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What E3 told me about the future of gaming

VR. Indies. And a landscape in flux. Here's what struck me about E3 2014, beyond the big-budget consoles and AAA games.

Scott Stein/CNET

The E3 show is done, and, like many of these events, there's a lot more that was shown than anyone could ever take in on their own. And a lot of it, honestly, felt the same. Big action games, big shooters, jaw-dropping graphics in room-filling trailers, big explosions...from booth to booth to booth.

But in the corners, amid the big consoles, there were some interesting lessons I learned at my first E3 in two years.

PlayStation TV, one of many platforms showing off indie games. Scott Stein/CNET

Indies are the future -- and present -- of gaming, and the glue of the whole industry.

I got bored with the endless sword, gun, and car games shown off at E3. Every poster was full of grizzled warriors, blood-zombies, or epic space soldiers. And then there were the indie games: bright colors, wild designs, unpredictable abstract experimentation. Indie games stole the show at both Microsoft and Sony's press conferences via titles in the ID@Xbox program, and curated games on Sony's consoles like Entwined or No Man's Sky; both companies have created whole pipelines for indies to publish games on their systems. Indie games huddled at the show in a gathering of tables representing Indiecade, but were also scattered among bigger booths, like Sony's. The indie games might not have had the booming thunder-cannon trailers of Call of Duty or Destiny, but they were running on the PlayStation TV , on the Vita, on PS4, on the Xbox One, on Oculus Rift, on PCs, and on countless iPhones and iPads. The indies were the most cross-platform games at E3. And their presence at the show represented a surge of the next wave of gaming, one that didn't feel marginal at all.

Josh Miller/CNET

VR is on its way sooner than most people think.

I played both Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus, and they both feel ready to go. Would I prefer higher-res displays? Of course. Would I like to not have cables running out of the VR helmets? Yes, that, too. But these VR rigs really work -- they're playing interesting games, and they're amazing to experience. It also seems like game developers are having a fine time developing for them, based on the surge in VR games seen around the show floor if you kept your eyes open.

Josh Miller/CNET

Nintendo isn't going away, and that's a great thing.

In the middle of zombies, superheroes, and epic space warfare, Nintendo's booth was once again a candy-hued festival of cuteness. And it worked. Nintendo clearly understands its strengths and has created a lineup of games at this year's show that take advantage of its best qualities. And the crowds around Super Smash Bros. told a clear tale: Nintendo can be cool. And what I loved about Nintendo at this year's show was how its games seemed so much more colored, bright, and downright kid-friendly than anyone else's. Can it take advantage and go the next step to reclaim some momentum in the console hardware race? I don't know, but Nintendo offers balance to the gaming world that's sorely needed.

Scott Stein/CNET

Apple is extremely well positioned to enter and dominate the "console" gaming world.

Why bring Apple into this discussion? Well, I didn't do it; Apple did. By announcing new game development tools the week before at its developer conference, Apple ended up showing how much better mobile gaming can get. There were also tons of developers showing iPad and iPhone games, or games that had additional iPhone-friendly modes or even control schemes. Most major and minor third-party developers at E3 are working on games that live on the App Store. Apple's gaming presence is not an experiment: it's a dominating force in the landscape. The mobile landscape. But all it would take is a small box and connected controllers, and Apple would have a viable console. Sony's little PlayStation TV proves there's a growing interest in smaller, cheaper platforms. But, despite Sony's dominance, the rest of the gaming industry doesn't seem to have a runaway platform leader: games matter more than the system they're being played on. This fall would be an excellent time to enter the race.