By John Walker on June 5th, 2012 at 11:00 am.
After alternately watching live feeds of the press conferences last night, and watching colleagues’ reactions to them on Twitter, I awake with a heavy cynicism for the entire industry. While a couple of new IPs were announced, and they were perhaps even interesting, the overwhelming message of the LA evening was one of partisanship, stagnation, and a disturbing lack of awareness of what is most problematic in the gaming world. Which can pretty much be summed up in the frighteningly repeated phrase, “With exclusive DLC for our console.”
This is, of course, in a large part due to our being in that final vigil beside the deathbeds of the current generation of consoles. With pretty much everyone certain that both the PS4 and the Xbox 3 (let’s not embrace the moniker “720” until such a point as Microsoft are insane enough to adopt it) will be out for Christmas 2013, it’s obviously too early to make significant announcements about them. But both Microsoft and Sony are making announcements about games that will likely be out then. Which leads to a confusing, stilted release list that has to pretend the current consoles are the state-of-the-art must-haves for every excited kiddy, while everyone knows they’re bargain bin material about to be superseded.
The frustration of this from our perspective is of course that the PC is perpetually at the cutting edge, its latest model released each and every day, and the need for this peculiar behaviour completely absent. Which is why, of course, that 2012 and most of next year are going to be brilliant years for the PC. As developers grow frustrated by nearly decade-old tech and next gen devkits that aren’t yet reliable, the PC looks like a promised ground of being able to realise their ideas. For at least a year the definitive version of any cross-platform game has been the PC, and now we’re seeing increasing numbers of PC exclusives. It’s a great time for us. A time, of course, ignored by the E3 noise and pomp.
But perhaps even more egregiously ignored is the prevailing attitude of gamers toward the way they’re treated by the bigger publishers. Let’s break down that DLC thing.
Announcing DLC many months before a game is released ignores the ever-larger realisation that this is an affront to those who are paying full price for a new game. People have long since sussed this, and while arguments about how DLC development keeps developers in employment after the main game is finished can win some sympathy, it’s not really a very relevant factor to the customer. The customer who is asked to pay another chunk of money for what has previously been given away free, or rolled into a later, more worthwhile expansion pack. That’s pretty much a given now, so it was peculiar to see DLC so loudly boasted during many of the events.
But worse is the boast that it’s exclusive to a particular console. Of course, if you’re Microsoft and you’re having a Microsoft show, you want to boast about what 360 owners will get that others won’t… So long as you don’t actually stop to think about your customers. It plays into the very dated notion of console loyalty, at a time where people can pick up either of the big two models for under £100. Gone are the days when a £400 investment meant people would become tribal and defend their choice, to start with. And more frustrating, if you don’t happen to own the console that’s currently hawking the third-party cross-platform game, you’ve been just been given a hefty middle finger from the developer/publisher responsible. It doesn’t say, “Hey, the X version of this game is superior!” It says, “All other versions of our game are inferior.” Which is a pretty bloody weird message to be sending out to customers.
And that’s just one example of the hoary, outdated tone all these pressers took. Embarrassing moments were scattered throughout, from a peculiar display of esports in tight-fitting clothing, to hosts declaring that they’re “a gamer first and, er, er, a woman seventh”, all punctuated throughout the night by producers holding controllers and pretending to control cutscenes like kids in a service station yanking the steering wheels of the driving arcades while “INSERT COIN” flashes on screen. The message is a peculiar contempt for the audience – of course they’re not really playing! In any game where you can get killed by the enemy, or, as so many of those shown wished you to believe, events are procedural and unscripted, not having a pre-filmed sequence in a live show would be just stupid. Stop pretending – it’s embarrassing.
While games like Watch Dogs and Far Cry 3 definitely look interesting, it was a night of primarily sequels of men shooting guns at men shooting guns, those two included, representing an industry that just is no longer familiar to me. The games I consume, both mainstream and indie, offer me an incredible variety of genres and themes, and while I’m not in mad denial of the volume of manshooters, I’m also conscious of an industry that offers so much more. Yet the outward facing presentation from all of these publishers was one of a dinosaur that hasn’t noticed the gaming world isn’t entirely made of Gears Of War, occasionally intercut by a grinning lunatic waving their cartoon arms at their Kinect. Oh, and that’s when they’re not completely distracting themselves by trying to be Apple and declare they’ve invented the future of technology. How unbearably embarrassing was Microsoft’s declaration that SmartGlass was the “first time” we could control our TV’s using our smartphones? Er, that’s weird, because I’m fairly sure I remember using Unified Remote on my Android to control Windows on my TV last night.
I wonder if part of it is due to the Peter-Molyneux-ism of recent years, where developers have stood up to announce games that would change the way we live our lives, see the world, peel our oranges, and perceive colour, with pseudo-experimental concepts that eventually go on to be mediocre social games. There has been a steering away from “Gaming will ascend us beyond mere humanity” and back to, “MAN SHOOTS MAN AND BUILDING FALLS DOWN!” Excruciatingly dull footage of CODBLOPS2 was the peak of this brown drear, as we realise that watching someone else pushing forward between cutscenes is almost no different an experience from being the person holding the controller. And even the now-much-vaunted Watch Dogs’ potential is being celebrated mostly in people’s heads, rather than based on what we saw: a man walking painfully slowly through a pretty city, listening in to a phone call, walking painfully slowly around a building, and then shooting some men.
So I’m delighted to say that what we saw at E3 last night was not representative of the gaming industry of which I’m a part. And I wonder how long it will be until the reality of the industry will be represented in these events. Although so long as the attending press sit there whooping until they vomit, perhaps that will be a bloody long time.