Friday, May 20, 2005

E3: Kentia

I promise you this: no references to my ass today. Well, except for that one.

I’ve looked at exactly zero news stories from E3 at this point. This column will be solely the impressions I gathered as we walked around the floor on Wednesday. Once this column is finished, I’ll then start reviewing all the videos posted online and all the information posted about the various games. That will lead to another column, which will be a broader perspective on the show. Finally, there will be the “think piece” (probably an oxymoron in my case) about what trends I saw this year and what it points to for the future.

Let me try to convey to you what it’s like to actually be at E3 in terms of gathering information about games. In Kentia, which has the nicest people (by far) and the least number of games, information is no problem. Someone showing a game is happy to talk to you for an hour if you’d like, because no one else is there. So maintaining “organizational discipline” is a breeze in Kentia.

The West Hall, with Sony and Nintendo is tougher. It’s bigger, it’s probably ten times as loud, and there are hundreds of games on display. There are essentially five different ways that companies show their games:
1. A single station with a monitor and game controller, with a company representative to walk you through a game’s major features and explain why you should care. This is, by far, my favorite display method, and it’s also increasingly rare. In a one-on-one environment like this, you get much better (and much more personal) information. It also usually means there’s enough of the game ready that you can actually see it being played.

2. A station with a monitor and game controller, with no company rep around for miles. This is the preferred way to display console games on the floor, with rows of screens. Play all you want, but everything you get is going to be from your limited interaction with the game. At least you can play it, though.

3. Demo loops. These are almost totally useless, but they look pretty. 42” plasmas with endless demo loops running. Eye-candy only.

4. The Theater Experience. I say that somewhat cynically, because the “viewings” that people wait in line for are my least favorite way to experience a game. I might as well just watch the #3 demo loop.

5. The Closed Door Sessions. Unfortunately, this has become the heart of E3. The vast majority of the top games get shown this way. Conceptually, I think this really goes against the whole idea of gaming—access granted to those who are deemed to be potentially useful. I really dislike that philosophy, and I think it’s a mistake, because out of a large group, no one can identify all the people who are “useful” now or will be in the future. It’s just not possible.

This is important to remember when you’re reading impressions—the different forms of presentation make it impossible to accurately compare games in any meaningful way. So reading “impressions” can be very, very misleading unless the delivery medium is specified.

The West Hall is ten times as loud as Kentia. There are probably fifty times as many games. All presentation methods are in play. And, unlike Kentia, this hall is jammed with people. Jammed. So it’s loud, it’s incredibly crowded, and it’s very difficult to maintain any kind of intellectual discipline, because the environment is downright hostile to thinking.

The West Hall is a soda shop from the 50’s, though, compared to the South Hall. This is where Microsoft and EA can be found, along with most of the other “big boys,” and it’s five times as loud as the West Hall—at least. It’s deafening, actually, to the point of being physically unpleasant. Certain areas, like this idiotic “amphitheatre of deafness” EA constructed, make it impossible to even speak. Well, speak, but certainly not heard. In the South Hall, I had zero discipline whatsoever. I had a folder of all the games that were showing, and I’d been taking notes during the day, but I didn’t write a thing in the South Hall. It was just suffocating, both because of the crowd and the sound.

In theory, you can carry a notebook with you that lists all the games and you can check them off one-by-one as you see them all. In practice, the environment is so aurally punishing (in the South Hall in particular) that you just walk quickly through, seeing everything you can without stopping. A second day would fix that—you could review the games you missed the first night—but after a full day at E3, I have no desire to go back. For another year, at least. So we see a lot—and we miss a lot. That’s how it works at E3.

Okay, so with the background out of the way, let’s get going.

That’s an extremely aggressive way of describing thirty minutes of standing around while Ben was trying to get his badge from the demon printers. The line to get into the South Hall snaked past us, and we were (I’m guessing) seventy-five yards, at least, from the entrance. It was crowded far beyond anything I’ve ever seen at E3, probably due to the hype surrounding the new consoles. Ben mentioned that this was the first year he could remember that the pre-show focus was on hardware, not games, and that was both perceptive and entirely true.

Two things I saw: one, a woman with a purse that looked like it was made from a copper bucket. Her friend walked up and said “That purse is so sweet.” I guess, if you wear a suit of armor to work.

The second thing was a guy with a t-shirt that read “My girlfriend is out of town.” Sure she is, my man. Sure she is.

This is why we always start in Kentia: a Lithuanian dude whose business card I, of course, lost. He works for Orbis Avia (I think, or Wireframe Dreams—I’m not sure which), which is developing a game titled “PSI: Syberian Conflict.” It’s an independent Lithuanian development house, they don’t have a publisher contract, and they came to E3 at their own expense to try and land a deal. He doesn’t care that we don’t have media badges, he doesn’t care that we’re nobody’s—he would stand there and talk to us, with great sincerity, all day if we wanted to. Yes, it’s a little hard to understand his English, but that’s another part of Kentia’s charm—you can’t understand half of what people are saying to you. But it’s easier to understand him in Kentia than it would be to understand Richard Freaking Burton in the South Hall.

