Among the many fictional characters fighting for the attention of retailers, vendors, developers, and gamers, Sony’s Kevin Butler stole the show.
Electronic Entertainment Expo (known perhaps best by its acronym, E3) the game-industry trade show, went into hiatus for a couple of years as the big anchor tenants Activision, Electronic Arts, Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, and others questioned the value of their million-dollar investments for a vendor trade show that also attracts a huge blogger contingent. But as revenues began to slide throughout the game industry, the big players have cast a more kindly glance at E3. In 2009, E3 returned with a full exhibition floor and big attendee list—about 41,000 showed up last year, and this year’s E3 was the same as it ever was: big, crowded, noisy, while the attendants at the booths were tired, cranky, and rude.
The E3 organizers report that 45,000 people showed up this year. The big pre-conference “media” events from Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo were back, and they were attended by mobs of breathless gamers/bloggers/enthusiasts who may not make a lot of money as members of the fifth estate, but they have influence that’s all out of proportion to their professional standing. They talk a lot online, blogging, reviewing, opining, playing games. Their visit to E3 is like going to Woodstock, or to be a little more au courant, Burning Man or SXSW—their friends and followers are envious, they want to hear all about it. This well-connected enthusiast class directly touches the larger gaming market. In other words, those multimillion-dollar events and trade-show booths may work out to be worth the money. However, E3 is a pretty miserable experience to anyone who is not stark raving mad about games.
Of the three console events, Microsoft’s was horribly organized but probably successful, Sony’s cool and professional, and Nintendo’s sweetly eccentric (and then they wowed us with the 3DS).
Of the three major pre-show events, Microsoft’s two events were disasters as far as public relations go. Microsoft sent out invites, wrist bands, special laminated passes, and bar-coded e-mail invites; some people actually got them, but the lines were long and the Microsoft people on site were utterly disorganized and unhelpful. Most astoundingly, many of those who trekked out to the old Art-Deco Wiltern Theater for the so-called “media” event were told when they arrived that they had been put on the waiting list and they should make their way back downtown to watch the proceedings at the Marriott Hotel. Mind you, they are telling this to people who came to the show days in advance to hear what Microsoft had to say. As it turned out, Microsoft was tight on the guest list because they were giving away the new, slim Xbox 360s to everyone who actually got their butt in a chair. As one journalist put it, it was a very elaborate bribe.
Microsoft unveiled Kinect, or more accurately and officially christened “Project Natal.” Complementing the company’s contemptuous treatment of its audience before the events, Microsoft did a perfectly lousy job of showing off the technology. For example, someone chose to hire Cirque du Soleil dancers to pantomime the wonderfulness of Kinect. Yes, really.
It’s kind of a shame that Microsoft’s presentation was so flat-footed because Kinect is truly revolutionary. The technology combines two cameras, a motion sensor, and microphone to pick up people’s motions and commands. You don’t need to grab the Nunchuck and controller as you do with the Wii, and you don’t have to grab the new lightbulb wands that PlayStation has introduced for the Move system; you just move. And in playing with it on the show floor at E3, Kinect works much better than you’d have any reason to expect. Game developers are taking advantage of Kinect in creative ways—it can add people’s faces to the game, and it records your antics so you can see how foolish you actually looked while playing. As you might expect, there are a lot of sports and dance games being developed for Kinect.
Zune to Xbox 360
Microsoft’s Zune platform rolled out in 2009 to answer Apple’s iPhone/iPad/iTunes. So far, it hasn’t been much of an answer, more of a pathetic “Oh yeah?”. But Microsoft has had so many miserable launches that it’s practically a strategy for the company. The Zune is more than a music player, and it’s more than an interface; it’s a much broader platform that is designed to actually bridge all of Microsoft’s disparate efforts in media. At least we think that has been the plan. All the people who put the Zune concept together, including Robbie Bach and J. Allard, have left the company, so there may well be some alternative strategizing going on. Steve Ballmer has expressed frustration with Microsoft’s response to Apple, and the departure of Bach and Allard puts the entertainment division more directly under Ballmer’s control.
