E3 2011 “Big 3” Press Conferences

Microsoft

Microsoft opened E3 this year and blindsided attendees — digital and otherwise — and not in a good way, either. The pomp and circumstance of past years’ high-energy opening montages was replaced with a sudden, introduction-less demonstration of a game which soon proved to be the highly-anticipated Modern Warfare 3. Thus began a sloppy, often insipid presentation that had no unity or flow and left me rather unenthusiastic about the coming year in gaming on the Xbox 360.

All the usual suspects were present: another Call of Duty, another Gears of War (complete with ebullient-as-ever Cliff Bleszinski at the helm), another year of franchise sports games, another super-realistic racing game. But the energy really never arrived. Perhaps that’s because I’m a gamer, first and foremost, and what I love is well-crafted interactive stories experienced from a primarily sedentary position. I predicted no middle ground, and indeed, there was none: Microsoft said a whole lot of nothing.What Microsoft offered instead, for the most part, was a slew of games that require you to get off the couch and flail, most of which concentrate so much on the control mechanics of still-nascent Kinect technology that they seem to have forgotten the necessary factors of good game-making: plot, interesting characters, exciting environments.

The idea of being able to wield a lightsaber, for example, is fool-proof enough to pique the interest of even a non-fan like me — but as I yawned through the Kinect Star Wars demonstration, I couldn’t help but notice that that was it: lightsaber wielding in a bland, characterless environment. Fun for five minutes, maybe, but certainly not worth the time or money one typically invests into a new game.

On the other side of the Kinect coin is the precise issue I raised last year with Sony’s Tiger Woods demo, which is that ultra-realism in sports games shouldn’t be a goal for video game makers. The more realistic your golf swing can be, the more realistic it will need to be for you to do well; eventually, only real golfers will have fun with golf games, and they’ll be too busy playing real golf to care. I sense a serious risk that in pursuing this level of “interactivity” with the Kinect, Microsoft (and game companies in general) will alienate their core audience: gamers.

Over the weekend I predicted one of two possible outcomes for Microsoft: they’d stick with what we already knew was coming and bore us to death, or they’d pull out something shocking and generate tremendous buzz. I saw no middle ground, and indeed, there was none: Microsoft said a whole lot of nothing, and not even Halo 4 could resuscitate the flatliner that was this presser.

Sony

Jack Tretton began the conference the way he more or less had to: with an apology surprisingly devoid of the cynicism and vitriol that tends to drip from Sony executives’ words; one might even call it heartfelt, which is all the more impressive when one considers that the intrusions on the PlayStation Network have hardly been Sony’s fault.

Actions speak louder than words, however, and Sony’s best thank-you to its fans came in the form of the flood of incredible titles in the PlayStation canon set for release in the coming year and a half. Sony’s two prize horses, Naughty Dog and Insomniac, dominated the first half of the show with the third entry in each company’s respective stables used as a platform for advertising Sony’s latest attempt to try to make bulky, expensive glasses look chic. Yet it was the surprise return of my PS2 trifecta favorite, Sly Cooper, that most excited me, both on principle and the stunningly updated look featured in the teaser. This after inFamous 2, Dust 514 (a new FPS branch to the staggering EVE universe) along with a BioShock Infinite gameplay trailer, a Star Trek game, and a slew of PS3 exclusive perks solidified Sony’s position as the day’s clear victor in the console battle for E3 dominance; yet Sony was just getting started.

Looking ahead, Sony seems poised to take the lead after years of lagging behind the other two heavyweights of the gaming industry.PlayStation Vita (almost immediately rebranded “PSV”) wasn’t much of a surprise, but its quality was; even with the lack of a direct video feed — limited instead to an over-the-shoulder shot of a person playing onstage — the difference between Vita and its predecessor was incredibly clear. The presence of Drake and BioShock titles, in addition to home-brewed titles like Ruin and ModNation, got me genuinely excited, something the $300 price tag (for 3G models) hardly dampered — though as the general groaning across the theater suggests, I can’t say the same about the announcement of AT&T exclusivity. A proud owner of an iPhone and a member of the AT&T network myself, I must still question the decision to saddle developing technology with a single provider, particularly one with such a history of upsetting geeks as this. Time will tell if that decision hinders sales of the shiny new tech this holiday season when it launches.

