Sunday, July 22, 2007

E3 2007: A Nerdy Retrospective

For many years, the sunlight deprived lot known as self-proclaimed "hardcore" video gamers have lived for one event - the Electronics Entertainment Expo (Or E3 for short.) - where all the major players in video gaming (And a few smaller developers.) show up to hawk their wares, showing off their planned releases for the rest of the year, and often part of the following year. Members of the gaming press attend and report on the latest news, announcements, and unveilings, while ultimately getting caught up in the hype over every other title - unremarkable as most are these days - and in turn incite each of the console-producing companies' respective fanatics. (Or "fanboys," as it were. Though most gamers treat that like an effective racial slur, in blissful denial of their personal biases. Also, apparently you're not a nerd anymore if you take pride in spending way too much time playing video games. Who'd've thunk it?) That has been the driving force in the game market for some time now though, this misconception that any of these hardware-producing companies have anything to do with you as an individual, and actually care about you on any level beyond your willingness to empty your wallet into their coffers. It's kind of like athletic rivalries - but even more pathetic and utterly meaningless.

In past years, E3 epitomized over the top, from its occupying a much larger area and allowing far more people in to the infamous booth babes. (Because nothing says you're confident in your products like objectifying women to win over the virginal attendees. All that button pushing, and yet there's no game teaching gamers about love. Though the average gamer cares less for a woman's heart than the flesh in front of it anyway.) After the 2006 show, all the major companies began to pull out funding, due to various financial issues, causing E3 to go from an event that would've made Caligula proud (If he'd spent his whole life sitting around "pwning n00bs" on the internet and living on instant ramen noodles, anyway.) to a relatively small show where software takes center stage. And thus, now we take a look at the unremarkable unfolding of this year's major American game show, post-liposuction, as it were.

Microsoft was the first to go up there and effectively shake their goods, as it were. No price drops, arrogant statements, inaccurate figure quotes, and whatnot plagued their press conference. The usual bullshit, in short. But they had a solid software lineup, between the overhyped Halo 3, and a number of other major titles. (Such as Bioshock, Mass Effect, a Viva Pinata party game, Blue Dragon, and Eternal Sonata.) All in all, Microsoft didn't shake the gaming world in any way, but they added some additional worth to the Xbox 360. Yet they're still suffering from rampant stability problems, largely blamed on issues of the hardware overheating, and ultimately, have dug themselves into a financial hole with those problems from which they won't soon be turning a profit.

Nintendo didn't dazzle anybody either this year. Sure, they had a very strong lineup for the DS and Wii, particularly with Super Mario Galaxy, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, and Metroid Prime 3 shown. They even unveiled a new Mario Kart game with further online gameplay. But did the fans particularly care? Of course not. The old "hardcore" crowd - which they're still primarily catering to - feels that they've been completely betrayed. And why? Because Nintendo dared to suggest that gamers exercise. (And that gaming is for more than those of us who spend all of our time playing games or ranting about our hardware of choice on the internet, hunched over a keyboard and letting our health go to waste. And yes, I'm well aware of the irony of my writing all this, given that I'm not much better than that myself, though at least I recognize it and am working to change.) They packed Wii Sports in with the hardware itself, and people in general have had a blast with it, at last being able to interact directly with a fun, light series of sports games with the motion-sensing Wii remote. But apparently that was offensive to those who take pride in their video gaming obsession, as though it in any way places them above others. Strike two, of course, was with the Brain Age and Big Brain Academy games. After all, why would "hardcore gamers" want to sharpen their mental functions and reaction time? Apparently we the "hardcore" are too good for self-improvement. And strike three? The unveiling of Wii Fit. A single casual Wii owner-oriented game with a pressure sensitive board that attaches to the remote, and effectively spurs you to exercise and track your regular progress in improving your health. (On a much more elaborate level than Wii Sports' Fitness Age testing you can do on a daily basis.) A single casual game like that for traditional and non-traditional gaming Wii owners alike to enjoy makes Nintendo a "traitor." There's some funny logic going on there, if you ask me. Personally, I enjoy these newer "casual" games just as I do the more traditional ones. And I can be honest - I'm an out of shape nerd, who really needs to work on that. And fusing exercise with video gaming? That's an effective way to help me along there, sad though it is that it takes that much. Though to me, in the end, the crown jewel of Nintendo's press conference was the announcement of Endless Ocean (The North American name for Forever Blue.), a deep sea diving simulator continuing the adventures from Arika's vastly underrated and overlooked Everblue series. But gamers in general rarely have any appreciation for games as geeky and niche as deep sea diving simulators.

