The “Who Won E3?” Roundup.

Seems almost silly to do this now…

So, with E3 over for another year and the deafening silence since the conferences, it’s time to take stock and ask; who won E3? Not that this is a hard question to answer, but still…

FIRST PLACE – SONY

Sony’s victory was a hollow one, considering the competition comprised of an open goal and a turtle that had withdrawn into it’s shell, but nonetheless we must give Sony plenty of credit for what it showed us at E3 this year, especially considering the challenges that Sony have had to face in the past few years; from the embarrassing PR meltdown of the first teething years of the PlayStation 3 right through to the failing Move, the humiliation of the Wonderbook showing that simply didn’t work properly and not forgetting the PS Network Hacking Scandal.

If Sony has learned anything from the struggles of the PlayStation 3 era, is that it can take nothing for granted, and sure enough at E3 Sony took nothing for granted. The games demonstrations were interesting and varied enough to rouse some interest from even the most bitter of people, and the constant emphasis on the consumer was sealed with Sony’s ending segment that firmly nailed the coffin of the XBox One down. No DRM, used games and trading games are functional and no online check requirements. Sony didn’t especially need to state this; after all, it’s what we expect. But in the face of Microsoft, so firmly shooting itself in the foot so repeatedly, and Nintendo for whom playing it safe was made an art-form, it was nothing short of a lap of honour, the sort of smug self-satisfaction that the competition barely even decided to show up so you may as well do one lap around the track slowly just to sort of parade yourself around. The £349 price point was simply the ten-ton cherry on the top of an enormous cake the size of Australia.

However, for all Sony did right, there are obvious issues to be noted about its presentation.

For a start, there were noticeable stutters in the games shown – the most guilty of which was Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, which came replete with an unavoidably large loading hang in the middle of a jump. This is perhaps not the most surprising thing in the world, but it’s certainly a deep-rooted question that even the Wii U has seen lately; considering the enhanced power and memory that is available in these machines, why is the optimisation of what is ostensibly a last-gen game being done so poorly and with such a flagrant disregard for the end reflection on the machine on which it is being released? I suspect that Assassin’s Creed 4 will simply be better played on a PS3 or an XBox 360, which is a crying shame when you think of what they could be doing for the optimised version.

Secondly is the delay of the Gaikai cloud service, and the large question mark hanging over Sony’s PSN Service. As we move on, games consoles will become obsolete but our online accounts, and namely the material which we buy digitally from these services, will become more and more permanent. Many of us may indeed keep our PS3’s at the same time as buying a PS4, but really Sony should be trying to answer the question as to why we need to keep the PS3 plugged in to play our PS3-purchased games. The Gaikai service should launch in 2014 in America (not much said about Europe yet, sadly…), and then we might see some answers, but Sony more than anyone with its new focus on the rights of the consumer should be extremely wary of being so casually dismissive of its past generational content. Consumers might only have space on their shelf for one console, after all, so you need to give them a good reason to have that one console up there, and part of that may end up seeing Sony having to honour past sales contracts. This could be rather costly.

And thirdly is simply a case of production. As this was the first time we saw the finished unit, and even the guys working on the hardware hadn’t seen it all together before E3, there’s a serious point to be made about supply and demand. Nintendo sold almost three million machines in the first few weeks when the Wii U was released, but it clearly had spent time accumulating that kind of supply. Sony have a scant five months to effectively produce that same kind of quantity without sacrificing quality, and it really is quite a tall order to be asking for. I suspect the reality of the PS4 release will be crippling shortages, heavy overpricing on eBay and many disappointed people over the Christmas period. I think it’ll reach four million in the first six months, but it’ll be an uphill struggle to get the quantity out there for that figure to mean anything.

Still, it was fun to watch Sony give Microsoft a bit of a spanking. No question about it, however a next-generational fight without the fight does seem to be a completely stupid concept, and it is one we absolutely must be acutely aware of. Sony may still dominate the next ten years of gaming again in the same way it did with the PlayStation 2, but like the PlayStation 2, its quality wasn’t always superb. Redesigns like the Slim had serious technical wobbles (I say having been a person who went through ten of the damned blighters and ended up on first-name terms with the support service…). For all the great games, there was an awful lot of crap as well. And a market monopoly isn’t always in the best interests of the consumer, no matter how sweet and cuddly Sony may look right now.

Sony very comfortably won the E3 conference season. But that said, its rivals barely even put up a similar fight. Sony just had to show up and do one lap. Which it did.

That’s hardly something to celebrate…

SECOND PLACE – NINTENDO

In spite of its lazy pace and slow build, the Nintendo Direct was if nothing else serviceable.

Again, in the face of Microsoft, there was a sense that all Nintendo had to do was not drop the ball. And it didn’t, but it didn’t exactly run with the ball either. We had been told for months what to expect – Mario Kart 8, the new Super Smash Bros. and a new 3D Mario game. And yes, we got all of that and looks at titles like X, and Bayonetta 2.

