The games industry moves pretty fast, and there's a tendency for all involved to look constantly to what's next without so much worrying about what came before. That said, even an industry so entrenched in the now can learn from its past. So to refresh our collective memory and perhaps offer some perspective on our field's history, GamesIndustry.biz runs this monthly feature highlighting happenings in gaming from exactly a decade ago.
E3's Year of Flops
E3 is a gold mine for a column like this. It's the biggest week of hype on the gaming calendar, a crescendo of marketing campaigns, platform holder announcements and executive speeches all trying to drown each other out and become the big buzzworthy story of the one week a year when this frequently insecure industry expects the world to be looking its way. Everyone swings for the fences, and for every home run there are at least a few big whiffs.
We can debate whether E3 still warrants that kind of significance these days, what with the market-leading console maker deciding it's not even worth going to for the third year running. But as the industry readied for E3 2011, the show was still clearly the place to see and be seen for gaming.
Unfortunately E3 2011 was home to a whole lot of misses, as we're about to be reminded.
Microsoft's show was headlined by a Halo 4 announcement it had already accidentally leaked online, Tomb Raider, Gears of War 3, and what was in hindsight entirely too much Kinect. It wasn't just an overdose of Kinect; it was an overdose of attempts to make core games work with Kinect.
Fable: The Journey promised to boil Lionhead's open-world RPG series down to an on-rails shooter (no matter what Peter Molyneux claimed).
EA showed off Mass Effect 3 with a big emphasis on Kinect functionality like using voice commands to choose Shepherd's dialog options, which is a) more time-consuming than pushing a button, b) weird since those are just paraphrasing the actual line Shepherd will say anyway, and c) not something that requires a $150 depth-sensing camera when every Xbox 360 came with a wired headset anyway.
Ghost Recon Future Soldier received a few minutes on the Microsoft stage to show off Gunsmith, which allowed players to use motion controls and voice commands to customize their weapons and try them out on a firing range to know how they would handle in-game (if the actual game let you use Kinect controls, which it did not).
For the second year running, Microsoft tasked some poor soul with memorizing the character movements in a Star Wars Kinect trailer so he could try to replicate them 1:1 on stage in a way the game was very much not capable of doing.
Microsoft knew Kinect was a differentiating factor for the Xbox, but its motion controls -- particular without any kind of haptic feedback -- were a poor fit for most core gaming franchises and gameplay styles. Tacking half-hearted Kinect functionality onto games that didn't need it and weren't going to be improved by it only made the peripheral feel that much more like a gimmick, a novelty in danger of wearing thin in its first year on shelves.
Despite that grousing, I would say Microsoft had the best show of any of the platform holders.
Ordinarily, Sony building its E3 around a game like Uncharted 3 might have us giving it a retrospective thumbs up for the show, but any goodwill on that front was squandered both by disasters we knew at the time -- the PlayStation Network hack was so fresh SCEA president Jack Tretton called it "the elephant in the room" and apologized for it first thing in the Sony stage show -- and disasters we could only suspect, like the PlayStation Vita.
The recently promoted head of Sony's consumer products group Kaz Hirai showed up to not only announce the name of the ill-fated Vita, but to pre-emptively give the handheld its epitaph.
"Vita means life," Hirai explained, adding, "and we're confident that PlayStation Vita will be the first product that truly blurs those lines between entertainment and your real life, empowering you to play, interact, and connect like never before."
It's unclear if the never-before-seen blurred lines between real life and games was a reference to the Vita's 3DS StreetPass-like Near functionality or the Vita's 3DS-like unfulfilled augmented reality aspirations.
As if one bit of doomed hardware wasn't enough for Sony, the company also announced the PlayStation 3D Display TV, which combined its rapidly decaying fondness for stereoscopic 3D with a genuinely neat alternative to split-screen multiplayer. The 23.5-inch $500 TV featured "SimulView" technology that displayed two separate 2D screens on top of one another, so two players could wear glasses to let them each see a different 2D image and both would have their own full-screen view. Continuing the theme of unfortunate hardware decisions from Sony, the TV shipped with just one pair of 3D glasses, so anyone actually wanting to take advantage of that key feature had to pay an extra $70 for the privilege.
It also didn't come with a remote control.
Finally we have Nintendo, whose Wii U loses out to the Vita when it comes to Biggest Flop of E3 2011 because while Sony had publicly signaled an end to Vita support within three years, Nintendo released a first-party Game of the Year contender almost six years later. (Also because the Wii U transitioned the company to the Switch, the success of which rejuvenated Nintendo and saved us from seeing it go all-in on free-to-play mobile games. Thank you, Switch.)
Unfortunately, the Wii U debut was marked by confusion. Or at least, industry-watchers wondered if there would be confusion, partly because of the Wii U name and partly because it shared the same standard controllers as the Wii. Whether anyone was actually that confused, investors got skittish and Nintendo shares dropped to a five-year low after the Wii U unveiling.
