Winning the Night
E3's conferences are over for another year. Who won, who lost out - and what fresh direction does this give the industry?
E3 happens, as it has done for many years, to a scripted schedule. Those in Los Angeles trundle across town from conference to conference, while those abroad play a game almost as tedious as LA traffic, hopping around different streaming sites to see which ones will let them watch the events without pausing for buffering every ten seconds.
Then we declare a winner, and losers - and begin days or weeks of mud-slinging over the merits of our chosen champions, as much defined by tribalism as by the quality of anything on show in many cases. Yet that tribalism, as annoying as it can get, also gives us an interesting yardstick to use to judge the platform holders' E3 conferences.
If each company has a clan hanging off their words and waiting to rush out to wage online flamewar in the wake of their pronouncements, we can start looking at E3 like a political campaign. Who satisfied their supporters, managing to get out the core vote? Who, on the other hand, alienated their base? Did anyone cross over party lines and appeal to traditional supporters of another party? Did it work?
Microsoft's focus this week wasn't on keeping the owners of the first fifty million consoles happy - it was on working out where the next fifty million are going to come from
If we're going to measure by those standards, then Microsoft arguably set itself a pretty tough task. Last year's E3 presentation for the Xbox 360 set out a stall for Kinect, shouting the company's intention to gun for Nintendo's casual and family market to anyone who would listen. This year, they've sold a ton of Kinect hardware and generated a great deal of buzz, and Microsoft may even have started to believe its own line about Kinect delivering many extra years of life to the Xbox 360. Its response - shout harder.
It's not that the company forgot about the core gamer audience - it opened on Modern Warfare 3 and closed on the unveiling of Halo 4 (sadly leaked in advance, which robbed it of much impact), after all. In light of what came in between those events, though, it's hard not to see them as much more than misdirection. This was an E3 conference about all the things Microsoft's core audience doesn't want to hear - embracing casual gaming and making Xbox into more than just a games device.
With well over fifty million of the devices sold, Microsoft's focus this week wasn't on keeping the owners of the first fifty million happy - it was on working out where the next fifty million are going to come from. Online reaction was predictably negative, for the most part. The success of Kinect doesn't sit well with many core gamers, who fear that the platform most of them have chosen this generation, the Xbox 360, is going the way of the Wii - and E3 will have done nothing to allay those fears. In particular, new Fable and Star Wars games focused heavily - perhaps even exclusively - on Kinect controls will fuel (admittedly largely unfair) concerns that core gamers are now being "robbed" of titles and franchises in favour of appealing to a new audience.
Microsoft's decision to pursue the floating vote and arguably underplayed appeal to its core was all the more marked because of the vast difference in approach at Sony's conference. Predictably, contrition over the recent PSN debacle - which will loom large over Sony for months if not years to come - was a cornerstone of the presentation, but it would be interesting to know how much it changed the script for the event overall.
I say that, because this turned out to be one of the most core-friendly Sony events in recent memory. Sony is no stranger to mass market appeal - this is the company that did EyeToy and SingStar before Nintendo ever sold a game console to a retirement home - but this year it barely even gave a nod to the wider audience. Whether appealing to the core audience was the strategy from the outset, or came about as a result of the need to win back consumer opinion in the wake of the PSN hack, it's exactly the strategy Sony pursued - and in the wake of Microsoft's Kinect love-in, it won them significant plaudits from the watching audience.
In a clear shot across the bows of both Nintendo and Apple, Sony is pricing PlayStation Vita extremely competitively
It helps that Sony's sitting on a line-up of seriously good software, and that the new handheld hardware it brought to the show also looks great. PlayStation Move made a few appearances, but probably wisely, Sony mostly presented it as being an optional extra control method for core titles (and got Ken Levine to sell that idea for them), rather than the future of interaction. 3DTV, too, was in evidence, but also muted, with Sony talking in terms of building a market rather than acting like this will be a defining technology for gaming any time in the coming year or three.
Instead, Sony focused on the games - most of them core games. Admittedly, praise for the company's efforts is somewhat curtailed by the fact that while it showed off a lot of solid software, it failed to find a genuinely jaw-dropping blockbuster - a surprise title that would set tongues wagging throughout E3 and help to define the discussion around the show. Uncharted 3 looked absolutely stunning, of course, but the surprise would have been if it was anything other than stunning. (In fact, in software terms, it's the wonderful Tomb Raider demo from Microsoft's conference that seems to have generated most interest.)