So how does Syberian Conflict look? It’s just as impressive visually as most of the other RTS games we saw, and the plot hook (the incredible explosion near the river Tunguska in Siberia in 1908) is a nifty way to incorporate one of the most amazing events of the early twentieth century. It has 3-D environments, day and night cycles, uses terrain and fog of war, has heroes whose abilities evolve, manages resources in a more macro sense through controlling existing production centers (BioNodes) rather than being forced to build and manage them. It’s every bit as good as the games that everyone else is publishing, and I hope they can attract enough development money to finish it up.

That’s a good start, but it doesn’t take long to see that Kentia has dramatically changed from two years ago. Far fewer games are being shown, and the biggest company in the hall (1C) has a by-appointment only show. In Kentia. 1C is a big company, particularly in Europe, but in America their name is synonymous for “jack-crap,” because that’s what they’ve done over here so far.

Games 1C was showing at E3: twenty-one.
Words anyone without an appointment will write about those games: zero.
People with appointments: 1/1000 of the number of people in the above category.

That, gentleman of 1C, is bad math.

There was a strong MMORPG presence from Korea two years ago, and those guys (who were wildly enthusiastic) are gone this year. Korea loves PVP, and every Korean developer we saw was pushing a hard-core combat game (not modern war—medieval, fantasy, etc.).

Buka was also in Kentia, and Buka wins the Booth Babes award for 2005, mostly because they didn’t have any. Instead, they had two or three very pleasant, nicely attractive women who were bright and very helpful. Here’s one of the fundamental truths about E3 for most people: you’ll spend most of your time with the people who seem the nicest, not necessarily the people showing the games you want to see. That’s how it works out every year, and I watched fifteen minutes of Pathologic just because the lady was so nice.

Pathologic is an adventure game using a 3-D engine. It looked like a hybrid of an FPS and adventure game, and for an adventure game, the graphics looked very solid. The presentation stressed how much your actions affected your relationship with the NPC characters, which will be nice if they (or anyone, for that matter) are able to do it right.

Ah, Akella. Makers of the heinously-unfinished Pirates of the Caribbean, which I thought could have been Game of the Year if they hadn’t shipped an alpha. Now they have all kinds of games in development, but all I saw was Age of Pirates, which looked exactly what I expected Sea Dogs II to look like two years ago. I am personally crushed that I didn’t get to check out Dead Mountaineer Hotel, which is one of the absolutely worst game titles I’ve ever heard.

I’ll be thrilled if Age of Pirates turns out to be a solid, completed, enjoyable game, but after POTC, let the buyer beware. I honestly don’t trust these guys at this point.

What else was in Kentia? Plenty of not very much. I tried on a VR helmet that was absolutely, horrifically bad (I think there were two VR helmet manufacturers and we drew the short straw). I’ll let Ben tell you about how I looked, but the short version is that I was nearly twisted over to the ground to control the damn game with the helmet on.

We saw two golf simulators and neither one was impressive. It’s a huge potential market, and I’ve seen good reviews of some of these products, but in person they left me totally cold. I really like the idea of actually swinging a club and seeing the results onscreen (in Tiger Woods, no less), and some of them are reasonably accurate, but the sound of the ball when it’s struck by the club is absolutely horrible. If they could come up with some kind of composite material that had a more “authentic” sound than cheap plastic, it would create a different kind of immersion entirely.

What was the best thing in Kentia? Absolutely, hands down, it was the tiny booth that had the successors to Robosapiens, the tiny robots that were such a huge hit at Christmas last year ( They have a new model coming out this fall that’s a dinosaur, it’s called “Roboraptor,” and it’s going to be a HUGE hit. If I remember
correctly, it’s coming out at $129, and it looks remarkable—great movement, predator behavior, movement sensors, and selectable behavior sets. There’s also a V2 of Robosapiens that is larger and far more sophisticated. I think these are going to be the hottest toys at Christmas this year.

Here’s a picture of both: The dinosaur is quite a bit bigger than it looks in the picture.

Random notes:
There was a demo loop running for some faceless MMORPG, and every few minutes a booming voice would say “HIS DESTINY IS TO FIGHT.” No, I’m pretty sure his destiny is to suck.

Favorite line overheard in Kentia: “Atari owes us a million and a half dollars.”

So that’s Kentia. And given how insanely long this has run, I’m going to stop here and write a separate column for the West/South Halls. I’ll start working on that tomorrow and post it this weekend or Monday.

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