Thoughts on the E3 2014 presentations
Oddly, despite having worked in “the biz” for nearly five years, I’ve never actually been to E3. Part of this is due to my distance, part of this is due to my general distaste of being crushed into a convention hall, and part of it is because there’s a minority of stuff that’s relevant to my particular slice of “the biz.” If you want to talk MMOs, there are other venues that give you better options.
Still, as everyone who is reading this is well aware, I do things other than play MMOs. (Other game-related things, I mean. This is not going to be my recipe for taco burgers.) That means that I’ve still wound up watching and keeping track of most of this year’s conference, and as I trim this up not too long before it goes live, we’ve seen most of the big stuff that companies have on display. Some surprise reveals happened, some reveals took place that were kind of predictable but still nice, and a lot of it is worth analyzing.
We’re also not seeing another Mega Man game on the horizon, but that’s sort of a predictable disappointment by this point.
Last year was really the Year of Sony at E3; all they needed to do this year was to keep using that momentum and not screw up the landing. Lucky for their bottom line, they did precisely that. The result was that this year’s Sony presentation, on the one hand, felt very formulaic and by the book, largely because it was exactly that. It was a matter of hitting bullet points, listing things, and sharing things that everyone needed to hear in rapid order. However, it also did a reasonable job of that, so good for them.
Sony’s presentation solidly put forth the idea that a PlayStation 4 is a good idea now and will continue to be a good idea until next year’s conference, which is kind of the litmus test for whether or not a presentation works well. A lot of titles are due out this year, ranging from Entwined (already dropped, and cleverly announced along with the drop) to Destiny and Little Big Planet 3. There’s also stuff on the horizon in 2015 and lots of products designed to sell to varied audiences; did anyone seriously expect a Grim Fandango remake to be on anyone’s docket? A plethora of free-to-play games on the console? PlayStation TV is actually a thing that’s happening?
Let’s not touch upon revealing Grand Theft Auto V on the console just yet; it’s better discussed below. Trust me.
Of course, all of this winds up second fiddle to the fact that Sony’s presentation mostly came down to “working as intended” with a side of “we know what we’re doing” tossed in for flavor. Surprisingly, this was all they needed to do. They have a field of competition that isn’t; all the PS4 needs is to keep doing is trucking along without something truly stupid getting added to the mix. Sure, your enthusiasm level might be at a six instead of a ten, but what are you going to do, buy an Xbox One?
The joke, if you missed it, was that Sony had two presentations at E3 last year. The second was the one in which Sony unveiled the PS4 and told you “buy a PS4,” while the first was the one in which Microsoft revealed the Xbox One and told you “buy a PS4.” It went really badly, is my point. Microsoft basically spent the entire year doing damage control, has seen disappointing sales, and has ditched pretty much every aspect of the console that was originally touted as being a major selling point. This year’s presentation needed a strong counter-focus to Sony.
Unfortunately for Microsoft, the big selling point was putting all of the Halo games in a box and selling them to you again.
Two things really hampered Microsoft’s presentation on a whole. First of all, there was the simple fact that a lot of the presentation focused on games that were always going to be cross-platform. Sony did a bit of this as well, but it’s always telling how much of that goes on. Sony announced Grand Theft Auto V, a major selling title being remade for the console. Microsoft announced another Tomb Raider game, talked about Assassin’s Creed: Unity, and name-dropped DLC for several multiplatform third-party titles. That comes across less as “here’s a cool stuff connected to our console” and more as “we don’t have enough of our own things to show off to keep your attention.”
Also, timed exclusives generally speak to something unsettling. Exclusive DLC — something the PS4 is getting — means that a developer is confident enough to limit the market, because there will be enough people on the platform to justify the cost. Timed DLC is what amounts to a consolation prize, content that the manufacturer really wanted as an exclusive and isn’t getting. Anyone able to wait two days for new content is not going to care.
A lot has changed over the past several years, but gaming is still an industry built on momentum. Instead of wowing, this year’s presentation felt like an apology – and if you think that’s a way to sell your console, go watch Sony’s presentations from the last generation of consoles and see how many PS3s they sold based on apologies.
Nintendo’s presentation was great… if you own a Wii U.
