Tuesday, June 17, 2014

E3 2014

E3 2014 is done, and as is the case every year it's left us all with a lot to digest. This year was an interesting one: Sony and Microsoft are battling against one another to win gamers over to their newest console while Nintendo struggles to find it's footing in the wake of Wii U's serious under performance.

Thoughts on each company's showing, as well as stand out games, after the break.

They certainly learned from last year.

2013 saw Microsoft pushing the Xbox One (Xbox1) as a multimedia experience. Microsoft asked: "Sure you want to play games, but don't you also want to watch TV, DVR your favorite shows, and use your Kinect? Also if you don't mind we'd like to impose several intrusive measures that will serve as DRM and effectively kill used games or lending games on our platform."

The gaming public responded with: "No, that sounds pretty lame. Also, what the hell was that second thing!?" Gamers raged (understandably so) and Microsoft reversed a lot of their policies prior to launch, but the damage was done; the PS4 was seen as the system "for gamers" and the Xbox1 was a confused, misguided, overpriced chimera. PS4 sales have been excellent, with Xbox1 doing well but lagging noticeably behind.

Microsoft has done at least two noticeable things to try and close the gap. The first happened a few months ago when they announced a Kinect-less SKU for the Xbox1, allowing gamers to pick up the system for $100 cheaper. That closes the pricing gap at the cost of sacrificing the Kinect, but as someone who has one I can say that it's not worth the extra $100. Smart move by Microsoft, and the timing of the new SKU is apt (get it out to stores before the end of the year game rush starts in,) though we'll see how it pans out.

The second was their E3 presentation this year. Though it wasn't exactly jaw dropping in terms of what it showed (lots of CG trailers, still a good number of "known" properties,) it was a much more interesting presentation than last year. Not one word about TV, DVR, my smartphone/tablet connectivity, or the Kinect; all games, all the time. Microsoft also devoted time to Indie games, which is something they've barely paid lip service to in the past (and is a key area where PS4 drastically outclasses the Xbox1.)

I already own an Xbox1 - I bought one when it came out last year pretty much on the strength of Killer Instinct alone - and this presentation did a lot to make me feel that the Xbox division at Microsoft has a much smarter vision for the Xbox1 than they did last year. The total focus on games, interesting exclusives, and promotion of Indie titles are a significant step forward in terms of focusing on what will actually get players interested in the console.

That said, I feel like Microsoft didn't swing quite hard enough. Their line up showed off a number of interesting games, and some of those are exclusive to the Xbox1, but they didn't really have any "system seller" exclusives on display.

The Halo collection is awesome for fans of the series (or those curious to see what all the buzz has been about) but Halo's taken a backseat to the CoD/Battlefield wars in recent years, so I'm not sure how much of a system seller that one will be (though it certainly seems like they're going to make that collection a remarkable one.) Scalebound, the Platinum Games Xbox1 exclusive, could have turned a lot of heads but all they had to show off was a CG trailer. New Crackdown, also potentially neat, but also just a CG trailer. Phantom Dust? CG trailer. The only actual Xbox1 exclusive game shown off was Sunset Overdrive, which looks cool, but is also pretty lonely as far as Xbox1 specific games go.

I'm sure there are also plenty of Indie games that will be super sweet (Ori and the Blind Forest looks amazing,) but those also didn't get a lot of face time so I didn't walk away from E3 with a strong sense of what to look forward to there either (no bonus points for any presenter if I have to find something out second hand.)

Overall, I feel like Microsoft put forth a good showing this year, but not a great one. Their message is absolutely more encouraging and coherent than last year, and it shows signs that they're focusing their energies in the right direction regarding future Xbox1 development. But at the same time I didn't walk away with many "wow" moments that will manifest in 2014. I'm happy I have an Xbox1 and I'm looking forward to the things coming down the pipeline, but if I didn't own one I don't know that this year's presentation would have sold me on one.

Historical Aside - Third Party Games, Gambling, and the Death of Console Exclusivity:
Its worth tackling this subject before moving on to PS4, as it affects the "hype factor" for both it and the Xbox1.

Starting with the previous console generation (360 and PS3,) we started to see a trend with third party games: very, very few were being released as console exclusives. The generation started out with some games being listed as console exclusives - a memorable example is Final Fantasy XIII being originally announced as a PS3 exclusive - but very early into that generation console exclusive games became a rarity. Most of the time, console exclusives were generated by in-house development studios, or ones tied very, very closely to their respective companies (such as Naughty Dog with PS3 or Bungie with Microsoft.)

