Microsoft Pulls its Punches
On the one hand, it’s kind of surprising just how satisfying one of these E3 press conferences can go when the company focuses on showing rather than telling. Microsoft didn’t try to let market-tested messaging get in the way of the actual games it wanted to show off. While still awash in meaningless vanilla descriptors like “unique,” “innovative,” and “dramatic, all of Microsoft’s on-stage presenters made a point of not tripping themselves up with convoluted details and buzzwords.
On the other hand though, this meant the press conference was also extremely light on details or commitments. Microsoft’s future plans for the Kinect remain nebulous and there’s still no word on how precisely cloud computing will help deepen the user experience with Xbox One games.
Fable Legends is a good example. Microsoft said and showed just enough to spur people’s imaginations about what the game would include without putting forth many clear-cut specifics that might limit the possibilities bubbling around in people’s heads.
The idea of a co-operative dungeon crawler that focuses on player designed enemy encounters and customized party load-outs that cuts out any room for narrative ambition is a win in my book. I don’t expect big things from Fable anymore, and a new entry that forgoes a mangled narrative and undelivered-on promises in favor of an engrossing, core gameplay conceit and loop seems a smart direction for the series to head in.
But this is me giving everything Microsoft showed of the game the benefit of every doubt. Who knows how the game will play, what its connective tissue will consist of, or what Microsoft’s plan will be for maintaining a steady stream of add-on content and DLC.
Now I’d never heard of Phantom Dust before today, but if it’s anything like the original (which I Googled after the event), it could also be a nice deviation from the shooting, stabbing, and sandbox aimlessness that most major console releases provide. Again though, who knows, because aside from a neat trailer and some attempts to leverage the apparent “cult” status of the original, Microsoft didn’t outline the kinds of things you’ll even do in the game, let alone its basic premise (which is probably important if most of the people in your audience don’t even remember the IP source-material, unlike with Killer Instinct).
On the positive side, however, a lack of information at least means that Microsoft could indulge in a minimal amount of PR hackery. There are worse things than letting fans’s imaginations run wild with speculation, and for people (like myself) who primarily just care about games, there are worse things than a listicle-style press conference that simply lays out the loose contours of the Xbox One’s upcoming release line-up.
Sony Hammers Social
Sony outlined its priorities for gaming at the very start of the show: being connected, visual quality, choice, and community. In what’s become something of a theme for this E3, social gaming has become the unofficial holy grail for console manufacturers looking to increase player engagement and loyalty. When I bought my Xbox 360, it wasn’t for any other reason than that it’s what my friends had. I wanted to play Call of Duty, Borderlands and Portal with them, so bought into the platform they were already part of.
Sony’s announcement that PS4 users will soon be able to upload video content directly to their YouTube channels is part of a campaign (that so far seems to be working) to reverse last-gen trends. The (relative) ease of capturing and editing gameplay on the PS4 before exporting it to social media certainly helps make the platform more inviting, even if people like me are there primarily for the games, and services like PlayStation Plus. As frivolous as social media connectivity might have seemed a year ago,
I can personally attest to the urge to Instagram anything and everything, and gaming’s not much different. In fact, in the same way I want to share a picture of the meal I just spent an hour or two preparing, defeating a boss, completing a stealth mission perfectly, or delivering a particularly deadly and flawless combo in a fighting games are exactly the kinds of things I instinctively want to share with others.
And as games begin to look more beautiful and more detailed (I’m looking at you No Man’s Sky), Pokemon Snap-like features become a mini-game in themselves. Infamous: Second Son players generated tons of gorgeous in-game screenshots, and the ability to do so gives them a new and different (and less violent) way to explore games.
Everyone at E3 is talking about “worlds.” The specific mechanics and systems which govern what players will do in games like Far Cry 4 and The Division aren’t discussed so much as what it will feel like to be in those worlds. Companies want to create “immersive” “persistent” experiences rather than just games in the most basic sense of the word.
And this makes sense for companies looking to create franchises that will hold on to players, afford lots of DLC opportunities, and potentially even chances to incorporate micro transactions (which is easier to do in multiplayer games than solo campaigns). With this emphasis on world building in mind, the two games I cam away from Sony’s press conference most excited for were Arkham Knight and No Man’s Land. Both look to include intricate and exotic locales that I want to visit and explore, even if the actual gameplay once I’m there is either derivative or bare-bones.
In the end, these E3 PR events feel less like infomercials for nearly complete products than the posters on the wall at a travel agency, each hinting at the idea of a place I might eventually be able to go and see for myself. And even if I never do, the fact that I someday could keeps the daydream alive and offers something imaginative and comforting to hold on to.
Nintendo Stays the Course
I’ve been genuinely surprised by how warmly Nintendo’s E3 offering was received today, if fans and critics in my Twitter feed are any indication. We learned that Nintendo is pretty much doing what it always does, except in ways that are a little more on the mark than usual.
The Zelda slated to arrive in 2015 will apparently be a semi-seamless open-world game that takes the core premise from the original game and re-animates it in a lush, fully-realized, 3D environment. Judging by the little Nintendo showed of it, this is the Zelda game people have wanted since before Skyward Sword. Getting it just over four years later, and nearly three since the Wii U first released, is apparently good enough.
Besides a new Zelda, Nintendo showed off a number of other titles derived from its core franchises: a new Yoshi game, a new pseudo-Mario game featuring Toad, and a level designer called Mario Maker. Each of these looked like fun and were a welcome departure from the rampant machismo accosting the rest of E3 press events. Even taken together though, along with much anticipated Smash and Zelda sequels, they don’t feel like enough to help the Wii U approach critical mass anytime soon.
Third party developers are great at delivering big, “must-have” titles. Between Dragon Age: Inquisition, The Witcher 3, and Bloodborne (as well as the already released Dark Souls II), we don’t really need another medieval beast-slaying simulator. But other console owners at can at least choose the one they’d prefer, while Wii U owners have none. The same goes for shooters, of the space marine variety and others.
I would have liked to see Nintendo demonstrate a commitment to more smaller and mid-tier projects. What other consoles have with their big, quarterly releases, Nintendo should be making up for with a bevy of Link Between Worlds experiments, a steady stream of virtual console releases, and one or two core franchise releases.
Tropical Freeze was a great platformer, and Yoshi’s Woolly World looks like it will be as well, but I’d easily forgo it if that meant getting a spiritual successor to Super Metroid, a localization of Mother 3, and a number of other, smaller pet projects (like Mega Man 11). If Nintendo’s commitment to capable but limited hardware is going to leave an AAA sized hole in its software library, it needs to do more to make up for it with a greater number of bit-sized games.