[Gamasutra editor-at-large Leigh Alexander reflects on the just-wrapped E3 2011, parsing industry observations and major takeaways from an event that promised exciting possibilities for the business even as it kept beauty and nuance at arm's length
E3 comes just about a week after Activision made the big reveal of its Elite
service for Call of Duty
. At the event, most major publishers were eager to demonstrate they haven't been sleeping on what many seem to feel is one of the most important trends in gaming.
No longer is the broad connectivity of online platform services enough. Publishers believe their audiences want social wrappers unique to major franchises everywhere it makes sense.
showed that Call Of Duty
's hardest-core fans seem to view play almost as a sport, which needs leagues, competitive events, video records and ways to train for improvement. It makes sense for EA Sports titles like Madden
to take the same steps, and they did.
In fact, as its presentation prominently sported its new Origin platform at numerous turns, EA seemed to be promising richer social networking features for pretty much everything it makes.
It's a new level of savvy for traditional game publishers around social networking; the core game industry's clearly learning how to serve gamers' social behavior in a more fluid way. As a result, one of the bigger themes of this year's E3 is a game industry that no longer splinters into core versus casual, online versus console, and social versus multiplayer so clearly as it once did.
Many major franchises are offering multiple entry points, from Facebook and mobile to online and retail alike. That will allow fans of a franchise to tailor their level of involvement, and interact with a game through the avenues they find most accessible. The modern gaming audience lives on a spectrum now. It's a complex gradient where the addressable audience is broader, and where trying to target consumers by old metrics like age, genre or platform preference will become increasingly irrelevant.
As a result, there's so much territory to tackle that another theme emerges: The third-party publishers are more different from one another than ever. There are so many choices for how to set a brand against the market that major publishers are rapidly skewing toward what they are best at, and find most important. A glance at the show floor proves it.
Compare Activision's booth, a looming shrine to Modern Warfare 3
, against EA's white, modular offering where its sports portfolio and The Sims
games drew most of the eye and ear, against 2K's booth, a series of small homes for its boutique owned IP. It seems impossible now to conceive of a time when they might each try to compete with the same type of game.
Because highly visible at E3 this year was also the "go big or go home" nature of the video game industry in recent years. Publishers seem finally to understand that if they are to play in core retail, they must release the best title in their genre, or must innovate on a genre, else they might as well throw their dollars in a fire. There were no middling titles on anyone's marquee this year; the quality level of core retail titles on offer was across the board higher than it's ever been.
And this year's event played more squarely to the traditional market than ever before. Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo seemed eager to emphasize that their newest mass-market devices -- motion-controlled Kinect and Move and touch-based Wii U -- had numerous applications for core games.
Wise to the way enthusiasts tune out exercise games and movie license tie-ins, the press conferences went extreme with a glut of shooters. With Modern Warfare 3, Battlefield 3, Ghost Recon, Brothers in Arms: Furious 4, Halo 4, Gears of War 3
and beyond, ears were ringing from grenades and rat-a-tat.
The "extreme core" feel extended beyond guns, of course. To see the booth of Square Enix dominated not by dreamy Japanese RPGs but by a bandaged, bone-crunched, half-drowned and body-beaten Lara Croft in Tomb Raider
was nearly surreal.
It was the most visible testament to how the power of Japanese design -- which has traditionally focused on more aesthetic imagery and a wider array of genre niches -- has shrunk in the West (Square Enix acknowledged this
, saying it felt 'humiliated').
Booth babes were back, too. After a few years wherein the industry seemed eager to prove it was adult and welcoming by banishing scantily-clad promotional models from its floor, the industry brought out plenty of costumed women once again. Duke Nukem Forever
is finally launching, unapologetic about its arrested development, and who knows if it hasn't led the rest of the industry to gleefully reject the idea of trying to look progressive.
The downside to all this core-pandering was a fairly predictable show. There was plenty to see and do and admire, but little to be surprised by. BioShock Infinite
gave a truly breathtaking demo, but then again, we were expecting it to.
The hyper-focus on AAA action entertainment, and the blistering levels of quality and realism the industry's beginning to achieve seem actually counteractive. One view down a gun sight, one shambling zombie, one plummeting bridge starts to blend with another.
The cinema-chasing seems to be leading many games off the path of what's most exciting about interactive entertainment: its power to engage the imagination through abstraction, by creating a visual language, by encouraging curious exploration and self-empowerment. Just like miming weaponry for the Kinect camera, the feel is unpleasantly literal. At E3 companies showed plenty that was lifelike, but much less that was beautiful.
Nonetheless, it's thrilling to see the level of mastery developers have achieved over technology, and mastery must precede major innovation, after all.
It's hard not to watch all the attention-grabbing setpieces, all that money
the games industry seems to have, and the breadth of market penetration certain properties seem poised to attain and feel proud for the games business. The ESA often says that one of E3's goals is to make people excited about games; the medium is exploding in size and possibility, and that's quite exciting for now.