Fear and loathing at E3: Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony

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“We can’t stop here, this is nerd country,” I told the taxi driver as we sped off, leaving behind a group of angry French game developers whose cab I had just snaked. My driver told me this was the busiest he’d ever seen the downtown, what with the Lakers game and the biggest gaming convention in the world. I told him not to compare the cheap theater at the Staples Center with the horrid carnival of souls residing in the LA Convention Center that I was being forced to cover.

2010 is the year of the reboot. As I type this on my MacBook Pro in my air-conditioned hotel room in Los Angeles, I’ve just sat through presentations by three major console companies and I doubt there was an original idea among them. The old is new again. Everyone is making motion controller games. Everyone is making 3D games. Everyone is remaking the games that made them famous. Look for new Sonic, Mortal Kombat, Gears of War, Halo, Zelda, Metroid, Medal of Honor, Castlevania, and Twisted Metal in the coming year. I walked the floor of E3 until my flip-flops broke in protest at the mediocrity. When your footwear is sounding off about the originality of your industry, you know you’re in a tough place.

Microsoft’s presentation on Monday set the tone for the week: There’s a new Halo game coming out, but this time with space battles. The entire presentation reminded me of that Simpsons episode where Malibu Stacy gets a new hat. Halo: New Hat is due out sometime in the next year, will likely set some sales records, but will move the industry forward as much as a tractor on cinder blocks.

After the presentation, I called my old college hall mate who now works for Microsoft up in Seattle. We discussed the possibility of more Halo games coming out, including Halo racers, Master Chief themed pet games, and the potential for the faceless Halo protagonist becoming like Sonic, a bloated whore who has sold every ounce of dignity to produce increasingly irrelevant games. And we both realized we’d get paid handsomely for creating and covering these games. Maybe the industry doesn’t need fixing.

On Tuesday, Nintendo unveiled its own pageant of the past, where the Japanese gaming giant updated all of the titles that made it famous twenty years ago and this seemingly was something to celebrate. If you want to buy Zelda’s Wind Waker crossed with Twilight Princess, Nintendo would like to sell you that game. Nintendo is so willing to sell it, in fact, that its willing to put adult men in front of thousands of people and have them swat pretend swords for your amusement. There were also retreads of Metroid and Kid Icarus and if these titles mean anything to you, that means you probably remember blowing into cartridges to make them work.

The saddest bunny that Nintendo pulled out of its hat was the trailer for a new Goldeneye 007 game. The reveal was met not by wowed enthusiasm, but instead with the sound of thousands of hands slapping a thousand foreheads. Electronic Arts tried to reboot/cash-in the Goldeneye franchise years ago with Goldeneye: Rogue Agent. Rogue Agent was a horrid mess of a game with a great premise; this new Goldeneye title looks like a horrid mess of a game with a bad premise. Nintendo is essentially trying to remaster a masterpiece while updating it with things like Daniel Craig’s face.

There is no way the game can live up to the iconic Nintendo 64 first person shooter, and without the original developers from Rare, this new Goldeneye will be as well received as Blue Brothers 2000 or New Coke.

On the show floor, I later played the new Goldeneye 007, and I can confirm that you still can’t play first person shooters on the Wii and oh yeah, if you want to remake Goldeneye, at least make sure it looks better than third party mod like Goldeneye: Source.

But really, the biggest reveal for Nintendo is the company still doesn’t know how to spend its money. Instead of investing lots of money to actually make quality new games, the higher-ups at Disney hired literally a hundred models to showcase their new 3DS. Awkwardly and uniformly dressed and tethered to each device like sexy tigers, these poor women were tasked with demonstrating the new piece of hardware all while keeping a smile on their face and the heavy breathing of the fan boys off the screens.

The Nintendo 3DS will sell like gangbusters but it still doesn’t signal that Nintendo has any understanding of how the mobile market is changing. Sure, the 3DS has 3D graphics without glasses—but also without a sense of perspective. That is to say, Apple is eating their market and Nintendo’s Reggie Fils-Aime is sitting in the white Buick with the devil as they go over the cliff, laughing, a la Thelma and Louise.

Sony at least knows that the casual gaming market is gone to them. Apple’s SDK can’t be beaten by conventional platforms or conventional weapons, so at Sony’s presentation, Sony reps took time to mew that their PSP platform is for “serious gamers.” Which would explain the declining sales.

The three big console developers, previously unchallenged in their supremacy, have become complacent swine, out of touch with the modern gamer. They keep making games that they already made because they know they will sell, not because they will be challenging, creative, or fun. How many times has Zelda been remade? Do we really need yet another Mortal Kombat, Twisted Metal, or Halo game? The snake is eating its own tail.

I don’t have a problem with reboots per say, so long as we also have new franchises, new titles, and new genres to explore. And that what was lacking at E3 this year. While the big boys were wrestling over who had the better motion controls and who could find the most obscure old game they could remake, quietly you began to wonder how long the industry could keep this up. Hiring models to promote your game and giving away free Xbox 360s to journalists is only going to keep the barbarians at bay for so long.

[Chris Holt is a Macworld associate editor.]

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