E3 2012: Five trends that will change video games

Here's what we saw and learned at E3 2012, from streaming games to new hardware.

James Martin/CNET

It's unlikely that E3 2012 will go down as one of the more newsworthy installments of this annual trade show. But, while we may lack blockbuster news (or many must-play games), there are several trends on display that paint a clear picture about what kinds of games and interactive entertainment experiences are coming over the next several years.

Hardware doesn't drive the business anymore
Gamers should get used to the idea of a longer wait between new consoles. The PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 are well past the half-decade mark, with not a hint of future versions at E3 this year. Nintendo's Wii Uis more evolution than revolution, making use of the original Wii's controllers and accessories, and much of the same industrial and UI design.

And guess what? Both gamers and the professional industry watchers attending E3 are just fine with that. New games still look great, even if they don't look noticeably better than last year or the year before. And adding new accessories, such as Kinect, or new features, such as SmartGlassor streaming live TV, offer more bang for the buck than faster processors or GPUs.

The business is still blockbuster-driven
You couldn't throw a promotional T-shirt at the Los Angeles Convention Center without hitting a big-game sequel, spin-off, or movie tie-in. Halo 4, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, a new Tomb Raider, God of War: Ascension, Super Mario Wii U, Forza: Horizon, and others took center stage at the big press conferences and the biggest show floor booths. It's a topic we've bemoaned in the past, but these sure-to-sell games also make sure there's enough money in publishers' coffers to fund the occasional ambitious, original project.

That said, Halo 4 really does look and feel like other recent Halo games, and the new God of War game also seems awfully derivative of itself. Come on, guys, let's freshen these classic franchises up with some new ideas.

Streaming-game delivery isn't ready to take over yet, but it's coming
One of the big rumors before E3 2012 was that Sony was going to acquire OnLive, the streaming-game service. Or, in some versions, it was Microsoft. Or Gaikai, another streaming game service. In any event, no such announcement was made, but that doesn't mean something along those lines is not the inevitable next step in the evolution of gaming. We've written extensively about these services, which both essentially "play" high-end PC games for you on remote render farms, and beam a live video feed to your TV, PC, or tablet.

But there was big news from both companies at E3. Gaikai inked a deal with Samsung to power the TV giant's new streaming-game service, which will be available as a software update for 2012 Samsung Smart TVs. OnLive continues to grow, doing a similar deal with LG for app-driven TVs. It's only a matter of time before Sony or Microsoft starts streaming game content on the fly, rather than making consumers download content and store it locally. There are plenty of network issues to deal with, of course, but it's a trend you can count on.

There is still room for original ideas
Fortunately, besides the inevitable onslaught of sequels, there were a surprising number of original games as well, certainly more than I expected. Highlights included Beyond: Two Souls, from cult favorite game designer David Cage (more on that here); The Last of Us, a dystopian action/adventure that looked to me a bit like Michael Bay's "The Road"; Zombi U, a violent Nintendo Wii U horror game; and Watch Dogs, a surprise favorite about futuristic hackers.

Mobile and social gaming deserve a seat at the table
Yet, they're still not fully embraced by the larger games industry. Zynga, PopCap, and the like make cameo appearances, or hide out in small meeting rooms, even though good social games have 50 million or more average monthly players. Asking the question hereand on Twitter, "Do Facebook games belong at E3?" provoked a highly polarized response, with passionate opinions on each side.

Check out CNET's full E3 2012 coverage.

Libe Goad
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