What they don’t tell you before you get into professional games writing is that in order to keep your Games Writer Card, you absolutely have to pick a winner and a loser from E3, based on each company’s keynote presentation. This is supposed to not only grade the presentation itself, but also determine who is going to be the best company for the entire year based on two hours of glitz and glamour. These ratings are rock solid, and mean the world to companies. In fact, after I gave Nintendo a C- for their performance in 2008, nine Nintendo executives reportedly committed seppuku in shame.1
Hopefully, two of the three companies that gave keynotes2 at E3 have very good psychologists, because it’s also a part of a games journalists unwritten rules that we must be needlessly cruel to companies that don’t meet our exalted expectations. Allow me to post my thoughts and justify my existence while hoping that the misery of others will make my own life more palatable!
NINTENDO: I will give Nintendo credit for one thing: they figured out the direction they wanted to go, hit that direction, and didn’t veer off the track. The good part of that approach is that they hit their niche, hard. The bad news is that they made absolutely zero attempt to bring anyone else into the fold.
Nintendo’s decision to not have a keynote at E3, instead relying on their streaming Nintendo Direct show, was criticized as Nintendo “giving up” to the likes of Microsoft and Sony, who were both announcing new systems. I was all for it; Nintendo was going to come out looking worse for wear no matter what, so why throw money into the fire? Nintendo was better off catering to their known audience, which they did with aplomb.
Name something a Nintendo fan would want, and it was there. New Mario Bros. game, featuring mechanics from Super Mario Bros. 2, check. New Donkey Kong Country, check. New Smash Bros., featuring Mega Man (and the villager from Animal Crossing, who has already gone viral)? Check. New Yoshi’s Island, check. New Mario Kart, check, and this one even looks like a good game, to boot. In addition, Animal Crossing: New Leaf came out two days before the keynote speeches, which was an interesting little touch.
With that said, console gaming is in a period of flux, and I’m not sure Nintendo can afford to play a prevent defense for much longer. This was the kind of talk that gets Nintendo fans aflutter, but it does absolutely nothing for a larger market that is increasingly going to whatever is on a tablet or mobile phone. While that’s good for Nintendo’s fans, the financial people hate it, and while it makes no sense, the words of people like Michael Pachter actually do mean something to shareholders. Satoru Iwata’s on shaky ground as Nintendo’s CEO, and if he’s replaced, it has to be asked where they go from there. Nintendo played it safe this year, but I’m not sure safe is a good idea going forward.
If E3 was a football game, Nintendo spent their time running out the clock, sending a fullback into the line of scrimmage for 2 yards and 40 glorious seconds off the clock of Nintendo and Sony announcing huge deal systems, all with more power than Nintendo’s little system that could, a system that is already drawing uncomfortable comparisons to the Gamecube and the Dreamcast. Nintendo kept their fans happy, but in the meantime, they run the risk of becoming more and more irrelevant to a generation of gamers that didn’t grow up on the NES.
FINAL GRADE: C-
MICROSOFT: Microsoft had a real chance to come out of E3 with some positive momentum, something they desperately needed with the increasing amount of bad PR they got from their Xbox One announcement. Instead, they came out of it in worse shape than ever, in a way they’ll actually notice: for the first time since the next generation systems were announced, Microsoft is looking like their new system is going to have some serious issues coming out of the gate.
Microsoft promised that E3 would be about the games, and they delivered… kind of. Everything they announced seems to come with a footnote. Titanfall looks great… but it’s also coming out for PC. A new Halo was teased… which anyone could have predicted. Killer Instinct is coming back… as a free-to-play game where everyone except Jago has to be bought. Dead Rising 3 is admittedly a coup, but that’s offset by someone having the gall to say that no one has treated indies better than Microsoft. Anyone saying that has Stockholm Syndrome. In the meantime, a lot of the focus was on the same old, same old, and the one game that tried something truly new – Ryse – is receiving “worst game of E3” buzz. Whereas Sony made a big deal of their system being region-free, you can’t even RUN the One unless you’re in an authorized country. Ham-handed attempt at blocking piracy, or simple bureaucratic oversight? You decide.
