E3 announcements: Much ado about nothing?

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Tuesday was a busy day for those of us that like to keep up-to-date with the gaming industry. Microsoft and Sony delivered their press conferences, while Nintendo offered a muted affair via a pre-recorded Nintendo Direct broadcast, with much the same result (and at a fraction of the cost, I’ll wager).

With new machines forthcoming from both Microsoft and Sony, there was a hell of a lot of information to digest, and a lot of it can be lost in the furore that inevitably pops up following, well, any announcement that doesn’t gel with the audience. With the ubiquity of the Internet in the modern age, partnered with the technology to stream these conferences live, there are more and more fans (and non-fans alike) forgoing work and/or sleep to get their fill.

This is both good and bad; in my case, it means I can get the information I’m after direct from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, and this is something I look forward to every year. On the other hand, though, there are now more viewers than ever filling the intertubes with vitriol and misinformation…

Sure, there are things that perhaps don’t seem right at first blush, but it’s important to keep things in perspective – these are just announcements for products that are still several months from release. The reality of things ALWAYS turns out different. Cast your memory back to the initial announcement of Nintendo’s DS – the whole idea of multiple screens was laughable, and many thought it was a gimmick that was doomed to fail. Boy, were they wrong. Things are somewhat different this time around, but the sentiment remains the same.

So what did go down on Tuesday? Here are my thoughts on each manufacturer’s announcements by order of presentation. Keep in mind this is only my opinion – it does not necessarily reflect the opinion of any other staff at Stevivor.com, and there is every possibility that I’ve overlooked something, or that you simply feel I’m completely wrong and misguided. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

Xbox One

Microsoft

Ever since the initial Xbox One announcement several weeks ago, things haven’t gone well for Microsoft. For starters, the first presentation focused on seemingly extraneous functionality, and not on core gaming — a clear misstep for Microsoft, who must have misread consumer expectation. Beyond that, though, Microsoft seemed ill prepared to respond to direct questioning around used game control and always online functionality.

As a result, the E3 press conference was firmly focused on games, with much of the 1.5 hour presentation taken up by lengthy trailers. Standouts for me included the eye-popping Metal Gear Solid 5 trailer (and this comes from someone who is not a big fan of the series), the Killer Instinct announcement, Ryse, Dead Rising 3Forza 5, and Titanfall, to name a few. While many of these games were quite impressive, and several were clearly efforts at fan service (Killer Instinct, I’m looking at you), the majority of gamers just weren’t prepared to overlook the perceived “bigger picture”.

Microsoft’s angle is risky, but potentially valuable; an always online system for connected gamers that provides a service not experienced in the past. A service that delivers all of your entertainment, with docked screens and instant switching — in an ideal world, it sounds fantastic to me. It IS problematic, though, as there is the very real perception that Microsoft is ignoring a subset of less fortunate gamers, but the truth is that change isn’t easy – it’s not going to suit everyone immediately, which is not something easily conveyed in a presentation. However, with a persistent online persona comes a number of benefits – being able to pull titles down to wherever you may be, for instance, regardless of the location of the physical game disc. Microsoft’s solution provides a digital copy of any game a user purchases, and it doesn’t matter if it was purchased online or in store.

Sure, Sony’s PlayStation 4 will likely provide the same functionality in one way or another (that said, there was no clarity around this), but one thing that did fall under the radar was the fact that digital titles on Xbox One can be shared with up to ten “family members” at no cost – it can only be expected that this includes titles purchased in store, considering they, too, must be installed to the hard drive. While the specifics are unclear, Microsoft explicitly stated that this extends beyond blood relations, and beyond geographical borders – a game can theoretically be shared with a friend who lives in another state, for example. The only caveat (well, the only known caveat at this stage) being that only one version of the shared title can be played at a time. This method of sharing digital titles is unheard of, and for me presents great opportunity – far greater opportunity to experience a greater breadth of games than ever before.

Still, the fact remains that the common practice of lending the physical disc is going to be somewhat of an issue, and selling via eBay will be all but impossible (or so it seems at present). Of course, there is still the chance to trade in via an approved reseller (EB Games and the like) – with manufacturers and publishers reclaiming some of the margin from these sales (thus supporting the market, which IS a good thing, even if the means is unclear at present). Those that really seem to lose out are rental services such as Get Gaming – although there may be the chance for these service providers to register as approved resellers.

