Friday, June 24, 2005

Ben's Big-Ass E3 Impressions

Ben Ormand, President of the Dubious Quality Film Division, sent me his thoughts on E3. Ben won the DQ Humanitarian Award for managing every minute of my time in L.A., which was absolutely spectacular. We went together both in 2003 and this year, and hopefully for many year to come.

I have no mouth and I must scream…

Ah yes. E3. I remember you now. Lost in the mists of time, memories fade of the crowds and the noise. All I remember is the anticipation. Games. First looks at all the cool new games. Sure Bill, sign me up for more of that.

What could possibly go wrong?

So, we plan. Bill and I scheme to “do” E3, “Six Million Dollar Man” style: bigger, better, faster than before. We’re going to roll in, cruise through the crowds, checking out all the things that we want to see, and like modern day Algonquin round-tablers, we’ll spout our witty rejoinders on the offerings of the day and retreat to an evening of cocktails and reminiscing. So sure are we of our genius, we have armed ourselves simply with a list of products and a tape recorder, to insure our execution (double entendre unfortunately intended) and make sure no bon mot goes unrecorded. And now I remember the lesson of hubris: men plan, E3 laughs.

There is no plan that can help one survive E3, a fact of which I am reminded of when immediately plunged into the Dante-esque, Ellison-inspired techno-hell of waiting for my exhibit badge. Waiting for a “techno” problem to be resolved at a TECHNOLOGY exposition (oh irony! Thy initials are E, E, E!) invokes unparalleled sensations of frustration. Something akin to how it must have used to feel to be Red Sox fan.

In the end, however, the badge fiasco really only cheats me out of a different wait, in a different line (into the exhibit hall, that stretches from here to eternity, sans Deborah Kerr), so it’s hard to be infuriated. Although I wistfully regret the death of so many untold clever observations never born of those conversations Bill and I might have had waiting together.

And then, with the opening of the vaulted gates of this gaming heaven, it begins. I’ll admit I was still an optimist at this point. We were going to see the XBox 360, we might see some vaporware from Sony, and there were going to be the games, the games we would play in the next six to eighteen months. The noise, already throbbing from inside the sacred inner sanctum, would be a worthwhile assault to endure, right?

Now, of course, I look back and think about the last unfortunate, unlamented, and now unknown scientist who strenuously backed the flat earth theory. Wow, were we wrong!

Easily, in my all years of attending E3 (I think this was my fourth, but if I say it with such undefined gravitas I hope it sounds more grand), this was easily the most unimpressive and downright depressing display of the future I’ve ever suffered to witness. The short version (those of who now chuckling at the thought of getting to this point and discovering you’re in the middle of the short version) is that there was NOTHING there.

Ok, maybe that’s too short.

For those of you who date back into the wee early years of Bill Harris, NC (a new calendar system I’m proposing here, with “N.C.” predating “D.Q.”), might remember a website that used to track upcoming releases. It paid special attention to release dates, with hotly anticipated upcoming games often earning a special release date designation: “When It’s Done”. Games like Half-Life 2, Duke Nukem Forever, Rollercoaster Tycoon 3. You know – the big ones, the ones worth waiting for.

I can honestly say that at this year’s E3, I saw nothing like a “When It’s Done” title, or even the promise of one. I do have some threadbare notes about what I did see, which I now offer unto you.

I might as well start with the beginning, with our journey into E3’s underbelly: Kentia Hall. First up was Syberian Conflict, a sci-fi RTS that uses the Tunguska blast in Russia, 1906, as a launching point for an inspired fusion of Starcraft and C&C Red Alert. While I wasn’t blown away by what I saw, I at least I gave them some credit for trying to innovate in their game design by moving away from what can lovingly be called “basecraft” (a term we’ve coined for the repetition of base building in the first ten minutes of a mission) towards unit creation on the fly by combat hero units. Bottom line: an impressive effort from a no-name company. Prediction: it will never take up a byte on your hard drive.

Next up, we wandered towards the nice people at Buka, who had two products we toyed with: Pacific Storm and Pathologic. I was more drawn to Pacific Storm, an RTS “WWII in the Pacific” naval combat game, with a supposed “boredom prevent mode” that allows you to jump into first person control of individual combat units as your armies collide. I love the idea (also loved it when I was one of the untold suckers who coughed up $50 bucks for WWII Online), but the sales pitch reminded me of a late night infomercial (“It’s a dessert topping!” “It’s a floor wax!” “Relax. You’re both right.”). Never a good sign.