And what did Sony do? They played the Killzone 2 card. Will it live up to the hype? Not likely. Will it make a big difference? Not likely. Just another first-person shooter in the tired genre's veritable sea of mediocrity. (And it's a "me too" game, no less, the big name FPS suddenly becoming critical to Sony in response to Halo - which I honestly couldn't care less about either - which they won't be able to surpass in popularity, when Microsoft was never a serious threat to their former dominance to begin with. They found their successes in copying Nintendo. And their downfall in trying hard to copy Microsoft too, when Microsoft still had yet to find a winning, successful formula in gaming with the Xbox line, having simply been able to bleed money with the first one, and they're having a hard time stopping that with the 360, in handling the overheating issue.) The Sony fanatics rave - as they do with every new PS3 release, hoping that it'll "save" the platform (Why hello there, repeated PSP history.) - but as usual, it's just another unremarkable title with shiny high-definition graphics.

That's of the HD consoles, though. It's all about the graphics, which tend to be stuck on some pretty forgettable games. A sad state the industry's in, in those regards, when Nintendo's the only one keeping focused on substance over dazzling shallow gamers with the shiniest graphics possible. But as I've said, that's E3. It's all about hype, getting the fanboys riled up, making mediocre games look great for a few shining moments, and then it's a downhill coast. "Microsoft pwned." "Sony's king again!" "Nintendo's doomed." Common mantras spouted by the fanatics these days. Does it make any of them true? Not at all.

As an avid but utterly jaded video gamer, E3 provided pretty much what I expected this year - a so-so presentation from Microsoft with some good software, at least, Sony continuing to flail desperately to compete while inciting their fanatical masses, and Nintendo delivering some nice surprises, but nothing mindblowing. At least one of the three's managed to create some worthwhile excitement that won't ultimately be muted by reality like the former two, with Nintendo's track record of delivering on their promises and not overpromising, while Microsoft and especially Sony are guilty of whipping their respective fanatics into a frenzy over what frequently amounts to overhyping of unremarkable, overpriced hardware and software and failing to deliver, and in many cases blatantly lying to get good press. These are factors, of course, in Nintendo's return to the top of the market, in addition to their getting the costs to developers and consumers just right, bringing us some top notch early software, and an innovative new controller video gaming has been dying for, after roughly two decades of playing with the exact same sorts of inputs, and much of the industry painfully stagnant and lacking in imagination and innovation. Having done what they have with the DS and Wii, Nintendo deserves applause, as they really earned their return to the top, perhaps even moreso than the first time. They're the one hardware manufacturer that's keeping gaming exciting these days.

But to reiterate one last time, in the end, the fanatics put too much personal stock into each company, then react violently when another takes to the top of the industry, it's rather sad and speaks of a general lack of maturity - though that's known for hardly being uncommon amongst video gamers - when they overreact in such a way. It's a hobby, and if it's your hobby, you should enjoy it, but not take things so personally. Objective analysis and respect for moves in a better direction while disrespecting greed are one thing, but it's a hobby many of its addicts lack a realistic perspective on. They're games by their very nature and nothing more. Most are completely meaningless at their core, and effectively all are in the grand scheme of things. There's nothing wrong with enjoying them, of course, as we all need to have our fun, but there's something to be said for keeping things in perspective.

