E3 has lost its game

If this year's E3 is a sign of things to come, we're all in a lot of trouble.

Good advice. Scott Stein and Jeff Bakalar/CNET

LOS ANGELES--As E3 2012 shuts its doors, we're not entirely sure we ever want them to open up again. Scott and Jeff spent a day going to press conferences and two full days on the show floor. It wasn't pretty and what follows is a brutally honest take on the show.

Jeff Bakalar:
Covering the video game industry for five years has undoubtedly changed the way I feel about them as a whole. At the start of my career, I was excited about an industry that seemed indestructible and could do no wrong. But the more I became engrossed in its progress and the more I attended events and expos, the more I began to notice patterns. Most of them are obvious. Some of them are downright depressing. But for whatever reason E3 2012 has become the culmination of all my fears for the future of gaming.

It's no secret, E3 has lost its game. Fans and journalists alike are not getting enough reasons to be excited about new and innovative hardware and software. It's like we're out of ideas. Of the dozens of titles I either had hands-on time with or saw some sort of demo presentation, 70 percent were sequels. Most of them are sequels that in my opinion don't bring enough new and compelling material to the table. The film industry has suffered this trend of redundancy for some time and now game publishers are following very closely behind. It's not like we're talking about first-time sequels, either. These games have 3s, 4s, 5s, and 6s after them. It's becoming a bit of a joke.

And then there's the press conferences. Just to be fair, I can't imagine the amount of pressure these CEOs and presidents must be under. It's all about making a great impression, and even the best laid plans can come unraveled at any moment. So while this year each conference went along without a hitch, they were mostly uneventful and boring.

The reaction from the audience at the Galen Center was mediocre for Microsoft. Sure, Halo 4 got its applause, but we were expecting that. The worst-kept secret at E3, Xbox SmartGlass, was also announced and demoed, but it left us with more questions than when we started.

Sony had an arguably stronger showing, but it confused the audience at times as well. The Vita needs a shot of confidence, so why did the company focus on the rebranding of PlayStation Suite to Mobile instead? Where was the Vita's sophomore year?

It's a funny moment when you realize just how silly E3 can be. Perhaps the turning point at this year's E3 came from CBSi photographer James Martin about halfway through the Sony press conference. Sony had rented a dozen or so food trucks for attendees to enjoy before the event and when things took a lull during the Wonderbook section of the presentation, James innocently posted a picture of his ice cream sandwich from earlier in the night: two huge chocolate chip cookies held together by brown butter ice cream with candied bacon.

James Martin/CNET

The absurdity of the dessert and the seemingly appropriate time in which he chose to post it into our live blog gave me an epiphany. "This is E3 right there," I said pointing to the screen. "This is what it's come to."

It's a strange reality being in Los Angeles for E3. A lot of money is spent to create illusions, to make things seem larger than life. My hotel room had an advertisement in the bathroom. Yup, a transparent decal on the mirror that read "you're looking at the next great Spartan." Yes, and that Spartan is watching me pee. My hotel keys were bought up by Square Enix, too, boasting Tomb Raider and Hitman ads.

Jeff Bakalar/CNET

And then there's Nintendo, a company that I've learned to literally expect nothing and everything from every time it puts on an event. It was obvious the Wii U would take center stage, but its first game was a sequel eight years in the making that more or less plays and looks exactly like its predecessor. Pikmin 3 is not going to sell Wii U consoles by itself.

So what about the Wii U's third-party software? Batman: Arkham City Armored Edition is interesting enough, but it's the same game you played last year. All they did is move the pause screen to the tablet screen. ZombiU showed promise being one of the only original titles generating buzz at the show, but that momentum felt lost when Nintendo told us it has a new game called NintendoLand -- a bunch of minigames made up of characters from the Nintendo universe.

Nintendo's inability to create a mega buzz behind its first-party Wii U games is troubling. It's more of the same, and five years after the launch of the original Wii, gamers are simply expecting more. Between New Super Mario Bros. U and New Super Mario Bros. 2 for the 3DS, I wonder how much longer the company can continue to ride out like this. When Super Mario Galaxy was first announced, it wasn't the most groundbreaking thing Nintendo had ever did, but it was a Mario game that we'd never seen before. I miss those days.

Jeff Bakalar/CNET

As I fly back to New York in my cramped window seat, I'm reminded of a similar experience I had far too often on the E3 show floor this year. Each booth I visited filed me into a small restricted theater where I was packed in like a sardine with a bunch of other journalists from around the world. What usually proceeded was a 20-to-30-minute presentation of a game -- maybe some gameplay with commentary, perhaps a look at what future title a studio is working on.

The value here is dicey at best -- mostly because it's a very one-way experience and also because the footage is going to most likely find its way online at some point during the week anyway. The developers want to get as many people in and out as possible over the course of the three-day show, so it feels more like riding some sort of Epcot attraction than learning more about a particular game. I find that the break-out sessions we're treated to back in New York are much more productive.

