It’s The End Of E3 As We Know It, And I’m Feeling Fine

By Nathan Grayson on June 11th, 2012 at 4:00 pm.

For whatever reason, the conclusion to this year’s E3 found me sitting in a retro-style 1950s American diner. Brain nearly as fried as the egg on my sandwich, I couldn’t help but zone out for worryingly long spells while reintroducing my body to the concept of nourishment. During my brief moments of lucidity, however, I noticed that game developers were just sort of appearing – like drops of water beading on a glass that also played Elvis’ rendition of “Hound Dog.” Turns out, they were flocking from a party one building away. What happened next was, well, kind of incredible.

This haggard band of random developers – probably numbering in the 20s – went outside and engaged in a full-on group hug. Then, still in circle formation, they put their hands together and raised them in a “goooo team” fashion. They all seemed so joyful – so triumphant. And why not? They just finished showing the projects they lovingly created to hordes of super passionate people. Word on the street is that this year’s E3 was the sign of some coming triple-Apocalypse – some creative glut that borders on dystopian. On the street outside that little diner, however, I saw no such thing.

This year’s ultra-contagious, utterly debilitating E3 flu didn’t come with sniffles or a fever. Instead, borderline-malignant discontent spread across the convention center almost from the get-go. Or at least, that’s the picture the Internet’s painting. But all viruses begin somewhere, and in this case, the source is absolutely key. During the press conferences, publishers portrayed their games in very specific (read: generally big, loud, and grimdark) ways, because they wanted to quickly command the attention of as many eyeballs as possible. Then frustrated journo types (and I’m far from innocent of this myself) and cynical fans somehow managed the physically impossible task of furiously tweeting with their thoroughly jerked knees, and a snowball of rage was born.

Which is not to say that there wasn’t anything wrong with this year’s show. Quite the contrary, actually: we got to stare right down the barrel of a gun the industry’s trying very, very hard to aim at its own foot. E3′s proven quite adept at ignoring modern tech and business models like F2P, which seems exceedingly short-sighted. Sequels, meanwhile, outnumber fresh faces by a worryingly wide margin. And then, of course, there’s the matter of irresponsibly glorifying gut-wrenching/stabbing violence, which I’ve already discussed at length. Meanwhile, incredibly insulting (to both women and men) titillation continues to reign supreme as a means of drawing people to booths.

It would be a tremendous mistake, however, to view this as a reflection of the industry as a whole – or even a majority of the show’s attendees, for that matter. One party, especially, wasn’t really invited to board the E3 triple-A hate train: the people who, you know, actually make these games. Perhaps that’s because – with one or two tiny exceptions – I couldn’t find a developer in the entire convention center who wasn’t utterly thrilled to be making and showing off their creations. These people really love what they do, and here’s the kicker: it shows in what they’re making right this very second.

No, E3 didn’t sound the horns on some game development revolution, but it never does. That’s not its purpose. It exists to show off the industry’s ultra-budget megatons, and within that space, I spoke with some wildly talented people working on some impressively intelligent projects.

Bethesda’s putting Dishonored – a game about rat plagues, whale oil, and encouraging players to make their own fun by breaking the game - front-and-center in its fall lineup. THQ’s betting its existence on Metro: Last Light with a focus on making the creepy, kooky, mysterious, spooky, and lovably quirky apocalypse survivor even more complex, because – in this case – creative vision’s more important than conventional wisdom. Watch Dogs is an open-world cyberpunk sim. Tomb Raider’s doing an in-depth character study of someone who was, when she was first conceived, gaming’s most shameless sex symbol. Far Cry 3 is putting shooter culture under the microscope and asking us to understand why we love killing people so much. Hell, even Call of Duty: Black Ops II is trying to vary things up a little with open levels and laser horses.

Really, though, the secret breakout story of E3 was the rise of, well, people in this industry. It really dawned on me while I was talking with Peter Molyneux (the results of which you’ll see very soon) – that is to say, sitting in front of this industry legend who could be commanding a developer legion of hundreds. Instead, his eyes positively lit up as he told me a story about how one programmer (of his 14-person team) made a split-second decision that changed the course of their entire game. Meanwhile, I also got the chance to chat with the head of Sony Worldwide Studios, and he very frankly explained that it was the duty of someone in his position of power to nurture the creativity of smaller, nimbler studios. Journey, of course, is now the biggest game in PSN’s history, so he’s not just humming along to indie tunes for appearance’s sake. While I’m not quite ready to call all of this the beginning of a beautiful friendship between smaller developers’ brains and triple-A’s monetary brawn, it’s certainly an encouraging step in that direction.

