The Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) can be such a corporate event, with Soviet Union-style press conferences where the press doesn’t get to ask any questions. But there were some memorable moments at E3, particularly where some of the game developers and publishers let some emotion leak into their presentations. Those were the moments we live for.
At Electronic Arts’ EA Play event on Saturday, Josef Fares of Hazelight was ebullient as he announced A Way Out, a clever co-op game where one player controls a character on a split screen and the other player controls another character on the other side of the split-screen. The action will seamlessly shift from cinematics to gameplay, and from split screen to single screen, as the action unfolds. Fares said you won’t see anything like this game while onstage.
And in a small group meeting, Fares said, “When you play this game through, I guarantee you will never play anything like it before. I guarantee you. If you don’t like it, you can break my legs.”
That is what I wanted to hear. If a developer exudes a passion for the game, that’s your first clue that it is something momentous.
Davide Soliani led the creation Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, and it took many years of experimentation to create a game worthy of the Nintendo partnership. He got teary eyed as his hero, Nintendo game designer Shigeru Miyamoto, thanked Soliani while on stage for creating a Mario game that had never been made before. They had worked on it for so long that getting to acknowledge it to world was a big emotional release. And, for a moment, it seemed like this big French company with 9,000 employees was a vulnerable advocate of innovation. That developer’s tears did so much to endear Ubisoft to the fans, who cheered like crazy.
The same was true for Michel Ancel, the creator of the original Beyond Good & Evil game. That game came out in 2003, and the sequel was announced in 2008. But Ancel veered off course, and he moved on to another project. About three years ago, he revived the project and he was finally able to talk about it this week, about 14 years after the last game. Ancel started crying onstage, and he almost faltered as he wept about this passion project. Again, you could sense that the fans of the original game had also waited so long to hear fans validate his choices.
“What you saw at the conference is how dedicated those creators are,” said Yves Guillemot, CEO of Ubisoft, in an interview with GamesBeat. “They try to bring everything they have to create an experience people will like. When they talk about it, you really feel that.”
I also saw a lot of passion when I interviewed Michael Condrey, co-CEO of Sledgehammer Games, about Call of Duty: WWII. As his team designed a game about a great war that the veterans could no longer talk about themselves, he felt the responsibility to tell a story about the gravity of that history.
“It’s an iconic war of good versus evil. We didn’t have to spend so much time creating a universe and getting you to believe in the protagonists and antagonists. It becomes a more personal story,” he said. “It honors what really happened – a world on the edge of tyranny and chaos. That’s been rewarding. As we talk to veterans and work with our military historian and travel around to these different battle sites–the weight of being respectful has come through, I hope, in the campaign.”
He added, “I’ve talked a lot about respecting diversity of players in our games, respecting the use of the subject matter in non-gratuitous ways. This one is interesting for us. In the campaign, the thing we wrestled with and were very thoughtful about was being authentic to what happened, and respectful of the loss of life that occurred. That’s something we still talk about.”
Sony also showed it knew how to create emotion at its press event. For the second year in a row, Sony created a moving trailer for God of War. In this reboot of a violent franchise, Sony is infusing an emotional story. Kratos, the God of War, can’t die. But the Greek god has grown tired of his violent ways and moved to the Norse lands. He has a son, and has to raise him by showing patience. Yet the God of War has a bad temper, and he is impatient with the boy, who is clearly not god-like. In the trailer, Sony shows outstanding action, but it also shows how the boy can understand the Norse creatures and what they are trying to communicate. Kratos is dependent on the frail boy for information. It is a reversal of roles.
“The kid picks it up [the Norse language] like nothing, though,” said Cory Barlog, creative director of the game, in an interview with GamesBeat. “He becomes the conduit for Kratos, which puts an interesting power dynamic in there. It switches things around. He’s this super-powerful god, but he can’t read the writing on the wall. He needs the kid. That becomes important.”