Instead, the bombshell from Sony's conference was the final revelation of a price point for the NGP, now sporting the probably-an-acquired-taste moniker PlayStation Vita. In a clear shot across the bows of both Nintendo and Apple, and a welcome repositioning of a firm that's been happy to be seen as very expensive for the past five years, Sony is pricing the device extremely competitively. The WiFi model will ship for the same price as a 3DS and less than a mid-range iPod Touch - far less than many commentators had expected given the hardware's prowess.
If Sony's welcome pricing left a good taste in the mouth after the first day's conferences, though, it was Nintendo's event the next day that commanded most people's attention. The first home console unveiling in over half a decade was always going to be exciting, of course, but had I been laying bets on the word that would best describe Nintendo's Project Cafe reveal, I doubt I'd have put any money on "confusing".
Yet that's exactly what the company's slickly stage-managed but disastrously badly planned and conceived reveal was. From palpable excitement at the first glimpse of the innovative new controller, by the time Iwata and Fils-Aime had finished showing off their new baby, much of the audience was left completely unsure of what they were seeing. Later pronouncements from Nintendo and the launch of embargoed coverage on various websites cleared up the confusion - it's a brand new HD console, not just a new Wii controller - but if it can bewilder core gamers this much with its E3 conference, Nintendo is clearly going to have to think bloody hard about how it's going to get the message about Wii U out to a mainstream audience.
Wii U is, however, an extremely interesting device. The company's demos of how its unique functions can be used in games showed some great ideas, but it'll be up to developers to discover what approaches resonate best with consumers. As a social device and a game platform designed for a busy living room, though, it's unique and potentially very appealing.
If it can bewilder core gamers this much with its E3 conference, Nintendo is clearly going to have to think bloody hard about how it's going to get the message about Wii U out to a mainstream audience
It's what Wii U's presentation says about Nintendo strategically that's most interesting of all, though. For years, the company has been accused - not always entirely fairly - of ignoring its core audience, the same accusation which was levelled at Microsoft for this year's conference. This week, Nintendo's theme was about bridging the divide between its core devotees and the new gamers who had been won over by Wii and DS - and the company did more than just pay lip service to that concept.
The trailer reel for third party support on the Wii U was a powerful statement of intent in itself. It was unmistakably stacked with core, adult gaming titles - to the extent that it was actually quite jarring to see it at a Nintendo event. Headshots in wargames and graphic fountains of blood in action titles are more common fodder for Microsoft and Sony events; in building a reel around game franchises like Ghost Recon, Alien and Ninja Gaiden, Nintendo was pinning its colours to the mast. It wants the core back, and on this showing, it's prepared to make a pretty hefty bid for them.
Supporting the same idea is the company's positioning of the 3DS - arguably a much more pressing concern than Wii U, which remains at least a year away from market. 3DS needs great software urgently, and within minutes of the conference starting, Nintendo had pledged Mario Kart, Starfox, Mario and Kid Icarus games by the end of the year. Along with Ocarina of Time later this month, that'll build out a pretty creditable first-party line-up - and crucially, one filled with franchises Nintendo fans love and core gamers generally appreciate.
Before thinking about winners and losers, then, let's look at who each company chose to speak to. Microsoft, already the darling of the core gamer audience this generation, threw them a sizeable morsel in the form of Halo 4, but lavished attention on the casual market it hopes to conquer in the near future. Sony, reeling from bad publicity, appealed directly to the core market by focusing on its software line-up and delivering a strong message with a competitive PS Vita price point.
As for Nintendo - it set out a plan to be everything to everyone. It wants core gamers back on board. It wants casual gamers to keep believing, and crucially, to keep buying. It wants to deliver big-hitting first party titles but it also wants Wii U and 3DS to be home to seriously successful third-party games. It's almost limitless in its ambition, yet it requires quite a big leap of faith to assume that the firm will be able to keep all of these plates spinning at once. "Ambitious" is the positive interpretation. "Unfocused" is the rather less charitable one.
Who won, and who lost? That depends entirely on what kind of gamer you are - because this year, more than ever, the three platform holders had each decided to play a completely different game to their rivals. Microsoft certainly lost face with the core audience, while Sony regained a little - and Nintendo? Nintendo posed more questions than it asked, and opinions on whether Wii U is inspired or ridiculous are already being strongly defended both within the industry and without. For all that, though - it's clear what's going to be the talk of E3, and of the weeks following. If that kind of mindshare is what "winning E3" means, then Nintendo just walked off with the trophy again.
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