E3 Impressions 2011

It's that time of year again. E3, the massive video game conference in Los Angeles, has come and gone. As in the past, the conference was a perfect glimpse into what we can expect from the video game industry for the next year or two. Looking past the glitz, the glam, and the booth babes, a number of trends stood out.

Nintendo's Wii U: As a youngster, I was the quintessential Nintendo fanboy, and in the spirit of that time, it saddens me to ring a death knell for the company. Nintendo is in a bad place, and their new console, the Wii U, isn't going to help. The system seemed to leave both attendees and media saying "Meh."

What exactly is the problem with Nintendo? In a word, Apple. Nintendo was extremely successful from 2006 to 2009 in creating a new market for video games: casual gamers. While Nintendo has historically captured the 5-14 audience, suddenly the Wii was capturing the hearts, minds, and pocketbooks of female gamers (of all ages), who had previously eschewed complicated controllers and violent shooters. Nintendo left core gaming to Microsoft and Sony, and released an SD, fitness and motion-focused console intended for living room family fun during an age otherwise dominated by a trend toward HD, online gaming sessions.

 

The problem is that casual gamers can be a fickle bunch. After the fanfare of the Wii faded, the gamers moved on to the new hotshot in town: the iPad. Apple's App Store emerged predominately as a gaming distribution hub, and the iPad was the perfect device for those games to shine. Pretty much all the user research has now shown that the top activity on the iPad is gaming. Ouch to Nintendo. And that pain is visualized in the Google Trend chart for the two devices. 

Which brings us to the Wii U. Nintendo's tactic, it seems, is to take on the adage "if you can't beat them, join them." The Wii U's controller is a giant tablet with button controls on the sides. It is a really large controller. This controller has motion controls integrated, and the screen is a touchscreen.  

But there are quite a number of issues. First, much like the DS, the notion of dual screen gaming has never really been a proven entity. I've rarely if ever seen players focus on both screens simultaneously. The Wii U was no exception. Depending on the game demo being played, players were either staring at the controller or at the TV nearly exclusively. Second, the tablet controller isn't as motion friendly as the Wii remote, and most of the gameplay was as stationary and motionless as core Xbox or PS3 gaming -- forget that "fitness" angle. Third, by making the controller into a tablet, they shot up the cost of additional controllers. Forget that multi-player living room family fun experience. On top of this cost, the system is now doing HD. I can't imagine the Wii U undercutting the price point of the competition as the original Wii was able to do. And if consumers are given the choice between an Xbox with Kinect (i.e. control games with motion alone and tons of set-top box entertainment options) or a Wii U at the same (or greater) price point...game over, Nintendo.

 

So, while it is a sad opinion to have, I have a sneaking suspicion that the Wii U will be Nintendo's last console unless they have a miracle up their sleeve, and that they will go the way of SEGA post-Dreamcast, relegating themselves to game-design and IP licensing. Which in truth, probably benefits everyone except Nintendo at this point. 

The Invisible Apple: I talked a lot about Apple above, and with good reason -- they are a major contender in the video game industry right now. Which was part of why the low turnout from iOS developers was striking.

Objectively, it makes sense. All of the iOS titles are sold from a sole distributor, and these sales are all digital. So the "buyer" aspect of the trade show holds no real return. And the core gaming press would likely have offered a mere footnote to any iOS coverage based on the perceived interests of their audience, and the expectations for E3 coverage. Still, the absence was noted by many attendees.

There was one notable exception. I have to give major props to EA and EA Sports, as at their booth, the sports titles had playable versions on the usual devices, such as the PS3 and Xbox 360. But lo and behold, right there prominently displayed among its peers, was the iPad 2. I suspect this display arrangement will be much more prominent at next year's show.

OnLive's Lifespan:

Unlike its predecessor, OnLive is not vaporware. I was really impressed with the gameplay offered at their booth at E3 this year, and even more impressed by their new service model. OnLive renders game footage centrally and streams the video to the player. This allows high quality games to be played on any device with a screen and a connection to a sufficiently fast and low-latency network. Their current model offers free access to the service, with the option to "buy" many new releases at their MSRP prices and be able to play those games, or pay $9.99 a month for unlimited access to many older but still quite good titles.

This is shaping up to be the perfect solution for core gaming on a budget or on the go. In January they announced a partnership with Vizio at CES. At E3, they were showcasing an Android client app and announced a partnership with Facebook. That Android app in particular is an interesting one, especially in light of the availability of apps for Google TV this summer. Tie in the ability of Android to support 3rd party devices (i.e. controllers), and tablets/Google TVs/smartphones have a pretty awesome new offering. If OnLive can keep up this Netflix strategy of getting on every possible device, it's going to really help out their service, as console hardware is no longer a barrier to core games.

The biggest complaint against the service is that as network speed or latency degrades, it can deteriorate the graphics or make the lag unbearable. And these are certainly worthwhile points. However, the gameplay was spot on at E3, and was running from their Santa Clarita server (not some blackbox in the booth). So it CAN work brilliantly.

This is shaping up to be the perfect solution for core gaming on a budget or on the go. In January they announced a partnership with Vizio at CES. At E3, they were showcasing an Android client app and announced a partnership with Facebook. That Android app in particular is an interesting one, especially in light of the availability of apps for Google TV this summer. Tie in the ability of Android to support 3rd party devices (i.e. controllers), and tablets/Google TVs/smartphones have a pretty awesome new offering. If OnLive can keep up this Netflix strategy of getting on every possible device, it's going to really help out their service, as console hardware is no longer a barrier to core games.

Now, if OnLive can continue to grow (and survive) through 2012 and the U.S. manages to sufficiently dodge the bandwidth-cap-bullet from ISPs, I think they will find themselves in a really solid place within the gaming ecosystem, with enough flexibility to make Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo sweat (while becoming the best friend of game publishers). To put the latent power here in perspective -- just think about the quality of an exclusive game title targeted to the OnLive audience and a cloud rendered model. Developers can do some really neat things without worrying about the limitations of an installed hardware base! 

Most Impressive Title: Hats off to Bethesda and their upcoming title "Skyrim." This game just blew me away, and was far and above any of the other games I saw at the show. I won't go into detail here, but I will say that I am looking forward to 11/11/11 quite a bit more than a week ago.

Tags: gaming
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1 comment about "E3 Impressions 2011".
  1. Charlie Delph from Yodle, Inc. , June 10, 2011 at 5:14 p.m.

    Ridiculous.

    Nintendo has moved 86 Million Wiis and nearly 150 million DS units (including all variations).

    Right now I would wager a guess that their margins on software are not as good as ipad games due to the development of the ipad as a gaming platform (cheap tp produce right now) - since the ipad's #1 use is games, as more games are purchased, consumers will become more discerning in their choices, which will increase the costs of developing such games and that gap will close.

    An apples-to-oranges (get it?) google trends chart and a meager stock hit are not good indicators of company failure.