Wednesday, July 16, 2008

E3 2008 at a Long-Winded Glance

So, we're two days into the yearly gaming convocation of the pale and pasty known as the Electronics Entertainment Expo. Rumored to be the last one yet this year, with funding continually dropping each year - notably especially since it stopped being a big Sony/Microsoft lovefest, with Nintendo stealing the show each year with the DS and Wii - it's hard to say where exactly E3's future lies. (Particularly when taking into consideration all the individual shows many publishers have been giving their developers as of late.) E3's always a major point of contention for the fanboy (Now an officially recognized word by Merriam-Webster! Though their definition is sorely lacking the strong negative connotation the term carries.) crowds, as each argue over which company "won" the show. With the big three having given their press conferences - Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony - now, I'm going to take this first post to just give you a simple at-a-glance look at each of the companies' showings and determine which I felt "won" the show. Later this week when the expo's over, I'll do another post highlighting forthcoming Wii and DS games of interest - I'm focusing on my own personal preferences overall here as is, and all things considered, those are the two most successful and popular platforms on the market now anyway, so it should hopefully make for more interesting reading. (At least, for those of you who might be interested in reading about this sort of thing.)

Let's start with Sony. They seem to have largely pushed the press and developers to declare them the winner of E3. (They're pretty desperate for some good publicity at this point, after all.) Are they? Of course not. These past couple of years, they've largely shown their ineptitude in the grand scheme of gaming. Their decade of success can largely be attributed to copying the SNES controller, slapping a couple more shoulder buttons on, and adding a couple of awkwardly placed analog sticks. (Their whole rather spiteful entry into gaming following Nintendo's rejection of the terrible deal they'd proposed, in wanting to absorb Nintendo into Sony in exchange for a so-so CD drive for the SNES having ultimately been overwhelmed by this general sense of "Anything you can do, I can do better" towards Nintendo, to whom they owe much of their design success.) Sony started with some of their rather typical arrogance, declaring 2008 "the year of PS3." The sales numbers - as much time as they've spent in four digits on a weekly basis - do not agree. Nor do software sales on the whole, outright lackluster third party (And even first party) success in producing worthwhile software on the system, and hopes pinned on Devil May Cry 4, Metal Gear Solid 4, and Grand Theft Auto IV "saving" the system this year. (A similar mantra we saw with the PSP, every other big-name release being promised to be the one to make the hardware and software sales explode. Hardware sales did eventually take off, but more as a media player and piracy machine, while still ultimately failing to be a contender against the iPod as a media player anyway. Software sales remained in the toilet, with very little market share to speak of in the portable gaming market, still rightfully dominated by the DS, even despite how much DS piracy there is out there as well.) We've seen a lot of "4" titles in franchises drop this year after tremendous amounts of fanfare. None of them were particularly remarkable - let alone great - games. Simply victims of tons of hype and frequent less than professional reviews that - especially in MGS4 and GTAIV's cases - blatantly glossed over numerous serious flaws. (And even Konami outright publicly asked the press not to criticize MGS4. That says something right there. The game's a fairly incoherent FMV movie with 4-5 hours of clunky gameplay. Even Hideo Kojima is in no way above producing heavily flawed software, and his personal ego has been on full display this year. Though in having finished the game, I'm hoping we'll be seeing more of his Project S Snatcher revival for the Wii with Suda 51 soon, seeing as Suda is almost done with Fatal Frame IV on the Wii now - which actually looks to be a quality 4th entry in the series, Fatal Frame notorious for being a brilliant and terrifying cult survival horror series.) And suffice to say, the "4" games all ended up being bigger boosts to the Xbox 360 overall, seeing bigger sales on that platform. Continuing in their arrogance, Sony bragged about how "developers love the PS3" (Something