Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The E3 2011 Press Conferences: What To Expect

e3-electronic-entertainment-expo-20091E3 is a week away. Let me repeat that: this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo is a week away.

It seems like only a few months ago that Microsoft was unveiling Kinect, Sony was being sweet-talked by Valve, and Nintendo was promising all sorts of first-party fun.

E3 is a lot of things: closed-door meetings, smelly show floors, cosplay competitions. It’s biggest hallmark, however, are the overblown press conferences. Replete with Powerpoint presentations, painfully awkward demos, and even more awkward guests, these hour-long lectures on The Future provide skewed perspectives on what the next year or two will hold for the gaming industry.

The current generation of hardware is roughly five years old. Sales of the Nintendo Wii are slowing, and Sony and Microsoft are attempting to buoy sales with motion controllers. Apple’s siphoning off market share with budget games on sexy new pieces of hardware. PC games on top-shelf hardware are looking to blow consoles out of the way technically.

What will gaming’s Big Three have to say about all this? My predictions await.

First There’s Sony

kevin-butler-playstation-move-screenshot-commercialThere’s a decent chance Sony’s press conference opens not with an announcement but with an apology. Perhaps a ritual sacrifice of Kevin Butler (see right) is in order.

Ever since hackers breached the PlayStation Network last month, Sony’s been playing PR catch-up. Though PSN is up in North America, the online store is still down as of this writing. PSN only just returned to Japan and other Asian territories a few days ago, and they’re still talking to Congress about what may or may not have actually happened.

In a word: they’re screwed. The crisis may be over, but does the future bode any better for Sony?

Their extremely powerful/pricey console’s been in third place for most if not all of this generation. Their technically impressive handheld has taken a backseat to Nintendo’s despite high-profile revisions. Their motion controller has, despite praise for its precision and fidelity, has failed to “change everything”. And this year they’ll push another handheld (the NGP or “Vita”) with way too much power and a hefty price tag, as if this approach hasn’t been the problem this whole time.

They will tout the NGP/Vita as a powerful machine capable of delivering the “hottest” (read: the HD-iest) games on the go, ignoring the fact that fewer and fewer people are willing nowadays to drop hundreds of dollars on a mobile device that isn’t a phone/tablet.

Sony’s Sisyphean tech arms race overshadows the fact that they’ve got a good games library. This year they’ll ship InFamous and Uncharted sequels, both of which deserve your attention. Starhawk looks to deliver the single-player experience missing from its predecessor Warhawk. It’s a shame the PSN outage occurred during the Portal 2 launch, as Valve’s partnership with Sony seemed like a great way to win over the PC stalwarts. Assuming the PlayStation Store comes back online anytime soon, you can find any number of superb downloadable games, including a lot of exclusive indie titles.

Their tech superiority complex and the fiscal problems that have resulted are well documented. If Sony can get back on track and make us care about the actual games, maybe we can all just forget the whole PSN thing.

Then There’s Microsoft

steve_ballmer_sweatingLast year, Microsoft pulled an Oprah. Moments after unveiling the new Xbox 360 Slim, they informed the audience that everyone in attendance would receive the new console! Not only has their been no scuttlebutt on a guerrilla hardware reveal by Microsoft, pulling another Oprah would be in poor taste after the gal’s recent retirement from daytime television.

So what will Microsoft trot out this year if it isn’t surprising new hardware? Games games games, I’m sure.

Industry analyst and whipping boy Michael Pachter recently told the gents at Giant Bomb that he expects some major software reveals in Microsoft’s presser. There was speculation this could be the debut of the first game from Respawn Entertainment, the company founded by former Call of Duty masterminds Vince Zampella and Jason West. Respawn has since said they’ll be doing no such thing (following the likes of Valve and Bungie). Then again, it wouldn’t be a surprise if we were expecting it.

Speaking of Bungie, don’t think Microsoft won’t tease the tenth-anniversary rerelease of Halo: Combat Evolved. Though Microsoft and developer 343 Industries are making anniversary plans for PAX this August, I doubt they’d miss the opportunity to say the word “Halo” in front of the E3 investor crowd. Yes, there will be a new Gears of War this year, but something about Master Chief just gets everyone all excited.

Whether we like it or not, they will talk about Kinect. They have to. At least ten million units have shipped. This was their big push last year, their big attempt to extend this hardware cycle. Surely someone other than Harmonix has figured out how to make a Kinect game worth playing. I want another Milo video at the very least.

Do you hear me, Peter Molyneux? Milo, not Fable. Give it.

Last But Not Least: Nintendo

shigeru_miyamoto_pets-thumbOf the three conferences, the most buzz surrounds Nintendo’s. Gaming’s veteran developer/publisher/hardware manufacturer is set to reveal its newest console next week, despite us knowing about it already.

We know Project Café, as it is currently codenamed, exists – but that’s about it. We don’t know how powerful it will be or whether or not the touchscreen-in-the-controller rumors are true. Consensus around the enthusiast press is that the touchscreen rumors are true and that Café will at least be on par with current-gen systems, with many developers reportedly excited about the accessibility of Nintendo’s new console.

The speculation will come to a hard stop once the press conference starts. Nintendo announced last month that Project Café will be playable at E3.

But what will be playable? Both the GameCube and the Wii launched without a mainline Mario title (no, Luigi’s Mansion doesn’t count), but this seems like a mistake for a console Nintendo’s likely positioning as an offering to the “core” audience. With Café’s launch at least a year away (no sooner than March 2012, they’ve said), they’ll likely remain tight-lipped about first-party titles but be happy to name drop interested third-party developers.

After we all settle down from the Café hype – we won’t still be calling it Project Café, will we? – Nintendo will probably remind us that we’re supposed to like the 3DS. Last month, Nintendo President Satoru Iwata admitted that sales had failed to meet expectations.

Neat technology can only take a portable gaming device so far without neat software to showcase it. Glasses-free 3D is cool, I suppose (if you don’t mind having to keep your head rigid for it to work), but without a killer app the 3DS is little more than a $250 tech demo. Kid Icarus is still on the way, and Nintendo’s expect Ocarina of Time 3D to perform well. Steel Diver sure didn’t.

Speaking of Ocarina of Time, is Nintendo still working on Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword? You know, the first and only Wii-exclusive Zelda game? With Project Café on the way, it looks as if Nintendo’s once again about to force its second biggest franchise to straddle a console gap. Twilight Princess says hello.

Looking Forward

Big news is likely to come from more than just the Big Three. Expect Activision to spill all pertinent details on the newest Call of Duty. Ubisoft will push the next Assassin’s Creed. Footage of BioShock Infinite should titillate. Konami will hold a (hopefully ludicrous) press conference ahead of time – seriously, Konami, viewing parties?

But it’s Nintendo that will drive E3. This hardware cycle has been all about extension. Graphics technology is starting to show diminishing returns. Business models are breaking down left and right thanks to smartphone gaming and stronger competition in the downloadable space. It’s a scary time to invest the resources necessary for a console launch.

Project Café could prove that there’s still at least a generation or two to go in conventional gaming consoles. Or its failure could be a death knell for the industry’s old guard, a sign that we best all move to the cloud or perish.

Or it could just be a cool little machine with a neat touchscreen in the controller. Next week’s going to be fun.