At the end of the day, these companies owe you nothing, despite what many in particular insist of Nintendo after a decade of Sony dominance. And no gamer owes them anything either, as they simply provide what we seek to sate our hobby appetites. But no one has to buy any of it, and no one's forcing you either. The gaming populace drifted from Sony to Nintendo, as that's where the majority of games went. That trend is now seeing a shift in reverse, with solid spillover into Microsoft territory - enough to make them an actual contender this generation, technical problems aside. But this time, being larger in number, corporate loyalist fanatics cry out in further anger, as though they'd been some way betrayed, as though Sony were their friend and Nintendo their foe, regardless. Hardly the first time such attitudes have emerged, notably having grown up myself amidst the Nintendo/Sega rivalry. I played both companies' machines and games, rather than choosing sides, and enjoyed both. It's just a shame so many gamers today have fallen into the same old pitfalls.

None of these companies are your friends. They're just making products and looking for your money. And while many self-proclaimed Nintendo nuts cry blasphemy as Nintendo expands the market far beyond their traditional base, undeniably so, they never owed it to them to cater solely to them. Those of us who've kept an eye on the industry for some time know exactly how that's turned out, and had they taken the same route as their competitors, they would've been left relatively out in the cold for a third generation. It was simply a hell of a risky business strategy that's paid off in spades, the directions they've taken with the DS and Wii. They haven't stopped catering to their traditional bases, and yet despite still providing a strong software showing at E3 this year, the sheer fact that they're making a casual game like Wii Fit for a wider audience and releasing it at all is regarded as though Nintendo's spitting in their faces, as though they are simply obligated to produce games solely for their traditional core audience, who frequently complain about everything they do, regardless of the quality of hardware and software. They don't know what they want anymore. When they don't get what they ask for, they complain. When they do, they complain anyway. In the grand scheme of things, they're getting bent out of shape over nothing important. A real waste of energy when they could just take a deep breath, let it go, and actually enjoy themselves with the games for what they are, or even enjoy other hobbies, like people leading healthier lifestyles really could. (Says the uber-geeky hermit-esque internet blogger.)

In the end, to gamers, this has to be said - E3 has changed. The market is changing. The main competitors have all changed, some for the better and some for worse. But gaming doesn't exist solely to please a single group with a strong feeling of self-entitlement. If you don't like the changes that've been happening, that's frankly too bad, because they aren't going to stop just because raving fanatics don't like it. You can either let it go and get used to it, even learn to have fun with different things (As they certainly aren't necessarily worse, and it's not the end of the world that you aren't the one and only consumer anymore. It's just a hobby, after all. Life should've taught you that you aren't the center of that or any universe by now. And growing up should bestow, ideally, at least a modicum of open-mindedness.), or just move on with your life. There's more important things to worry about than whether your favorite gaming hardware producer is crushing their competition. You get nothing out of it personally either way. But it's not worth yours or anyone's time getting so bent out of shape.

E3's all about hype and nothing more, the companies all boasting at their respective press conferences (Though this year, Nintendo was really the only one who had room to celebrate their sales figures, but apparently it's arrogance for them to do that, unlike a certain competitor of theirs that refuses to admit they've gone wrong this generation at all or make any efforts to fix their problems.), fueling flame wars as their fanatics tear into one another over companies who couldn't care less about them to begin with, so much as their wallets. And so they squabble like petty children, each viewing their respective preferred company through rose-colored glasses while often disliking the others. Wild children lock horns out in the wilderness of internet forums. It'd almost be poetic, in a sort of National Geographic documentary sense, if it weren't for that in the end, it's just nerds flipping out at each other on the internet. Making the rest of us look bad by association. Thanks a lot, guys.

(Yes, a painfully indulgent, nerdy post. And my most over-long and rambling to date, no less. The next ones'll be more interesting to non-gamers, I swear. And less tiring to scroll through.)

1 comment:

Josh said...

Not too long. Definitely a worthwhile, even insightful (that must be a really nerdy thing to say) read. You basically articulated my own distaste for the industry, how in my right mind I could only consider buying a PS2 for the sole purpose of playing Katamari Damacy, how I can still play and love my SNES even as those around me say "OMFG U SUX0R LOL!!!!!11"

And hell, non-gamers can get something out of this post too. (Nod to all the writers out there glancing with contempt at the pharmacy fiction rack.) Great as always.