The Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) is the world’s largest computer and video game industry gathering, attracting tens of thousands of attendees and occupied by hundreds of vendors. It’s an interesting place to look for trends in gaming. This year, “risk aversion” is the big buzzword, but there’s a surprising amount of cool hardware on hand that people haven’t taken much notice of yet. There were a few Mac items of note, too.
E3 2004 was a real disappointment for anyone looking for groundbreaking new A-list games. The market for the next year or two is going to be dominated by sequels that are only iteratively different in gameplay than their predecessors. It’s no wonder: At anywhere from US$5 to $25 million a game to produce and market, “risk aversion” has become a major industry buzzword. Companies — even huge ones like EA, THQ and Activision — can’t afford to publish too many games that they can’t guarantee will make them money. Gee, the games business has been modeling itself for years after Hollywood, and it’s certainly succeeding.
It’s a shame, too, because video gaming historically has been a creative-driven market that’s seen its most significant evolution when someone goes way out on a limb to create something entirely new — the “four guys in a garage” myth was reality a few short years ago. But it also helped that back then, publishers didn’t need to fork out big licensing fees and royalty payments to console manufacturers because PC game companies were leading the innovation. Nowadays, PC gaming is more of an afterthought — barely a third of the overall market, down a bit more each year. That makes it more imperative than ever that these new console titles succeed.
That’s not to say that cool stuff isn’t happening — Sid Meier’s Pirates looks like fun, as does Full Spectrum Warrior, Halo 2, Donkey Konga and a handful of other things that grabbed my attention — but just not *as much* cool stuff seems to be happening as in years before. New hardware was where the real buzz was at this year’s show.
Game Boy competition
The market is holding its breath for the release of Sony’s PSP handheld console — finally, a legitimate competitor to Nintendo’s long-dominant GameBoy Advance system, which also saw a new iteration this year in a touch-screen equipped “DS” (short for “Dual Screen”) version.
PSP won’t be out until 2005, but many game developers are already on board to create launch titles. Sony has unveiled the system and made more of its capabilities clear — it comes with a 16×9 aspect ratio color screen, 802.11b wireless networking, built-in stereo speakers, and a new 1.8GB removable disc storage technology called UMD. The PSP’s price is still unknown, but if you combine it with Sony’s move into the online music download business, it’s possible that somewhere down the road this device could be a compelling draw for consumers that might otherwise be interested in an iPod mini.
What’s interesting is that, more than anything, more info about the PSP seemed to dampen some enthusiasm about the GameBoy DS, which some developers, buyers and distributors still seem to be scratching their heads about. Could the DS be a repeat of Nintendo’s disastrous failure, “Virtual Boy?” Only time will tell.
The Phantom Strikes
Infinium’s Phantom console is a surprising reality. After last year’s stealth announcement and a year punctuated by scathing editorial reports and a lawsuit initiated by Infinium against online news site HardOCP, The Phantom was at E3 this year. The new system emphasizes software distribution over broadband instead of buying games off store shelves.
To own Phantom, you pay a $30 a month service fee (and sign a two-year commitment), and you can play a certain number of games and use its service. If you wish to play other games, some A-list titles will be available to purchase for an additional price as well. Infinium’s presence at E3 this year was to assure the industry that it is a real company, and it’s hoping to sign-up developers left and right, now that they showed real working prototypes of the hardware.
Apex was also showing off its ApeXtreme, a DVD/CD player with the soul of a PC. It’s basically Apex’s Windows-embedded variation on Apple’s Pippin, a stillborn video game console built on a Mac hardware and software core. With relatively little reengineering, according to Apex, PC game makers can vet their titles to run on the ApeXtreme, which is available in a low and high-end configuration for $300 or $400, respectively. As the saying goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating — if the gameplay experience on the Via-driven system sucks, it’ll die.
Sign of the Zodiac
Tapwave’s Zodiac is a handheld gaming console that could win a niche with people looking to combine their Palm PDA with a Game Boy Advance. The device runs on Palm OS and synchronizes data with a Mac or PC using USB or Bluetooth. But it comes complete with an analog thumbpad that vibrates, uses a fast Motorola processor and sports ATI 3D graphics and a beautiful screen too.
Sure, you can play many Palm games on the Zodiac and play them well, but where the Zodiac shines is in games designed to run specifically on it. You can buy online and download the 3D version of SpyHunter, for example, Duke Nukem 3D and other games. Sync them through Mark/Space Inc.’s Missing Sync for Tapwave offering for Mac OS X, which also offers a high score conduit, and you’ve got a full-featured handheld computer that also plays great games. You might be surprised how good movies look on it, too.
Zodiac’s initial success since it was released in 2003 has been hampered by a lack of software and no retail presence. Tapwave is fixing both problems in 2004: The Zodiac hits CompUSA shelves next month, and about 5 or 6 dozen new games are expected by year’s end.
At $300, the Zodiac is a surprisingly a good value if you combine the cost of a high-end Palm PDA and a Game Boy SP. About the only thing it’s missing is a digital camera, which you probably have by now in your phone anyway.
Along with the Zodiac’s ability to work with the Mac, there were a few other Mac-related items to report from this year’s show: THQ Inc., for example, will release two new games based on Disney/Pixar’s upcoming movie “The Incredibles.” One’s a straightforward port of a console action game, the other is a “mini-game” aimed at younger players.
And World of Warcraft is still thundering along — Blizzard didn’t have much new to show that hasn’t already been reported, but their massively multiplayer online role playing game left no one in doubt that Blizzard will leave its mark on the genre once the game is finally ready.
Canadian developer Kutoka Interactive is diversifying their educational product line from the adventurous mouse Mia to Didi and Ditto, a pair of beavers (living up to the Canadian stereotype, thanks, Kutoka). Didi and Ditto are aimed at kindergarteners, and Kutoka is hoping to win the hearts and minds of early educators and parents from the more established Reader Rabbit series.
The PistolMouse is an interesting looking contraption from MonsterGecko that combines 800 dpi optical mouse tracking with a grip that looks like a gun. You hold it on the desktop like the mouse, but point it like you would a real gun, and it’s equipped with dual fire buttons and a clickable scrollwheel. The PistolMouse is bound to be controversial with parents and others that don’t want to see kids playing with toys that look like real weapons, and that’s good, since those kids really ought not to be playing with these games, which mainly appeal to (and are often rated for) adults aged 18 – 34 years old. For Halo and other first-person shooter games, the PistolMouse provides a more immersive and often more comfortable experience than a conventional mouse. All it’s missing is recoil force feedback.
Myst IV Revelation will be coming from Ubisoft later this year. It’s a new graphical adventure game based in the world of Myst, featuring the same lush 3D environments you’d expect with a lot more detail and realism, and real-time 3D exploration.
Preview Mac OS X “Tiger”