we're not seeing honestly all that believable testimony on, considering the average honest quality of games on that system and that ultimately, it's been a money-eating sinkhole for nearly every developer that's released a game on it.), and ultimately effectively claiming that these first couple of years count because they have a "10-year plan" for the system. More general corporate writing off of massive market failures sans the momentum to turn things around - though the Sony fanatics do love to claim the console has some kind of magical amazing momentum driving it forward. Reality contradicts this claim at every turn. The games they showed largely amounted to Little Big Planet - their overhyped download platformer for PSN that has some neat ideas going for it, sure, but it doesn't honestly look like the most inspired or honestly soulful game ever designed. (A recurring trend in platformers we see on Sony systems trying to aim for a similar market to Nintendo's platformers.) And likewise, with its download content focus, microtransactions seem to be a key part of the game. The Wii, frankly, has something far more interesting going for it in BlastWorks, with the ability to effectively create full games within the game, upload your content and download others' content from the BlastWorks Depot website, and share it with friends - all for free, no less. They also started hyping Resistance 2, as they have been Killzone for 2 years now. More generic FPSes that were lackluster to begin with and while they have technically impressive graphics, the games look utterly uninspired. More of Sony's core strategy with the PS3 this generation, which seems to largely come down to shouting, "Hey look we're the Xbox 360 but Playstation, you like our brand name more!" Though the Playstation brand name means little to nothing now. They've successfully killed it with the PS3 and PSP, which are both failures as good gaming platforms and products of pure corporate arrogance. As for their next showing, DC Universe Online, another Sony Online Entertainment MMORPG focused around DC comics superheroes. That alone is pretty much all that needs to be said to make it sound as lackluster as it really looks overall. SOE doesn't have a track record of making great games, despite having made influential MMOs in the Everquest games. They're nowhere near the forefront now, and as superhero MMOs go, City of Heroes already has that market pretty much cornered. They also showed Ratchet & Clank: Quest for Booty. Yet another Ratchet & Clank game. The franchise that goes to show that the Sony fanatics really don't have any room to criticize Nintendo for making lots of sequels to their franchises. (Especially given that Nintendo makes 1-2 new installments tops for a few franchises each generation, while bringing lots of new stuff to the table.) Ratchet & Clank has, in many capacities, been one of the gaming franchises most quickly run into the ground in gaming history, having worn out its welcome and stopped doing anything remarkable or new after its third installment on the PS2. On which note, they also hyped yet another Gran Turismo (In hopes that hardcore car fanatics will somehow make the PS3 into a hit) and some MAG massive online shooter in the same vein as SOCOM, which in and of itself is an extremely overhyped franchise and nothing special worth noting in the grand scheme of gaming. Apparently the key to the "future of gaming" in Sony's eyes is even more hype for games that largely come down to shooting at lots of people online. Clearly, they are prophets. What could be better or more original than shooting at lots of people online?! They showed a predictably dull teaser trailer for God of War 3, the series that's teaching many to groan at every mention of David Jaffe's name now, having pretty much squandered what notability he'd once garnered in gaming through the Twisted Metal games in the past. God of War is a series that was contrived from its very conception. "Kratos was an ordinary everyman who'd fought in wars against demons in the past. Then Aries, the god of war, showed up, and it was time for him to turn into a vicious psychopath (Which they sell to you as some kind of "badass.") who murdered his family and went on a rampage killing everyone and everything else through a bunch of repetitive and uninspired stages as blood sprayed everywhere and he even has sex in a minigame! You've never played a game so mature!" Ugh. Then of course, they go and ret-con his past in the PSP installment by making him the exact same vicious psychopath in that as well, establishing him as a