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Saturday, May 21, 2005

Nerdblogging - The Electronic Entertainment Expo

Well, exams are over and I've had a lot of time to generally unwind a bit. To get back into the spring of things, I'm going to share one of the few joys I look forward to every year (including my birthday and, obviously, Christmas) - the Electronic Entertainment Expo. Or, as I call it, Christmas in May.

For the uninitiated, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3 as everyone else calls it, is an annual convention where console and computer game publishers get together and have a collective love-in about how great they are to the video game press. Crass, to be sure, but I'm calling a spade a spade here. This year was especially important because it was the year where Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft were to all unveil their newest consoles to everybody. I say "was" because there was some definite missed opportunities here.

First and foremost was Microsoft. Here is a company that has gobs of money to throw around, and they can't keep a damn secret worth a hill of beans. Everyone and their pet dog knew about what kind of system the XBox 360 was before their contrived MTV "unveiling", and for damned sure before E3. It was the worst-kept secret in the history of mankind, and it went a long way to deflating a lot of hype and expectations for the console. What is a definitely positive move on Microsoft's part was to slim their console down drastically, which was the biggest complaint (quite literally) about the console. Microsoft, for all their hype and hoopla, didn't seem to have the kind of software support we were hearing so much about going into this event.
Microsoft only seem to save themselves by promising a third Halo game to be released in time to blunt Sony's launch of the Playstation 3. A couple of key highlights was the news that they'd be picking up one of Square-Enix's much vaunted Final Fantasy games, as well as debuting a trailer for Perfect Dark Zero, the first game from Rare that may actually be decent since it was sold to Microsoft. Rare, if you've ever read about them, was sold off as a second party from Nintendo to Microsoft back a few years ago, and had only produced the mediocre Conker's Bad Fur Day for the nearly-five years the XBox has been out. Microsoft had a number of great-looking (looking being the operative word) games on display, and confirmed that their worst-kept-secret's release date was in fact going to be the holiday season of this year. Whether or not they actually do that remains to be seen - this is, after all, Microsoft that we're talking about here.

Turning to Sony, their Playstation 3 debuted to the usual fanfare and expectations of everyone - meaning, wildly positive. Sony, for what you can say about them as a company and their products, knows how to pull off an unveiling. For weeks, even months before E3, Sony has remained completely silent about their console. In a way, that helped them pull off a great start to E3. Things didn't quitecontinue that way afterwards, with a lot of press coverage noting that most of the games on demonstration for the Playstation 3 (and, to be fair, this was leveled at Microsoft too) appeared to be just pre-rendered trailers for games- not many titles were available for play. What has me, and no doubt many others, interested in about the Playstation 3 is the announcement that it will have support for up to seven Bluetooth-enabled controllers (which, for whatever strange reason, look like boomerangs). Considering that most people can play multiplayer (non-online) games comfortably with four player splitscreen, how are they going to pull off seven? That's not to say they can't do it, I just find this hard to comprehend - its almost as if they're just picking that number because it sounds unfathomable for a console, which is not always a good thing. The trailer for Killzone looks groovy, but I'm not sure it can be Sony's "Halo Killer" - Halo has a lot of hype and pretty textures, but it winds up being like almost any other FPS, something Killzone has to overcome to truly "kill" the beast that is Halo. Sony also touted their Playstation Portable (PSP), and demonstrated a bunch of titles still to come for the handheld.

