E3's Eve: Trends to Watch For

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We're less than a week away from the biggest event on the video game calendar. Rather than talk about individual games that we're all excited about, John Davison predicts the larger themes that will emerge from this year's show, and discovers what a natal-cleft is. (See also "Celebrity Watch List for E3.")

Since Red Dead Redemption came out a few weeks ago I've been stewing on a number of ideas for Friday editorials about it. In truth, I'm completely and utterly besotted with the game, and am just looking for excuses to talk about it at every available opportunity. Some would consider this boring. Like my wife, who has been doing a sterling job of feigning interest, but I'm starting to think that her patience is wearing thin. I know the game has one or two little flaws, but there's so much that it does right, I just don't want it to end. I was going to write something this week actually. My goal was to try and explore its modern day political commentary, or its subtle but wonderfully graceful way of introducing a form of elective narrative, or its elegant approach to role playing, but I want to absorb everything that it has to offer first. In truth, it's proving to be quite an impediment to my consumption of games in general. I have a whole pile of stuff that I want to try, most notably Alan Wake, but I'm loathe to start it up for fear of the two games clashing. Best I finish one before starting the other.
So, instead I want to tackle something more immediately pressing. The imminent spectacle of the biggest event on the video game calendar; E3.

We're already starting to see a whole bunch of "most anticipated games of E3" lists out there, so I'm not going to waste your time or mine with another one of those. Honestly, I credit you with sufficient intelligence and web browsing competence to already know that Gears of War 3 is probably quite exciting, and that LittleBigPlanet 2 is going to be kinda neat. Instead, I want to go bigger. Let's get a little bit meta here, and open up the floor to the broader themes of the show. Every year we immerse ourselves in the spectacle of E3, and we emerge not only with a huge list of games, but also a bunch of trends that indicate what the year ahead will throw at us. A couple of years ago everyone was falling over themselves to make Wii-exclusive games to "leverage the unique strengths of the blah-biddy-blah-biddy-blah." That worked out well, huh? Last year this evolved into Sony and Microsoft finally deciding how they were going to respond to the Wii's motion controls and everyone raising their eyebrows a little bit. So what are we going to see this year?

3D, 3D, 3D, And Did We Mention? 3D

Thank you James Cameron. Thank you very much. Not only are we being repeatedly poked in the eyeballs with 3D movies every other week, but the games industry is about to jump on the bandwagon too. We already know that Killzone 3 is going to have 3D support, and Sega's Naoya Tsurumi has already said something about some absurd number of 3D titles that the company is going to bang out in the space of an afternoon, but there are loads more of these damn things just waiting in the wings. Come June 15 you're going to be seeing comments about 3D support in every other E3 news story. It is the gimmick du-jour, and I don't know about you, but I hate it. I'm quite sure that there's something to this, but until the real autostereoscopic stuff that doesn't require silly glasses hits, I'm hoping to sit this one out. Why? Because it gives me a headache. Literally. I've sat through two different 3D game demos in recent weeks, and both of them made me physically uncomfortable. After one of them, the producer of the game came over to Game Informer editor in chief Andy McNamara and I to apologize as he noticed that we were both rubbing our eyes and looking queasy. When a technology does that, something's amiss. Right? Or are we just old farts?

That said, the 3DS has me intrigued. Small screen and no glasses? Hopefully that means it won't make me cross-eyed and want to puke.

Get Ready for the Social Onslaught

The platform holders all messed up. Some of them more than others (cough, Nintendo, cough), but they're all basically in the same boat. They built social networks that don't adequately communicate with the social networks that the rest of us are actually socially networking on. I know it's terribly fashionable to diss Facebook and mock Twitter integration, but the truth is we're all doing it, and the sooner Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo properly integrate Facebook Connect and Twitter support into their services, the better. In the meantime, we're going to see more games following the lead of Uncharted 2 and Blur, and integrating social networking hooks into their games independent of Live or PSN. E3 will be full of this stuff, and I think you'll be surprised at how clever some studios are going to get with it.

Honestly, the ability to broadcast your every achievement is not really the point here. The real genius stuff will offer web-based experiences and mobile apps that supplement the core game experience, and leverage friends lists and social interaction to extend a game's world.

Games as a Service

I have a hunch that this will be the executive level catchphrase of the year. We'll be hearing it a lot, as companies explore ways to encourage us to play individual titles for longer, and pay extra for additional content and services. Fewer games, more money. The majority of publishers and studios now see themselves in the loyalty marketing business as much as they are in the selling you boxes of stuff business. Some of them are already, quietly, very good at it. Some of them really aren't.

Thankfully the vast majority of publishers have given up on the tactic of jacking up prices by including big hunks of plastic, and have instead turned their thoughts to this software as a service model. Except Activision, of course, who for some reason thought it wise to introduce yet another guitar controller with the new Guitar Hero. Yup, that's just what the market needed.

This kind of talk will be looped in to all kinds of conversations. We'll hear it as part of the ongoing discussion about things like EA's Online Pass, about ambitious "Cloud" gaming services like OnLive, and we'll hear about it as part of the inevitable upgrades to Xbox Live and PlayStation Network. Mark my words, if you're reading the web religiously during the week of E3, you'll see this phrase enough to be able to make a pretty spectacular drinking game out of it. Hey, we should totally do that.

Motion Controls

Kind of obvious this one, but I'd be remiss not to include it. There's going to be a lot of unnecessary arm waving at this year's E3. Before this stuff settles into something sensible, we're going to have to live through about a year of things being really silly. On one hand we'll have a whole bunch of tiresome early Wii game knock-offs; bowling, throwing things, bumping into things, hitting things with sticks/bats/whatevers, and on the other hand, we'll have a bunch of games that require you to stand up or move around when you don't really want to. I know this sounds incredibly complacent when you spell it out like this, but games that break the currently accepted model of vegging out on the couch with a controller have an uphill struggle ahead. No one (that I'm aware of) has ever thought "hey, wouldn't it be great if I suddenly had to wave my arms around or stand up to do something in this game." I know a lot of people that (OK, I'm exaggerating...I mean me) get really annoyed when a PS3 game requires them to flick the Sixaxis with anything even remotely resembling some kind of physical effort. I know it's not healthy and we should all be much more willing to get active with stuff, but until its integrated properly, blogs, reviews, and messageboards are going to be filled with comments where people are just moaning about this stuff.

In the short term the most exciting thing that's adequately utilized at E3 will be the Natal's (or whatever they're going to end up calling it. Any guesses? LiveGamerVision? LiveCam? MotionBox? KwahZulu? Little geography joke there. Look it up) clever voice recognition stuff. While I'm not convinced about the waving and jumping, I do like the idea of yelling at games and having them understand what I?m shouting about.

Speaking of Natal jokes (hey, we only have a week left) do you know what a natal-cleft is? No, I didn't either. But I'm guessing that Microsoft is going to want to avoid anything asscrack-related when they file the eventual trademark.

So there you have it. Four meta-themes for E3. On June 18 I'll return to this again and you can all mock me for being completely wrong about all of it. Or something.

John Davison is the EVP of content at GamePro Media, and has been to pretty much every E3 since it started. Because he is quite old.

You can check out all of GamePro's ongoing E3 2010 coverage right here.

This story, "E3's Eve: Trends to Watch For" was originally published by GamePro.

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