Hey, E3: It's time for a shake-up.
Last year's Electronic Entertainment Expo, the most important gaming convention of the year, was a letdown. There were plenty of good games, sure, but with console hardware running long in the tooth and an annoying focus on prosaic sequels to popular games, there just wasn't a lot for hard-core gamers to get excited about.
This year is going to be different--the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are nigh. So, with Sony and Microsoft launching a new generation of living room consoles, we can expect a huge investment in new games and powerful new technology for developers to exploit.
We hope to be wowed by what we see in Los Angeles when the show opens June 11, but if game makers really want this to go down as one of the greatest E3 shows of all time, they'll need to do more than give us the same old sequels with fancier graphics and sound.
I'm looking at you, Call of Duty and Killzone.
Okay, we get it. Sequels to established blockbuster franchises aren't going away--the general public looks forward to them. Activision is going to ram a new Call of Duty down our throats every year until people stop buying it. (Can we get on that, gamers?) But new console launches are a time for change and growth. New hardware with new capabilities offers developers the opportunity to design new kinds of experiences, and is often a launching point for brand-new game franchises.
Some, like Ubisoft's Watch Dogs, Microsoft's Quantum Break, and Sony's Driveclub have already been announced. We want more--much more. Microsoft has promised that it will publish 15 games for the Xbox One in its first year (a surprisingly large number), of which 8 will be new intellectual properties. That's great news, and I hope we'll see all of them at this year's show. Let's hope Sony and Nintendo have similar commitments, and that big third-party publishers are driven to give us new games, not just sequels to popular series. Nintendo, in particular, could stand to deliver new games with new characters.
Nintendo gets its act together
The Wii U is in trouble. It's a fine system, but it's still in need of a firmware update or two to fix some nagging problems, and it doesn't have that must-have aura yet. There's no grand new 3D Mario game, no Smash Bros., no Animal Crossing, no Metroid, no Zelda; even Pikmin 3, once a launch title, still hasn't seen the light of day. When E3 is over, gamers need to feel like they just gotta have a Wii U, and that's going to be a tall order.
This year marks the first time Nintendo will not host a major E3 press conference. Instead it will rely on Nintendo Direct online streaming presentations to take its message to gamers. We expect Nintendo to announce a few new games during E3, and to showcase them during a special Wii U event on Tuesday morning. The next day, some 110 Best Buy stores across the U.S. and Canada will host the same demos so that you can try them yourself.
It's an intriguing approach, but it doesn't necessarily inspire confidence. If Nintendo doesn't show a handful of must-have new games alongside fresh entries in beloved Nintendo franchises, scheduled to hit the market before the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, it's going to have a really hard time competing for living rooms this generation.
While we're setting the bar for Nintendo, it's worth bringing up its portable business. With the rise of smartphones and tablets as gaming devices, Nintendo needs a compelling list of reasons why someone should buy a dedicated portable game console--and presumably pay more for its games than gaming apps on smartphones and tablets.
Bottom line: The Wii U is not nearly as powerful as the Xbox One or PlayStation 4. Many of the multiplatform games destined for those systems either won't make it to the Wii U or will offer a significantly downgraded experience. Nintendo's path is clear: Beat Sony and Microsoft on price and deliver the games. The gaming market is better off with a thriving Nintendo, but the world has changed--and Nintendo hardware must evolve beyond "the system with Mario, Zelda and unique controls" if it hopes to survive.
The PC keeps shining on
You know what PC gaming doesn't need? Another hyper-accurate mouse or super-customizable keyboard. Enough with the gimmicks and gadgets already. What PC gaming needs is to avoid playing second fiddle to home consoles. Show us the big, beautiful, quirky games that can exist only on the PC.
PC gaming is thriving because the barrier to entry for both developers and players is so low. Everyone owns a PC, and every PC is also its own development platform--meaning independent developers can create and publish their own games without having to worry about licensing fees, royalties, or restrictive legal agreements with Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo.
The PC is also years ahead of consoles in realizing a fully digital distribution platform with multiple competing vendors. You can already acquire the biggest PC games without leaving your house. So why do consoles dominate E3? The answer--this year, at least--is shiny new hardware.
With all the attention on two new huge console launches, the PC might get lost in the shuffle. We've long since given up hope that Microsoft would use part of its E3 press event to talk about Windows gaming, but it would be nice if some of the other publishers did. Most of the really big new games launching with the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 will probably never see release on the PC (they're meant to sell new console systems, after all), but we'd love to be wrong about that.
Indies get their due
Independent games are experiencing a renaissance. The abundance of cheap, powerful hardware, better tools, and easy digital distribution has helped independent game makers thrive. Today more than ever, a handful of developers with little funding can create a game that takes the world by storm and competes directly with super-size franchise games. Think I'm exaggerating? I have two words for you: Angry Birds.
It's time for the big console makers to embrace the independent games movement. They need to do more than make one-off deals with indie developers that are already established. Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo have to court indie developers by making their platforms easier and cheaper to develop for, and--perhaps most importantly--giving indies control over their own economics. Let them set the price, change it freely, and update their game as often as they want. Let them explore new economic models of their own devising. Make it simple for a small studio with a 5-person development staff can cheaply and easily add Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Wii U to its list of supported platforms.
We hope E3 shows us not just a bunch of great new independent games, but delivers great news for independent game developers looking to break into the living room.
Make us believe in new control methods
On a purely technical level, Kinect is pretty cool. The new Kinect included with the Xbox One looks like it could be way cool. Sony's PlayStation Eye and Move controllers held a lot of promise, and the new Eye for the PS4 is more promising still. But as much as we like these things for all their technical gee-whiz appeal, they just haven't delivered for gamers.
Maybe it's simply a fact that the best way to experience most games is always going to be pressing buttons, wiggling sticks, and squeezing triggers. Maybe fancy cameras, microphones, touchpads, and accelerometers can't really add that much for gaming enthusiasts. We hold out hope that the technology simply hasn't been good enough to meet our demands yet. Maybe this is the year where the quality of the hardware and sophistication of the software is finally such that, no matter what kind of player you are and what kind of game you're playing, there will be something useful and fun, truly fun, about these alternative inputs.
We want to believe in the Kinect, the PlayStation Eye, and their ilk. We want them to make all our games better. And there's no better time to convince us than the dawn of a new generation of consoles. Let's hope Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo take this opportunity to knock our socks off.