We had hoped to see more Zune applications introduced at E3 as part of a handheld gaming initiative, but there was very little news on the application front. Instead, Microsoft announced the extension of the Zune Music Service to the Xbox 360. This was also expected. In fact, it has been expected for a long time. The Xbox 360 already has access to Zune movies, TV shows, and music videos. Now, the Zune’s catalog of seven million songs will stream to the Xbox 360 later this year. The Xbox 360 already gets streaming content from LastFM, a music streaming service that competes with Pandora. And Xbox Live Members can also access movies and TV shows through other services. The Zune streaming service comes as part of the $14.99 a month Zune Pass, and at this point, only allows streaming through the Xbox 360 and downloads to the PC. So far, the LastFM service is free if you don’t mind the occasional ad, or you can pay LastFM for an ad-free playback. Obviously, the system needs work and evidences Microsoft’s confused warren of groups and divisions all working on similar things.
The Zune content will also be compatible with Kinect, allowing people to navigate menus via hand movements and voice commands for those who have the Kinect add-on.
After the announcement, there are questions about the availability of the Zune music content to international markets and to people using devices with the Zune software, including the Zune, Zune HD, Kin, and Windows 7 phones. Microsoft is in the midst of re-evaluating its entire entertainment strategy, so there probably rare no real answers at this point.
Sony Courts the Serious Gamers
Sony’s SCEA president Jack Tretton MC’d the Sony press conference with LA-style cool. Increasingly, consoles are not about much more than gaming. The Sony PlayStation tagline is that the PlayStation 3 just does everything, and in the midst of showing off new games for the PS3, Sony was at pains to bookend every claim about the PlayStation’s gaming wonderfulness with at least a comment or two about the PS3’s ability to play movies and music. Strangely enough, however, Sony didn’t make the expected announcements about additional content downloads. Sony already offers the ability to access Netflix movies, and there was some expectation that more would be announced. Certainly Microsoft is going in that direction.
Sony concentrated on showcasing its new Move controllers, wands with lighted ball-targets that allow people to interact with games. Also, the company seemed very conscious of the need to protect its cred with the gamer community, and so the focus was primarily on the franchise games—and there was plenty of blood and guts splattered around the big screen. Kevin Butler, Sony’s fake VP spokesman (a fictional character who appears in the company’s “It Only Does Everything” ad campaign, spoke directly to the serious gamer with just the right note of sarcasm: “Gaming is about staying up all night to win a trophy that isn’t real.” He didn’t get the master of ceremonies gig because, Tretton said, “He’s stealing all my ink.” Butler has stole more ink at E3 with his incredulous poke at Microsoft, “Am I crazy, or did I see 100 French acrobats dancing around the other night?"
Also funny and also possessed of some serious gamer cred, Valve’s Gabe Newell came as a surprise guest at the Sony presentation. He has been somewhat acerbic about the PlayStation 3 and consoles in general—he’s a PC gamer at heart. Newell, and Valve, can pretty much get away with murder since the company has been delivering huge hits, including the flagship Half-Life and
Left 4 Dead,
Team Fortress. However, as a surprise guest on Sony’s stage at E3 Newell was affably humble, expressing his thanks that Sony didn’t invite him up so they could hit him repeatedly in the face. He returned Sony’s graciousness by promising the PS3 release of
Portal 2 will be the best console version of
Porta—on any console.
Portal is set in the apparently inevitable dystopian future where nature is creeping back into the crevices of the metal and chrome of human folly. The game challenges players to think creatively and enables them to change the environment in some situations. Valve followed up Newell'’ presentation at E3 with an announcement that the company is planning cross-platform gaming for
Portal 2 between PC gamers and console gamers through its Steam service.