In contrast to the other two manufacturers, Nintendo has a strong stable of its own IPs. Its main problem is that third-party developers aren’t eager to get in on the Wii U, consumers don’t want a Wii U, and it needs to convince people who don’t already have a Wii U that they want one now. Mario Kart 8 is an absolute hit, and more than anything this presentation needed to walk in and announce that the Wii U had a robust lineup coming out this year, that buying the console for MK8 is just the beginning.
The company totally nailed the robust lineup. Unfortunately, most of it is scheduled for 2015. Yes, there’s some stuff out there – new Super Smash Bros. with some good features if you like Super Smash Bros., more Pokémon remakes, Hyrule Warriors – but a lot of the really great stuff on display is for 2015. Mario Maker, Xenoblade Chronicles X, Kirby, new Zelda, new Mario Party, the luxuriously soft look of the next Yoshi game… all next year. There’s a popular set of images floating around of all these cool titles, but of the twelve titles there, only four will be playable this year. That’s 33%, on a console that’s struggling to give people to buy and play it now.
Admittedly, Nintendo is not Capcom. Odds are low that several of these titles will just be cancelled without explanation mid-development. Just the same, the long lead time means that it’s quite possible some of these games get delayed, cancelled, change form. What we’re being shown here are perilously close to being ideas rather than games, and for every great idea that turns into a great game there’s a Daikatana or an Unlimited Saga or even a Super Mario Sunshine.
Let us note, however, that Nintendo spent more time focusing on female protagonists than any other console manufacturer during their presentation. Some people are even speculating that the Zelda trailer was casting Zelda herself as the protagonist this time around, which would be very cool and novel. It still doesn’t make me excited to dive into the first dungeon to find the Boomerang yet again, but points where they’re due!
The other big “this year” thing that they were showing off was… Skylanders, essentially. A thing that already exists and you can buy right now if you want it, except now it’ll have Nintendo branding. Again, this is great stuff if you have a Wii U. But it’s not attracting anyone who doesn’t already have one, and the people who already do have one already picked their horses. It’s the Gamecube all over again, and while I loved that machine despite its awful controller, it did not exactly allow me to build forts out of titles.
There’s a lot of oddity with Nintendo these days, and a lot of it really deserves its own space for discussion, but Nintendo’s presentation was a visual treat that was still short on hard results. Also, there’s still no explanation of why, say, the Virtual Console will not let me play every single Gameboy Advance game ever on my 3DS. The code’s right there, even!
Sports! The Sims 4! Dragon Age: Inquisition! That’s… that’s really about it.
EA’s presentation this year was focused on a handful of titles and a lot of oddly high-angled concept shots. Don’t get me wrong; I’m really glad to see anything about Mirror’s Edge 2, and more statements that another Mass Effect game will be coming makes me a happy fox. But the non-sport side of EA was mostly focused on games we know about and, in most cases, we even knew release dates for. Maybe that was true of the sports titles as well, I don’t care about those and thus don’t focus on them. The announcements of actual games felt a little thin upon the ground.
At the same time, as a publisher rather than a console producer, EA doesn’t need to convince you to buy anything. It just needs to sell you on the titles that are coming out, so it can afford to be a bit more conservative. And, you know, I don’t think I’m capable of being unhappy when we’re getting a new Dragon Age installment and a new installment of The Sims. Bland, maybe, but not so bad.
Square’s stuff this year has been low-key, on-point, and stunningly clear. Final Fantasy Type-0 is a game I’ve specifically mentioned in the past as being doomed to never get a localized release… but it’s coming out after all, it’s going to be in HD, it’s a real thing. Final Fantasy XIV is getting a class I’ve wanted forever and it’s allowing same-sex unions in its marriage system. Sure, these announcements lack the pomp that Square has put into some of its other efforts, but I think this is a sign of a big sea change from the company.
On some level, I don’t think Square ever really grew out of their rock star status from the middle of the PlayStation’s lifecycle; even after they were no longer on the top of the heap, the company has spent a long time displaying everything its done with a lot of visual flair and a whole big to-do all over again. I suspect that their more trimmed-down reveals are sort of a return to basics, producing solid games with less concern for the visuals. Personally, I’m a fan.
Being unable to discuss anything about Ubisoft is unfortunate, but a reality of article word count.