E3 2011: The conservative convention
What did E3's familiar names and few surprises say about the future of the console business?
Hardware may have bought surprises, but more than ever before, this year's E3 has been a concentration of known quantities. Sequels and brands as far as the eye can see, demonstrating an industry that's become highly risk-averse after what most agree has been a hard year for the traditional gaming market.
Hence, the only element of surprise in big game announcements have largely been which platform holder's conference they'll be made in, when they're coming out and whether they have a number or a subtitle after their name. It's hardly surprising, given last year saw new IPs such as Alan Wake and Blur struggle to achieve big things at retail - and in the case of the latter, even contributing to the collapse of the studio behind it.
Nonetheless, all game-of-the-show talk focuses on Battlefields and Bioshocks, Call of Duties and Mass Effects, Tomb Raiders and Assassin's Creeds: games the world already knew full well about. New hardware appears to be the only way to draw gasps of admiration from the masses, but even then that's because it's coming from already-trusted companies.
Paradox's PC action-RPG Magicka saw the humour in all this chest-thumping, its booth electing to directly parody Bethesda's brooding Skyrim posters
Microsoft seemed to take brand trust as far as it could, announcing known IP after known IP with Kinect features attached, in what at times seemed a strange echo of Nintendo's initial Wii conferences. Vita aside, Sony was up to something similar, with even the likes of BioShock giddily revealing Move support in the apparent hope of finding the promised land that both casual and core gamers can frolic together in. Nintendo itself elected to move on from the era of waving at a TV screen in favour of trying to keep up with the mobile Joneses.
The show left plenty to talk about then, but perhaps not too much to be startled by. The lesser known delights and new IPs (long gone are the days when a game was a game, and not an IP first and foremost) are still out there, but unable to raise the sort of clamour they once did. Even From Dust, the long-awaited new game from Another World creator Eric Chahi, due out as a download-only title in mere months, seems to have been subsumed by the sound and fury of pre-rendered trailers for impending sequels. It'll be loved, no doubt, by the few, but you'll never see it on 35-foot screen or the side of an LA bus.
In the further reaches of the LA convention centre, more wildness lives. There's Rock of Ages, an insane South American title about demolishing history's greatest works of art with a giant, living boulder, there's stuff with titles like 'The Marriage of Flowers In The Mirror'... Many of these lesser names offer dramatic example of the accomplishments only games can achieve, but that proves nothing in the face of another famous name. The press won't given them the same breathless, neon-lit coverage, they don't have the marketing budgets necessary to capture mainstream attention, but maybe, just maybe they'll find the audiences they deserve once they're outside of videogames' loudest week.
And so the show floor itself has become a contest of brands, each one trying to prove it's bigger, brasher and most of all noisier than its similarly high-budget neighbour. "I'm the one matters!" "No, I am!" At least Paradox's quietly successful PC action-RPG Magicka saw the humour in all this chest-thumping, its booth electing to directly parody Bethesda's brooding Skyrim posters.
Despite two hardware announcements and any number of enormous games on the show floor, it's hard not to look at this year's E3 as the core games industry hunkering down and trying to operate something like business as usual, concentrating on proven successes that will help it hold fast against the twin threats of Apple and the global financial crisis. Which means the less regulated realms of mobile and PC are left to be fertile hunting grounds for... well, let's not call them new IPs, and instead simply new games. Good luck to them all.