Though I’m still crossing my fingers that all this motion-controlling, eye-popping nonsense will pass the way it did in the 80s, I’ll admit I was impressed by Sony’s 3D display, with its capacity to give two players, appropriately seated, entirely different views on the same television screen. As for Move, Sony’s gamble paid off: if it thought having Ken Levine stand on stage and say he was on-board would convince fence-sitters to accept the motion controller, it was right. Levine’s decision to also develop a portable BioShock game for Sony was almost dumbfounding.

Looking ahead, Sony seems poised to take the lead after years of lagging behind the other two heavyweights of the gaming industry. Though services like PlayStation Suite, and safeguards against future attacks on PSN, were only vaguely mentioned, Sony projected great confidence and energy about the near future of their company and the network it fosters. Early on, Tretton made an appeal to gamers who, like me, had once been a part of the PlayStation family and had since left, hoping that this year’s presentation would convince us that it was time to return. With a new Sly Cooper on the horizon, HD rendering of all the classic Sony games I never played, and an endorsement from Mr. Rapture himself, I might actually have been won over.

I’m interested to know what others — Sony prodigals like myself, in particular — have to say about last night. Did Sony impress you, or was the absence of Twisted Metal, God of War, and Square-Enix (neither Final Fantasy nor the long-hoped-for Kingdom Hearts 3 made an appearance) enough to leave a poor taste in your mouth?

Either way, the ball is now in Nintendo’s court. Can the Big N wrest dominance from Tretton’s hands, repeating the thrilling experience that was last year’s presentation?

We’re about to find out.

Nintendo

The professionalism, charm, and polish of Nintendo’s press conference this year were apparent from the moment the lights dimmed, as we were treated to an orchestral and video montage of Link’s quarter-century heritage. Nintendo wasted no time reminding us of the memories it has been responsible for creating, and thanking us for the symbiotic relationship that has let the company thrive even over the last few years of lackluster “hardcore offerings.”

Last year’s big news was the 3DS, a handheld sendoff to pesky red & blue glasses which gained a tremendous amount of attention for its efficacy at providing a deep visual experience and a slew of big-name titles prepared to support that depth. Today Reggie Fils-Aime picked up where 2010 left off, showcasing gameplay trailers for new and already announced titles alike, enthusiastically (if not convincingly) touting Mario Kart as a never-before-seen experience, shedding new light on Kid Icarus: Uprising‘s story, and revealing a sequel to the cult hit Luigi’s Mansion which looks perfectly at home in the small, 3D format.

Finally, Project Cafe received an actual name: Wii U. But what precisely is the new device?Finally, Project Cafe received an actual name: Wii U. But what precisely is the new device? A console, a controller, an interactive iPad? As impressive as the technology seems to be, Nintendo was surprisingly vague about what Wii U actually is; if one’s only source of information were the presentation itself, one might be led to believe that Wii U was simply a new touch-screen controller. Only with some digging did an image of the new console itself, to which the innovative controller is tethered, surface — one image but no statistics, pricing, or release date.

Still, the high-definition graphical capacity (welcome to the party) and a mind-blowing list of third-party endorsers (including Peter Moore, Ken Levine, and Warren Spector) are enough to dismiss any lingering doubts of Nintendo’s commitment to staying relevant in the gaming industry for another 25 years. Nintendo may have come from behind, but it definitely just took the lead.

For those so-inclined, I also covered Ubisoft and EA‘s press conferences last year on my personal blog.

“Intelligent” Design

The other day I fired up Assassin’s Creed II to run around Renaissance Florence and, had it not been for a mandatory update I couldn’t access from my dorm, to finally try out the “Bonfire of the Vanities” DLC I picked up this summer but never played. When the latter failed, I settled for the former, and for a half-hour or so I enjoyed the general freedom of exploration, the smoothness of the combat, and the details of city life.

But around the thirty minute mark the enthusiasm began to wane. Having already finished the story, discovered “The Truth,” gathered all the feathers, and fully furnished Monteriggioni, there wasn’t much left in Florence. The bards, strumming merrily on their mandolins and hoping for a few florins; the shopkeepers, defending their extortionist rates; the heralds, denouncing my atrocious behavior — at first, it was invigorating, but it soon became insipid.

