E3 2006

I didn’t go to E3 this year, but thanks to sites like Google Video, I don’t have to settle for news bites and first impressions. I can watch the full-length press conferences from Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, as well as in-depth tours of almost every booth at the show. (OK, except maybe Kentia Hall.) What more could an armchair pundit want?

So, without further ado, here are my thoughts on E3 2006. (Also check out Mike‘s pictures.)

Without a doubt, the news of the show in my mind was Microsoft’s Live Anywhere. In a nutshell, it extends Xbox Live across PCs, the web, cell phones, PDAs, and other devices. Sure, Halo 3 won’t be the same on a cell phone as it is on your surround sound HDTV…but you’ll still be able to interact meaningfully with the game, and with other people, on lots of different devices. The details haven’t been nailed down yet, but still, I can’t wait to see what developers do with this.

Microsoft’s press conference also had a couple surprises and a glaring absence. They managed to steal Grand Theft Auto and Lumines, Sony exclusives, in a pretty impressive Xbox 360 coup. Bungie also announced Halo 3, natch. However, the rumored Microsoft handheld, Origami, was nowhere to be found. Maybe it’s farther out than we all thought.

Apart from Live Anywhere, the other major news of the show was Nintendo’s Wii. They’d already released trailers and announced the name, but this was the first time they’d given the unwashed masses quality time with it in any meaningful way.

According to most first impressions, the controller is already a success. More interestingly, I didn’t hear the standard complaints that the Wii is the runt of the litter graphics-wise. Maybe people were too busy groping the controller to complain, but the games look more than pretty enough to me.

More importantly, they announced a number of third-party launch partners, including Activision (Tony Hawk, Call of Duty), Square (Final Fantasy), and Sega (Sonic).

However, the one that blew me away was none other than EA‘s Madden Football. EA is famously conservative, especially with their EA Sports brand, and especially with Madden. They didn’t publish any of their flagship titles for Xbox until years after launch. Announcing their support for Wii this early in the game is a big deal.

During the Nintendo press conference, president Satoru Iwata described his company-wide “expand the market” strategy, giving the DS, Nintendogs, Brain Age, and Wii as examples. Wii does look set to overcome the awkwardness and intimidation of interacting with games, which will go a long way.

However, none of the games themselves reached beyond the standard platform, shooting, racing, sports, and fantasy tropes. This wasn’t specific to Nintendo. The entire show was saturated with them.

There were a few rays of light, in the form of Spore, Viva Piñata, and Contact, but they just showed how far we have to go. (I’m not even sure Spore is a game at all!) I’ve been looking forward to truly new kinds of games for a long time…and I’m still looking.

I couldn’t do an E3 writeup without mentioning Sony and the Playstation 3. So, I’ve mentioned them. :P

OK, wiseass remarks aside, there’s just nothing really interesting to me about Sony’s E3 presence this year. Sure, they’re pushing the PS3 and the PSP. Sure, there are lots of trailers and in-game footage. Sure, they have gimmicks like the PSP’s PSOne emulator and “wing mirror” demo of PS3 connectivity.

Still, even with their AAA properties, CPU horsepower, and huge fan base, it’s all just more of the same. Moreover, the PS3’s motion sensor controller and online service (My SingStar Online notwithstanding) seem like pale also-rans compared to Nintendo’s and Microsoft’s. Sony will have a lot to prove come November.

There was one ray of light, though. The animation in EA’s footage of Madden ’07 and NBA Live ’07 on PS3 was stunning. The money they’ve put toward PhDs and university relations in this generation was very well spent.

The PS3 online service does raise an interesting question, though. Xbox Live was arguably the first unified online platform for core, AAA games. (I’m not counting matchmaking services like MPlayer, TEN, and GameSpy.) When the PS3 launches, there will be two, both demanding a subscription fee. Will that fragment gamers even more than the consoles themselves do? Or will they just join the networks for each console they own?

I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that it won’t matter. Online services gain and lose subscribers based on their content. With instant messaging, for example, it’s the people. You use the IM network that your friends are on. With Xbox Live and PS3 Online, it will be the games and the people. You’ll use the network that has the games you want to play and the people you want to play with. The subscription fee will be a non-issue.

OK, now for the fun stuff. Here are the games from this E3 that wowed me:

  • BioShock, the spiritual successor to Looking Glass‘s System Shock franchise. It swept many of the Game of the Show awards, mostly due to its stunning art direction.
  • Gears of War, also considered one of the best games of the show.
  • Viva Piñata, for my money, was one of the prettiest games of the show. Soooo cute!
  • Crysis is gorgeous. Depth of field, motion blur, ambient maps, amazing facial rendering and animation. Crytek ranks with Epic and Valve in next-generation tech.
  • World in Conflict, Sierra’s alternate future RTS, looks amazing. I’m sold, and I don’t even like RTSes.
  • Haze is intriguing. I just wish I knew more.
  • Contact, a adventure RPG for the DS, demolishes the fourth wall. My kind of game!
  • Desperate Housewives…ok, the game didn’t wow me, but the fact that this show and its demographic gets a game at all? Wow. Thank The Sims for paving the way!

See my games page for others I’m looking forward to.

I have one parting shot. Publishers, developers, take note: most producers suck at giving interviews. I heard way too many meaningless laundry lists of weapons, graphics buzzwords, and gimmicky gameplay features. I forgot almost all of them moments after I heard them.

This is not complicated! Differentiate your product. Demonstrate value. Above all, tell us what makes it fun. Marketing makes or breaks games, and there’s no excuse for getting it so wrong!

…on that note, see you next year!

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