Barlog added, “He’ll walk the earth forever. No matter what he does, he won’t die. He wants to find a way to do better, and a way to do better is to pass this on. He wants to figure out how to be better. The journey for him, though—he’s not just going to become an altruistic paladin who’s going around and getting cats out of trees or anything like that. He’s still a very troubled man. The son brings a bit of that out of him. The son is a bit of humanity. He’s teaching Kratos what it is to be a human. Kratos is teaching him what it is to be a god. Both of them need each other. Together, they can make a whole person.”
That was a lot of storytelling and emotion to pack into a short trailer.
What was missing
Sometimes, what is left unsaid is important. Microsoft downplayed the importance of virtual reality on the Xbox One X. It failed to show a VR hardware device for its Xbox One X console, and it also said that VR might be best done on the Windows PC, rather than an Xbox One X. That was a retreat from its support for VR a year ago.
For VR, “The focus is on Windows, and we’ve chosen not to announce anything more about console-based VR right now. We see the opportunity as far larger on PC, as a company,” said Mike Nichols, chief marketing officer at Microsoft’s Xbox, in an interview with GamesBeat.
Paul Bettner, CEO of Playful, maker of Lucky’s Tale and the upcoming Star Child VR games, said in an interview that he has never been more excited about the prospects for VR. But he worries that it may be a couple of years before the next generation of VR will be ready with standalone VR with wireless technology.
“I think people are a little concerned,” Bettner said. “From a gamer standpoint, that shouldn’t lead to disappointment. That should lead to excitement. There is more investment in VR technology than there has ever been.”
If it takes a couple of years, then a lot of VR startups are likely to run out of money before they generate much revenues. To deal with that possibility, Bettner’s company took the Lucky’s Tale game and adapted it to run on Microsoft’s Xbox One X and Xbox One platform. Better believes that move — creating Super Lucky’s Tale on the Xbox — could generate far more potential sales in the short term from the same intellectual property, with more money coming in from the non-VR game. This kind of strategy shift could enable Bettner’s Playful to survive the lean years before the VR boom kicks in for real.
Sony was a big proponent of VR, with demos of games like Moss and Farpoint. But it failed to show up with any indie titles, with the exception of taking the previously published PC game Undertale onto the PlayStation 4. In this respect, it was as if Sony and Microsoft had changed positions. Microsoft backed off on VR, while Sony dove into it. And Microsoft promoted lots of indie games at its press conference, while Sony had so few.
Sadly, Nintendo had one of the biggest games of the show, but it chose the rather dry format of an online presentation to talk about it. In the past, Nintendo had live events where fanboys went crazy with the announcement of every big game. But this time, it announced Super Mario Odyssey online with so little fanfare.
The only way you could tell it was a fan favorite was by looking at all of the fans lined up at the Nintendo booth to see a glimpse of the game. Indeed, Nintendo’s game and its Switch console generated a lot more buzz at E3 than Microsoft’s Xbox One X console announcement. Nintendo has stripped out the possibility of screwing up during live events by filming them in advance, but it has also taken out the emotion from its press event.
Where was the Fallout Shelter moment?
Lastly, I thought that the industry was missing out on its Fallout Shelter moment. E3 is a great way to gather the eyeballs of gamers and point them to something they want. A few years ago, Bethesda launched its mobile game Fallout Shelter during its E3 press event. It got 12 million downloads in a day, and it was praised for its gameplay.
But Bethesda wasn’t prepared for that success. The title rose to the top of the charts, but then it fell after fans blazed through the content quickly. The updates came to slow, and Bethesda lost an opportunity to monetize that game. This time around, nobody really took advantage of the chance to launch a tentpole mobile game, or one that could gain huge attention at E3 and go on to generate revenues that could finance lots of console games.
I asked Strauss Zelnick, CEO of Take-Two Interactive Software, about this idea that mobile games could become so huge that they could finance the creation of console and PC intellectual property.
He replied, “We don’t really think that way. We’re not looking for financing. We’re looking to delight consumers. If we can’t do something well we don’t want to do it. We just don’t look at the world through that lens. We’re an entertainment company. We want to be the most creative, innovative, and efficient company in the business. We want to delight consumers in everything we do. We want to create the highest quality.”
Still, to me, this feels like an opportunity that someone will exploit in the future.