There is too much that is undefined at present, and exactly how this will affect gamers is also up in the air, but I strongly believe that the changes Microsoft has in mind will be for the better in the long run — for gamers with constant broadband connections, that is. It boggles the mind to think that there are people out there that truly think Microsoft is deliberately building a system that is going to cause so much trouble – we are just yet to learn the specifics. In the same way, though, consumer memory is short – people will calm down over time, and the issues will be ironed out when Microsoft feels the time is right.

Something else that came out of the initial announcement and just wont go away is the “Kinect is watching you” conspiracy, which, coupled with the PRISM details coming out of the States, was blown way out of proportion. Talk about bad timing.  In reality, though, the costs of storage FAR outweighs the likelihood that Microsoft is going to record everything you say and do in front of the Kinect. In fact, even the idea that the Kinect is doing anything nefarious at all screams tinfoil hat to me — people seem to believe that these complex and ridiculous conspiracies actually make sense.  I may well be wrong, and Microsoft might just be watching me snuggle up to the missus on the couch, but I seriously doubt that they won’t be building user controls into the system to outline what Kinect can and can’t do. The alternative is just nonsensical.

Beyond these issues there were other, more positive, announcements that met with little to no interest, and for me, the most intriguing was in regards to the improvements being made to SmartGlass. It was indicated that SmartGlass will evolve into something more persistent, and with the support of the cloud, it could potentially be something great. Imagine being able to plan out a route to explore in Dead Rising 3 while on the bus, or kit out your car in Forza? To be clear, these kinds of functions were not discussed within the conference, but it’s not a huge stretch from the ideas that WERE presented.

Finally, I’d like to touch on some information that came out after the conference, in relation to Killer Instinct. This title will assume a free-to-play model, with only Jago playable initially and additional characters unlockable for a fee. Many were outraged at the idea, but I think it’s great – provided the whole package comes in at the cost of a fully priced title (or less), then sign me up. Some folks can drip feed their addiction, if it suits them, while others can benefit from buying characters in bulk. I can only see one issue – how are players meant to decide who to choose if they can’t test the other characters?

Overall, while I have to admit upfront that I do harbor some concerns with the direction Microsoft is taking, I remain cautiously optimistic and expect that the uproar will all be for naught come release day, as has been the case so many times in the past. And I have to applaud Microsoft for maintaining their position (so far) even in the face of what came next…

PlayStation 4

Sony

Sony was lucky enough to have a break of several months between the announcement of PS4 and their E3 presser. This meant that much of the issues that gamers had with the initial announcement had died down (I see a trend here), and been replaced by anger directed at Microsoft. It was a good opportunity right from the start, and it’s safe to say they took the bull by the horns and rode that puppy.

Also focusing primarily on games, Sony spent the last 20 or so minutes of their lengthy conference presenting a cleverly composed speech targeting much of what gamers were pissed off about – PS4 would not impose restrictions on games and there would be no requirement for always online gaming. They then followed that up with a price that undercut Microsoft by US$100. Smack. Down.

But not everything is as it seems.

By keeping things as they are, there is no great change from PS3 to PS4 — well, nothing immediately apparent. The PS Eye is still an optional peripheral, relegating it to something that won’t be strongly supported (and making the light bar on the controllers somewhat superfluous, it seems), for better or worse. Cross-game chat is finally being implemented, which is great, but very last gen (keep in mind that Microsoft’s Skype offering allows Xbox One owners to chat with ANYONE over Skype, not just Xbox One owners). UI changes look very similar to Xbox, in my opinion, and the ability to access functionality via tablet screams SmartGlass, but nothing has been presented regarding what this will look like. At all. In some ways, it seems half-baked. Not to mention that more recent news has suggested that although Sony won’t necessarily apply DRM, they may leave the decision up to publishers… this may well mean the DRM in play on Xbox One may well be replicated on PS4, but it’s more likely that some publishers may choose to utilise the “Online Pass” method of recouping lost revenue.

Of course, there are some great new functions. The sharing capability — which is clearly a next-gen focus – is seamless, and demonstrations thus far have been quite promising. Remote Play via PS Vita is a HUGE addition… for Vita owners, at least. In addition, instantly streamed demos are a great idea, as is the chance to start playing a game soon after initiating the download – these are novel, useful features, and are more than welcome. Down the track, we’ll have streaming PS3 (and likely PS1 and 2) support via Gaikai, but there’s no news as to how this will work as yet – and it has to be expected that bandwidth will be an issue. If PS3 titles are offered in a similar fashion to Music Unlimited (i.e., pay a subscription and have access to anything you want), I’m there; otherwise? It may just be another function I rarely use. It almost feels like a way to say they will offer backwards compatibility without actually offering backwards compatibility (and here I refer to my shelf full of PS3 games), but that remains to be seen.

