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

E3 2012 Diary

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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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