A few months ago Nathan Riley touched on why games as ostensibly immersive as Assassin’s Creed eventually fall flat: their worlds, while sprawling, are dead. Seemingly thriving cities are stripped of their facades by discerning players to reveal a complicated clockwork, but clockwork nonetheless. We know precisely what the “people” of Florence will say if we kill someone in front of them. Eventually, we have memorized the entire list of merchant lines by heart. I’m inclined to agree with Michael Ubaldi’s response: games must move in a more improvisational direction. And while it’s impossible to tell precisely what that fruit will look like, I think the seeds have already been planted, if in radically different places.

Exhibit A: Valve

Valve’s AI Director is impressive in its own right. Constant analysis of player behavior results in a slew of alterations to the game itself, ensuring that no run-through is the same as another. Are you barely surviving? Here’s a beeline to the safe house. Are you the second coming of Bruce Campbell? Good luck making it through the cemetery. It isn’t just a matter of easy vs. expert; enemy types, quantity, mood, placement — not to mention the physical restructuring of environmental components — are determined as a basis of real-time evaluation of your performance.

Exhibit B: Dungeons & Dragons

Similarly, consider the position of the Dungeon Master in a good old game of tabletop D&D. Armed with a thorough understanding of the rules and how to bend them, and charged with the task of actively crafting and adjusting the campaign in relation to your relative ingenuity (or incompetence), the Dungeon Master (DM) is the director of an improvisational drama. The enemies you encounter behave realistically and cleverly, more like actual opponents than the product of mathematical formulas. And yet, if your party is in danger of a game over, the DM can fudge the numbers. The enemy makes a mistake. He misses where he might have slain. If the DM behaves well, we don’t see the game as inconsistent; instead, we see the enemy as flawed; realistic.

What makes an encounter in D&D engaging is the knowledge that no one — not even the most meticulous of DMs — knew for sure how the fight was going to play out when it started. The thrilling “wait, guys, I think we can try this” works because the rules allow it to; instead of an invisible barrier or a faded menu option, we do as we please, and the game adjusts accordingly.

Exhibit C: NATAL

Sure, the infamous “Milo” demonstration of pre-christened Kinect may have been staged, but its potential (some of which has already been realized) gives great insight into where this spontaneity may enter gaming. Moreover, in light of impressive breakthroughs in language research spurred by Noam Chomsky, the concept of a self-teaching AI is within our grasp. Like the humans they emulate, computers should be able to apply an innate set of grammatical rules and apply them to unknown sentences. The incredulity of the Venetian bard resides in the limited range of interaction you can have: ignore him, pay him, shove him, kill him. But what if you could speak to him? And what if he could speak to those around him?

Of course, there are necessary limits. There are some things a DM won’t let you do — just because you think of saying “Petrificus Totalus” doesn’t mean an imp will suddenly become paralyzed. Your behavior is still guided by what makes sense and by what is within your character’s power at a given point in the game. If you can technically do it, and if doing it could theoretically make sense, then the DM will let you do it, and if that messes with the DM’s plans, so much the better for the game.

An artificial intelligence director with control over the game world would be able to understand what you’re trying to do and why you ought to be able to do it.So let’s integrate. An artificial intelligence director with control over all of the agents within the world and, genre-permitting, even the makeup of the world itself, would be able to respond to the most improbable of player behaviors (while still appropriate) because it can listen to your interaction with the world and understand what you’re trying to do and why you ought to be able to do it. In a game like Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, this could translate into a sort of group huddle, in which you tell your friend your ideas about attacking such-and-such a target, and he gives you a valid assessment of how viable your plans are. Meanwhile, if you have been too easily surmounting challenges lately, perhaps the director uses its ability to eavesdrop to help fortify a particular entrance to the enemy’s fortress that it knows you’re going to try to exploit.

With the prevalence of internet connectivity, the game’s AI could be synced with a central brain, thereby greatly accelerating the director’s language acquisition processes and adjusting all games based on common player strategies. In Left 4 Dead terms, this means the game learning about that one closet everyone hides in and making sure that whenever players are trying to exploit the closet, a Spitter shows up.

I appreciate the difficulties involved with actually implementing what I’m suggesting here. But if Kinect ever performs on the level of that Milo demonstration, I think we’ll be a lot closer to games that are truly immersive. Just think; in the world of real advertising, you can’t just use the same slogans forever. A tapestry merchant who knows you’ve already heard his pitch improvising something new based on what’s worked elsewhere? How about a bard who legitimately knows a song you’ve never heard before? NPCs that relate messages from other players, rather than the faceless couriers of old?

The potential, endless. My spine, tingling.