I was late for Bill’s private walk-through of Pathologic, so I couldn’t figure out what the hell the game was supposed to be or what the hell was going on. Suffice it to say, even with the short time I watched, I’m convinced that this will be the greatest Eastern European styled mafia/disease-vector game the world has ever seen.

We’re two hours in at this point, and displays were already blurring together. Not a good sign. I think we had recorded at most one token stab at a clever observation. In spite of this shocking dearth of wit (one might argue the shocking part), I do clearly remember thinking this: you could teach a class called “The Art of the Hard Sell: Making Small Talk Look Easy” by walking around Kentia and just eavesdropping. Make no mistake, the vendors down here work hard for their money.

We saw a neat display from They make digital trees and foliage for games. Yes, you read that correctly – they are a virtual landscape company – and you’ve probably seen or admired their work without realizing it. I personally couldn’t believe you could build a company making nothing but the equivalent of digital widgets, but big entrepreneurial props to those guys.

We met with a company showing Egregious Downhill, a proof-of-concept demo that tries to tap a Tony Hawk inspired market for the downhill mountain biking crowd. I was impressed with their moxie, bringing a “sort-of” working demo and dream to place like E3 looking for a sugar daddy to fund the project. The demo was really hard to play and crashed a lot, which pretty much brought back flashbacks of the only time I ever tried “real” mountain biking, which was really hard and I crashed a lot. They get points for reality, but I’m sure if the concept holds up at game length without the bells, whistles, and big name star of something like TH:Underground.

And then there was Hip Games, offering a self described RTS-FPS-RPG entitled Ghost Wars. If only they could figure out a way to also make it a dessert topping and floor wax too… which spawned the realization that everyone is desperately trying to come up with the next “new-big-thing” by putting all the “tired-golden-oldies” in a blender, throwing in a concept and publishing the resulting chum. In other words, just like Hollywood.

We wandered through the “hardware” section of Kentia, the place where all kinds of unique products go looking for partners. There was a head-mounted display from Trimersion, good for playing your favorite FPS. Bill tried it, I politely passed. Watching Bill, swinging his head around trying to use the thing, I couldn’t help but think that this is what Ray Charles would have looked like playing Halo.

There were some neat player interactive products from QMotions, including one of at least two Tiger Woods 2005 golf simulators we saw. Great idea, but even with guy being paid to demo the product playing it, the gameplay didn’t look… fun. Furthermore, it didn’t look like playing real golf, or even close to practicing real golf, which is the real Holy Grail for these companies. When they achieve that, they will turn every computer-phobic dad into a TV hogging twelve year old crack addict, as he utters every gamer’s mantra, “just one more hole.” On that day, QMotions (or whoever achieves it) will move up into the main hall. Today, however, they’re down with the rest of the Morlocks.

Finally, wearily, we broke for lunch with Bill’s e-friends from Gamers With Jobs and a real game writer (as opposed to yours truly). Sitting down to eat, I had a shocking moment of clarity, the flashback to the story that lent me the title to this piece. I looked at the poor souls with me, who had trudged through the belly of the beast for seemingly years, only to be offered a ten dollar cheeseburger. I thought long and hard about Ted’s solution in the story, and took a long hard look at the ice in my cup. Could I do it to these good people? Could I end everyone’s misery before E3 could stop me? I hesitated, and was lost. We trudged on to the main hall.

Trying to have a conversation in the main hall is like asking your buddy to explain particle physics to you at a rock concert -- possible but not likely to succeed. The rest of the day became a stream of consciousness series of thoughts as we were buffeted from display to display like ships in a storm.

Fallout 3 – the franchise was bought by Bethesda, the geniuses who ripped you out of 40 bucks at least once for the crappy Sea Dogs, if not twice for the equally crappy Sea Dogs II (enshrined forever in the Hall of Crap as Pirates of the Caribbean). Seems like it would be hard to screw up the Fallout franchise, what with its high concept and already well established style RPG gaming. But don’t sell Bethesda short. Where there’s a will… Bottom line: I didn’t see anything but a poster. Prediction: we’ll see the pre-Alpha at next year’s E3, and they’ll ship the Alpha, Christmas 2006.

Elder Scrolls Oblivion – I’m not sure, but I think that the price of admission to this demo theater was something involving your everlasting soul and those of any children born unto you. Bottom line: Didn’t see it – but have to admit, there was a lot of buzz.