Ultimately, I came away from E3 energized and hopeful about our chances of overcoming this industry’s impressively large collection of hurdles – not beaten, bruised, and ready to throw in the towel. The show floor was abuzz with a certain energy, and it didn’t come from looping 30-second snippets of dubstep or showy, off-the-wall displays that’d have felt more at home at some kind of theme park. It was the developers. Whether in the throes of day one’s adrenaline surge or the show’s sleep-deprived final seconds, nearly everyone – from Peter Molyneux to people giving impromptu laptop demos from Indiecade couches – seemed utterly thrilled about what they were doing. This passion – this sincerity – is not the mark of a soulless sequel factory.

New technologies, ideas, and people are flocking to game development right now, and the fact that those things are even starting to seep into stodgy old E3 has me excited – not bitter that this sector of the industry hasn’t suddenly emerged from its transitional cocoon overnight. It’s an exciting time to be a gamer – especially with PC leading the way. It may, however, be an even more exciting time to be a game developer, and that means very good things are in store for folks like you and me.

Goooo team, indeed.

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67 Comments »

  1. aircool says:

    That’s a very positive article, I like it.

    Also – : we got to stare right down the barrel of a gun the industry’s trying very, very hard to aim at its own foot.

    Best sentence ever :)

    • Torgen says:

      But, would that phrase not mean that we are *under* mainstream gaming industry’s foot, if we’re staring down the barrel of the gun they’re aiming at their foot?

      • faelnor says:

        Not under, we’re standing on the feet of giants.

      • aircool says:

        Under the foot perhaps, but choose the foot that’s not going to get the bullet. Unless the bullet hole is large enough for us to climb out from underneath the foot.

        I’m sure we could extend the metaphor even further :)

      • Phasma Felis says:

        Well, now, it’s implied that despite their efforts the industry hasn’t yet managed to actually train the gun on the foot. So we’re looking down the barrel from the vantage point of wherever it’s currently pointing, en route to foot.

        Of course we can’t be under the foot. Then we wouldn’t be able to see the gun at all, only the bottom of the foot!

        • pepper says:

          Unless we are under the foot but are unable to observe the foot..!

    • gwathdring says:

      We’re glancing down it en route to the foot. It is, as it were, rotating through space from the horizontal to the (downward) vertical.

      • gwathdring says:

        We’re also either a good deal shorter than them, or they started looking for their feet at eye-level first.

    • The Smilingknight says:

      Maybe its from cavalier oblique perspective?

      just sayin…

  2. Nifty says:

    I’m glad to hear it.

    I’ve been somewhat mystified at the negative coverage coming out of the convention by journos; as someone not in the industry, I could only judge this year’s E3 by the trailers for upcoming games, and goshdarnit if there wasn’t plenty of stuff that looked awesome: Watch_dogs, Beyond Two Souls, Dishonored, The Last of Us, Farcry 3, Tomb Raider: Misogynist Edition… they all look like enormous fun, and I’m pretty sure I’m forgetting some titles.

    • Reefpirate says:

      PLANETSIDE 2!

    • soundofvictory says:

      Yes, I am very excited for the coming year as a result of what I’ve seen from E3. The only parts that left me disappointed about the industry were The Big Press Conferences, but if you look past the presentation and judge solely on content… This was a very good E3.

  3. Snids says:

    Wasn’t E3 drastically cut back a few years ago or something?

  4. Doomsayer says:

    I can’t agree with this. It’s… optimistic. *Shudder*

  5. Jesus H. Christ says:

    i think the rage comes from what was shown on the interwebs, which was pretty stale. but e3 is so much more than the ms/ubi/nintendo/sony/ea pressers, just as gaming is so much more than halo4/ac3/nsmbu/godofwar4/me3.

    • briktal says:

      Yeah, the problem for E3 is that those are the only real “events”. Everything else comes in over the days at various points and in various forms from any number of sites.

  6. Hoaxfish says:

    One of those web-thingies today was saying how E3 wasn’t about us, or even gaming journalists, but was about advertising to everyone else, to get on the news, etc… but for the life of me I have never seen a single news-report on E3 or similar gaming convention by a non-gaming journalist, and certainly not one that got into the actual games or companies on show… maybe I don’t live in the right country.

    On the other end of things, apparently all the violence and tits are specifically there to attract us, because we can’t gauge a game beyond how big the explosions are.

    I think E3 might live a slightly happier life if it made up its mind on who or what it’s actually trying to converse with, and then all other conversations get moved to an additional event (or multiple other ones). The current feel is very much a conflicted, confused, double-booked circus performance.

