Sunday, May 22, 2005

E3: The Trends

[I’m skipping a few columns ahead because I wanted to write this one, but I’ll go back and write the South/West Hall impressions column next, with a Best of Show column following.]

E3 is impossible to cover in a micro sense. There is just an absolutely mind-boggling, amount of detail. However, it’s entirely possible to grasp in a macro sense—even if you don’t get all the micro details, you get enough to start seeing aggregates form, and trends emerge clearly.

The disadvantage I have at E3 is that without a media badge, I miss out on some of the micro information. The advantage I have, though, is that since I don’t have any responsibilities to gather the micro stuff, I can spend most of my time thinking about the macro stuff. And Ben and I talked about these things all day, which helped me sharpen what I was thinking.

Here’s the single most dominant trend I saw at E3: women as gamers. In 1999, when I first went to E3, the only women at E3 were either working booths or getting paid to dress like hookers. This year, I was astonished by how many women I saw walking around looking at the games. Yes, the attendees were still mostly male, but the difference between this year and 1999 was amazing.

I think this means two things. One, in spite of everyone saying that nobody writes games “for” women, they’re playing them anyway. Also, and I think this is important, these women at the show weren’t all packed around the demo for the latest Sims 2 expansion pack—in other words, they’re playing games that don’t fit into the general perception of the demographic.

Ben mused aloud where the great women designers were. Well, nowhere. Besides Roberta Williams, who was influential but not necessarily “great,” no one comes to mind. However, there is no doubt in my mind that they’re on their way. Seeing all the women on the floor, especially compared to their number (zero) six years ago, made me realize that there is a critical mass of female gamers now who will eventually produce some great designers.

That was, by far, the most obvious and important thing I saw at E3 this year.

Here’s the second most dominant theme I saw at E3: Nobody knows a damn thing about the PS3. If they say they do, they’re probably either deluded or lying. The PS3 was almost total vaporware at E3—there was that fancy pre-show conference, but besides that, there was NOTHING on the floor. Zip. There was a theatre show if you wanted to wait for two hours, but there were no prototypes on the floor, no game loops, nothing. Sony says they’re launching in Japan in March, and to do that they roughly need to be within four months of Microsoft in terms of the production/development cycle, but I have to think that’s impossible. Microsoft had fifteen games showing on the floor—almost all of them were loops, but quite a few of them were showing actual gameplay, and at least one (Top Spin 2) was playable. Not that I’m sure much is known about Xbox 360, either, since final dev kits aren’t in the field, but there’s no question that Microsoft appears to be six to nine months ahead. I seriously doubt that PS3 is shipping in Japan in March—I would expect something more like June, with an October 2006 release in the U.S.

In terms of actual performance, nobody knows anything, either. The Killzone footage, which was spectacular, was apparently pre-rendered, which makes it meaningless in terms of understanding anything about the console’s power. I wanted to stand up and cheer when I saw the Final Fantasy XII—it’s that spectacular—but again, pre-rendered.

Sony was a master of the bait-and-switch with the PS2—yes, the console was very powerful, but it was significantly less powerful than Sony claimed before it was launched. The processor was so unconventional, though, that Sony could claim anything they wanted to and it was impossible to dispute them—until the games started coming out and the aliasing was absolutely terrible. Now they’ve designed another thoroughly unconventional processor, and they’re doing the same thing. Given how much fog both companies spew, it’s impossible to make a direct comparison.

I’ll tell you one other thing about the PS3: it can’t come out at $449, which is allegedly the currently planned street price. No matter how powerful that console is, no matter how many features it packs, it will puke all over itself in the U.S. at $449.

The PS3 will be a great console, and it’s a very impressive piece of hardware, but the fog around it, at this point, is too thick to see through.

Having said all that, though, Microsoft itself thinks the PS3 is more powerful. Ignore that long-form piece produced by Microsoft with all the graphs and alleged performance analysis. Instead, focus on an interview given this week by J. Allard to Here’s what he said: "We can't get all hung up as an industry and say it's all about graphic fidelity," Allard commented. "I kind of put the 'does it look better?' secondarily.”

Way to convince me, J.—that the PS3 is more powerful. Listen, the company with the more powerful system isn’t going to say it’s not about graphic fidelity. That’s what the company with the weaker system says. The other company says that a console is like a brush and color palette used by artists, and having the most raw power gives developers the best way to realize their vision. So Microsoft, clearly, believes their system isn’t as powerful.

Theme number three: The decline of the PC as a gaming platform. Last year, the gaming press was falling all over itself at E3 about the “triumphant return of the PC” because of Half-Life 2 and Doom 3. Those games, though, had been in development for years, and behind them the pipeline was running dry. This year, the number of PC games on display was incredibly low, and the companies showing large numbers of PC titles (like 1C and Akella) are not even considered in the first tier of developers.

Something else: of the PC-only titles I saw, none of them looked to be as much fun as Darwinia or Mount & Blade. The Movies and Ghost Wars were both in my Top Five list for the show (which will come in a future column), but small independent developers are leveling the playing field, as far as I’m concerned. That’s one very positive aspect of what is generally a negative (the decline of the PC as a gaming platform).

Here's another positive aspect, as least for the future: as the barriers to entry for console developers gets higher and higher as game budgets continue to grow, the PC is going to have its own niche as the "bang for the buck" platform. It should be the platform of choice for a huge amount of new talent that will emerge as more and more people play games.

There’s probably more, and after going to E3 items tend to pop into your head for weeks, so I may add to this later.

Site Meter