There was also the announcement that, yes, PlayStation Plus subscriptions will carry over to PlayStation 4, and apply across all PlayStation systems. This is great news, but there is one caveat — a PlayStation Plus subscription is now required for online multiplayer on PS4. Considering Xbox Live Gold also attracts an annual fee, it’s not uncommon, but it came as a shock to many gamers, who have relied on free multiplayer gaming on PS3. Personally, I applaud the decision — online multiplayer is a service, and everything has its cost (regardless of the expectations of today’s youth). Sony just needs to ensure their new PSN service outperforms the old one…

But beyond the excitement of the smackdown Sony laid directly in the face of Microsoft, there were some very impressive titles on show. Some of the exclusives looked fun (KillzoneInfamous: Second Son,Knack, and DriveClub were all well represented again), but it was the extremely impressive tech demo by Quantic Dream that initially blew me away, followed by Final Fantasy XV and Destiny – neither of which are exclusive to PS4, but both of which are “must buys” in my book. And The Elder Scrolls Online? Very nice – now just tell me how much it’s going to cost.

One final point that I mustn’t fail to mention is in regards to Sony’s treatment of Indie developers. While Microsoft mentioned they would absolutely be supporting Indie developers, and made the gesture of showing a Minecraft trailer for Xbox One, Sony actually asked 8 developers to come out on stage and demonstrate one of their forthcoming titles. This was endearing and encouraging, and I look forward to PS4 if only for the Indie potential… OK, I look forward to a lot more than that, but indie titles will have great impact.

Super Mario 3D World

Nintendo

As mentioned, Nintendo chose to forgo the big press conference this year, instead choosing to broadcast a pre-recorded Nintendo Direct session. These have been quite consistent of late, and are starting to become fairly intimate (in terms of them feeling very friendly as opposed to simply just an opportunity to sell to a captive audience). Again, Nintendo didn’t let us down, but again, initial appearances weren’t quite what they seemed.

Overall, the presentation was fairly short, coming in at around half the length of that of their competitors; however, it was packed full of exciting first-party announcements. Details were provided regarding the forthcoming 3DS Zelda and Yoshi titles, and a trailer was shown for the Wind Waker remake, but the real announcements here were Super Mario 3D World and Mario Kart 8, a new Donkey Kong Country title, and what seemed to be the big one for many gamers (but not so much for me) — a new Super Smash Brothers game, all announced for Wii U and coming within the next year. Sure, these are all titles intended to keep Nintendo fanboys happy (and hopefully sell a few more machines to those that were holding out for some of these announcements), but there’s nothing wrong with that.

Still, there was a distinct lack of… well, anything else. Most of the above titles are more than 6 months out, but the reality is that they need to space them out in order to maintain the flow. The problem however, is that the third party titles they announced were all known quantities – there was nothing in the presentation that made me think there was anything other than first party titles on the horizon. That’s a little scary – every man and his dog wanted to make games for the original Wii because it sold so well, and in much the same way, no one wants to make anything for its poorly selling younger brother…

When all is said and done, the industry is growing, but margins are shrinking — this is why so many developers have been closing lately, and sales of 3 million plus are referred to as “disappointing”. With the capability for gamers to simply share their games with friends, sell via eBay or trade via EB Games, the main sales cycle for a new title has shrunk to just a few weeks or months. Drastic changes are required to keep the industry as it is – changes that support the manufacturer, changes that support the developers and publishers, and changes that support upcoming developers. Microsoft is clearly making efforts to address the first two points, much to the displeasure of consumers, while Sony is making a strong case for the third. Unfortunately, consumers are traditionally very afraid of change, and so pitchforks come out at the mere mention of something out of the ordinary. I’d prefer to remain cautiously optimistic, but it whether or not these changes will actually WORK remains to be seen. Microsoft can change their policies without needing to change the hardware, so there’s no real need to worry. At least, that’s how I feel.

I guess, for me, the theme of this years E3 is “nothing as it seems” (and now I’ve got Pearl Jam in my head, which is not a bad thing). Microsoft’s announcements were blown way out of proportion, but there is merit to the complaints. Similarly, Sony is being championed as the system that gamer’s want, but even that may not be the case. And Nintendo? Well, I wants me some more 3D Mario (with multiplayer!) and Mario Kart, and I don’t expect (or need) much else, unfortunately.

Truth be told, it’s still a pretty great year for gaming, regardless of your system of choice.