    At the end of it, I think I get more information by simply staying home, watching trailers and interviews.

    • Brun says:

      You’ll get major news coverage if you unveil something really important – like new hardware or something. HLN did a quick spot on the Wii U a week or so ago.

      Of course, the non-gaming press simply laps up all of the marketing and PR drivel that the big publishers spew at E3. It’s painfully obvious when someone who doesn’t understand gaming tries to write a story about it.

    • MOKKA says:

      I read an article about E3 in the sunday edition of a big national german newspaper. Let me just say that it said that Assasin’s Creed 3 takes place during the american civil war. It said that, despite having a screenshot of the game where you could see a british flag in the background and mentioning that you’ll be able to meet historic personalities like Benjamin Franklin in the game (I’m pretty sure Benjamin Franklin was dead by the time the civil war happened). I think this gives you a nice impression of the amount of work the writers and editors put into this article.

      • Brun says:

        I’ve heard several time periods thrown out from commenters and articles (typically non-Americans), including the Civil War and the War of 1812.

        • MOKKA says:

          And this is what bothers me, you wouldn’t witness something like this if these people were writing about a movie or a book, instead of a video game, at least not from a national newspaper. But since they generally don’t care about this medium, they don’t put any effort into it. Which is suprising considering a lot of people who grew up playing video games now being in their 30s and gaming in general becoming something like a legitimate hobby.

          • YourMessageHere says:

            Of course you would. Newspapers and the press make stupid, lazy mistakes about all sorts of things all the time. A case in point: the film U-571. The film’s about the Americans trying to get an enigma code machine from a U-boat. When it came out there was a minor media furore, saying the film was revisionist propaganda and disrespected the British codebreakers. What all this failed to take into account was the fact that the film freely acknowledges that the British already have an enigma machine, both in its opening text-crawl and dialogue; the point is to get another one for the US codebreakers. Media never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

  7. Dances to Podcasts says:

    “laser horses”

    Should I start paying attention to CODBLOPS?

    • marcusfell says:

      Not yet. Give it a few more years.

    • Grargh says:

      Not before they at least have kryptonite dragons.

    • elmo.dudd says:

      The increased presence of branches for player choice (escort, or overwatch), missions where you can Fail and still progress (it just marks it as a victory for the chief bad guy impacting the conclusion of the story arc), and the presence of Battlezone style RTS elements (top down guiding of groups of units to various places, taking over any soldier or vehicle at your whim to guide them through while the AI follows the orders you give) are why I’m paying more attention to it than previous CoD titles.

      • Kektain says:

        What is this strange feeling? I think I care about…about a Call of Duty sequel. Hold me. :(

  8. sonofsanta says:

    Sometimes it’s easy to forget that gaming is genuinely better than it has ever been. And it is, it really is; my ten year old self would weep with joy at the sight of this decade’s most resolutely average games, and it’s easy to end up acting like a spoilt child in a pile of open chocolate boxes upset that all the caramels are gone. There’s so many reasons to be so very happy about it all right now.

    So thanks for the reminder.

    • arccos says:

      Agreed. If you look at what has been coming out for the last couple of years, instead of what’s being advertised heavily for the near future, you’ll see the best and most creative games are ones that seem to come out of nowhere. And there have been TONS of those lately.

      But that could be my obsession with Crusader Kings 2 talking.

      Not to mention one of the big benefits of PCs is the limitless back catalogue you can always catch up on if you want something distinctive.

  9. DickSocrates says:

    There was no killer ‘omg’ moment, unless you count SW1313′s a-bit-better-than-we’re-used-to grayphicks. No wonder people feel let down because E3 promotes itself as THE event where amazing things happen, but nothing amazing happened at all. The only hope was Nintendo and they effed up so royally it left everyone feeling flat and confused. The conferences are supposed to set the tone, and they set a deeply depressing one. That isn’t the press’ fault. It’s not cynical to feel annoyed when something turns out to be crap.

    I don’t think we should be pessimistic or optimistic about the industry, nothing has changed, it still grinds along as usual with games coming out (99% of which are just games which we wouldn’t miss if they hadn’t existed in the first place). Some games were shown, the press conferences were depressing, life goes on. It is after all just a trade show, not a metaphysical crossroads.

    Next year should be very exciting.

    • Brun says:

      Next year should be good. The console hardware refresh will basically be a reset button on the current industry landscape. As some other RPS commenter mentioned in another thread, the publishers will be in a very risky position when the new consoles come out. None of them know if any of their established formulas will work on the new platforms, because all of their customers will – for once – be walking into their games with their eyes open (or at least more open than normal). Why do you think they’ve resisted the new hardware for so long?

