Correction: An earlier version of this story, including in Thursday’s print edition, incorrectly named Joe Namath as one of the celebrities in attendance at E3. This version has been corrected.
Every year, tens of thousands of gaming fans flock to Los Angeles to play the coolest titles at E3, the world’s largest video game event. Hardware-makers, developers and publishers fill the floor of the Los Angeles Convention Center with row upon row of outrageous booths, where gamers line up for a glimpse of the next hit.
You can be sure that an industry as big as gaming — worth about $65 billion last year — has an appropriately extravagant show.
This week, Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo had massive, lengthy keynote presentations in which they showed off new hardware, flagship titles, partnerships and the occasional celebrity, such as Usher or Joe Montana.
Nintendo previewed a more finalized version of its next-generation console, the Wii U, which it first announced at last year’s event. The device is part console, part tablet-controller thing. The controllers do double duty and can not only be used to play games traditionally, but can act as a window into deeper elements of game play.
Additionally, Nintendo heavily promoted its forthcoming online network, Miiverse, which will let players directly connect with other gamers when they’re stuck somewhere or want to get a multiplayer session going.
I didn’t see anything particularly exciting, though many doubted Nintendo’s runaway hit — the original Wii — when it was first shown off. If anything, the company has demonstrated its ability to think ahead of the curve for years. Whether it’s still as light on its toes remains to be seen.
The games shown for the Wii U weren’t exactly barnstormers, and the integration between the tablet game pad and the console raises questions that have yet to be answered. Still, you can’t help applauding Nintendo’s head-down, single-minded mentality. As the game market grows up, the company seems steadfastly centered on family-friendly fare and on innovation in interaction, rather than graphics.
Microsoft did a little innovating (and tweaking) of its own this year. The company all but killed its Zune music service by introducing Xbox Music. The service will find its way onto Windows Phone and Windows 8 devices in addition to the game console and will retain many Zune features.
The company made the move in part to drive home the point that the Xbox brand is not just about gaming but is the entertainment hub across Microsoft products. That was further evidenced by the new SmartGlass service that the company demoed. SmartGlass allows you to play and interact with video content on tablets, phones and your Xbox, and will even provide contextual content on one screen while playing your video content on another. As an example, Microsoft showed an episode of “Game of Thrones” that had a companion map that followed the action on a tablet.
When my team tested the service later, it was clear that all the kinks hadn’t been worked out. But it’s obvious that Microsoft is making home entertainment a priority. In fact, some gamers complained to me on Twitter that the company’s gaming side left a lot to be desired this year.
But luckily, Sony has picked up the slack in that area. Though all of the console-makers had great content to show off, Sony wowed me the most with some of its exclusive game titles. Standouts include the intriguing Quantic Dreams title “Beyond: Two Souls,” which eschews standard gaming for a more cinematic experience (it even stars Ellen Page), and Naughty Dog’s incredible “The Last of Us,” a post-apocalyptic thriller in which the computer-controlled enemies not only react realistically to differing situations, but will even pick up items and weapons you need to defend yourself and use them against you.
French publisher Ubisoft showed off what might be the most striking title of the show, a futuristic open-world game called “Watch Dogs” that had some wondering if it is destined for a future console.
Future consoles were discussed a lot this year in the halls of the show. Microsoft’s and Sony’s systems are showing their age, and the expectation in the industry is that next year will be a big coming-out party for whatever follows the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3.
Finally, one thing I found surprising and more than a little disappointing was the increase in graphic violence in games, as well as developers’ apparent inability to think of anything more than a gun to place in the hands of lead characters. There were a handful of games that explored a space outside the run-and-attack mechanics of many titles, but few tried to tell adult stories without gunshots and stabbings.
It made me think that we’re still in the early days of truly great gamemaking and storytelling — which ultimately should give you some hope. E3 2012 might not have boasted many surprises — but hey, there’s always next year.
Joshua Topolsky is the founding editor in chief of the Verge (theverge.com), a technology news Web site. For previous columns, go to postbusiness.com.