For many people the Electronic Entertainment Expo is supposed to be a source of answers. The retail industry wants to find out where the money is going to be, the gaming press wants to find out which titles are going to be the 'important' ones and the American public seems to have a burning desire to find out just how long they are willing to line up for a t-shirt handed out by a busty model. This was my second trip to Los Angeles to take part in the annual smoke, flashing lights and bikinis that the game industry seems to think is necessary and this time around I came away with more questions than answers.
The most confusing issue for me was the fact that the press in general seemed to be focusing very strongly on the console side of E3 when there were some extremely strong PC titles on show. I'm no huge RTS fan but for Age of Mythology to receive the minimal coverage it did seems very strange. It wasn't just Age of Mythology either, Microsoft had a very strong line up of PC titles that seemed to be being ignored. Yes the PC is far from the sexy gaming platform of the moment but these games looked bloody good! Many of the multi-platform publishers seemed to be making a song and dance about fairly average looking console fare with solid looking PC titles tucked into dark corners. Colour me confused.
The other thing that struck me was the lack of 'big' titles. Now big in this context is hard to define so it is probably easiest to give some examples. Doom 3, Final Fantasy X, Halo, The Legend of Zelda, Metal Gear Solid 2 are the types of games that I am talking about. Games that have an impact on the entire industry and get gamers talking even if they don't own the platform its on or are fans of the genre its in. From my perspective it seemed that there were lots of titles that at E3 were trying to puff out their chest and say 'look at me ... I'm important too'. I'm not saying there were no good games, far from it, there were some real gems out there but there this just didn't seem to be anything which will cause raging bulletin board discussion over the years while we wait for its arrival.
In terms of there being a 'winner' at E3 I couldn't identify one. Everyone has different preferences in gaming so picking a winner on game lineups is a bit ridiculous. Both Microsoft and Sony had a huge number of titles on display for their consoles while Nintendo had a fairly small range in comparison. Does this mean MS and Sony had a better showing? Of course not. In my travels I spied games on each machine that I am really looking forward to playing properly and I'm sure that anyone who isn't a diehard fanboy with a chip on their shoulder would find the same thing. I'm not just being diplomatic here, from my perspective all 3 platforms are delivering the goods when it comes to quality gaming. From a commercial perspective its pretty clear that in the PAL part of the world (and Japan) Sony is taking advantage of its big head start and massive brand awareness. Nintendo and MS have their work cut out for them carving out some space to operate but both seem serious about digging in for the long haul. The USA is a different story of course, the PlayStation brand is still strong over there but perhaps not quite as strong as it is in European and Australasian territories.
The final issue worth mentioning is the online 'thing'. I found this to be the most interesting part of attending E3 this year as it really showed up the major differences between the three console manufacturers. Microsoft announced their Xbox Live program (the online connectivity plan for Xbox) which, quite frankly, sounds excellent. The features they are offering and the way they want the system to work is exactly what gamers (well gamers like me anyway) have envisioned online gaming to be. The only problem is from a technical standpoint - I cannot see how you could offer a service like Xbox Live in New Zealand. Not when NZ's only affordable flat-rate broadband service is not up to the speed Microsoft require for Xbox Live. MS have years of experience in terms of networking etc which will no doubt help them, so... who knows what the future may hold? In short, MS have some fantastic things lined up for Xbox Live and if you lived in the US you would be rubbing your grubby little gamer hands in glee. They are taking the approach of 'this is what online gaming should be and this what you'll need to experience it'.
Sony of course think quite differently. They are well aware of the diversity of the PAL territories and the problems inherent with saying 'here is the standard. meet it'. Broadband penetration varies hugely across the different PAL territories and Sony want everybodies experience with online console access to be positive and problem free. This means that the 'online solution' for the PlayStation 2 in New Zealand may be very different than in Australia or the United Kingdom. Sony's approach seems to be ' we will test and tailor the product until we can deliver the PlayStation 2 online experience the mass market expects'.
Unfortunately I was cursed the inability to see into the future so I can't tell you which is the right approach. Microsoft are shooting for the hardcore gamers and giving them the online experience they want (high speed broadband connection required!) and hoping perhaps the mass market potential will follow on whereas Sony are cautiously sounding out the waters and tailoring their product to suit. Neither approach is more right or wrong than the other and only time will tell. Where is Nintendo in all of this I here you ask. From what I can gather Nintendo's approach seems to be "online gaming ... yeah that would be cool". They have left it up to particular developers to decide if they want to produce games with the capacity to be played online. So while Phantasy Star Online is appearing on the GameCube there doesn't appear to be any Nintendo Online service per se. In short Nintendo are going about their business in the same idiosyncratic way they have employed for years. Who knows five years down the track Sony and MS might be left in smouldering ruins and we will all be playing Hamtaro Arena Online.
Well those were my general thoughts on E3. Hopefully it wasn't too much of a confused, rambling rant and provided some useful information to someone out there (come on I know there must be at least one person who found it interesting). What will probably be more useful is the series of features we have planned focusing on all the individual games that we spent time with at E3. There are developer interviews, press kits and notebooks piled a mile high and we'll be converting that into articles over the next few months.