  10. abandonhope says:

    I kind of agree. This E3 actually had a handful of games I’m genuinely looking forward to, which is a handful more than most years. Coupled with the ongoing trends outside of AAA, I feel like we’re finally getting somewhere interesting after a long stall last decade.

  11. Apples says:

    “These people really love what they do” Is that okay, though, if what they’re doing is making hyperviolent cinematic linear doodads? You say “they just finished showing the projects they lovingly created to hordes of super passionate people” so presumably they found the E3 pitches to be of representative quality as to what they’ve made. If someone took what I’d made and put guns and exploding heads and boobs all over it (which would be pretty hilarious as I basically make online application forms) I wouldn’t be out there high-fiving in joy over it, and I’d despise the morons who cheered for it. I know there were devs there who weren’t from the massive AAA manshoot games, and I’m cool with those guys, but surely the ones involved with the biggest pitches can’t all have been universally without misgivings as to what they’d birthed?

    Also, I’m a massive downer!

    • NathanH says:

      I imagine that whatever you make, you’re better off not thinking too much about how that whatever it marketed, because if you dwell on it too much you’d just be miserable. I imagine they developers are happy because they are making things that lots of people are really interested in, and that must be a great feeling. In that situation I don’t think I’d let grumbles about marketing rain on my parade.

      Also, I would love to see my work adapted with guns and boobs. Mostly out of a sense of curiosity. The best I can manage is that all my numerical examples on my current project end up looking like cocks.

  12. Alextended says:

    Hmm…

  13. Cinnamon says:

    I suppose as PC gamers we should not care at all if MS, Sony and Nintendo all fail horribly to present any sort of positive view of the future of gaming. But the only views of the future we get are sporadic and grim things like people saying that PCs are going to be killed by tablets or that PC gaming only has a future through video streaming tech.

    • Reefpirate says:

      PLANETSIDE 2! Why do I keep having to shout this in this thread? It’s from Sony, it’s PC-only, it’s Free to Play, and it looks goddamned fantastic. Best game of the show for me.

    • Cinnamon says:

      Planetside was not at the Sony conference unless they slipped it in in the middle of the wonderbook presentation when everyone was having a snooze. I’m not that much of an fps person anyway so whatever.

      • Reefpirate says:

        I suppose it wasn’t part of their big stage show (I didn’t see that ), but they let people play the game for 3 days straight. You seemed to be saying that PC looks relegated to boring tablet and streaming stuff, and I was trying to tell you that there was a sophisticated, well-funded, Free to Play, really genre-pushing, PC-only game that looked absolutely stellar. Whether you like FPS’s or not, this game will make waves for PC games in a very positive way.

        • Cinnamon says:

          I’m saying the only “future of PC gaming” visionary things we have going are those sort of stupid things which are even worse than the console conferences. Planetside 2 promotion is just promotion of that one game. How much you think it “changes the way you look at everything” very much depends on how much you like planetside.

  14. razzafazza says:

    i really enjoyed E3, great games all around but if there was one thing missing it was some kind of “Battlefield meets Uncharted” game : you know a military action adventure with (easy) platforming and third person shooting. With a focus on storytelling and cinematics. I could do without a few less strategy games, RPGs, space-sims, etc. etc. if more games of that kind were made.

  15. Reefpirate says:

    PLANETSIDE 2 LOOKS TOTALLY FUCKING FANTASTIC.

  16. wodin says:

    PC leads the way for another year or so then the next Gen consoles come out and it will be the same old chestnut about consoles killing off PC’s except this time it’s a two pronged attack from IPad and Phones.

    If Square Enix tech demo of apparently in game gameplay of their new next gen engine is to believed it looks jaw dropping. Though can you have a tech demo of actual gameplay of a none existent game but is a demo showing off an engine? Not sure.

    • byteCrunch says:

      Tech demos are largely meaningless, yes they look pretty but they aren’t doing anything else, like AI, pathfinding and all the other things a game engine needs to do every 1/60th or less.

      The Square Enix demo was being rendered in-game but it wasn’t gameplay, basically just a CGI sequence produced using a game engine, rather than being prerendered.

    • Clavus says:

      Judging from the next-gen hardware rumours, I’d think the PC won’t really suffer from the next-gen release. Because they’re going to be running on hardware that closely resembles PCs more than before. The Playstation is apparently moving from the Cell CPU to a x86 based one. Porting couldn’t be easier.

  17. MajorManiac says:

    Its been really enjoyable reading your E3 articles Nathan.