one-note insulting character in an incredibly bad series that people love simply because the sheer amount of over the top violence and sex/nudity elements in the games have helped to blind many to the poor quality of the game itself. (After all, if Sony hypes and releases an M-rated game, it must be a masterpiece. You don't feel like you're twelve if you're playing a game where you kill things with tons of blood and have sex and all the women wear see-through clothing or simply have their breasts hanging out for "historical accuracy." (Note: It isn't actually historically accurate.)) They're hoping to finish "Home," their bad Second Life-esque microtransaction and advertisement riddled chat and game organization frontend, by this fall. Nothing revolutionary or remarkable there, but naturally it's being hyped by their fanatics as though it were the greatest thing since sliced bread. They announced yet another PS3 SKU, this time a $400 one with an 80gb hard drive and no backwards compatibility. Sony "listens to their fans," you see. And yes, apparently their fans are all quite adept at reverse psychology, as despite all they've said outright, what they actually want is for Sony to pretend the PS2 never happened and never give them backwards compatibility for it. (In short, if you want the best of what Sony had to offer to gaming, stick to the PS2, which plays both PSX and PS2 games. Don't buy anything beyond those.) That price is still far out of most consumers' price range for a video game system as well, so in the end, like prior price drops, it won't produce much in the way of a sales bump. Likewise, even 80 gigabytes isn't all that much when you consider the forced-install trends on the system. Being able to install and play 8-12ish games on the system at once without having to delete one's files and spend a while installing another's? Boy, that sure is gaming convenience. Then the rest of their conference was spent on the PS2 - which is continuing to drop in sales as it heads towards its demise as the last of the past generation's consoles pass away (Understandable, given the library produced on the hardware, given that Sony still dominated then.) - and PSP, which got another firmware update most people don't care about as those who actually use the official firmware seem to be in an effective minority, PSP piracy being extermely easy and far more appealing to most than supporting the software. (Much of which just isn't worth it.) As usual, their spokespeople filled the conference with arrogant posturing. And they showed off their attempts to take from the Wii - which simply amounted to their own News and Weather channels - nothing their fans asked for, and nothing that'll meaningfully benefit the system. (Just further evidence that, like Microsoft and many third parties, they don't get at all why the Wii is doing so well.) Also of note, Sony lost their biggest exclusive - their effective "last hope" in 2009 - to the Xbox 360, with it now announced as getting a port. But I'll cover that in the next paragraph, having gone on for far too long in this one. Suffice to say, despite all the loud hype and angry fanboyism, no, the PS3 and Sony did not "win" E3. What we got from them was a tremendous amount of hyperbole as they continue to hurtle downwards in gaming. They're no longer truly relevant, and anyone who's spent their lives observing the industry's politics and keeping your own biases in check - while also being aware of them (I'll give any company a shot, but I won't hesitate to disagree with a company's decisions or philosophies, regardless of who they are. I give praise where praise is due, the same goes for criticism, and no company is safe. Sony's give far too much favoritism by the media and fans alike, as this generation in particular has gone to show, the bottom line is that the PSP and PS3 are both failed systems and Sony's shown no sign of checking their ego and learning from their mistakes - let alone adapting to the changing industry. They're charging ahead to their own demise.), Sony is simply on their way out. Letter grade-wise, I'd give them a D. And frankly, that's being generous.

