Electronic Entertainment Expo, the annual video game convention better known as E3, isn't just the top place to go to watch scantily-clad nymphs, armored stormtroopers and bespectacled businessmen awkwardly mingle. The industry-only event, which drew more than 46,800 rabid enthusiasts to the Los Angeles Convention Center this past week, also offers experts and everyday fans alike the clearest snapshot of where the future of gaming is headed.
This year's event played host to the introduction of Nintendo's new Wii U system (featuring 6.2-inch touchscreen controllers), Sony's supercharged PlayStation Vita portable handheld and the arrival of YouTube and Bing on the Xbox 360. For better or worse, it also cemented what the coming years hold for gaming fans and pros — a roller coaster ride of unprecedented proportions.
Setting all the flashing lights, booming speakers and catchy ad libs by gaming execs aside, here are the event's main attractions and the revelations they portend.
1. Traditional Gaming and Retail Aren't Going Away
Despite all the hype surrounding the growth of mobile, social, online, digital, massively multiplayer and free-to-play games, blockbuster disc-based retail releases continue to enjoy a massive fan following. Garnering big interest from both the press and public, potential smashes in the making (and packaged goods) such as Battlefield 3, Mass Effect 3, Uncharted 3, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and BioShock Infinite aren't a dying breed. Rather, the focus at retail — a distribution channel which, while dwindling, isn't going away overnight, and should enjoy a considerable presence for the coming decade — is switching to ultra-premium.
Translation: With review scores, competition and overall quality levels climbing, what we're seeing is a shift to bigger, higher production value games with more expansive solo adventures or multiplayer components. In order to keep pace and justify the $60 price of entry, average and nondescript games are quickly falling by the wayside and being replaced by best-in-class hits. That's generally good for all parties involved, especially players. It means better titles across the board, including those that begin — not end — at what's in the box and offer more for your gaming dollar.
2. Motion Control Accessories Are Maturing
Both Sony with its PlayStation Move and Microsoft with the Kinect are doing everything in their power to illustrate why these accessories, thus far confined to largely casual and social applications, are worth the time of "hardcore" gamers. That means incorporating voice commands into Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Future Soldier so you can simply say "optimize for range" to instantly generate a custom weapon, or making it possible to cast spells with a wave of your hand in the fantasy role-player Fable: The Journey.
But more telling than actual gaming applications (e.g. playing air guitar or lopping off goblins' heads with a simulated sword swipe) are the vistas these control methods open up for home entertainment. We're as happy as the next geek that you can chat with aliens by reading off voice prompts in Mass Effect 3. But options to pull up Rebecca Black videos or search for new game demos just by saying "Bing Gears of War 3" feel very promising. It's the kind of functionality that reaches far beyond standard gaming circles and into general interest digital media consumption.
3. Innovation Is Dead — Unless You Know Where to Look
Most game companies are currently pooping a joystick, as it's nearly impossible to forecast future sales or predict how to make hits in an era where everything from play habits to the platforms and devices themselves are changing at a breakneck pace. Slow to adapt to the innovations of social, online and free-to-play games, most publishers are reacting the only way they know how: by doubling down on proven brands, franchises, sequels and spin-offs, or spending to acquire well-known Hollywood, TV and comic book licenses.
As such, two outcomes are inevitable. One: Expect to see more familiar franchises returning, receiving reboots or being resurrected in fresh forms year after year (hello Halo 4 and Tomb Raider). In the hopes of mitigating risk, everything old truly becomes new again. And two: Publishers will need to become leaner in more agile in the face of mounting and diverse competition. Staff will be cut, more versatile developers will be hired, and past business strategies will be shuttered as game houses struggle to turn around sinking battleships in the era of light watercraft. That's not to say doom and gloom is in the air — rather, that insiders have been slow to adapt to innovations they've long known were coming, and there's still some pain to go through before we fully reach the next level.
We'll close with the biggest gaming trend of all — one that no one seems to want to talk about at a very blockbuster-focused conference like E3. As Internet connectivity continues to proliferate, bandwidth increases, mobile devices boom and the quality, sophistication and availability of on-demand gaming improves, the humble web browser — increasingly available on smartphones, tablets, PCs, TVs, consoles and other devices — may soon become the most popular, and ubiquitous, video game system of all.