Nintendo succeeded in frustrating the hell out of me this year with the introduction of Revolution console. I had fully expected to have giggle-inducing details just cascading from the sky about this box, but we only got to see what the concept will look like and a few other details. Granted, the console looks damned cool - some of the gaming press say that it's as close to Apple in quality of design as they've ever seen, a huge compliment as one can ever hear. From what we do know from the few details are interesting, to say the least. The biggest feature is instant-on WiFi networking, straight out of the box. The console will be online-capable at launch, and Nintendo is launching a free online service for all of its games, where the only way it'll cost to play online is if a company wants to charge for, say, an online-only style game like Everquest. This is, in all likelihood, a deliberate shot across the bow of Microsoft, whose XBox Live service requires fees in order to play online for any game. What is also interesting is the news that Nintendo's library of NES, SNES, and N64 games will be available for download through their online service - which is just beyond wonderful. Nintendo did not display any designs for the controllers, fueling the speculation that the "revolutionary" part of the system lies with the controllers. Whether or not that is actually true remains to be seen, but Nintendo seems interested in revealing more towards the end of the year.
What is definitely exciting about the new console is the launch lineup of titles. Nintendo has announced that there will be a new Mario, Legend of Zelda, and Super Smash Bros. title availble at launch - a trifecta of classic gaming goodness. Not only that, but the Super Smash Bros. title will be online for the first time, which is like an answer to many fans' prayers (including mine). They also showcased the Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, which is coming out for the current GameCube console this holiday season and it looks phenomenal. Say what you will about Nintendo, but they know how to make a great game better than anyone else does. A few trailers here and there of other upcoming titles like Geist, as well as another game for the Revolution, Metroid Prime 3. I, personally, can't wait for Metroid Prime 3 since the Metroid Prime series were the first Metroid games I played and enjoyed since Super Metroid for the SNES.

What bothers me the most about a console like Microsoft's (and, by extension, Sony's) is that it just seems to be a battle of the chipsets - who's faster at rendering snowflakes or some inane foolishness like that. They leave a distinct impression that they're not really interested in the games any more - they're more interested in who makes the prettier shell for them. For some, that is their bread and butter- if it looks great but plays or sounds like crap, thats OK. But for some people, like yours truly, I can only appreciate the game if everything is of uniformly good quality, not just graphics. I'm not bought off that the latest Madden game has real-time rendering of Ray Lewis' nose hairs, but could otherwise be as overcomplicated or contrived as could be - I have an HD television set to render that if I were so inclined (and, believe me, I'm not). Sony is a little bit better than Microsoft in this aspect, as they have some fantastic story-driven games of their own, but even they're becoming blinded by the idea that it has to be graphics, not gameplay, that is the rule of thumb. You can put the fastest processor on God's green Earth in there, but if it can't manage the game code efficiently, you might as well stop trying to impress me with numbers.

What makes this so infuriating is that these chipsets aren't even "advancements" of video games as a form of entertainment - there is only so much of a limit between the tech they can wedge into a small box and the stretch of the price tag. I am beginning to think that, if this trend continues without a market revolt of some kind, we can see price tags of easily $400-$500 for consoles. Analysts would be beyond surprised if Sony's console, for example, came in under $400 - they just have too much new and proprietary tech in there to go that low. Everyone expects the XBox 360 to be just under $400, with $360 being the most tossed-around number, and nobody knows how much the Nintendo Revolution will cost, but it'll likely be the cheapest of the three. What is scary is that these numbers are talked about casually by all these companies as if its no big deal. Well, it is a big deal because there is only so far we're going to go in spending money for something that is seeing a progressively shorter lifespan. It feels like it was only a year ago that the Playstation 2 debuted, and now we're already all over the Playstation 3. If this trend continues, we're going to see a new console generation in less than four years, and I don't think my wallet can take that kind of punishment. Add in the idea that development of games alone takes longer and longer, costing more and more, and this is starting to look pretty scary. This is starting to look like the big war Sega and Nintendo had going on in the 90s, where Sega would chuck out a new console and Sonic game at a rapid clip, with wildly different technology in each itineration. Nintendo, meanwhile, would ride the living hell out of each of their consoles, and eventually outrode Sega when the Playstation and Playstation 2 rolled around (although, leaving Nintendo competing even more directly with Sony then). Sega had been reduced to a niche player by the time the Dreamcast came out, and the Playstation 2 spelled the end of Sega as a hardware company. Sony and Microsoft are beginning to run the risk of limiting themselves to the audiences they've built with their respective game libraries, and starting in on a cycle where they just "have" to toss out a new console every couple of years without fully exploiting the current generation of hardware. They're creating a throwaway console industry, and $400 is an awful lot to throw away every couple of years- Sony and Microsoft can only milk the "technorati" for so long.

To sum it up, E3 was definitely a low-key, unexciting event overall. When you find it hard to be excited about a new generation of hardware, someone would be very smart to sit up and take notice. Let's just hope its soon - I think my wallet is still whimpering on the dresser.
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