Look. We hear you. You want what you’ve always wanted, but you also want something new. You want things to look like they always have, but you want the buzz of the new... Contradictions? No problem. They come with the territory. But is it possible to ask, and is it even possible to deliver something for everyone?
--Reggie Fils-Aime, President, Nintendo of America
The big E3 press conferences aren’t really press conferences at all, despite most media outlets referring to them as such. Sony calls its event a press conference, but Microsoft prefers “Media Briefing,” and Nintendo likes “Media Presentation.”
A press conference implies dialogue - an opportunity for journalists to engage the manufacturers and publishers who drive a twenty billion dollar industry. Such unscripted events can be hazardous for executives, however, as Geoff Keighley’s refreshingly tough interview with Reggie Fils-Aime illustrates. (Be sure to watch all three parts.)
These orchestrated gatherings are about sending carefully crafted messages to the press, consumers, and Wall Street: ninety minutes of hyperbole to claim the spotlight, frame the narrative, and fuel the hype. Conventional wisdom says Sony and Microsoft compete for the hardcore crowd, while Nintendo caters to the casuals, and that’s pretty much how things have played out recently.
But this year it’s a different story, especially for Nintendo and Microsoft. Nintendo, seeing flagging sales of its hardware, wants its core gamers back; and Microsoft, seeing an enthusiastic but limited hardcore base, has its eye on Nintendo’s casuals. Both need to expand their audiences, and both devoted major portions of their E3 briefings to proving how serious they are about succeeding. And both will fail.
They will fail for a variety of reasons, but the primary culprit is likely to be pedigree. Both of their E3 presentations effectively showcase Nintendo and Microsoft’s impressive strengths, and each painfully illustrates how they stumble when they venture outside their comfort zones.
Watching Microsoft and Nintendo’s E3 presentations is like traveling from a UFC arena to a big-top circus tent. The tone and vibe of each is completely different, reflecting the cultures of each company, deliberately crafted over years of products and marketing. What’s more, their 90-minute show-and-tells can be seen as polar opposite examples of the same curious failure to persuade.
For the first two-thirds of its briefing, Microsoft brought the guns. A nine-minute combat sequence from Modern Warfare 3 opened the show, followed by five minutes of “intense and visceral survival” featuring Lara Croft tied up, burned, impaled, pursued, and dragged from behind. Then “kick-ass action” in a Mass Effect 3 combat demo; tactical battle from Ghost Recon Future Soldier, followed by a Kinect-enabled weapon customization demo.
We caught our collective breath with a seven-minute briefing on new Xbox Live features, but lest anyone doubt the service's bad-assery, the presentation concluded with a trailer announcing the arrival of live-streamed UFC fights. Then the lights dimmed for a Gears of War 3 trailer; a six-minute co-op combat demo with Cliff Bleszinski and Ice T; an ancient Roman battle in Ryse; and a Covenant/Flood-blasting montage from Halo HD. Sixty minutes of full-throttle male power fantasy whoop-whoop, and nobody does it better than Microsoft. I'm not sure if "better" is the word I mean here. I felt a little sick by the end of it, to be honest.
When the briefing finally shifted to other kinds of games, the mood in room shifted too. Kinect Disneyland Adventures was met with polite applause. The opening bars of John Williams’ Star Wars theme got a thunderous reaction...which quickly fell to silence as the dismal Kinect Star Wars game demo wore on. A new Fable title appeared promising, but quickly faded as the audience grew restless.
It’s tempting to attribute the lukewarm reactions to the fact that these games lack guns and gore. Xbox players want to shoot stuff real good, and these games look suspiciously casual. But such a reading misjudges the crowd sitting in that room. These games went over like lead balloons simply because they looked awful - regressive on-rails tech demos for motion-control - and this savvy crowd sniffed that out in seconds.
If this year's E3 proves anything, it's that Microsoft is doubling down on its Kinect bet, and it will produce titles that use it, no matter what. While big games like Mass Effect 3 and FIFA are implementing Kinect in their own ways, the family-friendly Kinect games Microsoft showed at E3 took a page from the early "look what this thing can do!" waggle days of the Wii. When Tim Schafer walked onstage to present his colorful and charming Once Upon a Monster - including an onstage father/son combo that appeared to be having actual fun - it was like somebody opened a window to let the stink out of the room.
If Microsoft and its developers want to expand their market, they should commit to the same level of imagination, design savvy, and craftsmanship that their FPS developers devote to their games. Spend ten minutes with Kirby Canvas Curse or Super Mario Galaxy to see how well Nintendo and its satellites understand what that commitment means.
Of course, Nintendo has credibility issues of its own, and these emerged at nearly the same moment that Microsoft hit the wall: in the final act of its 3-act briefing. I'll return in my next post to discuss Nintendo's presentation. Who know, maybe I'll even get around to Sony's. The rhetoric of hype never fails to provoke me.