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The E3 That Will Be: Our Immersive, Digital Only Future

on Thursday, Jun. 20th

What a difference a day makes.

When I set out on this two part look at this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo the Internet was still up in arms about Microsoft's stance on DRM for their new Xbox One console.

Late yesterday afternoon the Redmond giant changed their tune, setting off the hashtag "#Xbox180" and creating the backlash to the backlash in which tech bloggers began lamenting the loss of some whiz-bang features of the console that the shift in policy has sidelined for now.

The shift in policy bolsters the vibe I got from this year's event. The gaming industry is in limbo, stuck between a business model that bleeds out value and a confusing, consumer-antagonistic future.

It is enough to make you want to throw up your hands and walk away from the whole business. Thankfully, there were other sides to E3, and if you stitch the various snapshots together a panorama emerges. One that makes sticking around worthwhile.

Microsoft may have backed away from their plans, but the vision of a digital-first future for the console market is on the table. Some people have read a lot into the strategy Microsoft outlined of allowing for "family share" plans and digital game loaning. There's an assumption out there that this also meant they were going to allow for the resale of game licenses for some form of "store" credit.

That was never expressly laid out, but recent sleuthing has shown that one of the company's rivals–Valve, holder of the Steam computer game platform–appears to be investigating that exact option.

Used game middlemen like GameStop and Walmart may not find themselves cut out of the loop yet, but the target is clearly on their backs. The only real question is if any form of savings will be passed on to consumers, or if a community that has been trained to view annualized releases of games be stuck in a commodity loop because that's easier for publishers and console makers to sell their investors on.

Those console manufacturers and game publishers also showed off deep integration with tablets and smartphones in their major game releases. Some of these choices are threatening to be "multi-platform for multi-platform sake", but others–which offer alternate modes for interacting with a game world that make narrative sense–seem to push towards a more immersive sensation.

What am I talking about? How about the game —Watch Dogs–centered around a character who hacks into the city's surveillance structure that offers players on tablets to assist the player on the console? Or the field commander viewpoint in the game Battlefield 4 which will allow one player to act as the communication nexus for 30+ person teams?

These are authentically new experiences that last year's event hinted at. The sizzle reels for new games like Destiny suggest that we'll be seeing even tighter integration of social media functions in big releases. It is no longer enough for a big game to make a splash at launch, the prize appears to be building a community that will last between the large iterative releases.

The quality of immersion technologies is also on the rise. While at the show last week I gave an account of my time with the Oculus Rift, the virtual reality headset that was the back-room buzz of the show.

In the time since I've had conversations with both gamers and non-gamers who have reservations about the viability of the business and the device itself. For the device to break out beyond the mainstream it will have to offer up compelling experiences that go beyond the category of "better shooter".

One aspect of the demos that I saw at E3 that work so well for gamers–the use of the familiar Xbox 360 controller–was the poison pill for one of my non-gamer friends. Suddenly all the work that has gone into devices like the Wii and the Kinect, viewed by too many "hardcore gamers" as gimmicks, seems prescient. If a designer wants to build an immersive experience that feels more like dreaming and less like manipulating an artificial world, the interface has to let go of mechanical inputs.

The fidelity of the new Kinect sensor Microsoft showed on the show floor took us part of the way there, at least. Another aspect of immersion will be the rise of quality haptic technology. In English: physical feedback.

Last year at the ViviTouch booth I saw the work that subsidiary of Bayer's applied sciences division was doing in that exact field. This year, in for a check-up, I saw that their technology was advancing along one of those Moore's Law type curves. The feedback capacitors have gotten ridiculously small. The fidelity of the feedback gotten better as well, but the real kicker is the interface they've built for designers to work with. It looks like Garageband (or for those audiophiles: Pro Tools and Reason).

In just one year the pallet for immersive game experience designers has widened immensely.

None of this will matter, in the long run, if the people behind the Oculus Rift cannot lock down some "killer apps" for the platform. This is, by the way, the same problem Google will face with Google Glass when it finally hits the market.

A good rule of thumb in the entertainment software world is three. Three games/apps that are diverse enough in experience to warrant a purchase. The space-fighter pilot sim EVR fills one of those slots for me, but there needs to be more. As interesting as the work being done by independent developers and big studios alike with this platform are, ports of existing games won't cut it.

One place Oculus VR might want to look is at the genre of "construction games" like the ridiculously popular Minecraft and Microsoft's surprisingly compelling Project: Spark. The later is almost a do-it-yourself game engine in which developers have mocked up clones of many popular genres using an interface designed to encourage remixing and creativity on the part of players.

It is easy to imagine Oculus VR shipping "world building kits" with every headset, inviting players to create their own virtual worlds and share them with their friends. If the company can position itself as the maker of a toolset and not just a single tool the limits on their currently apparent business model–make the best damn VR headset ever–begin to evaporate. One can make only so much selling TV sets, and so much more if one sells the sets and the cameras.

I believe that games that encourage creativity are the most interesting pathway forward for the industry as a whole. Programming is incredibly complex, but the tools of creation require less of that kind of specific knowledge these days. From Minecraft to Disney Infinity the trend-line is clear. Games that become more like toys invite a freer range of play.

That play can act as a form of communication in and of itself. An invitation to step away from our prescribed societal roles and constructed identities and embrace a different point of view for a while.

It is that possibility–naive as it might be–that keeps me coming back to the Expo year after year.

Follow Noah Nelson on Twitter (@noahjnelson)

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