That was an odd paradigm shift that happened largely in that console generation. Previous consoles were often defined by their exclusive titles. It was much less common for a game to be available across multiple platforms, and even when a title did get ported to other consoles it was frequently under some pretense ("HD Remake", "Director's Cut", "Compilation", etc.) Developers would often work for all the different console owners, but their work would often be unique to that console (which also resulted in lots of excitement when you found out a favored developer was making a game for your console.)

Last generation saw an almost total eradication of console exclusivity, to a degree that is amazing to look back on in hindsight. There was a time when titles like Final Fantasy or Metal Gear were automatically associated with a specific console; now it'd be shocking to find out that new entry in either franchise wasn't coming out for all "current gen" systems. I still am a little surprised every time I read about Metal Gear 5: The Phantom Pain and I see "Coming soon to PS4 and Xbox One."

A big factor that lead to increased rarity in console exclusives from third party developers was the rising cost of game development. Last generation saw development costs skyrocket into the millions, with developent on so called "AAA" titles having budgets comparable to "big budget" movies. Unfortunately, video games don't have quite the customer base that movies do, so many companies found out the hard way that making back those huge development budgets was very difficult (and actually turning a profit could be nearly impossible if you didn't get a strong start.)

That has lead many third party developers to become much more conservative in what they're willing to put time and money towards. The fallout from that (and the point of this whole aside) is twofold: 1) companies are much, much less willing to gamble on unproven or risky ventures so sequels and franchises are the order of the day, and 2) when a company does produce another a game they damn sure don't want to miss out on any potential revenue streams so every big budget title is all but guaranteed to be released on every system capable of running it (and sometimes developers don't even care much about that, as evidenced with the recent quality issues with the "last gen" releases of Watch_Dogs.)

The upside of that paradigm shift is that you don't need to worry nearly as much about missing out on big releases from third party studios, assuming  you have a current generation console or comparable PC. The downside to that (and why most big conferences like E3 are low on really exciting moments from third party developers) is that you're not likely to get many (if any) announcements that a specifically exciting for your console. It's always great to see cool new games and know that they'll be available for the "major platforms," but it also makes Sony and Microsoft related presentations feel extremely similar. The two companies share a lot of third party games, so it usually boils down to the few exclusives that they can muster up. 

When that list is short (as it was this E3,) it results in a strange sensation: general excitement at the next wave of releases, but very little excitement for a specific console. It's a very strange feeling.

Putting all that in the aside makes the Sony section pretty short: most of the games I'm interested in for Sony are third party games, and a big chunk of those are coming out on both current gen consoles. As a result, Sony's presentation didn't have a lot going on to make me excited at the prospect of picking up a PS4, though that isn't to say that they didn't have their moments.

One of the standouts on the PS4 side was Bloodborne, the newest game from developers From Software, famous for their Souls series. Not a lot is known about the game at this point, but what we do know points to it being another iteration of Souls style gameplay so for anyone that is a fan of the Souls series, odds are high that this game will resonate with you. Dark Souls 2 was obviously developed by an alternate team, and now it's apparent what the "core" Souls team was working on in the meantime. Very exciting, and most important for Sony its a PS4 exclusive which is a big score for them.

The other thing that Sony continues to dominate with (ironically) is the breadth and depth of their Indie game selection. PS4 has come out strong with some exciting Indie exclusives - Mercenary Kings and Transistor being two standouts for me - and it seems like that is going to continue over the next year. At absolute worst, PS4 should maintain their position as an Indie platform, and if that's all they do they'll still be way ahead of where the Xbox One is now (and it has a long way to go to make up the ground.)

And of course there are the Sony exclusive games that parallel Microsoft's: Infamous: Second Son (with more to come I'm sure,) Uncharted 4, Killzone, and an inevitable sequel to The Last of Us (The Rest of Us?) But similar to Microsoft, Sony's first party (or close enough) exclusives either sing to you or they don't, and at least for me none of them are impetus alone to want to pick up a PS4. That sway comes from third party exclusives and right now Sony doesn't have a lot going for them, at least in my opinion.

Sony also had another thing happen this E3: they kind of squandered the considerable lead they have over Microsoft. Not to say that they did anything particularly unwise, but this E3 Sony was in a great position to solidify their place as the leader for this generation. Instead, they seem to have taken this time to enjoy their lead, which is fine, but it's also going to give Microsoft a crucial year to catch up. In the end I think that's for the best for all of us - competition has pushed those two companies to do some things recently that have been a big benefit to their customers - but I don't think that Sony is going to be happy if Microsoft closes the gap, and 2015 may be the year that happens.

