The centerpieces of E3 week are the console makers’ press events, and each company brings its own personality type to the proceedings. Microsoft is the nerdy rich kid who doesn’t have much personality of his own, so he buys social standing by throwing a killer birthday party. No expense is spared to make sure that Junior’s day is extra special. A few years ago, Microsoft had The Beatles at its press conference! And the year after that, Microsoft gave away brand-new Xbox 360s as freaking party favors. Microsoft figures that if it wows the crowd with a big show, everyone will talk about the event, and nobody will talk about Microsoft’s pimples. It usually works. I don’t think it will work this year, despite the best efforts of Usher and the South Park guys.
Sony’s press conferences are overlong and feature a gradual crescendo of desperation. The company is, in essence, a possessive, insecure friend. He seems cool at first. You start to think, okay, this Sony fellow is a pretty good egg, and we’ve had some good times together, after all. Lots of nice memories. Then it’s hours later, and Sony won’t let you leave your seat because “No, wait, you have to hear about this Twisted Metal remake I’m working on. It’s going to be so great, and you’ll play it right? We’ll play it together, forever? And hold on, I just want to say one more thing—look at these PlayStation Network subscriber data pie charts, amazing, right? Please tell me you like me.”
Nintendo is an aging child star who can’t resist leaning on his old shtick. For the majority of its press conference, Nintendo will talk about its forward-thinking ideas—how it’s a serious artist now, producing sophisticated work that appeals to new audiences. Then in the last half hour, as it feels the crowd’s interest flagging, Nintendo will be like, “Hey, guys, REMEMBER THAT TIME WE MADE A ZELDA GAME?” And the crowd will cheer, and theme music will play, and Link Meets Kid Icarus Meets Bowser Kong Jr. will be revealed, and Nintendo will attempt to convince everyone in the room—including itself—that childhood never has to end.
That’s how things have gone in the past, anyway. We’ll see what comes this year. As I write this, I’ve just emerged from Microsoft’s press conference, and I can tell you that at least one out of the three companies has remained true to form. Microsoft may not have had The Beatles, but it did have Joe Montana (reading candid lines like “Wow! This is actually pretty sweet!” off the teleprompter), South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and Usher. The brilliance of those stars, though, was not enough to obscure a very thin showing by Microsoft.
The company trotted out a parade of sequels, many of them shooters—Halo 4, Splinter Cell Blacklist, Call Of Duty Something Something—and all of them predictable. The loud, extended Call Of Duty demo was grueling, but not as painful as the press conference’s middle stretch, during which Microsoft touted one inane home-entertainment boondoggle after another.
The company really wants you to know that if you have an Xbox Kinect, you can talk to your TV and tell it what to watch; they don’t want you to know how frustrating and impractical it is to do so. As if people won’t immediately discover this on your own. The company announced new partnerships with “content providers” like Paramount and ESPN. You can now watch more things made by those companies on your Xbox. And then there was the endless demonstration of Microsoft’s “SmartGlass” technology, which augments your TV screen with software accessories on your smartphone and tablet.
The best demo case that Microsoft could muster for SmartGlass was a hypothetical situation in which you are watching Game Of Thrones and an interactive map pops up on your iPad (well, they showed it on a “Windows 8 tablet,” but c’mon). So you can look at the map while the show plays in the background. You know, instead of paying attention to Game Of Thrones. Nobody wants to do this.
Microsoft’s new strategy is to pump and smear, like someone squeezing ketchup onto a hamburger bun. They plan to pump the Xbox full of more television, more movies, more music—and then smear all of that content around, across multiple devices. Little care is given to the structure or purpose of these actions. An initiative called Xbox Music was announced at the event; it somehow transforms your music library by spraying it onto your TV, phone, and iPad, because don’t you hate how uncomplicated it is to listen to a song these days? None of my colleagues seemed to understand what Xbox Music does or why it needs to exist. But Microsoft isn’t thinking about “why.” It’s pumping and smearing, pumping and smearing, in the deranged hope that the result will be a delicious hamburger, rather than a soggy mess.
