2004 E3 Coverage
Trend Settlers: Conquering the Gaming Unknown
Freelance Writer, Thotmedia
The computer gaming arena has come a long ways. If we were to consider the technological advances over the past 15 years, we would find that the jump from dots and blocks on a screen to vast 3d worlds and beyond extremely sensational. We would also find from a hardware perspective, major advances in consoles, controllers, and other clever gadgets to be just as impressive. As each new trend comes into prominence, some piece of hardware or software is created to address the emerging need. Sometimes, as often is the case with Nintendo, innovation leads the way, there by forcing a trend. An example of this is the launch of Mario 64 on the N64 system. Mario 64 was the first true 3d platform game. It not only introduced 3d game play, but also utilized camera and analog buttons which were built into the N64?s controllers. Pretty much every game of its genre since then shares this game play design.
This year?s E3 conference was special in a couple of ways: emerging trends were identified and fiercely represented while conversely there were a lot of innovative concepts presented. Many of which will most certainly creep into the mainstream in the near future. Here is a list of these trends as I saw them at this year?s E3.
?E Online Gaming
?E Portables Systems
?E Mature Game Themes
?E Home Entertainment Devices
Microsoft (Xbox), Sony (PS2), and Nintendo (GameCube / GameBoy) all had huge opening day press conferences. I had the opportunity to view all of them. In them they each laid out their visions for the coming year. All recognized that even though the current systems life cycle is nearing completion, there is plenty of room to market to the casual gamer. I am not sure whether or not this constitutes a trend, but it is worth mentioning. Considering the fact that adults who buy games for their children, grandchildren or the like are typically casual gamers, I am saying, ?Listen up?. I will breakdown each of these trends so that when you see the marketing campaigns in the very near future you will not only be able to spot them more easily, but you also will have a better understanding as to what impact it may have in your household if you choose to ?casually consume?.
This is an obvious one that many are not surprised by. However, I am sure most will be surprised to know how little online gaming currently is taking place in the console market. The fact is there is not a solid business model for companies to unleash full fledged online capabilities, and Nintendo is not in the online gaming market for this reason: they do not know how to make money doing it. I will speak more on this later.
Microsoft by far leads the way in the online gaming world. With its internet service, Xbox Live, Microsoft has a clever interface for getting into your living room (and why not they already own your home office). The features of Xbox live are very impressive. There is online chat, voice mail, video mail, video chat, file sharing etc. For parents this possesses the same kinds of threats that an internet connection would have in their child?s bedroom. No longer are video game systems locked inside the walls of our living rooms, they can now be extended to anywhere in the world.
Not to be outdone, Sony announced a strategy of online gaming for its PS2 system. The concept they presented can be compared with the manner in which Apple?s iTunes and the new Napster operate. These services sell songs at a small percentage and allow the consumer to buy only what they want at prices they are willing to pay. Nothing concrete was mentioned but we can look for this from them down the road.
Sony expressed concern that there is a wide open market of people that are not involved in online games because there are not any internet based games that they are interested in. Most internet based games out on the market are first person shooters, role playing games (RPG), or sports titles. Enter Ratchet and Clank: Up Your Arsenal. This game is Sony?s attempt to cash in on a market of platform gamers that up until now have been excluded from an online community.
The biggest announcement at E3 in the online gaming area, was the EA Games / EA Sports (you know, ?It?s in the Game?) partnership with the Xbox. Now both Sony and Xbox players can get online and play all of the best sporting games with others anywhere. The second major online announcement was Sega?s partnership with the Matrix movie franchise. They plan to launch Matrix Online (similar to the popular PC based Star Wars Galaxies) as a multi-player adventure title.
The big thing about any game that is online enabled is security. Parents need to pay closer attention to their children?s game play when there is online gaming is going on.
If you don?t remember my article a few years back entitled ?GameBoy Advance: The Boy Wonder?, you might want to read that before moving on here. In that piece, I talked about Nintendo?s dominance in the portable/handheld gaming market. For 17 years Nintendo has had 100% market share. That, my friends, is going to change in a hurry.
This year?s conference had no fewer than 4 new handheld devices. They are Nokia?s N-Gage QD, Sony?s PSP, Nintendo?s DS, and Tiger Telematics' Gizmondo.
Although I will provide a full review in a 'New Hardware' article, to be included in this 2004 E3 Review, here is a breakdown of each.
Nokia N-Gage QD
The N-gage is a game machine / phone device. It also plays MP3 music which can be transferred to and from a PC via the provided USB cable. The N-Gage is supported by an online area called N-Gage Arena in which the device can play multi-player games with anyone within the online community.
This actually premiered at last year's E3 show. Many people who were not there (such as myself) were fully unaware that this product was even on the market. In fact, it?s been there for 6 months! In an online interview, Nokia's Senior Vice President of Games, Ilkka Raisinen admitted to past mistakes and said that the strategy moving forward will be a focus on "online elements and connectivity". Personally, I do not see this unit competing in the upcoming portable gaming generation. However, time will tell.
Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP)
The PSP is Sony's first attempt to enter the handheld gaming market. The PSP flaunts a huge screen (16:9 aspect ratio) which of course will allow for wide screen video playback. A lot of the PSP was shrouded in mystery. No official games list was revealed although several titles were spotted in the Sony press conference. Some of which include: Ape Escape, Armored Core, Syphon Filter, Spider-Man, MediEvil, Dynasty Warriors, Gran Turismo, Ridge Racer, Tony Hawk, Darkstalkers, Wild Arms, Metal Gear Solid, and 4 EA titles including NBA Street, NFL Street and Tiger Woods PGA Tour. From what I could tell, this system is going to rock. Sony promises that the graphics and game play will be “a little” less than that of a PS2. Now that is impressive. The demos seem to back that claim up.
As far as Sony's place in the market and where they want to go with this is anyone's guess. Like the rest of companies getting into this genre, it is pretty much a guessing game as to where this will all end up.
Nintendo?s DS (Duel Screen)
Let me say upfront that it?s hard for me to hide my Nintendo bias but I will try.
The longest line by far at the show floor was the line to get into and see Nintendo's latest and greatest portable, the DS. Fortunately for me I was with the right people and got right in. Once inside I saw immediately why people suffered through the wait.
The DS is the first portable system to sport 2 screens. The screens from a design perceptive are identical. They have touch screen capabilities in which you can use the provided stylus or your finger. The system has built in Wi-Fi (802.11b). This means that you can network your DS to your home PC, cell phone, or any Wi-Fi enabled device. Perrin Kaplan, spokeswoman and V.P. of marketing said in an interview that Nintendo does not believe in fee based online gaming business models. This explains why Nintendo has not hit this area harder yet. With the DS, this is appearing to change.
Although the DS has a slot for GameBoy Advanced (in addition to a smaller, DS dedicated port), Kaplan insists that this is not a replacement to the GameBoy. This is merely another portable device in an expanding market. This was a brilliant move on Nintendo' part as new developers are sure to flock to this innovative widget.
Gizmondo by Tiger Telematics
Giz what!!? Gizomndo.
That is what this slick new device by Tiger Telematics is calling itself. Think of an all in one portable multiple media device. Out of the box you get a gaming machine, digital camera, mp3 player, video player, messaging device, GPS and GPRS device, all in a tiny 400 MHz package. Did I also mention that it is bluetooth enabled as well?
If this device does all that is promised, then this will be an amazing little unit. One thing of concern I have is the built in GPRS system. For parents, this means that a person can play a game with anyone around the world without an internet connection. Now people will know exactly where you are in the world at any given time. Although this lends for creative and exciting gaming options (such as the game can play different depending on where you are in the world) it also raises questions as to the security of such a device. Do we really want our kids playing with just anyone? The bigger question is, since the games can be played anywhere (bedroom, school bus, etc) how do we monitor such activities effectively? This technology will sure challenge many homes.
Mature Game Themes
There is not much more to say on this other than the fact that is getting harder and harder to find games that kids can play. As I walked around the expo floor I saw that nearly 70% of the games or more had massive adult themes and/or violence. Back in 2001, I predicted this partially due to the fact of the enhanced graphic capabilities. That time has come and I am afraid it is only going to get worse.
Sony and Xbox almost exclusively market to a male, 18-35 year old audience. Even Nintendo is getting into the action. Traditionally known for its family games, Nintendo is now upping the number of mature based titles. Perrin Kaplan said that the goal of Nintendo is to balance the adult games with the family games so the entire market is covered evenly. One game in particular is Resident Evil. In the past, Nintendo would not market a game such as this with its system. However, now, they plan to do so. It seems that the concept of sitting with our kids and playing a friendly video game has gotten a bit more complicated. Moreover, if we consider the combination of more pervasive mature games with portable systems that can be played anywhere with virtually anyone anywhere, monitoring our children's activity will get to be a lot more than "a bit more complicated".
Home entertainment devices
This is an interesting emerging trend and in some ways a refreshing one.
Picture your cable box in your living room. Right now all it can do is play the TV, decode pay-per view movies, or perhaps record & playback live video (like TiVo). Ok, now image all of the computer games on your PC in your home office and being able to play them on your cable box. Sound cool? Well, at E3 there were two companies attempting to show that they can do just that and more.
?E Apex Extreme
?E Phantom by Infinium Labs
I will get into specifies and which I prefer in a later article but for now let me highlight a few key points of interest in the area of smart gaming.
The reason why I like this concept is the fact that the control is in the hands of the consumer. The demo I sat in for the Phantom system showed that you have the ability to set user profiles, similar to that in Windows XP. Each person in the house can have his or her own settings that are totally configurable. For instance, dad wants to play his Mortal Kombat 23 game that he just downloaded from the internet. He logs in and starts his killing spree. After which, he remembered his daughter wanted him to download the latest Barbie adventure game. He simply looks up the game in the list of available titles, and downloads it to her profile. He has the option to preview aspects of the game before buying to ensure that all is on the up and up. The next time his daughter logs in she will only have access to the games that dad put on for her; very nice indeed.
Below is a video of the full demo.
Windows Media Player 9
Phantom Demo (22MB)
The Apex Extreme acts a bit differently as I will attest to later. However, the technology has some promise and I am hopeful.
So there you have it. The gaming world is at a cross roads right now. Overall sales are down from previous years and frankly a lot of the excitement is gone as well. It is quite obvious that mature, portable, and online is the future of gaming. What form this will ultimately take is anyone?s guess. There is a great unknown before us, sort of like the frontier and the wild west of old. All that remains are a few brave people willing and able to settle it. From a Christian point of view we need to watch carefully the trails that are blazed so that we can take proper action and make wise buying decisions.