, and the industry’s continuing push towards digital distribution and cloud-based gaming. E3 might seem like the focal point for the entire industry, but that’s an illusion: it’s a venue for selling largely traditional products to a largely traditional audience. If the most dynamic and fastest growing areas of the games industry are major topics of discussion I’ll be very surprised indeed.
E3 Press Conference: Microsoft
The notion that Microsoft had won last year’s press conference war seemed hopelessly misguided at first. Core gamers recoiled in horror as the initially promising Kinect was revealed to be a device for dancing and petting virtual tigers, but a year later the sceptics have been proved wrong. Microsoft was reaching out to an audience that wasn’t present in the LA Convention Centre, and it found them. The Kinect has now sold 10 million units, and is the principal reason Microsoft won’t utter a word about a new console this year.
However, Microsoft still hasn’t sold the Kinect to core gamers – the main constituent of the Xbox 360’s customer base – and I expect this to be the focus of the press conference. There will be more on the Steel Battalion and Panzer Dragoon games announced at last year’s Tokyo Game Show, and it’s likely that the rumoured Gears Of War and Star Wars Kinect projects will also emerge from the shadows.
That said, Microsoft’s software line-up going into next year is simply too weak for Kinect to be the whole show. We all want demonstrations of Gears Of War 3, Forza 4 and Modern Warfare 3 and we’ll get them, but that’s old news and Xbox owners have a right to expect some games for 2012 and beyond. Crytek’s exclusive Codename: Kingdoms should be shown in more detail, 343 industries’ long-in-development Halo project is also a distinct possibility, and I’d be astonished if new games from Microsoft’s lynchpin internal studios - namely Rare and Lionhead - weren’t also part of the proceedings.
Maybe, Just Maybe: I’d like to believe that Rockstar will announce Grand Theft Auto V at Microsoft’s press conference, but it’s highly unlikely. However, a high-definition remake of Halo: Combat Evolved would be a very welcome surprise.
E3 Press Conference: Nintendo
With a new console to unveil Nintendo might end up having the strongest press conference almost by default. There’s nothing like a hardware launch to stimulate the senses, and Microsoft talking about integrating Skype into Xbox Live certainly won’t change that.
The question is: what does Nintendo have in its fabled box of tricks? Recent rumours suggested a console with more power than an Xbox 360 and a six-inch touch-screen embedded in the controller, but I’m sceptical about their credibility. Nintendo’s design philosophy is grounded in taking affordable, established technology and using it in innovative ways, and Project Cafe’s rumoured specifications would make it an expensive proposition for both company and consumer.
However, Nintendo has more money than God, and while it won’t abandon motion control I believe that Iwata and co. now realise how much of the Wii’s success was based on a gimmick rather than true innovation. Whatever Project Cafe turns out to be, it will have to be kinder to third-party developers than the Wii. Nintendo has been winning a race against itself for the past five years, but it might be about to launch a console that has more in common with the Xbox 360 than its own predecessor.
The problem is the 3DS. The handheld launched to great initial success, but since then it has faltered. Is 3D enough to sell such an expensive an expensive device? If the games were there it might be a different story, but right now there is a paucity of compelling software. E3 is the perfect platform to address the situation, but Nintendo will have trouble fitting everything in.
In terms of software, Nintendo’s press conference will be divisive. I have long since lost interest in new entries for Mario, Zelda, Metroid and Nintendo’s other hallowed franchises, and I long for the day when the grand old man of gaming finally gets around to making a genuinely original IP for the core audience. I’m not an especially pessimistic person, but I can’t see this E3 changing that, and, if anything, Nintendo might well start to look more out-of-step with the needs and desires of the core gamer than ever.
Maybe, Just Maybe: Will the Vitality Sensor be revealed as a unique-selling point of Project Cafe? Will Nintendo ever get around to telling us just what the hell that weird finger-thing actually does?
E3 Press Conference: Sony
This year, circumstances have conspired against Sony. With The Last Guardian, Uncharted 3 and the NGP all due to launch in the next six to twelve months it has the most impressive list of known properties going into the event, but Sony has taken some significant knocks in the last few months, and addressing them will be its highest priority. Chief among them is the recent PSN breach, and it will take all of Jack Tretton’s considerable personal skills to finally draw a line under the situation.
But it doesn’t end with PSN security. The abject failure of the PSPgo is a glaring black mark against the company’s record of successful product launches, and while the NGP seems better conceived and more appealing in practically every way, in the age of the iPhone and the iPad Sony still needs to name its price and tell us why it will be worth the money. Even with marquee names like Uncharted and Hideo Kojima in the software line-up, the handheld’s incredible specs represent a gamble that Sony really can’t afford to lose.
Last year’s press conference was dominated by Move and 3D, neither of which has made any significant strides since then. Move, in particular, desperately needs a lift in the face of the Kinect’s strong sales, so expect to see a second, hopefully more impressive wave of software for the underwhelming peripheral.
Ultimately, if you’re only interested in the games then, divorced from the politics, Sony may well have the strongest show. Beyond Uncharted 3 and The Last Guardian there’s the Ico and Shadow Of The Colossus HD remakes and Resistance 3, with possible announcements for God Of War IV and Quantic Dream’s follow-up to Heavy Rain - supposedly a science fiction love-story. And then there’s Agent, the Rockstar PS3-exclusive announced two years ago and then promptly forgotten. Is this the year that we find out just what the hell it is?
Maybe, Just Maybe: The highlight of last year’s conference was the moment that Valve’s Gabe Newell took to the stage, burying the hatchet with Sony and promising PS3-owners the best console version of Portal 2, complete with Steamworks support. Now, Valve has good reason to lose faith in Sony’s online service, but nothing would bring the PSN debacle to a close like Newell taking to the stage again to announce a bit more Half-Life. A very long shot, but hey, hope is all we have.