The reactions to a somewhat muted show, almost clinically free from surprises, were expected following this year's event at the LA Convention Center. Microsoft led with the predictable mix of Fable, Halo, Gears of War, and Forza, followed by Sony who at least focused on a couple of new IP's - Beyond: Two Souls and The Last of Us, and Nintendo, who managed to come across as predictable and stale with a new console (how can you even do that?).
But it wasn't the big three who gave us the most cause for concern - no it was the middle class of game publishers - your Capcom, Sega, Konami, Disney, and Warner did little to excite. The choice not to show off Bioshock Infinite left 2K Games with Borderlands 2, Spec Ops: The Line, and Xcom: Enemy Unknown and the next NBA 2K title. If Bioshock Infinite and GTA V are indeed coming this fiscal year, it means that titles that are likely to represent less than a quarter of Take Two sales were on display at the most important gaming event of the year.
As far as the major third parties went Ubisoft looked like stars on the third party arena with the stellar looking Far Cry 3, the fresh feel of Assassin's Creed III, and what was arguably the game of the show - Watch Dogs. EA mirrored Microsoft in being overly predictable - where did the bold premise of EA Partners go? While Activision relied on Call of Duty and licenses - to give us well, not much to write home about.
So what's to blame? Is it E3 that has played out its role? Has the prolonged generation stifled creativity? Are publishers feeling the financial pressure? Is it the end of the retail era that is reflecting on E3? Is it a lack of risk taking that has now completely crippled the industry?
There is certainly a sense of disappointment we're left with. A sense that an era is about to end, a sense that video games may never be the same again. For better and worse.
Would E3 have been better with The Last Guardian, Bioshock Infinite, Grand Theft Auto V, and Half-Life 3 in some shape or form? Definitely. Those four titles could have helped create the illusion that all is well, but the large gaping empty booths of publishers like Sega, Konami, Namco Bandai, and Disney painted a picture that there are bigger problems here than the lack of a few high profile games.
E3 gave us very little indication of what will happen beyond next summer, and I think that's where most of the disappointment lies. This generation has overstayed its welcome, and gamers are hungry for chance. But the industry isn't ready for it, not just yet. Right now, publishers are squeezing the last drops of juice out of this generation, reusing engines, putting on the third, fourth, and fifth sequels on this generation of hardware. It's natural, and there is a sense of some publishers getting ready for a strong showing early on in the next generation while others seem to slip behind, and may be better advised to focus on smaller, more focused projects rather than triple-A next gen efforts.
Another point I'd like to bring up was the apparent lack of star quality developers at the press conferences. Ubisoft did not bring out Michel Ancel. Cliff Bleszinski was not announcing the new Gears of War at the Microsoft conference. For obvious reasons there were no sign of Will Wright or Peter Molyneux, and Hideo Kojima did not come on stage during any press conference. Perhaps I'm getting old, perhaps modern day star developers are less charistmatic, or perhaps everything was just a tad bit too focused on "a wider viewing audience" than us gamer geeks.
The origins of E3 lies with CES, it was something of an appendix, and of all people a cab driver, who up until six months ago worked at Paramount with the upcoming Star Trek game (that is until Paramount pretty much disolved their video game operations), reminded me of just how bad it used to be before my time. One year in Las Vegas (winter CES), the video game industry has relegated to tents in a parking lot, and a rain storm came in over Vegas. The water started rising, and with electrical chords all over the place the industry decided it was time for a show of their own. A show where they wouldn't be relegated to tents outside of the main hall, a show called E3.
Perhaps, E3 2012, marked an end to an era in more ways than one. Given the reactions to E3, and the rise of shows where the public are invited, it may very well be a very different E3 next year. I don't think there are any plans to downsize the show like in the dark years (2007 in Santa Monica, 2008 in meeting rooms at the Convention Center), but perhaps some of it will be toned down, while the show itself opens up more to the current landscape of gaming, where boxed triple-A products are only a small part of a grander landscape.
I think E3 is searching for a new identity, much like the industry as a whole. It's been a comfortable ride for the last ten years or so, without much upheaval, but this is not 2002 and gaming has moved on. If E3 wants to remain as important as it has been, it needs to attract both the biggest of the traditional players like Blizzard and Rockstar, as well all the new players, and movements this industry now sees. How about Apple? Many of the digitally based developers and publishers see little need for large displays at E3 - they didn't need to get where they are so why would they need it now? There are of course positive moves made as well, and E3 seems to want to add a bit more indie flavour to its predictable smorgasbord of triple-A, but there needs to be a bit of soul searching in advance of next year's show. E3 should be a celebration of all current things gaming, and not an archeological excavation of what the industry used to look like.
Do I have any suggestions on how to achieve this? Some perhaps. I think the format with two full days of press conferences was preferable and why not introduce a general ESA held conference to kick things off. The format would be similar to the others, but it would allow smaller developers and publishers the spotlight and focus more on the creators, rather than pimping websites and showing of commercials. It would also allow third parties to get some attention for their announcements even if they don't sign away exclusive DLC to one of the big boys.
Another idea would be to extend E3 into a full week and open it up to the public Friday through Sunday. It would come at a high cost, but then again if the big format style is the way to go, why not go all the way with it? It's not like retailers are filling out order forms at E3 these days, and there isn't a whole lot of business being done in any way, shape or form. A couple of trade only days, and then a fully open show may be a way to bring back some of the enthusiasm.
More games and more of the future of gaming. My main complaint with E3 this year was just a general lack of titles on the floor. It felt empty. And I need to see some hints of what's to come a couple of years down the line. That's what E3 is to me. Disregarding inevitable delays I think I saw a couple of games that are set to be released next summer or later.
Developers are the stars of E3. While it should be said that developers are still the main focus of E3 I think we've lost a little focus in the most recent years. I don't think Snoop Dogg is going to sell an awful lot of Tekken Tag Tournament 2 (sorry, Namco Bandai). And while Flo Rida and Usher, are natural fits with the brands they represented (Just Dance and Dance Central), I think the kind of stars we need from Hollywood/Lalaland are Matt Parker and Trey Stone. Creatives who actually invest themselves personally in creating a game. Still, I think E3 has an obligation to highlight the best creative minds of our industry - this is the show their creations built, let's not lose sight of that.
The sad truth is that when an event like E3 is facing a crisis like this one, it is unlikely that the result will be a bigger effort. The last time E3 was under pressure it took refuge in Santa Monica. But with the next generation due to be unveiled next year, that doesn't seem like an option and hopefully the organisers are able to rally the troops in twelve months to produce an E3 that equals or surpasses that of 2005 when this generation was first presented.