Some of Nintendo's other big showpieces were a bit "meh" as well. Much like the Wii U, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was an awkward misstep that would inspire a future triumph, while Kid Icarus: Uprising was a long-awaited return of the character that showed why he's usually relegated to Smash Bros. duty these days.
With the Wii on life support beyond Skyward Sword and Wii U still a year and a half away, there were very few home games shown to get excited about. At least the 3DS lineup was strong, with Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, Luigi's Mansion 2, Mario Kart 7 and Super Mario 3D Land all helping turn the system's rocky start around (although a massive price cut didn't exactly hurt either).
It's not like third-parties had a flawless E3 2011 either. Take-Two announced a new BioShock for the Vita that never happened and EA made a big deal about Insomniac's first multiplatform game Overstrike (it was renamed Fuse the next year and launched in 2013 to tepid reviews), but Ubisoft had a particularly trying show.
To emcee its big E3 conference, Ubisoft turned to Aaron "Mr. Caffeine" Priceman, a professional presenter who had the misfortune to be sandwiched in between Ubisoft E3 showcases hosted by actually entertaining celebrities Joel McHale (Community, Talk Soup) and Aisha Tyler (Archer, Ghost Whisperer).
Where company executive E3 hosts have largely understood their limitations and restricted themselves to a half-hearted joke or two, Priceman -- like his celebrity counterparts -- was saddled with the much heavier burden of being entertaining. And like virtually all of those non-executive hosts, he was not given the proper tools to do that job.
Instead, Priceman was sent to die with a monologue that included Wayne's World flashback noises, a Charlie Sheen "tiger blood" joke, the phrase "absolutely epic fail" used without a hint of irony, and a pick-up line about the Wii. In 2011. More than five years after Nintendo first announced the name of the system and the same amount of time (minus an hour) after everyone got tired of the observation that it sounds like another name for a penis.
Priceman's performance was not well received. It was painful to watch then, and you might not think that revisiting it with fresh eyes ten years down the line could make it any worse. But you might be wrong.
I found a few different YouTube supercuts like the one above, but somehow none included this gem.
"Today, 97% of young people play video games," Priceman told the audience in a standard bit of 'gaming is a big deal' conference fluff.
"40% of them are women," Priceman continued, the imminent trainwreck starting to become clear to all.
"And 89% of them are smoking hot," Priceman finished. "I know this, I've investigated."
Get it? It's funny because women can be our customers in this industry and comprise almost half of the people to whom we sell games, but their value will always be determined by whether we find them sexually attractive! Ho ho, good one, Ubisoft, and definitely the kind of message we want to be sending about what this industry is all about when we have the eyes of the world on us. Well done!
And just in case that joke wasn't transparently creepy enough, the only study of the era that I could find concluding that 97% of young people play games was conducted by Pew Research, and only surveyed people between the ages of 12 and 17.
This was always a terrible joke. Given everything we have since found out about Ubisoft's corporate culture, it looks considerably worse these days. But at least now we have a better idea about how anyone at Ubisoft could have looked at the script Priceman was going to deliver and approved it.
Good Call, Bad Call
BAD CALL: Team Bondi and Rockstar Games' decision to omit developers of L.A. Noire from the game's credits if they were laid off or left the companies before the game's completion. It was a bad call morally because it denied people credit for their work and a bad call strategically because it gave disgruntled developers another reason to talk to the press about the experience of working at Team Bondi, which we would hear a lot more about in the weeks that followed.
BAD CALL: Team Bondi president Brendan McNamara's decision to speak with journalist Andrew McMillen about his investigation into McNamara's abusive leadership style and the studio's dreadful work environment marked by incredibly high turnover and unpaid crunch that was both mandatory and prolonged. It was a landmark bit of investigative gaming journalism that ran on IGN, the first such awful studio exposé I remember seeing on a major gaming news site but far from the last.
WORSE CALL: McNamara's vehement defense of his actions, saying, "I'm not in any way upset or disappointed by what I've done, and what I've achieved. I'm not even remotely defensive about it," a trifling-ends-justify-the-appalling-means argument right up there with Dril's "Drunk driving may kill a lot of people, but it also helps a lot of people get to work on time, so it's impossible to say if its bad or not."
ABSURD CALL: One more Team Bondi quote underscoring what it must have been like to work there, this one from a follow-up article McMillen wrote for us the next month: "Some employees had kids and wanted to change their hours slightly, e.g. instead of working 'officially' from 9 to 7 they wanted to do 8 to 6, but their requests were rejected. So the compromise was that they could have an hour's flexibility on Saturday."
Not to second-guess the editorial decisions of my predecessors, but maybe we probably should have put quote marks around "compromise."
BAD CALL: Shuhei Yoshida's decision to market Sony's new handheld based on what it can't do, saying, "There's no one clear competitor in terms of what NGP offers. NGP's going to establish itself as the unique thing that people want to have. NGP cannot be placed against smartphones. You can't make phone calls on it and it's too big to fit into your pocket."
