Who Won E3?

By now we’ve heard most of what the big three have had to say. Nintendo is holding the line with the Wii U, Microsoft has announced an always-on box for $499, and Sony has made nice with gamers by offering a $399 device that allows users to share and sell games. All of the consoles are HD, all of them support multi-player, and the console wars are essentially over. Each console is a permutation of a high-end PC and each console should have a life-cycle of about seven years, give or take, until 4K becomes interesting then the new console generation will pop onto the scene.

It is, as the Lion King says, the circle of life.

Sadly, however, I think older gamers are finally seeing through the console ruse. To be clear, every console from each manufacturer will sell in the millions. There will be lines around the block at Best Buys across the nation come November as holiday buyers rush for the Xbox One and further lines when the PS4 launches. Nintendo’s top-flight franchises will sell out and the Wii U, while seemingly disappointing, will still sell kids just coming up in the gaming world and to nostalgic adults. In that way, no one can “win” E3 – no matter what the memes say.

So what’s next for gaming? It’s clearly not “casual consoles” like the Ouya nor is it Zynga’s brand of crack gaming that fails when the addicts lose interest. What, then, constitutes the future?

Mobile Gaming?

The phone has to, at some point, replace the handheld console and give the home console a run for its money. Mobile games are addictive but non of them offer the depth and complexity of a game that requires concentration and a stronger control system. There is a reason RPGs and other “deep” games work well using keyboards and, to a degree, controllers: the medium is separated from the message of the game. Games like Kingdom Rush and Angry Birds rely on the device and are, in a way, wedded to it. More complex games are wedded to a passive screen that we control using hand motions that are completely divorced from the actual game play.

This is not to say that mobile gaming can’t create rich worlds. It’s just far harder. It’s not difficult to grab a mobile gamer’s attention for a long time – games like Civilization Revolution are a testament to that – but the interface doesn’t lend itself to long, complex adventures like Oblivion or Bioshock. Once the hardware and software reach parity, however, I could definitely see something in that vein. While console makers aren’t quite ignoring this, Nintendo (and others) could be leaving money on the table by not developing for mobile platforms.

Oculus Rift?

Products like the Oculus Rift are examples of true innovation in gaming. I’ve tried the developer kit and while it is far from complete or even particularly compelling, it does bode well for an immersive future. It is obviously a gimmick, just as the Kinect was before it, but it adds a great deal to the gameplay experience and I could see a day when a headset could augment the gaming experience considerably.

But the future cannot be all headsets and multi-dimensional treadmills. The future has to be filled with compelling content created for a wide audience, something that blockbuster games makers are increasingly afraid to attempt. LEGO City Undercover and Bioshock Infinite are both recent examples of some of the best – and worst – habits of game makers. The LEGO title has all of the fun of a Pixar kids’ movie mixed in with a compelling (if cute) story. Bioshock Infinite has all of the twists and turns of a good movie and the majesty of a Hudson River School painting. Both of the games are flawed in their own way but, in another sense, both are perfect examples of the genre. Most important, however, is that they could be improved like a gimmick like the Oculus Rift but they do not require it to shine.

The Console Makers?

While I intimated above that none of the “big guys” won E3, Sony and Nintendo, at the very least, captured hearts and minds across the globe. In short, they understand the primary value of the console as a physical media player. Allow me to explain.

Game services like Steam (and, to a degree, OnLive) got one part of the equation right. They understood that gaming is usually a solitary endeavor that takes place on a one-to-one basis between a player and his or her monitor. Microsoft is hoping that this relationship can easily cross over to the console experience, which is untrue. On the console, physical media is important for a few reasons and, while the urgency of these are rapidly diminishing, they still exist in most of the world.

First, physical media is popular because it allows folks without stable Internet (arguably an increasingly small cohort) to play any game, it allows for easy trading and aftermarket sales, and it allows, to a degree, for piracy. These are, whether we like it or not, all important things to consider when creating a living-room-based games console. You can, obviously, attempt to crack a console to play downloaded games but, thus far, the physical media has been the primary vector for piracy and will remain so. Not every gamer lives in the U.S. where games aren’t amazingly expensive and so there is far more of an impetus to pirate than any of the big three let on.

When you have both parts of the equation correct – the DLC for solitary, more mature gaming and the physical media for a more price-sensitive market – you win. When you fail to address both sides you fail. Microsoft will probably rejigger its strategy shortly to concede to the mass of gamers who are outraged or it can ignore the complaints and just go for a more mature, less-price-sensitive gamer who doesn’t take his or her disks to a friend’s house to play.

Why does this matter to a non-gamer? First, consoles and the attendant applications drive the direction of in-home media. The PS2 drove DVD adoption just as the PS3 drove Blu-ray (for a while). Consoles are streaming video, allowing for interactive chat sessions, and encouraging us to upgrade our televisions. Gaming is an industry, not a business, and millions of people world-wide are shaped by its tribulations and triumphs.

Gaming is great. For all their complaints, the game-playing masses are still investing time and energy into some amazing titles and games are becoming increasingly more immersive, exciting, and artistic. To say any one console “won” E3 is to ignore the up-and-coming technologies that will make our twitch-fests more interactive and the older players who, by now, are the interactive equivalents of the movie studios of old. Gamers love to whine, but when the pre-order button lights up or its time to queue around the GameStop there is little that can hold them back. The giants at E3 know this implicitly and while no business is guaranteed, there is more than enough precedent to point to a bright and fascinating future.

[Oculus Rift photo via hortont]