My two biggest concerns with 3D gaming going into the conference were: “Does it work without being a hassle?” and “Do I really need 3D in my games?” After some hands on experience with 3D, I came away from E3 2010 with an answer to at least one of those questions.
I had some hands on time with both the Nintendo 3DS and Killzone 3 on the PS3. Microsoft was conspicuously mum on the 3D front, deciding to focus all its energies on the Kinect. (I believe Crysis 2 is the only 3D enabled title on the 360, but didn’t have a chance to demo it) On both the PS3 and 3DS, I could say that the 3D definitely added a sense of depth that wasn’t there before.
Nintendo’s 3DS worked as advertised in bringing a 3D display to the venerable DS platform. Although most of the demo content was not playable, they served to show off the 3D display fairly well. Watching the Resident Evil and Metal Gear 3D tech demos, I could definitely see distinct people and environments in the foreground and background.
Sony was wise to feature a snowy level to show off Killzone 3 in 3D. Falling snowflakes clearly popped out without becoming distractions. HUD elements and updates were made salient by the added depth. As for the 3D glasses themselves, I can attest that I didn’t even notice them once they were on. In fact, they fit comfortably over my existing glasses without much issue. All in all, I was fairly impressed by the fact that going 3D on the PS3 didn’t detract from the experience at all.
The meatier question is if 3D enhanced the gameplay experience at all, and based on what I experienced, I’d have to lean towards no. Talking with Killzone developers at the Sony booth made it crystal clear that the actual game itself was identical with the 3D version. Apparently, you’re not missing anything crucial by not going 3D, just some visual eye candy. I came to the same conclusion after the 3DS hands on as well. Of the playable games there (Nintendogs and a novel face-mapping picture shooter), none showcased any mechanics that couldn’t be done with current hardware.
Perhaps I’m being too idealistic about my expectations for 3D. After all, visual eye candy can be a big draw in playing new video games. My issue with 3D currently is that developers aren’t building titles from the ground up as 3D titles. They’re adding it in their games almost as an afterthought. It’s just another bullet point for hardware manufacturers to sell new devices. The reason Avatar was such a big draw for me in 3D was because James Cameron intended for viewers to watch the film in 3D. Most films use 3D as a gimmick, a way to charge more for tickets. When compelling, high quality games start coming out using 3D in an integral way, that’s when I’ll start to take a real hard look at it.
If someone handed me a free 3D enable TV, sure I’d play the 3D version of Killzone 3 on it. It was kinda cool and didn’t cause me discomfort or anything. Would I redo my entire home theater for the experience? No, it’s just not worth it yet. The same goes for the 3DS, albeit on a much smaller scale. I might end up picking one up simply because I’m a gadget junkie, but I’d actually be more excited about the games now possible with the added analog stick rather than the 3D display.
Sequels and Remakes Galore
I’m worried the games industry is falling into the same trap that Hollywood and the music industry did by depending too much on the “guaranteed” money of a blockbuster sequel. Take a look at some of the more ballyhooed titles from this year’s E3: Halo Reach, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Gears of War 3, Twisted Metal, Gran Turismo 5, Portal 2, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Donkey Kong Country Returns, and the list goes on and on. What do you notice? That’s right, they’re all sequels or franchise “reboots”.
Part of the reason why E3 gets less exciting each year is that most of the new titles announced are predictable sequels. We know they’re coming and we know roughly what to expect from all of these. Publishers sometimes use this sense of familiarity to sell us on franchises we’d given up on. During my hands on demo with the new Castlevania: Lord of Shadows at the Konami booth, I was asked if I was a fan of old school Castlevania. Naturally I answered,”Of course.” The Konami rep then proceeded to reassure me that I would “love” this new title because it was a return to the series’ roots. Only I couldn’t really tell from the two demo levels I played since I felt like I just played God of War with holy water and throwing daggers. It definitely was a return to a series’ roots, just not Castlevania’s. Later, he explained that the E3 demo was a taste of pure action levels. He reassured me that the famous Castlevania level structure would be present in the full game. I’ll take his word for it.
The point I’m getting to is that sequels are not necessarily a “bad thing.” It’s just that they narrow the possibilities of what developers can create and what consumers can play. With an established franchise, there’s only so much developers can innovate and experiment with there before they run the risk of alienating potential sales. On the flip side, consumers only have so much time and money to devote to video games. Given the choice between say, Call of Duty 7 or Vanquish, most people browsing in the store are going to go with the established franchise. This in turn encourages publishers to devote more and more resources in repeating that “hit” and tighten the leash up on developing brand new properties.