Counteracting the gore factor somewhat was Warren Spector from Junction. Spector is another guy who has made history in the game industry with early success at Origin, with the Ultima franchise, and later as chief at Ion Storm/Austin, where he led the development of
Deus Ex and
System Shock, among other titles. Spector came to E3 and Sony’s presentation to promote a title that’s clearly close to his heart,
Epic Mickey. Spector was originally a film student, and he specialized in Disney animation. With the founding of Junction Point and the subsequent acquisition of Junction Point by Disney, Spector’s career has come full circle. Spector always wanted to make movies, but the evolution of the game industry opened up even more promise—what he really wants is for everyone to be able to make their own movies.
Epic Mickey looks fairly reverential in its treatment of the Mickey Mouse history, but according to early reports and leaked artwork, there is also a strong steampunk aspect to the game. Spector told the audience that
Epic Mickey works on several levels. It lets players create elements in the game and choose their own mode of play. At SXSW 2009 and at several GDC presentations, Spector has expressed his belief that games can be better if they can give players more choices. It looks like he’s going to be trying to fulfill that desire at Junction Point.
This year Sony promised to keep its online services free but added a PlayStation Plus option for about $50 a year that offers exclusive content. There’ll be additional game content and added features, and a free subscription to Qore, Sony's new lifestyle gaming program.
Sony’s new S3D message is “from the camera to the living room.” The company discussed its plans for S3D gaming, claiming the (Nvidia GPU-based) PS3 is the only console currently on the market that has the native capability to render games in S3D. The company has already issued a software update for the device, and new titles have been created for and in S3D, while others are being developed specifically for 3D play on the console and should be available by March 2011—can you say Killzone 3, the
Sly Collection, and
Gran Turismo 5? Kaz Hirai, chairman of Sony Computer Entertainment, said, “It’s the experience and content that will define 3D.” Amen.
Hirai said any PS3 will be capable of playing the S3D games, all you have to do is a firmware update on your machine, and once that’s done, you’ll also be able to watch 3D Blu-ray movies on your PS3—that is, if you have a 3DTV, and, specifically, a 40-inch $2099 Sony Bravia 3DTV. S3D games that you can download now are Wipeout HD,
Super Stardust HD,
Motor Storm Pacific Rift. These games will take advantage of Sony Move as well as S3D.
Joining the list of already announced S3D titles will be Mortal Kombat,
Shaun White Skateboarding,
NBA 2K11, and
Ghost Recon. The trailer shown for
Ghost Recon has looked brutal—not the cool-guy Sam we used to know.
Nintendo Surprises the audience with 3DS Ready to Go
Nintendo’s presentation was shaping up to be more of the same compared to years past: Well organized, incredibly nice contact people, and cute games. The company shocked the audience with the rollout of the Nintendo 3DS. And, they also shocked the audience with a big bevy of women, dozens of them, who streamed off the stage to stand at attention, 3DS machines in hand, so that people could get a fast feel…for the game.
Nintendo has taken a different direction approach toward stereoscopic 3D. The company introduced a snazzy variation on its popular DS—the 3DS. The new Nintendo handheld comes in bright, metallic colors—blue, magenta, purple, and orange. It gets the right to call itself a 3D machine by virtue of its autostereoscopic screen—a lenticular screen that offers separate left- and right-eye views so that 3D glasses aren’t required. The use of lenticular screens is expected to be more common for handheld devices and for digital signage. They are not shaping up to be a practical solution for home entertainment or games, though. Because people watch TV from different angles and distances, it’s necessary to create several right-eye views and left-eye views for a TV or even PC autostereoscopic system. As a result, it’s difficult to get and keep one’s head in the right place in order to get the full effect.
People playing with small 3D screens have a much more concentrated field of view, so they don’t need to create several views for the left eye and right eye, as larger displays have to do. The 3DS sends one view to the right eye and one view to the left eye, and the thing seems to work spectacularly well from what we could see over people’s shoulders at E3. It should be much easier to create content for the 3DS because just having a left and right view is similar to the way glasses-based systems work. Game developers have been reporting that game development for the 3DS is well supported through Nintendo’s SDK, which has been available for some time now. The company showed old favorites, including Kid Icarus, and a new version of
Nintendogs & Cats, which pretty much says it all.