    My favorate quotes so far – “…45-second flyby video that looked like what’d happen if an upturned anthill learned magic.”,
    and “…we got to stare right down the barrel of a gun the industry’s trying very, very hard to aim at its own foot.”

    Keep up the great work.

  18. The Smilingknight says:

    Whats the name of the Sony head?

    I liked that “duty” line.

    • rustybroomhandle says:

      Mr Head.

      • The Smilingknight says:

        Mr. Head… what?

        I need precise info people! What kind of game journalists are, all of you?

        Mr. Head Duty?

        ….

        Mr. Duty Head?

        cmaaan!

        • lijenstina says:

          Sony Crockett. He carries a Bren Ten under the jacket and drives a white Ferrari.

          • The Smilingknight says:

            I actually had to google that.

            which means i win.

  19. Vagrant says:

    Obnoxious over-analysis incoming! Was that a 1950′s style retro diner, or a 1850′s style diner built in the 1950s? Now that I’ve got that out of my system…

    Was Journey the biggest game sales wise, or in some other aspect? That’s the first I’ve heard on the subject. Console stuff and all that, but I’m interested to know.

  20. Howling Techie says:

    Although it has to be said that this year has been year of the bow, what with Last Of Us, Tomb Raider, Crysis 3, Assassin’s Creed 3, ZombieU, FarCry 3, Wreckateers, the South Park RPG, and I think Dishonoured all featuring bows at some point.

  21. Bobby Oxygen says:

    It’s reassuring to hear that it wasn’t all slo-mo headshots set to wub-wub :)

  22. Shooop says:

    Pretty well sums up what I think about E3 these days – the focus on spectacle makes it too easy to loose sight of the genuinely interesting games some people have to offer. We’d be much better off it died horribly, screaming the entire time and traditional games trade shows returned. Then those gems like Dishonored and Metro Last Light would be able to shine on their own instead of being nearly drowned in blacklight and dubstep.

  23. YourMessageHere says:

    Have to take issue with this:

    “Watch Dogs is an open-world cyberpunk sim”

    No it isn’t. Open world, yes, it probably is that. Cyberpunk, no. Sim, no.

    Cyberpunk is characterised by four things: a near future setting (that is, further in the future than Watch Dogs – you can’t really be punky if it’s about ubiquitous current technology, can you? I see no underclass in this game, after all), Alienation of characters (possible – it’s not clear what the protagonist actually is, which side of the law he’s on. Cyberpunk features explicitly non-establishment protagonists), the dangers of technology (note: not a balanced view – cyberpunk specifically deals with threat, not promise, and the ability to use the protagonist’s hacking abilities for either good or ill seems a major theme) and commentary on rapidly changing social order (this fits). I make that two out of four. Technothriller, OK. Cyberthriller if you must. Cyberpunk, no.

    You could almost argue it’s more postcyberpunk. This has three criteria: main characters who integrate with society (remains to be seen, although he seems to be fairly normal), the ability to control technology which positions it as both help and danger (the game seems to have this in spades) and a perspective on social order that sees it as already having changed and positions change as not necessarily a threat (also remains to be seen). It still (apparently) lacks the underclass/inequality theme needed for a specifically [prefix]punk setting, though.

    And sim? To me a sim is a meticuous recreation of a single activity in as much detail as possible, making it as much like you’re there yourself as it can. This is a sim if GTA, NFS Most Wanted and Clom Tancy’s HAWX are sims too. It’s a third person action game, quite transparently.

  24. qrter says:

    I don’t know, this article seems kind of muddled to me. People have been complaining about what E3 as a media entity has become, not that developers still want to make great games and talk about them enthusiastically. I don’t think anyone has any doubts about the latter still being true.

    Fact is, huge amounts of money are thrown towards industry events like E3 and these events completely fail to bring across any of the joy or passion developers feel towards their work.

    That’s the problem.

  25. Harlander says:

    The reason I came to hate E3 this year was because I was watching a stream of it that was apparently run by Spike TV.

    *shudder*

  26. PopeJamal says:

    So to sum it up: E3 is actually OK because the developers feel good about what they’re doing?

    Awesome. Is that the standard for acceptability now?

    No disrespect, but I’m dubious about the reasons for this article and the conclusion it draws. This smacks of “Don’t alienate the fanbase!” and “We want to get invited to the Princess Ball next year, don’t we!?”

    I can understand the business reasons behind it, but that doesn’t make it any less shady. Sometimes the “knee-jerk” reaction is the “right” reaction because it doesn’t get filtered through our conditioning.

    Back to business as usual then.