People this year were bummed out from the start. My first appointment's booth guide couldn't believe we were back at E3 already and rolled her eyes at how many appointments the day still had. And I was the first! But I couldn't really blame her. Walking around the show floor was borderline sad. Sony and Nintendo's booths looked just like last year's. Is everyone feeling the same depression about the expo? Or are we all waiting for this current generation to end?

No...I don't think so. Scott Stein/CNET

It's not all bad, though. Some developers have the right idea about creating a very personalized experience with a smaller audience, the kind of thing that allows for insightful questions and answers. I'm sure the developer who runs through the same ritual 30 times a day cares about the game he or she is crafting, but these private meetings really let the press understand the human connection the developers have with their art.

So could anyone truly "win" an E3 that had some of my colleagues texting me 15 minutes after the doors open protesting they were ready to go home? Sure, I think there was a winner. This was a really great show for Ubisoft. The company's annual terribly awkward press conference aside, the developer-publisher team made a fantastic impression with games like Splinter Cell: Blacklist, Watch Dogs, and ZombiU, along with mainstays Far Cry 3 and Assassin's Creed III.

James Martin/CNET

So what does this subpar year bode for the show moving forward? Does E3 even need to exist? I'm not sure anymore. Rumors of its relocation to New York City certainly sound good -- maybe just on a selfish level -- but perhaps a change in scenery is what it needs. Maybe it shouldn't be open to the public anymore. It's becoming a bit of circus and makes it tough on people who are trying to work at the show.

My last day at E3 coincided with Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final taking place across the street from the Convention Center at the Staples Center. The Los Angeles Kings had a chance to sweep the New Jersey Devils for the first championship in the team's long history, but New Jersey was victorious and the series will now shift back to New Jersey on Saturday night for a Game 5.

As I watched the thousands of Kings fans draped in their white, silver, black, and purple jerseys drag their feet and stare blankly at the sidewalk in front of them, I understood their frustration. I likened their disappointment to the thousands of game journalists who flew in from all over the planet to see the biggest and best of what the video game industry has to offer, and we're mostly sent home empty-handed. It's either that or because I'm a Devils fan.

James Martin/CNET

Scott Stein:
I didn't expect much at this show, a show I've attended since the days of the Dreamcast, a show I've always looked forward to. So how did E3 let down my already-low expectations? Because it didn't surprise me. It didn't challenge me. Like a dumb summer blockbuster, it did exactly what I thought it would.

Nintendo: Where do I begin? I want to love the Wii U. Yet, all that was really revealed after a whole year of waiting was a sprinkle of first-party games and a bunch of third-party ones. I don't want Batman: Arkham Asylum on a Wii U; I want your excellent, imaginative first-party games, and tons of them. More than Pikmin 3 and New Super Mario Bros. U, which should be part of the depth chart of your lineup, not the frontrunners. NintendoLand should have been a quick-mention pack-in, not a game that took over the show floor. And speaking of franchises, what about Metroid, Zelda, or the better Mario known as Galaxy? How about challenging our ideas of what second-screen gaming could be? None of that showed up. And the Nintendo 3DS was practically buried as an afterthought.

Sony: I love your quirky, visionary downloadable games birthed from Santa Monica Studios: Pixeljunk, Journey, even Datura. A few new curated games could be found at your booth that were equally cool: The Unfinished Swan, Sound Shapes. I love Beyond: Two Souls. But a lot of the rest of what was shown was predictable, even sparse. That wasn't my real problem: let's talk Vita. The PlayStation Vita, just 6 months old. You left baby Vita out on the curb. You haven't given it nourishment. I want to love what the Vita will become, much like I want to love the Wii U...yet, I don't know if the Vita's noteworthy new games could fill the fingers of one hand. The Vita should have been the star of the show, and it blended into the wallpaper.

James Martin/CNET

Microsoft: Stop making sequels. I mean it. It feels like Gears of War, Halo, Fable, and Forza are becoming yearly updates. The first-party games didn't display imagination at all, and the downloadable titles felt like a grab-bag. Xbox SmartGlass looked interesting, but it's a gimmick right now, a sideshow, not a headliner. Its prominence at the show betrayed how little there was to talk about. The Kinect has gained a little more relevance by being more smartly baked into games, but 2012 feels an awful lot like 2011, and your console's not getting younger. Don't get too cocky.

I've said this too many times already, but for a trade show that has the slogan "Innovation Unveiled," I didn't see too much innovation or unveiling here. Stop teasing, stop withholding, and start dreaming, start being less afraid, and start representing the diverse gaming industry better than these overbloated and empty booths stuffed with nerd-dream stereotypes and fluff. Bring back Kentia Hall if you have to, beg small exhibitors to attend for free...just do it.

Scott Stein/CNET

The boldest, most innovative thing I saw at E3? These bacon-wrapped matzoh balls. I had them for dinner one night in downtown Los Angeles. The funny thing is, bacon's become as cliche as most big-budget video games. Maybe the next E3 should come wrapped in bacon, too.

 

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