Microsoft didn't do too badly at all. Definitely one of their better E3s, I'd say, though they weren't without their moves that also earned them ire from their base - largely in their own efforts to try to create Wii-like appeal on their platform where their base didn't want them to, and failing to do so in an effective manner. I'll get to that in a second, though. Their biggest news is their effectively driving the final stake through Sony's heart - in recognizing that they wouldn't make a profit on the PS3 (And needed to expand to more successful platforms, the 360 doing well in the west, and the Wii doing brilliantly everywhere (Making it even more likely that the XIVth installment will be on the Wii.).), Square-Enix is bringing Final Fantasy XIII, the "PS3's "final hope," to the Xbox 360. This veritable megaton dropped at Microsoft's conference, and effectively won them E3 in most's eyes. (Unlike the paid off press in favor of Sony.) Personally, I absolutely applaud this smart move and am glad to see such a deserved slam to the PS3 for all that it stands for at Sony, but I wouldn't call Microsoft the "winner" this year either. A very strong second place, though, for sure. It's hard not to get more than a little schadenfreude out of the fanboy tears cried over the loss of FFXIII PS3 exclusivity. Other news included Geometry Wars 2, another good game for Xbox Live Arcade. (Though frankly, it still doesn't look as deep as Geometry Wars Galaxies on the Wii, still the best game in the series, though GW2 does have online play, at least.) Another big gain - though not one I count towards the victory much in focusing on things as a gamer - was the 360's getting exclusive access to the Netflix library for user downloads. In the grand scheme of gaming, that means nothing, so at a game show, it certainly shouldn't be part of a system "winning." But it's still a very nice gain, so kudos to them for that. They also unveiled a new dashboard and a Mii-knockoff avatar system replacing avatar pictures (Which many 360 owners actually paid for.), with avatars that replace the pictures while not actually functioning within games as plug-in player proxies like the Miis. Probably different enough to just barely skirt a potential lawsuit, but overall, while the dashboard is slicker, these are changes that have earned a great deal of ire from the usual Xbox 360 crowd, in their being part of Microsoft's efforts to effectively Wii-ify their platform. Will it work in drawing away the Wii crowd? Of course not. They don't understand the Wii's success either. Rather inexplicably, they opted to add Sony's installation feature from the PS3 as well, which makes no real sense and is a very negative trend that should be getting discouraged on consoles. The inconvenience of it and the issues of managing hard drive space as it all gets squandered on filling it with the files necessary to play a game are among the reasons console gaming has been crushing the PC gaming market for years. Taking away the simple plug-in-and-play core of the console experience separating it from PC gaming is a fairly suicidal and in general terrible move. It was only enabled on the PS3 to begin with to compensate for piss poor read speeds on the system's Blu-Ray drive to begin with, making the terrible load times slightly more bearable. So again, Microsoft was certainly not avoiding making mistakes this E3. Both Sony and MS made moves to copy each other and the Wii, and in general, have been making some outright bad and often in the least questionable decisions in the process, both of them scrambling to become serious competitors to the Wii. (When neither of them will be. They stand less of a chance now than the Gamecube and Xbox did to the PS2 last gen.) Banjo Kazooie was confirmed for Xbox Live Arcade, which is a nice gain as well, and a great game. The whole situation seems kind of suspicious from the legal standpoint, given the N64 base for the game, so I'm wondering exactly how they managed to pull this off, but in general, I'm just happy to still have my original N64 cart of the game. (Though I never did get Banjo Tooie, sadly. Missed Blast Corps as well, but I've got Jet Force Gemini and the original Diddy Kong Racing as well. At least Donkey Kong 64's a lock for the VC, given that Nintendo owns the whole game.) And otherwise, Microsoft just hyped more of the same old expected games. Fable II, Halo Wars, Gears of War 2, the rather messy looking new Banjo Kazooie game, the new Viva Pinata sequel, and so forth. Not a bad software lineup, but on the whole, just more of the same. I'm looking forward to the Viva Pinata games when I finally get a 360 down the line, myself, anyway. And I'm definitely checking out the DS one later this year. Overall, Microsoft's conference this year was a very mixed bag. A huge blow against Sony and the PS3, an awkward effort to follow the Wii which simply won't help appeal to that crowd, and more of their usual sort of software. As letter grades go, I'd give them a solid B. FFXIII keeps it from being a B-.