All of this comes with the standard bugbears that we knew the Xbox One had. They still have the same problems they had before E3, only now, those problems look that much worse in light of recent circumstances. Microsft’s issues are so legion at this point that I don’t need to go over them again, especially as I’ve already done that3. The difference between the Microsoft of 2013 and their counterparts from years past was that gamers didn’t really have a clear-cut better option. They could cry and bitch all they wanted, but ultimately, they would pay the piper, and yell at people on message boards who did not. Now, however, gamers have an option that is, as of this moment, wholly superior in exclusive games, independent support, consumer friendliness, and price. Those differences have manifested themselves into Microsoft’s worst nightmare: the poor perception of the Xbox One has become a meme, with pictures littering Tumblr and Facebook showing the system’s weaknesses. Even worse, people in places like GameStop – including workers – are openly mocking the system; one even looked at me and outright said not to preorder it. This is anecdotal evidence, but there’s enough smoke to prove that Microsoft has a huge fire.
Oh, and someone made a rape joke on-stage. Apparently, we all went back in time to 1973.
The Microsoft of 2013 reminds me too much of the Sony of 2006, who told people that they actually wanted their customers to feel like they needed to work overtime to purchase their $599 console. The arrogance of Sony back then led to their problems when the PS3 was launched and knocked them off of the top of the console mountaintop. While there will be years before we determine a “winner” of the eighth console generation, Microsoft could not have gotten of to a worse start.
FINAL GRADE: F
SONY: Tuesday’s press conference – in prime time on the east coast – was a masterclass in how to regain corporate momentum. In one fell swoop, Sony managed to singlehandedly position their console in a position to lead the coming generation, making Microsoft a mockery and Nintendo an afterthought.
First, it’s imperative to bring out the negatives. Many of the games that were broadcast have since been announced to be multi platform. Sony’s made an unfortunate concession on having to pay for online access via PlayStation Plus. And though this is a bit off-topic, it’s a bit strange to hear everyone talking about the company that shut down its online network for almost a month due to the largest network hack in history, and responded by throwing users an old video game and then subsequently taking away their right to class-action lawsuits in the future. Let’s just say I’m not on the “celebrate Sony” train.
With that said, they could not have given a better E3 performance. The games they showed off were varied and interesting. They showed that there’s still some hope left for fans of Japanese gamers, while subsequently giving the struggling Square-Enix a shot in the arm. Of particular note to me was that Sony did not feel the need to have outside performers pantomiming through scripted banter or wearing catchy hashtags on their shirts. One section showed off a bunch of independent developers actually playing their games on stage (which, I remind, are all self-published, another shot at Microsoft). It was a simple point: there’s no bullshit here, no need for pomp and circumstance. We’re going to let our games speak for us, and while we’re at it, that now-compulsory PlayStation Plus, which was already worth the money, is going to become that much better, and give you more free games. You’re welcome.
Naturally, what most people care about is the end, where Sony announced it was doing exactly the opposite of what Microsoft was doing, and for $100 less at that. We’ll likely never truly know when those decisions were made or how we got to that point, but it’s rare that a company not only dos all of the right things, but then continues to back them up. While all of this was going on, a cheeky video made the rounds showing off how to share a game on the PS4, simultaneously making Microsoft look bad while lending credence to the notion that everything on the Xbox One is needlessly complex for no other reason than to make it complex. It doesn’t acknowledge the reality that digital ownership is going to become more ubiquitous, allowing the market to render the notion of “used games” obsolete, but it didn’t have to; Sony made a nice stand for the modern gamer while not actually changing even one of the many complaints we had in the last generation.
In terms of “winning” E3, Sony didn’t win it so much as Microsoft lost it, then pulled down their pants and crapped on themselves while crying. However, that doesn’t mean Sony didn’t do a bang-up job of presenting their new system, presenting the games that will be on the system, and reversing a lot of the consumer backlash they’ve experienced over the past few years. It might be cynical, and they might back out on some of these policies the way they did on OtherOS, but what matters now is that consumers now have a definite “other side” in the fight against the Xbox One.
FINAL SCORE: A-
1 – That same report also told me that Donald Duck was a government plot to subjugate America through pro-American propaganda. Maybe I should have taken that source with a grain of salt.
2 – Yes, I know the big publishers gave talks. I don’t give a crap about them because honestly, the AAA market is dying and their time in the sun is dying with it.
3 – Ooooh! Ooooh! I got a new one! Microsoft has stated that anyone purchasing an Xbox One – which I remind everyone, has a TOS that permits its super robot brain to record everything the user does and says, explicitly says that the user has no right to privacy, and is made by the company who was the first to capitulate to the PRISM program and allow the government direct access to their servers – waives their right to file a class-action lawsuit, and must solve disputes in the heavily stacked process that is arbitration.