BAD CALL: Peter Molyneux's decision to market Fable: The Journey based on it doing the same thing as basically any other game, saying, "The most amazing thing about [Fable: The Journey] is that you can play it sitting down."
GOOD CALL: EA CEO John Riccitiello on Nintendo's stage at E3, saying, "Over the past months, we've been telling our employees and consumers that EA is undergoing a transformation. We're changing games from a thing that you buy to a place that you go." Riccitiello wouldn't last at EA to see it, but the company's transformation to live service games has been nothing if not profitable.
BAD CALL: Riccitiello, in the very next sentence: "Nintendo's next console is truly transformational as well: a better platform than we've ever been offered by Nintendo, deeper online capability, and all of it driven by an unprecedented partnership between Nintendo and Electronic Arts."
That "unprecedented partnership" fell apart pretty quickly as the Wii U wasn't even a year old by the time EA decided to drop it entirely. EA wound up shipping just four games for the Wii U: Mass Effect 3, Madden NFL 13, and FIFA Soccer 13 at the system's November 2012 launch, then Need for Speed Most Wanted the following March.
GOOD CALL AT THE TIME: Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg took a dim view of suggestions the company should extend its core franchises into mobile, saying "what we are not doing is just shotgunning all of our games onto mobile."
It's tough to argue with the results of that strategy, but it is pretty funny how between Call of Duty Mobile, Crash Bandicoot: On the Run, and the entirety of Blizzard, "shotgunning all of our games onto mobile" has gone from derisive putdown to Activision Blizzard corporate mandate in under a decade.
BAD CALL: In an E3 interview with us, Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot resorts to one of the silliest industry obsessions in explaining why most of the publisher's games will continue to support stereoscopic 3D, saying, "Especially with characters, you feel the emotion in the characters you meet, 3D can help with that. So we'll see more and more 3D in the characters so that they can be more expressive and we can believe more in their emotion."
There's something very AAA-publisher about deciding games fail to move audiences because they just haven't had enough money and technology thrown at them. But at least this particular strain of sentiment shows up less frequently these days.
BAD CALL: Ubisoft's Michel Ancel told us at an E3 event that Beyond Good & Evil 2 was still in the works, but it was "targeting the next generation of consoles." Despite expanding the concept of a release window to an entire generation, Beyond Good & Evil 2 still missed the PS4 and Xbox One boat.
Ancel is out of game development entirely at this point, but Ubisoft still has Beyond Good & Evil 2 on its upcoming slate, right next to other no-idea-when-they-could-release titles like the company's open-world Star Wars game or its adaptation of James Cameron's oft-delayed next Avatar film, which was set for a December 2022 release when I wrote this but could have been bumped a couple times by the time of publication.
When Beyond Good & Evil 2 was announced in 2008, it had already been in the works for a year and a half. Beyond Good & Evil 2 is now over 14 years in the making. Duke Nukem Forever, the gold standard of games that took an eternity to get out the door, finally released some 15 years after work on the game first started.
Coincidentally enough, Duke Nukem Forever was released 10 years ago this month.
BAD CALL: Gearbox's Randy Pitchford declared Duke Nukem Forever mandatory for gamers on the week of its launch, saying, "One could not be a gamer in this world without consuming that and having that experience. You're just missing out on a ginormous aspect of video games history if you fail to participate. This game's gonna ship and we're all going to be there, so it doesn't matter what the score is."
BAD CALL: Gearbox's Randy Pitchford, in the same piece, boldly predicts Duke Nukem Forever's review scores.
"There's going to be very few of them that decide to go perfect," Pitchford said in a strong contender for understatement of the year.
"It leaves it in this band there where you're going to see a lot of 8s and 9s, and the number in that range doesn't matter. Even if some people start to skew in some 7s in there, it's not going to matter to the actual results in that band of outcomes."
The Xbox version of the game boasts a Metacritic average of 49, with the PC and PS3 versions landing a few points higher.
BAD CALL: Gearbox's Randy Pitchford, still in the same piece, feeds into the industry's abusive fandom problem in order to sell a game, saying, "We know the game's great. Any journalist that decides to try to go... to lowball it is gonna be held accountable by the readers."
BAD CALL: The PR agency of Duke Nukem Forever publisher 2K tweeted that it would hold press outlets accountable for reviews that had "gone too far" by taking them off its mailing lists, a decision that led to 2K finding a new PR agency.
BAD CALL: 505 Games president Ian Howe licensed notorious private military company Blackwater for a Kinect shooting game, saying in a press release that "The Blackwater team is comprised of an amazing group of individuals and we're proud to work with them to create a video game that showcases their talent and courage," even though four of those amazing individuals were then facing charges for using their talents to courageously murder 17 Iraqi civilians.
GOOD CALL: The US Supreme Court struck down a California law prohibiting the sale of violent games to minors and affirmed that games are a legally protected form of speech, which really shouldn't have even been a question given some of the other things that were qualifying for free speech protection at the time.