And after these three, I get to Nintendo. E3 was definitely theirs again this year. Their first big unveiling was Wii MotionPlus, a new peripheral. The other two were both rumored to have "Wii Remote Killers" in the works, which came to naught. (Nintendo has the tech patents on the Wiimote anyway, making it much harder to copy without a ridiculous amount of R&D.) MotionPlus is effectively an add-on attachment to upgrade the Wii Remote, which attaches to the bottom of the controller where the nunchuk usually does (And the nunchuk can be attached directly to the MotionPlus from there.), and improves the Wii Remote's motion capabilities, finally fully allowing 1:1 motion controls, making it possible for games to replicate physical motions exactly - particularly useful for all sorts of games, from FPSes to swordfighting/lightsaber games, sports games, etc. It'll be coming out this fall, packaged with the Wii Sports sequel, Wii Sports Resort, for $50. (Wii Sports Resort being a summer resort sports themed follow-up, which looks similarly excellent as the original packaged with the Wii console itself.) The long-awaited new Animal Crossing life sim, Animal Crossing City Folks, was unveiled as well. The visuals are slightly disappointing, not having been a big graphical leap forward from Wild World on the DS - but then, the series was always more about its style over the technical prowess of the graphics, and the game does still look very visually smooth, while still as addictive, deep, and fun as you'd expect. The rolling-world presentation of Wild World returned and looks better than ever, with even more depth to the atmosphere (Which is a big part of the Animal Crossing experience in general, being one of the few game franchises geared towards being relaxing for everyone.) and some nice city areas in your town. More good WiiConnect24 features, and online WiFi play based around Wild World's simple and enjoyable gameplay act as the icing on the cake. It's also going to be the first game that uses Nintendo's newly unveiled voice chat system, WiiSpeak, which will be sold separately for $30. I'll probably pass on it for a while, as voice chat's not a big issue to me, but nonetheless it brings yet another feature to the Wii that people have been begging for, so it's certainly a good thing, if not kind of on the overpriced side. (Admittedly, I'll be waiting till I have my own income - hopefully sometime within the next year if I can get Project 27 Days published by then - before I finally go after MotionPlus and WiiSpeak. The inevitable internal space limitations solution is more important to me, since I'm pretty much holding off on WiiWare - and there are many WiiWare games out that I want now - until I know space won't be as big of an issue anymore. I was, admittedly, disappointed by lack of a solution shown for that at their conference, but we'll no doubt see said solution within the year.) After all the rumors were wrong about it appearing this year, gamers threw fits over lack of Kid Icarus at E3, but we still have no official confirmation that there's even a new game being made in that series at this point. Better not to get too invested in rumors, as this showed again. Nintendo discussed strong third party game sells in North America, a far higher attach rate than the 360 in its first 19 months (Running distinctly counter to the 360 crowd's attempts to paint Wii owners as people who don't buy games. And Nintendo doesn't count Virtual Console or WiiWare sales in their attach rates.) Likewise, the Wii library's approaching double that of the PS3's. (Once again, disc games only. It'd just be downright unfair dominance if the Virtual Console and WiiWare were taken into account as well, considering how much more those offer over XBLA and PSN.) New games discussed included Call of Duty 5 looking very impressive in the series finally getting treatment on the Wii equal to the other two, more Pokemon Ranger, a Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars unveiled for the DS (A likely first step towards GTA coming to the Wii as well - big gains, at any rate. Chinatown Wars was confirmed to be set in a modern day Liberty City.), Wii travel guides in the work, Shaberu Cooking Master on the DS being confirmed for the west, confirmation of lots of great Wii Music details, and mention that new Wii Zelda and Mario games are indeed it in the works. Rayman Raving Rabbids TV Party looks fun as well, a DS version of Spore was confirmed to be in planning. And in acknowledging that the competition was dying to imitate them and would, in time, figure out how to copy the trends they're setting, they announced that next generation will be all about disrupting the Wii to keep moving gaming forward progressively while staying on top of things. That could mean all sorts of exciting things. Exciting as this generation is, has been, and is continuing to be, next generation's sounding even more exciting already. Overall, I'd give Nintendo's press conference a B+. Not a flawless showing, but still a very strong one, and the strongest of the big three overall.

In short, the big three this year come down to: A) Sony continuing to arrogantly spout hyperbole while falling further and further behind, having not been humbled in the slightest by their failures. B) Microsoft giving us more of what we've come to expect with some awkward efforts to appeal to the Wii crowd, and acquiring a huge game, effectively nailing Sony's coffin shut in gaming. C) Nintendo showed a couple major new peripherals for the Wii along with some top notch games for both casual and core gaming audiences, though it would've been nice to hear about a storage solution and more on future channels, WiiWare, and DS games. The third parties are especially helping to round things out for Nintendo this year though, with the Wii the market leading console this generation. I'll elaborate on that in my next post here.

At any rate, if this sort of thing interests you, I hope you found it an intriguing read. Stay tuned later this week for my Wii/DS software highlight post, looking more into again, exactly why those two definitely have the most exciting software lineups. Thanks again, to those of you who've stuck around this blog at all during its periods of inactivity.

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