Nintendo announced that the 3DS will be able to show 3D movies, and the first movies announced are How to Train Your Dragon,
Legend of the Guardians, and Disney’s
Tangled. The new device is expected out by the end of 2010.
Figure 2: Nintendo leads in consoles in the US, according to Nintendo.
The Nintendo device was a huge hit. People were lined up all around the Nintendo booth to get a chance to play with the new device. It has two screens: a 3.53-inch widescreen LCD with 800x240 resolution (that means each eye gets 400x240), and an additional 3.02-inch touch-screen (with 320x240-pixel resolution). The system is equipped with three cameras: one facing the player, and a 3D dual camera setup so that people can capture 3D content; it also enables gamers to incorporate 3D content into their games.
Nintendo is banking on new games to help maintain the Wii’s growth. Nintendo’s president Satoru Iwata told the press, “I do not think that there is an immediate need to replace the Wii console. But of course, at some point in the future, the need will arise.”
A comparison of movement-based control between the three consoles:
Now most console games will have some form of movement, and people will get getting off their couches.
There is speculation about the next generation of consoles, but Iwata’s comment puts the issue in perspective, even if the situation were not obvious with the introduction of new technology in Microsoft’s Kinect and Sony’s Move. These consoles, while no longer leading-edge graphics machines, are fun to play. (Heck, considering the pace of change in computer technology, console graphics weren’t cutting edge when they were introduced—they were simply competitive.) They are growing in importance as part of the household network. They might not even be “game” machines—they’ll be home entertainment centers. And in fact, this is an element that makes the traditional hard-core gamer a little nervous. They don’t necessarily want to share their toys with the rest of the household, or share their obsessions with people who just like to have a few people over to the house to act silly.
After writing all this and putting it into context, it’s clear that the emphasis at E3 this year was primarily about traditional gaming. We were a bit surprised. We had hoped to get a feel for what’s happening in Apple game development and see more games for the iPad. There really wasn’t much of that. Next year, it might be different. This is a transitional year for E3. New application and game service provider OnLive made its debut at E3—their booth was packed, and the company demonstrated games being streamed to iPads as well as PCs and game consoles. The iPad and iPhone are already shaking up the plans of the big game developer companies. The ability to stream games could radically change the way we think about game platforms, and gaming will continue to expand to include more people and more types of games. The traditionalists might not like it, but the gaming world is opening up.
Kathleen Maher is a contributing editor to CGW, a senior analyst at Jon Peddie Research, a Tiburon, California-based consultancy specializing in graphics and multimedia, and editor in chief of JPR’s “TechWatch.” She can be reached at
E3 – Executive Summary
At the Electronic Entertainment Expo, 45,000 people crowded into LA’s downtown convention center to ooh and ahh over the booth babes, monsters, and marvels of modern gameplay.
Best of show: Microsoft introduced Kinect, a 3D space-sensing system that lets users interact with a game using their arms, legs, and head, without the need for any special controllers.
Most novel device: IGUGU’s game controller with keyboard and motion sensing for PC games.
Best game: Harmonix’s
Dance Central. We got real tired, real fast of the squeaky enthusiasm of
Dance Dance Revolution, but from a brief fling with this new game, we’re ready to expose our inner spaz once again. (And yes, this is a girly title, and I do happen to have girly tendencies, but people were shoving each other to get a chance to play this game.)
Best use of technology: Nintendo 3DS—The 3DS is multi-talented, able to show 3D movies, capture 3D content, and offer 3D gameplay. We see this as a break-out device for Nintendo and an enabling technology for stereographic 3D. And, by the way, the 3DS is powered by the Pica processor from dark-horse Japanese chip maker DMP. Watch this company; they are going places.