Xbox 360 – who do you think we are? What website do you think this is? The closest Bill and I got to seeing the “biggest thing” at the show was pressing our noses up to the “behind thick glass” displays that adorned the outside of the Microsoft display area. I saw some looped footage that looked okay (to paraphrase Jack Handey: If people buy Xbox360, I hope they like Top Spin 2, ‘cause that’s what they’re getting). I didn’t have a jaw dropping moment where I saw something and realized that the revolution had begun. It just looked… better than the Xbox. That’s intended as praise, but you have to show me something that looks like Half-Life 2 on an ATI X800 before you start asking me to genuflect. Bottom line: Will be huge, especially when the next Halo hits it. Prediction: November, 2005, on time.

City of Villains – good idea… last year. Now, unless they can have some Night Elves or Orcs as their main villains, they’re still going to be scratching for player bucks that didn’t get hoovered into the Blizzard coffers.

2K Sports – their games looked great, with great playability. Hence, they are being driven out of the market.

Age of Empires 3 – lots of nice conceptual upgrades. Huge graphical upgrade. A definite buy for the holidays. But don’t expect any thing too new, as they simply try to tweak the formula. Then again, I spent about the same amount of time with Rise of Nations last year before thinking it wasn’t going to amount to much. See: Flat Earth Theory, paragraph #7.

Top Spin 2 – didn’t they give this away with Xboxes? All kidding aside, it looks great, but it looks like exactly the same game as before. And considering how tennis has captured the American psyche… no wait, that’s football. Nobody cares about tennis, which means they need a gimmick to capture audience attention like playing McEnroe or Connors or death robots with flaming tennis balls that blow up when you win a point. Now that people might buy.

Civilization 4 – I’m not too proud to admit: my name is Ben, and I’m a Civ-aholic. Which made the little concept ad/video for a recovery group for Civ players very cute and “chuckle once” funny. But the cut game footage looked to me like little more than a long overdue 3D graphics and units/AI upgrade. In other words, it’s the same as Civ 3. And Civ 2. So my only remaining question is: where do I send my money and when do I send it? Predictions: it will do the same as the others; Sid Meier’s Civ 5 is already on somebody’s calendar; and Sid is on the phone with William Shatner, asking for advice on overcoming career typecasting depression. Bottom line: seriously – where do I send my money?

Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends – I have to give it to Brian Reynolds, the guy knows how to take a good game, tweak it a bit, and breathe new life into the old body. This game gets a big nod from me for essentially “Alpha Centuri-ing” the first version, turning this sequel into a sci-fi infused concept art/unit/AI upgrade. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I think this is going to be a fun game if you you’re a fan of this genre. Bottom line: pedigree carries the day. Prediction: you’ll buy it as well as AOE3.

I was going to insert a crack in here about Dungeon Siege 2 being roughly equivalent to the leap forward in gaming from Rollercoaster Tycoon to RT2, but I didn’t really kick the tires so what the hell do I know?

If I were to throw a single bone to the category of games I’m eager to futz around with, I guess I could admit I will plunk down some cash and pick up Peter Molyneux's The Movies when it finally hits the shelves. Bill saw a lot more of the demo/walk through than I did, but it seemed like a very well realized extension of The Sims styled game play into the old school Hollywood world. It might get old quickly, but will probably be a solid twenty plus hours of entertainment, which isn’t bad in this day and age.

And finally, the coveted Infinium Labs Award for Vaporware goes to Sony, for making a big deal out of their decision to “show” the PS3 at E3, and then actually showing about as much as a Mennonite doing a strip tease. I can’t fault Sony for not displaying anything of consequence – that was probably their GOOD decision. Getting caught up in a rush to try to counter Microsoft’s hype with ill conceived counter strategies (“Oh yeah! Well, we’re gonna show ours too!”), however, was not one. It smacks of an otherwise astute industry leader going slightly off the rails. Half-baked is not done, gentlemen, please give it to us “when it’s done.”

As for E3, we were done. We retreated from the noise and the crowds and the eye burning walls of plasma monitors. We took deep breaths, and numbly scratched our heads at our defeat. We had some small victories, some worthwhile thoughts and conversations about the big picture of gaming and where it all was heading. You can keep reading Bill’s stuff for those thoughts, because he showed me an outline of every column he’s writing for the next two years, and I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise.

If like me, you’re primarily a PC gamer, the future doesn’t look so good.

I wonder if it will be any better next year?

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