I’m not advocating that the games industry stop producing sequels. Every industry needs its cornerstone products. Hell, I’m personally excited to play each and every one of the titles I mentioned earlier. What I’m suggesting is perhaps a toning down of the frequency of sequel production. Give us a few years to breathe between installments. Make each successive franchise entry a truly monumental event. (Yes, I realize that it’s been a few years since Gran Turismo or Donkey Kong Country entries, but isn’t that why they got the ovations they did in their respective presentations?) Challenge developers and gamers in the meantime. Give us more titles like Portal or Braid or Rez. Who knows, maybe these new titles can be the foundation for a new generation of money printing machines.
Microsoft and Sony made their motion gaming intentions known at last year’s E3 with their respective announcements of the Kinect (Project Natal) and Playstation Move. This year, both devices were actually available for everyone to play. I had a chance to try both of them out and couldn’t help but wonder one thing:
What the hell were the first party developers doing for the last year?
The derivative gameplay offered by Sony and Microsoft’s titles left me decidedly dismayed. Kinect Sports (developed by the once proud Rare) was essentially a Wii Sports clone. Kinect Adventures was a glorified Wii Play mini-game collection. And Kinectimals? Sorry, Microsoft, I’m not 9 years old and I don’t need to pay $60 to play with virtual tigers on screen. Sony didn’t fare much better with its lineup either. Beyond your obligatory minigame collections in titles such as Sports Champions and Start the Party, Sony showed some glimmers of hope with Echochrome and Sorcery. Echochrome incorporates the move controller as a light source puzzle game, while Sorcery evokes images of Harry Potter spell-casting. At least these two titles looked like games one would want to play for more than one session. None of the above mentioned games would sell me on a new device, though.
Where was the truly novel and amazing stuff like last year’s Milo demonstration for Kinect? Was it all just smoke and mirrors? Why are we stuck with clones of pre-existing Wii titles? I imagine it must be a low-risk way of cashing in the casual market by showing the general public, “Hay! We can do intuitive casual games just like Nintendo!” I’m not sure if shoving the same gameplay experiences down even casual consumers’ throats will work so well, no matter how much more accurate than the Wii your motion controller is.
That’s not to say all is doom and gloom for these motion inputs, though. Harmonix and Ubisoft both showed great titles that have pretty much sold me on fun experiences that couldn’t have been done on a normal controller. Harmonix’s Dance Central made dancing with yourself (sup Billy Idol) look cool. Full body dance tracking is something that has never been done on a game console before and I’m not sure it could have been done without the Kinect powering it. Not only that, the game is actually pretty fun even if you are a dance club wallflower. Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s (Rez, Lumines) new psychadelic music shooter Child of Eden impressed the shit out of me at Ubisoft’s press event. It’s a bit hard to explain so I’ll let this video demonstration do the talking. Since it’s published by a third party, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this one on both Move and Kinect.
Interestingly enough, I think a compelling solution may be to combine both movement input systems as one. I could imagine wanting to hold a controller for a swordplay game, while I wouldn’t want to be holding anything if I was learning a dance routine. Ostensibly Microsoft has more room to work with in this scenario, as Kinect’s camera is much more precise than Sony’s Playstation Eye. It’d be easier to add a control peripheral than to sell users on an expensive new tracking device.
All of this leads us to the million dollar question: Is all this stuff worth it?
For me, Dance Central and Child of Eden have sold me on the Kinect. Hell, the novelty of being able to act out Minority Report almost sells me by itself, shitty minigames be damned. If I had to go with one motion controller solution, it’d have to be the Kinect if just for the simplicity factor. Coupled
With Move, there’s three separate peripherals to keep track of: the Playstation Eye Camera, the Move “motion” controller, and the Move “navigation” controller.
I just had to look up all that stuff and will probably get the “motion and “navigation” controllers messed up for the rest of eternity. I guarantee you that the average consumer will get confused by all of this come Christmas shopping time too. Sony will have you believe that their motion gaming is “only” $49.99, but you’ll have to buy a $40 Playstation Eye camera and a $29.99 “navigation” controller in order to get the full experience. You won’t need a new camera for each additional player, but you’ll have to get another set of Move controllers per person. It’ll end up being $200 for a “full” 2-player Move experience, while the Kinect is simply $150 for all you will need.
Pricing issues aside, the Kinect has the added benefit of being truly hands-free. During my Move hands-on at the Sony booth, I had to recalibrate the controller by holding the controllers in several positions like a traffic cop. Each time someone new wants to play, you’ll have to do this. It’s no small annoyance if you have a big group of people wanting to play. Kinect requires recalibration too, but there’s no wristband tethered controllers to take off and pass around.