The best description I heard for the experience of attending the Electronic Entertainment Expo (a.k.a. E3) was "a rock concert in the middle of a battlefield." Indeed, the 10,000 square feet of the Los Angeles Convention Center were so full of flashing displays, thumping sounds and distracting stage shows, it could lead to a bad case of sensory overload for the unprepared. The show floor itself is so massive — over 1,000 completely new games were shown — that three days isn't nearly enough to experience it all. Three weeks might not be enough. Picking out hints of the industry's direction in such a massive, confusing environment is a bit like guessing the plot of a movie based on the trailer. Still, based on my own spotty experience at this year's show, I did notice some trends.
This was the year of new hardware at E3. Microsoft was the first out of the gate, unveiling their new Xbox360 in a prime time television special almost a week before the show officially started. The impact of the grand unveiling was partially spoiled by Internet leaks, but it still generated quite a bit of buzz in the gaming community. That is, until Monday afternoon, when Sony stunned the press audience at the massive Sony Pictures soundstage by revealing their PlayStation 3, complete with hardware details and gameplay videos (but no playable demos on the show floor to match Microsoft's). Microsoft will get another head start when its system is released in late 2005, in advance of Sony's expected Spring 2006 launch for the PlayStation 3.
Nintendo, always reluctant to part with corporate secrets until absolutely necessary, officially revealed the hardware casing for its new system, code-named Revolution, but remained painfully vague about important areas like controller design, hardware power, or planned games. The company generated its own buzz, though, by announcing that the new system would allow gamers to download and play over two decades worth of Nintendo games for older systems. But even this tidbit lacked explanation of details like game availability and pricing.
Wireless (WiFi) was a major buzzword at this year's E3. The three major console manufacturers (see above) announced their new systems would hook up to the Internet via local WiFi connections and would support wireless controllers, a move likely motivated as much by style as by lowering wireless costs. Mothers everywhere should applaud this effort to unclutter living rooms of tangled, trip-inducing masses of wires that today's system's require. Nintendo also announced an initiative to allow players of its portable Nintendo DS to play games against people around the world, also through WiFi hot spots.
I saw an increased interest in casual games at E3. There was a small but significant push being made to attract an audience that does not usually play games with simpler, easier to understand gameplay experiences. Internet giant Yahoo! had a whole booth devoted to its newly re-launched "Yahoo Games!" domain, which will allow users to download such games and compete for high scores with people from all over the world. At least a half-dozen poker games and collections of classic games from a less complicated gaming era provided more evidence of the trend.
For the most part, though, this was another year of more of the same at E3. A large portion of the games on the show floor was dedicated to sequels, and a large portion of the rest of the floor went to games adapted from popular film, TV or book franchises. Most of the truly new titles retreated to the safe ground by offering up standard first-person shooter or "urban"-themed brawler gameplay that was hard to differentiate from the current top-sellers they imitate. Sure, these various sequels and derivatives all added improved graphics and some small gameplay twist to those that came before it, but each game seemed created to appeal directly to a core base of existing series fans, with no real effort to branch out. Attendees had to look very hard to find games with a true spark of originality and style, but they were there to be found, and that was enough to give this jaded gamer hope for growth in his favorite medium.