E3: The Business of Art (Opinion)

on Friday, Jun. 13th

Adolescence is hard, even for an industry that has crested 40. When that industry stirs up passions—tribal and political—the way that the video game industry does the transition into maturity can be an especially ugly.

We’ve yet to reconcile the roles of games in the lives of adults in our society. Are they meant to take the place of more passive forms of mainstream entertainment? To keep alive a childlike sense of wonder? Dig up psychological extremes? Be avenues of self-expression and exploration?

The answer, of course, is that it can be whatever we want it to be. So long as it makes enough filthy lucre to sustain itself. The games industry is in the business of making art and making that art pay.

Which brings us to the Electronic Entertainment Expo, annual centerpiece of the video game world whether we collectively like it or not.

Each year the industry sends representatives from every aspect of the field—game developers, retail buyers, journalists, educators and technocrats— to Los Angeles for a four day mix of press briefings, trade show, panels and closed-door sessions. E3 is one part state of the union to two part gathering of the tribes.

This year was an odd beast. The big hardware announcements for the current generation of consoles are now all in the past. The blockbuster games that will drive sales of those machines all seem to be in the distant future. The Fall of 2014 looks to be another transition year, with Sony and Microsoft largely relying on third parties and indie developers to deliver content for their machines this holiday season.

The battle for exclusive releases of indie games is particularly fascinating. Sony has the thinnest line-up of first-party exclusive titles this year, but was able to spackle over this flaw in their slate by locking down multiple indie games for their consoles. Many of these games will also see release on the PC, which means that they are not truly exclusive but are instead exclusive in the console market. It is an odd strategy that says more about the strength that indie games have in the mindshare of gamer culture than it does about the actual health of the line-ups.

Microsoft has their own line-up of indie “console exclusives” as well, but didn’t hit that note as hard as Sony. The differences could be seen in the physical layout of the two booths: Sony put a cavalcade of indie games in the center of the action while a vast carpet had to be traversed in order to find the indie treasures at Microsoft.

Nintendo, meanwhile, did its own thing. For the past two years this has backfired spectacularly on the venerable brand, but their hour has come ‘round again at last thanks to the game Super Smash Bros.

Essentially nostalgia in a box, Smash Bros. allows players to put Mario, Link, Sonic, Mega Man, Pac Man and a whole bunch of other classic game characters in on the same screen and then have them beat the stuffing out of each other. The game maker managed to stretch massive lines into the Nokia Theater at LA Live for an invitational tournament of the game.

They also have a potential hit on their hands from the early look at Mario Maker, which is what you imagine it is: a game that lets you make Mario games. In this case players can use the WiiU gamepad to draw out a Super Mario Bros. course and then play it with either classic or updated art. It is everything your inner child ever wanted. That’s what Nintendo does best, and they’re doing it again.

Innovation is being deferred to the future at this year’s E3. The virtual reality headsets from Oculus VR (which is in the process of being acquired by Facebook) and Sony were both on display, but no sense of a commercial release has been set. Traditional E3 logic would suggest that this means these devices won’t be around until holiday season 2015 at the earliest if there was no announcement this year.

Yet traditional E3 logic is breaking down. Many tech industry pundits see this as the last generation of dedicated game consoles, with a lot of buzz amongst the technoratti for a blog post by Ben Thompson that shows that there is room for Apple to disrupt the game space with a microconsole. We’ve been saying this for years, but Thompson misses a big point as he tries to demonstrate how vulnerable Microsoft and Sony are: Sony is jumping into the under-$100 console business this year.

Sony’s Playstation TV, which not being able to lay claim to “most exciting hardware” is probably the most forward-thinking consumer move of any of the major game makers. A box that is smaller than some smartphones will have access to a library of streaming games, the vast Playstation Network, and the PS Vita library. Many of the indie exclusives that have captured the hearts of jaded gamers will be available for the device, and they won’t have to upgrade to a $400 machine to use them.

That doesn’t count Apple out of the living room war, but it does give Sony an ace in the hole. If you want to get your feet wet with video games, the Playstation TV is probably your best bet by a country mile. (Disclosure: my inner five year old has never forgiven Sony Computer Entertainment for what they did to Sega and the Dreamcast, so that’s high praise from me.)

Meanwhile Microsoft has conceded its plan for living room domination. They’ve made the motion sensing Kinect device an option as opposed to a pack-in. This pretty much kills the incentive to develop motion-based gaming on the Xbox platform. That’s a shame, given the quality of experiences like Fantasia: Music Evolved.

The game, from the creators of Rock Band, uses the motion controls to turn players into the Sorcerer’s Apprentice from the classic Disney film. Only instead of getting housework done with some conductor-style magic, the gesture controls allow you to remix everything from Mozart to Lorde on the fly. It was the most fun I had with any game at the show, including the intoxicating Mario Maker. My time with Fantasia was bittersweet, because I know that even if it manages to be a kind of hit, we are not likely to see its kind again.

At least not until a virtual reality haptics revolution takes place. Luckily that is exactly what is brewing in the odd aisles of E3. With the attention that has come back to VR thanks to Oculus a lot of old ideas are coming back into fashion. Unfortunately all of them are dependent on a head mounted VR display reaching the mass market. Wait and see, wait and see.

That sense that the whole of the industry is on pause extends to the growing calls for more diversity on display in games. Ubisoft made a meal of its foot this week when it claimed that making female characters for its co-operative game Assassins Creed: Unity would be too hard. This in spite of the fact that it had already done so in a previous iteration of the game, which led the animation director for that installment to call them on their bunk.

Gender issues in gaming are, sadly, nothing new. Yet the attention that they are receiving make it clear that a tipping point of maturation has arrived. The major story broadcast from E3 on NPR’s morning edition at the end of the week focused on the issue.

There are, thankfully, green shoots: Polygon contributor Elisa Melendez wrote about how she spent an entire day at the show playing as female characters. It is the kind of thing that by now shouldn’t be an issue, so it feels strange that it is still noteworthy. The difficult thing is that the turnaround will likely take years to complete, as cultural inertia dies hard.

What is clear, however, is that the demand for a more diverse pool of gaming experiences—in every sense of the word—is present. If the business of the game business is meeting those demands, then business is about to be booming.


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