But of course, we knew all of this stuff. The one new title Nintendo had to show us that we hadn’t been expecting was a new Donkey Kong Country, and this was a 2.5D platform adventure. It looked utterly brilliant, mind you. Most of what Nintendo had to show was of very high quality visually – well, perhaps not Super Mario 3D World. But that’s a misstep Nintendo needs to make on its own accord. X looks properly next-generation, with a scale and design that boggles belief. Bayonetta 2 hits the next-gen holy grail of 1080p and 60FPS. Mario Kart 8 looked sensational – really no other word for it. Sensational is perhaps underselling it too. Everything looked really great.

But Satoru Iwata raced through it all, and lingered on nothing. The end result from an initial impact point of view was a series of slides, rather than a series of demonstrations of the power and potential of the Wii U which we are beginning to see pulled out from under a series of woefully-optimised ports. Sure, we could see more lengthy videos and more detailed developer diaries after the show, but the show is kind of the main attraction, and it needs to be the main selling feature.

Nintendo was also woefully short on answers to important questions – like the eShop’s sales structure, and the falling retail price of the hardware compared to the price many people bought it at initially. Nintendo had no information on that front, nor any information on some of its most desirable franchises like Metroid, F-Zero, Starfox and Eternal Darkness. Nintendo’s whole presentation was simply to do what it had set out to do, and nothing more than that. Which ended up with a short stream and a perplexed viewer base wondering what on earth just happened.

It’s a shame because the whole E3 show began with Nintendo making it more of a consumer show. Until they started with it, E3 shows were usually press affairs and focused mostly on the business end of things. This was true even up to last year, but Nintendo’s paradigm shift back in the early noughties was important enough that it has changed what E3 stands for over the years, into a far more consumer-aimed affair. The lack of a live Nintendo conference was painfully obvious and noticeable, and a Nintendo Direct of this kind is without a question no replacement for the thrill and energy of a presentation full of people and full of energy.

Still, it wasn’t a complete failure. Nintendo delivered what they promised, and nothing much more than that. There is a case to be made that this is unacceptable coming from the usually on-edge Nintendo, a company whose best stuff comes when their backs are up against the wall, but it’s also hard to criticise what they DID show, because the majority of it was actually very pretty and demonstrated a very clear jump from the swathe of last-gen ports which have come to define the failings of the machine.

The end result was a comfortable second place, neither excelling nor offending. It was just there. And there isn’t much more that can be said.

THIRD PLACE – MICROSOFT

And in last place, was Microsoft.

This is a bit unfair because Microsoft’s conference was rather inoffensive. But it was bland. Compared to the sharp detail in Nintendo’s Wii U demonstrations, of hair and fur and 60FPS and speedy kart racing and big landscapes, many of the XBox One demonstrations were rather hard and rigid and solid, all sharp lines and blocky grass. And compared to the varied line-up and the consumer-friendly policies of Sony’s PS4 conference, Microsoft couldn’t really compete with either.

It also did everything it could to avoid the myriad of questions people had about the XBox One, and the DRM, and the used games. The thing is, they haven’t gone away – in the face of the PS4 and Wii U promotions, if anything the focus is now on undoing any justification Microsoft may have had for its policies. That is a terrifying prospect for Microsoft, for whom a coherent justification is a concept as alien to them as Jennifer Aniston’s hair is to me. That no-one can give a straight answer makes Microsoft look decidedly shifty, moreso in the face of more free and open competition, both of which will be considerably cheaper than its primary offering.

The games line-up was a mixed bag too. A mixture of browns and greys as is the customary focus for big manly-manly games of that kind, as well as a sort of strange tease of a new Halo which began looking like a grim Journey knock-off and ended with a faintly damning tone of Shadow of the Colossus. Microsoft had new IP to show off, but relatively few new ideas, and even its most experimental – a sort of contender to LittleBigPlanet and the player-made stages of Smash Bros. – came with a mixture of caution and pretentiousness that only Microsoft could have provided.

Even the return of Killer Instinct was a dropped ball; with a free-to-play model locking Jago in as a free model and then paying for everything else. As others have pointed out, this system has been bettered by League of Legends, which rotates the free characters so you get to try everything out at regular intervals, as well as making it more accessible for those who choose not to pay and ensuring that it’s not always predominantly just one enemy as a result of this feature. Saberwulf was also shamefully generic and no-one I have spoken to will ever accept that grey furball as Saberwulf. We just won’t. We shall call him… Saberdon’t.

Which is ultimately the problem. Microsoft focused on monetisation and the safe confines of its bigger appealing titles. And no-one could really get excited by it, and still want Microsoft to backtrack on almost everything it has put in place which is likely to be hard, risky and ultimately expensive. There really is no-where for Microsoft to hide, and its SmartGlass idea is now bettered by Nintendo and its in-the-box screen, and Sony and it’s more functionally superior (although more expensive) Vita.

Still, to say one thing nice about it all – no Gears of War.

Thank heavens for small miracles…

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