E3_2014_Aaron_article

E3 has come and gone. Attendees squint around in its wake, cobbling together a means of remembrance from the show. What were the themes? Was this the year of early access? When Battlecry is dated for “Beta 2015″ it’s hard to think not. Maybe it was finally the unveiling of next-gen games? Maybe there were #trends to talk about. Sure, let’s do that. I feel like I’ve learned something. I daresay, even a few things.

After the jump, we hardly knew ye.

Everybody was co-op fighting

Far Cry 3 had more than enough for players to occupy themselves, but in Far Cry 4 you can call in your friends to help burn down the mountain. Not just that, but Ubisoft doesn’t even require PS4 owners to use more than one copy of the game. How’s that for sending a message?

Allowing players to tackle campaign missions isn’t a new trick, but suddenly it’s in vogue from Fable Legends to the inventive Evolve. Whether developers are carefully considering how co-op gameplay will affect their carefully designed missions, or simply noticing a way to sell more copies of their game, one thing’s for certain: nobody except Nintendo seems to care about local multiplayer anymore. No, not even Bungie.

 

The future is free-to-play. I mean virtual reality. I mean cloud-based processing. I mean, whatever Valve is doing next. Er, Nintendo — wait, Facebook. Okay, pass.

Both Bethsda and Crytek are approaching free-to-play with the mindset that AAA game design can be applied to a financially respectable model with The Hunt and Battlecry. Sony and Oculus VR are going head-to-head, and nobody has the time to talk about motion-controlled games right now. There’s something called Playstation TV that isn’t a TV housing a Playstation, but a re-branded Vita TV, aka Sony’s Apple TV but with handheld games on it. It’s another year of high-profile stabs being taken at the next big thing, whatever that may be. Please reserve this space next year for wearables and the rumored “quality of life” stuff surrounding Nintendo lately.

 

Nintendo is so out of touch. Or are they? Or aren’t they? Are they?

For all the bellyaching that surrounds Nintendo’s misunderstanding of the times, they also managed to be the first company to understand how to reach their community on a quicker, wider scale than a traditional press conference would afford. So maybe they’ve struggled with HD, and here we are — almost 3 years after the Wii U launch — finally seeing the fruits of their labor, but at least they’re still making games with a “gameplay first” mindset. If we didn’t have Nintendo sticking around, following their own dreams, then they’d likely be in Microsoft and Sony’s shoes, tailoring a one-size-fits-all vessel for interesting third-party games chasing after the same carrot.

 

Nobody has any idea what No Man’s Sky is

Several people in several lines asked what my favorite game of the show was. While I was busy shrugging, they happily told me that No Man’s Sky was it for them. “That’s cool. Maybe you can tell me what it’s about?” The tall guy in the suit, but wearing Jordans, can’t put his finger on it. It’s on the Xbox One, he says. The two European dudes think it’s like an open-universe Halo. A nice girl tells me that you can go in your spaceship and explore new species, but she isn’t sure if you’re an interplanetary researcher or enterprising renegade.

“So why am I exploring?” “Are there quests?” “Is everyone given a specific, secret mission that they can’t reveal to other players, and the goal is to learn to communicate?” “Is there some kind of resource management?” “Is this the ultimate rouguelike?” Nope. it’s just a game about exploration. The “why” of it is apparently just the fact that someone is making a place to explore, so we should enjoy it. All that sounds like to me is Peter Molyneux’s smartphone cube thing, but at least with that we were given more than a wink and a nudge about why to poke at it. Everyone else just seems to think it’s big and looks pretty.

 

Next-gen games are (still) late to their own party

It’s no secret that development cycles in the eighth console generation have proved to be more trying than for our previous boxes. Typically, a new console launch is plagued with a dry spell after an initial spurt of software, but many exclusives that were announced in 2013 were either delayed into 2015 (and let’s be honest, it’s 2016 for a lot of those), or completely absent at the show. Maybe they’ll be at Tokyo game Show, who knows? Or gamescom? I’m sure that somewhere, Final fantasy XV exists. The Last Guardian is probably just around the corner. Quantum Break is helping it straighten its tie, and they’ll all walk out in entourage with the forgotten games of E3 2014 when we least expect it.

At least this fall we’ll get the ritual third-party stuff like Assassin’s Creed, a Battlefield/Call of Duty face-off, and whatever other yearly entries pop up for consoles. But which ones are actually next-gen games? Aren’t a lot of those cross-generation launches? I guess it’s true what they say…

 

… We’ll keep living in the past

Cross-generation launches are about to enter their second year. Third, if you count the Wii U. To be fair, this doesn’t mean a developer’s attention is divided into parity between two generations. An Xbox 360 version may be fostered by a B-studio in order for the headliners to focus their attention on an Xbox One release.

Interestingly enough, Sony was the only hardware manufacturer still touting their seventh generation console, with Playstation 3’s showing of PlayStation Now and some indie games. There were definitely no Wii’s or Xbox 360’s to be found on the show floor, which really sounds embarrassing to consider at this point. That won’t stop actual next-gen games from being difficult to market, as long as publishers feel like profit margins don’t justify jettisoning the old boxes from orbit. Who needs an Xbox One when they can play Metal Gear Solid and Forza Horizon 2 on the thing they have now?

Then again, there’s only one way to play remastered versions of games that only came out a year or two ago, so the road seems to go both ways on this number.

 

Everyone and their brother has a camera, a microphone, and some elbow room

Not so much a gaming trend, as a trend about who’s paying attention to games. In years’ past, E3 was about shoving people out of your way because they were dumbly idling, but now everyone is making room for a small production crew to pull over and film their 5-minute segment for a YouTube channel or webisode. Even Gamespot and IGN have slowly upgraded their little broadcast cubicles to run a full-time racket on the floor. This was the first year ever that a single website tried to stream the entire show, as twitch.tv moved into the annual conference.

