Friday, June 11, 2010

E3 2010: Too Much Technology

E3-logo The Electronic Entertainment Expo is fast approaching. 

Gaming’s annual trade show/press event/demo floor fever dream will assuredly dominate the industry news cycle for the next week, with aftershocks to follow for months.

What’s most intriguing to me are the attempts by the Big Three (Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo) to extend this hardware generation past its expected five-year due date.  For reasons both economic and technological, it seems highly unlikely that we’ll be hearing anything about a Wii 2, Playstation 4 or an Xbox 720 (or whatever it’ll be called – they really painted themselves into a corner there).  Only recently has Sony begun reclaiming a fraction of its PS2 cachet.  Microsoft’s too worried about making sure we still buy PCs.  And Nintendo’s own Shigeru Miyamoto is just now coming around to the idea of HD.

At last year’s E3, Sony and Microsoft unveiled their own riffs on what’s turned the Wii into Miyamoto’s Money Machine: motion control.  Grandmas and soccer moms just couldn’t seem to get enough of Wii Bowling, and Nintendo’s competitors were tired of not being invited to the party.  Enter Microsoft Natal (perhaps we’ll get a real name next week) and Playstation Move.  Both tackle player movement differently but with similar claims of increased fidelity and more (albeit unquantifiable) fun

Only now do the companies appear prepared to launch their respective tech.  But standing in their way is a new infatuation, a new movement in consumer tech that threatens to undermine all the hype they’ve generated: 3D.

I simply can’t get behind 3D yet.  I don’t want to wear the glasses (or buy them, especially if they cost $150 dollars).  I don’t want to need to keep a candy bowl of aspirin on hand for my friends who can’t handle Nickelback: Rock Band in 3D for more than ten minutes.  I agree with Roger Ebert (*shudder*) who pointed out that our mind already handles 3D conversion whenever we watch something in 2D.  We’re still dragging people forward into the HD era.  Do we really need to worry about stereoscoping our living rooms?

I can see why the movie industry wants to have sex with 3D.  They need the event, the spectacle.  Transformers 2: Michael Bay’s Military Hard-On on a hi-def TV coupled with a decent Bose system will be the same (if not a better) experience as I had watching that crap in the theater.  Hollywood needs stuff like Avatar – with its irreproducible, Oscar-winning visual effects – to draw the masses out on a Friday night.  Otherwise, the industry’s competing with itself in the form of Netflix and hi-def On Demand services.  avatar_photo Games don’t have this problem (at least not yet).  Titles like Modern Warfare 2, Mass Effect 2, and Red Dead Redemption are ginormous events and – by all accounts (okay, maybe not MW2) – great games.  Why do we need to layer on another visual gimmick?  Because everyone else is banking on 3D?  Good thinking, guys.

I’ve been so busy ranting about 3D I’ve yet to touch on motion control.  Sound familiar?  Sony recently held a 3D TV event at which Jack Tretton put his fingers into a power pyramid and espoused the benefits of leaping to 3D.  He claimed that, now that the PS3’s fully 3D capable, Playstation Move titles would be able to take advantage of 3D technology.  Tretton says, “Gamers won’t just be able to enjoy the game, or be surrounded by the game, they will also be in the game.”  I’m pretty sure the Interactor told me it was going to put me “in the game.”  Just saying.

Sony, ironically enough, worries me the least.  They’ve proven themselves to technophiles of the worst kind, sacrificing years of gaming profits just to prove that their machine was beefier.  They somehow managed to win the hi-def war, vanquishing HD-DVDs swiftly with their powerful new Blu-rays (whose name Steph explained toward the end of a recent podcast).  It’s Microsoft, with their reliance on meat-and-potatoes DVDs, that stands to lose ground in the fight for 3D supremacy.

Plain and simple: DVDs hold less information than Blu-ray.  I shudder to think how many discs Microsoft will need to print for a 3D cross-platform title when they split up Final Fantasy XIII on multiple discs and it still looked like bad compared to the PS3 version.  That’s assuming full 3D functionality comes to the 360.  Then consider that Natal will reportedly use 10-15% of the machine’s processing power.  I could almost see the machine smoking as it chugged its way through some of Red Faction’s physics.  I fully expect my 360 to shut itself down it protest when I order it to play Gears of War 3D: The Natal Wars

red-cyanThis combination of motion control and 3D sends mixed messages.  What are we supposed to be early adopters of?  Your overpriced peripheral which you’re saying might as well be considered a new console even though it most certainly isn’t?  Or 3D televisions designed for mechanically shallow games in which I control a Sackboy with my magic wand while wearing red-blue glasses?

Break it down.  Take some time.  3D wasn’t a thing when you announced these devices.  Let me digest what the hell you expect me to do with Natal, or why shelling out for two Move controllers will help me finally care about the SOCOM series.  Then maybe, ten years from now, when I’m bored with Natal and we’re still in this console generation, you can talk to me about 3D.

Nintendo, per usual, is maintaining some distance from this hullabaloo.  They have, however, announced the still-codenamed Nintendo 3DS handheld.  It will incorporate 3D somehow, but Nintendo assures us that glasses will not be necessary.  A personal handheld may actually prove the optimal delivery system for 3D gaming.  You don’t have to worry about where you’re sitting (a big problem for conventional 3D), and the individual machine doesn’t rely on the user owning an expensive 3D television.  And by relegating this to their immensely successful and self-sufficient handheld division, Nintendo needn’t worry about confusing or splitting it’s mammoth Wii user base.  Whatever the 3DS is, I hope it ends up like this, not this.

I’m willing to buy that Avatar was/is/will be a watershed moment, but I wonder if it will have the positive affect everyone who creates visual entertainment is hoping praying for.  3D may become too cost prohibitive.  Too demanding of the consumer.  Couple it with as-yet-unproven motion control technology, and you’ve got one hell of a straw for camel back-breaking.  Gamers might end up looking back on this era as the time we collectively ditched our 3D glasses, tossed our motion controls in the trash and said, “Screw it.  Let’s play Mario Bros.”