As the Microsoft executive prattled on about how Smart your Glass will become in the future, the mood in the room grew very cold, as attendees’ boredom curdled into quiet rage. Parker and Stone, the South Park creators, provided an impromptu release valve by acknowledging the reality in the room: Parker went on a quick riff about how his South Park game would not communicate with your smartphone, or your refrigerator, or your oven. This got a big laugh, and so the most memorable moment of the event was one in which the on-stage guests mocked Microsoft’s multi-million-dollar marketing push.
The South Park game offered reason for hope, but mostly because—unlike the majority of the games on display today—you couldn’t tell exactly what it was the moment its logo appeared on screen. Madden NFL 13? Dance Central 3? Next verse, same as the first. The South Park promo offered little enough detail that we can still hold onto some notion that perhaps it will surprise us. And there were other tantalizing snippets, like LocoCycle—a motorcycle game of some sort by the makers of ’Splosion Man—and Matter, a game that involves a high-tech orb. These paltry descriptions, though, should give you an idea of how thin this event was.
It feels unfair to write that, to sit back and say “pish-posh, a little thin.” We critics pine and plead for creativity, and then we show up at this annual event and say, “Show me what you’ve got.” We ought to recognize that this isn’t quite right. Creativity and inspiration don’t happen on a schedule, and it’s folly to expect that every June, right on cue, Microsoft will be able to provide some epochal leap forward.
I would feel worse, though, if the titans of the game industry hadn’t set up this E3 boondoggle themselves, and if they didn’t bill it as a showcase of “innovation”—a word that once meant something special but now is used primarily a marketing term for forced obsolescence.
And Microsoft, more than anyone, has cast itself in the past as a purveyor of ideas. Three years ago, the technology that would become the Kinect was unveiled. It was sold to the audience—somewhat farcically but with a shred of credibility—as a major artistic moment rather than a mere technological innovation. The visionary developer Peter Molyneux showed us a boy named Milo, who not only spoke but listened, suggesting a broader consciousness than we had come to expect from video games. Milo would eventually meet an unkind fate, but at the time Microsoft promised that he was the avatar of a new ambition.
That ambition, if it ever existed, was stunningly short-lived. Kinect is now used for pointless gimmicks, as with the Splinter Cell developer today who said “Hey, you!” into the Kinect microphone to distract a foe. There’s also Wreckateer, a game for those of you who have always wished you could play a version of Angry Birds that forced you to stand rigidly in front of your TV and make careful, intermittently detected arm movements to guide each bird. To be honest, Wreckateer still looks kind of fun, but it also looks utterly disposable. Is this what Microsoft was dreaming of in 2009?
The company has disproven its own thesis. The premise of those early Kinect presentations was that an advance in technology is, by itself, enough to spur something truly new in the video-game art form. Yet the industry has simply taken the new tool of Kinect and found ways to incorporate it into existing formulas. The Kinect proved not to be a creative force but merely an enhancing force, and those “enhancements” are dubious. The big-budget game industry right now is built to create only a few types of games, and no “breakthrough” technology can jar it out of that rut. It’s the overall development system that needs fixing, not the gadgetry.
Is this cause for distress? When you’re sitting in a huge auditorium and Microsoft’s vision of gaming feels like the whole world, yes it is. In the light of day, you realize there is still a community of independent developers who are doing the hard, risky work of experimenting with new forms and ideas. They are the wellspring of fresh perspective. E3 presents a distorted view of the games world—it’s the domain of the big studios, and it doesn’t give these smaller-scale creators their due. So while the show can at times make it seem like games are doomed to repeat themselves, I don’t think it’s cause for panic.
Cause for disappointment, though? Certainly. It’s not so much that Microsoft has failed in its ambitions. Trying and failing would still be admirable. The distressing thing is that the Microsoft we saw at E3 2012 has altogether abandoned its ambition to rejuvenate the games its customers play. The art form and the larger cultural conversation benefit—even those plucky indies benefit—when the bigger players make an effort to move the needle. Microsoft is no longer trying to move anything; it just wants more of what it has. My hope and belief is that Microsoft can’t will an art form to stand still.