The other reason for that big 'ol aside about exclusives is that it helps to frame my thoughts about Nintendo's E3 presenation. While Sony and Microsoft are struggling to put forth compelling exclusvies, Nintendo fired out a volley of games that were nothing but exclusives. First party exclusives have always been one of Nintendo's strengths, and the've managed to get a few more compelling third party exclusives to sweeten the pot (Bayonetta 2 is looking strong enough to justify a Wii U purchase all on it's own, and the other solid games around it don't hurt the prospect.)

The other thing that Nintendo had going for it this presentation was sometihing I haven't felt from them in a long time: the sense of confidence. Nintendo hit it big with the Wii, and whether the success was expected or a surprise (I think Nintendo thought it would be successful, but I don't know that they ever thought it would be as much of a phenomenon as it ended up being) I think Nintendo has been a bit of a victim of it's own success ever since. The Wii sold amazing numbers, no one can deny that, but I think it also gave Nintendo a false sense of what to focus on. 

The 3DS and the Wii U, although technologically sound, attempted to leverage a similar technological "wow" factor to the Wii - 3D visuals and the tablet gamepad respectively - but neither had the desired impact, and both devices were probably more expensive than they otherwise would have been if Nintendo hadn't gambled again on techno-gimmicks giving them a leg up. The 3DS has turned around pretty nicely thanks to a number of solid games finally driving sales, but the Wii U is never going to be anything more than a net loss, even if Nintendo manages to turn it's sales around in the coming year.

The period since the release of those two systems has found Nintendo giving off a vibe of uncertainty, at least by my reading. While they probably didn't expect the Wii U to sell like the Wii (I don't think many consoles ever will) I don't think they ever expected it to do as poorly as it has over the past year. I think that, combined with the inital cold start of the 3DS after the rousing success of the DS, shook Nintendo's confidence.

Their E3 presenation felt significantly different. This Nintendo was one that was confident in the product they were putting forth, confident that their player base would be interested in it, and confident that it is interesting to potential new customers. They proudly showed upcoming games, and with their unique position (many, if not all, of their key title are first party titles) Nintendo was able to show gamers not just the games, but the passion and care that goes into the making of those games. If Nintendo's previous vibe was one of, "Please enjoy our games," this Nintendo gave off the vibe of, "We are sure you will enjoy our games; let us show you why." And because all of those titles are exclusives, Nintendo is in a very good position when it comes to captializing on that excitement.

I'm a lapsed Nintendo fan. I grew up with a Nintendo and a Super Nintendo, and those consoles had games that were absolutely formative for my experience as a gamer. I never thought there'd be a day when I'd actively avoid a new Nintendo console, but as they pushed more and more into a niche (first with the Gamecube, then with the Wii,) I became less and less interested in their console releases. As they catered more towards a casual audience with their Wii releases and their "dedicated" fans with iterations on their key franchises (new Mario game, new Zelda game, new Mario Kart, etc, etc,) I found less and less to get excited about when it came to Nintendo's software. During the Wii release cycle I accepted the fact that Nintendo was no longer producing products aimed at me as a consumer, and that's fine; they made a ton of money with their Wii strategy. But it was also saddening that a company I originally became attached to due to their ability to host remarkable games of all types was narrowing their focus so much.

Nintendo's E3 presentation felt like Nintendo of old. Willing to pull in developers to work on interesting titles that are outside their first party wheelhouse (Bayonetta 2 and The Devil's Third.) Willing to pursue new IP ideas, and with the talent to make those new titles very interesting (Splatoon). Willing to shake up tradition and take their core franchises in new directions (The Legend of Zelda 2015.) Willing to push a franchise that has become popular in spite of it's original intention, and to at least partially accept the direction the fanbase has wanted for it (Smash Bros. 4.) 

It says a lot (at least as far as I'm concerned) that I've gone from not caring at all about Nintendo (starting with the Wii) to being very interested in what they may announce next. And I've gone from not caring at all about the Wii U to seriously considering it as my next console purchase (ahead of a PS4, which blows my mind.) Microsoft and Sony both put forth a fair showing this year, but Nintendo's presentation was a wonderful example of how to generate excitement and actually have the means to capitalize on it.


I originally intended for this to be a quick review of E3 2014 but it...kinda got away from me there. My takeaway from E3 this year was: "2014 will have some gems, and 2015 should really rock." Nice, but not exactly exciting. Nintendo has a bit more going for it with some key games coming out in 2014 and that certainly has me looking much more strongly at a Wii U (and I'm happy that I have a 3DS already.)

I also have a bunch of thoughts about the fighting games shown at this year's E3 (what started me thinking about all this,) but I think those thoughts are going to find their way into a separate post. Look for that one in the near future.

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