Not the E3 We Deserved, But the One We Need Right Now
The general consensus this year has been that E3 2012 was a massive disappointment. All three of the platform holders (Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo) failed to show why they and their platforms are still vital. Meanwhile, the two largest publishers were either absent entirely (Activision) or clearly stagnant (EA). The dirge of new IP's and the reliance on tried and tested formula games in combination with the extra emphasis now placed on casual games is demonstrative of an industry looking to sell to a mass market rather than stimulating creativity and heterogeneity.
However, I believe with a bit of hindsight we can see that this year's E3 was destined to unfold the way it has. In fact, I would go so far as to say that, in the proper context E3 2012, was as good as any E3 under the circumstances.
Here's how I see it.
Sony and Microsoft are on the cusp of a new generation of consoles. They're downplaying it now, but come next year they'll announce, if not release, something. But, in the meantime neither one wants to cannibalize sales from their existing consoles. Furthermore, it's clear that the next gen is factoring into their decisions. Take Sony for example. Here is a company with several major 1st and 2nd party studios, Guerilla Games, Media Molecule, Sucker Punch, Insomniac, SCEJ, Polyphony, and others, that are completely quiet. Are we to believe that these studios aren't busy on new games? Nonsense, Sony is prepping for a major roll-out for the next gen.
Microsoft is in a similar position, but they're going about things differently. They see the long game. Rather than concentrating on providing the best video game experience, MS is predicting that various media (TV, video games, music, tablets, movies) are all getting closer to one another. Their plan then, is not to conquer the games industry, but to control media delivery itself. Hence their push to network devices and, ideally for them, operating systems. Their ultimate goal is to out Apple Apple and create an ecosystem based on the forthcoming Windows 8 that will exist on Xbox, tablets, phones, and of course the PC. Therefore, MS's approach this E3 was not to encourage new people to buy the 360 and 360 games, but to keep gamers sated long enough until MS has everything in place to make to enslave to their media devices, and to create a foundation for the next box.
Nintendo on the other hand, is in a real pickle, and they're simply doing their best to cope. The Wii was real zeitgeist, lightning in a bottle, and it'll be impossible to recapture with the Wii U. Ninty knows this, and they know that they've basically betrayed the core gamer. But core gamers are the first to buy new consoles, so predictably, they want to cater to this group. But with what? Pikman 3 has been in development forever, so that's good. But Zelda for Wii just launched. So it's safe to say that team has only just started on an HD Zelda. A true Mario sequel probably isn't that far off, but Mario Galaxy 2 isn't that old either. So a full Mario game for launch seems unlikely. The only real question marks are Metroid and Smash Bros. Moreover, Ninty still would like to capitalize on it's broad casual audience. Hell, it needs these people in order to stay relevant in a Japanese gaming industry that's going nowhere fast. And the only answer to that is to create more casual games, like what we saw at E3. It's not that Nintendo didn't want to perform better, they simply couldn't, in my estimation.
And then there's EA. EA has always milked their franchises and this year the teats must be sore. But can you blame them? For all the complaining about the lack of new IP's, hardcore gamers (myself included) haven't gone out of our way to buy many new IP's. John Riccitiello, the CEO of EA, has done a damn fine job trying to develop new IP's. Dead Space, Mirrors Edge, Dante's Inferno, Brutal Legend, the Bad Company games, the Dragon Age games, and more have resulted from his stewardship of the company. But most of the new IP's he's championed were either moderate successes or failures. Gamers talk a lot about the need for creativity, but we really prioritize quality above all else. If it's not good, or fun, we won't buy it. Add to that the fact that development costs are now easily in the tens of millions, and developing new IP's suddenly becomes a very expensive and risky proposition. So from EA's standpoint, why not be conservative. Why should they go out of their way to please the hardcore gamer, when the hardcore gamer won't go out of their way to buy new IP's?
"Ah," I hear you say, "But what about Ubisoft?. They had a great conference with a promising new IP! Surely they prove a dedicated company can overcome stagnation, why not others?" Well, my answer is, everything is relative. Watch Dogs would not be nearly as impressive if their were other new IP's to compare it to besides The Last of Us, and a Quantic Dream game that's fuzzy in the details department. More importantly though, Ubi struck it rich already by being the best at figuring out this generation of consoles. On the hardcore side, they've tailored their efforts to just a few games that they know will sell well based on prior history and a few good new franchises. Ubi also succeeds where Sony and EA typically fail. Their hit new IP for the gen (Assassin's Creed)was well produced and well marketed in addition to being good. And Ubi has done the best job at figuring out the Wii. Sure Ubi is responsible for some of the worst shovelware in history, but the casual audience doesn't know any better, and the enormous profits from those games helps subsidize the cost of developing games like Watch Dogs. Furthermore, Ubi has figured out one problem that has been plaguing other publishers and dev studios. They know how to design by committee.
The design by committee issue has been growing ever since the current gen began. The creativity and personalization inherent in previous gens was a result of a few dozen people per dev team, which allowed creative forces to have a louder voice. But now, in the top tier graphics industry, that number is needed just to have mid-range graphics in your average shooter. To complete games within a reasonable time frame, it's become necessary to employ hundreds of people. But doing so naturally stifles the creativity of individuals, causing games to become more generic. For proof of this just look to studios like Insomniac Games, who's quality of creativity over the last few years has declined in indirect proportion to the number of employees operating there. Ubisoft, on the other hand, has a team of 400 working on Assassin's Creed III, and that game was so good it was featured in three separate press conferences. However they've done it, Ubi has circumvented the problems design by committee poses.
In short, Ubisoft won E3, because it was the only publisher whose publishing model was flexible and successful enough to allow it to spend some coin on new ideas.
Finally, I want to return to the aforementioned topics of relativity and quality and apply them to the show itself. It is true that relative to past E3's, the last two have been want of new IP's. As I have established though, gamers prioritize quality. So many of the games shown at past E3's, and new IP's in particular, have been bad and sold poorly. For instance, one of the best years for gaming was 2007. In that year we saw the births of Uncharted, Mass Effect, Assassin's Creed, BioShock, the rebirth of Call of Duty, and many more fantastic games. That year was also home to TimeShift, Lair, Jericho, Tabula Rasa, Stranglehold, Hellgate London, and plenty of other failures. Now consider how many games you saw at E3 2012 and if they fail to live up to expectations. My guess is they won't. They may be safe and generic, but nothing you saw at EA's conference is going to fail as hard as those games did. So let's be honest and face facts. Out of a given E3 your typical gamer is only likely to buy, at most, four or five games seen there out of the hundreds that are shown and the dozens demoed for the public. And a gamer is most likely to buy the games of the highest quality. So, even though E3 2012 was bereft of new ideas, functionally, the actions of most gamers will be the same as if more new IP's were introduced.
If E3 was missing anything this year, it was hype, not games. Most of the major surprises were spoiled in advance. The pressers were dull. There was not much we hadn't already been aware of. But hyped or not, E3 2012 served gamers pretty well. There are many strong candidates for game of show, and the promise of new consoles is on the horizon. And in the coming years the next gen will revitalize the industry all over again.