This year and last, it’s less about webisodes and podcasts as much as it means that some 19-year-olds in Wisconsin have over a million views on their Youtube page, and a blogger from Alberta is sitting for their first time ever behind closed doors because they’ve cobbled together 20k hits per day. E3 was tough to get into this year, for games media and industry folk alike, but it seems to be accommodating more social media personalities than ever before with it.

 

Developers are becoming just as impatient with their forecast as players

Early access arrived in a big way on Steam, but is finally coming to the foreground of console games with the announcement of several betas either available now or coming soon. Developers will benefit from quantifiable metadata and server load testing, but it’s just as easy to view the focus on early access for highly anticipated games as a ploy to maintain interest in them. Studios are also about to find out if there’s a tradeoff at the expense of an early build showing poorly, or dooming a game’s gameplay to a boring first impression without guidance or direction for players who just walked in.

 

Far Cry 4’s bad guy isn’t gay, and even if he was, it would apparently still be a bad thing

Ever since the well-dressed villain in Far Cry 4 was revealed, people have made some decisions about his sexuality, being what you might suspect would be assumed about a guy with a nice suit and flashy haircut. Or not, depending on who you are. First were concerns about gays being portrayed in a negative light, and then concern about games not including equal representation of sexual orientation. Nintendo found themselves in another sticky situation earlier this year.

I overheard someone discussing this on the show floor, and one person called it disgusting that the only major representation a gay character is getting is as a villain. Well, even if Ubisoft hadn’t officially made themselves clear, villains are sometimes way cooler than the boring protagonist you may end up playing as.

In 1988, Cheers had an episode where Norm ends up faking homosexuality to appeal to some yuppies who don’t think he’d be a good fit for some contract work because he’s possibly straight. Of course, everything works out, and Norm settles that he is in fact lying to them for the opportunity to work. This was about 25 years ago, where a TV sitcom was subverting a conversation about homosexuality. Not just discussing it, but subverting it. I understand that while video games as an entertainment medium are attracting all types, and all types would like to be a part of the dialog, but it’s a little late to be worried so much about who’s straight or gay based on appearances. Or what roles they play. Aren’t we all arguing about trying to respect each other’s values without being superficial? Developers put a lot of thought into design decisions, usually, and as Norm puts it, “you should judge people for what they do — not for who they do.”

At this rate, people will just end up asking Troy Baker about his character in an informal interview shortly after it’s out. Speaking of equality…

 

Indie and AAA games are standing shoulder-to-shoulder

It’s really nice to see both Sony and Microsoft supporting smaller titles with their respective deployments of indie talent, with games like iDARB and Fru in development and The Swapper finding its way to the PS4. What was more interesting is how Sony’s open layout brought these games into the foreground, almost requiring attendees to enter and exit via a wall of digital coming-soon’s. Microsoft’s layout, however, lead to their indie games being swept into the corner, sheltered by a broadcast platform above. While many other titles such as The Crew and Disney Infinity found themselves in the same position at Microsoft’s booth, it was interesting to see how companies allotted their physical space to accommodate what — on paper — seems like an equal interest in smaller, more interesting indie exclusives.

Nintendo didn’t seem to have any of their eShop titles on the floor, however, which is business as usual for that area.

 

“All these indie games look the same.”

Here’s me with a tally of how many people snidely remarked to the nearest total stranger that indie games all look the same. I bet they never thought I was that guy. I hope you’re paying attention developers, your games are all being called out by people who don’t appreciate an 8/16-bit style anymore. I heard no less than 17 people say this in four days — regardless of what the actual gameplay may be.

 

Games still aren’t sure if they’re supposed to be movies or not

Any amount of footage from The Order shows a studio that hasn’t decided what its big, expensive exclusive game is supposed to be. Are we playing? Is it a cutscene? It’s not alone, as developers continue to struggle with balancing a strong narrative with great gameplay. Did you just tune out there? I don’t blame you. I can’t even imagine what the conceit is going to be that justifies all the aforementioned co-op additions to these great narrative-driven games, but I bet one exists.

It was cute when Metal Gear Solid was causing players to complain about cutscenes taking over gameplay, but only very few have managed to complete the package without interfering with what makes a game great, and a story worthwhile. Seamlessly transitioning between gameplay and cutscenes was noted in several instances at presentations this year, so I guess that’s a start. Visceral even thinks that it’s worth modeling a campaign with missions structured as episodic television for Battlefield: Hardline. Perhaps we’re starting to see the writing on the walls, maybe raising questions in how games plan on being inspired by past mediums, rather than trying to adapt to a model that isn’t befitting to a different form of entertainment.

 

They’re also looking prettier than ever

Between Cuphead, Kirby, and Yoshi’s Woolly World, technology has hit a point where we can stylize games to a point that they mimic iconic forms of animation and art. I’m thrilled to see that developers are finding ways to bring a truer representation of conceptual art to their games, however, what’s more exciting is the notion that this will lead to things we’ve never seen before. Cuphead pulls a fascinating parlor trick in its 1930’s look, and Tearaway even had items that appeared to animate on twos, but surely we’re scraping the surface. Surely I can’t be alone in thinking the new Zelda game looks more like a Miyazaki-Pixar collaboration before it seems like an actual game, can I?

 

There is one other thing, though.

Each year at E3, we’re on the crux of what’s happenin’. It’s a conversation-starter, and although we saw a lot of content that will be revisited at E3 2015, it’s nice to know what’s coming. Games are still learning to stand on their own feet as an entertainment meadium, but ever so slowly, they’re reaching a better understanding of what that is. The show seems to be a necessary evil of the industry, at this point, but I’m glad we all pull over to collectively display an annual glimpse of the future.