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Saturday
May132006

E3 2006 Report

Last year's E3 was probably the worst I've ever seen, so I was reduced to giving out backhanded put-down awards. This year, I only have genuine good things to say.

Best Game of the Show: Spore.
Spore is really on another level from everything else. The high concept looks like it's starting to gel into a cohesive experience. There are 6 different phases of the game, each one of increasing scale. Each phase has it's own editor. If I remember right, the 6 phases are cellular, creature, tribal, city, civilization, and space. The transitions between these modes are looking seamless and great, especially the transition of zooming out from the surface of a planet to seeing the whole planet and rotating it around, and the transition of flying around in space and landing on a planet and going to the surface view.

Spore showed off an even better looking creature editor than ever this year, and a new twist on the "sporepedia" that's basically a pokemon-style catalog of which creatures/buildings/whatever you've seen so far. You can click on any item in there (such as a creature) to see a trading card of that thing. They said you can print out the card and maybe play a trading card game based on the creatures (wow, I'd love to design that for them, hehe). Also, every item is labeled with the name of the person who made it. When you make a creature, it gets uploaded to Maxis's master database and other players can see that same creature (or building or whatever) in their world. You can also see how other creations by a creator you like, and you can see how many other players have seen or used your creations.

Spore is an amazing thing both technically and conceptually. It's a game that can only exist when the following 3 things collide: 1) the extremely unusual intelligence of a game designer who looks mostly outside the game industry for inspiration (go Will Wright!), 2) a team of great, solid people to support him and and believe in him because of past success (Sim City, The Sims), and 3) the infinite resources of EA, both in terms of money and in the power to contact any expert in any field that Will needs to talk to. A Magnum Opus game like Spore might a one-time event in our lifetimes.

Best Action Games: God of War 2 and Heavenly Sword.
Two wins for Sony, here. God of War 2 has great graphics for a PS2 game, and the same deep understanding of visceral gameplay and well-timed combat as ever. If it weren't for Spore, this might be this year's Game of the Year.

Heavenly Sword has amazing graphics. It's one of the best looking games at the show for sure. It also seems to have a handle on good combat, partly because it's a blatant copy of God of War (it should be called Goddess of War) and partly because the game's combat designer admitted that his he has a good background in playing Virtua Fighter and an even better grounding in Street Fighter. Considering God of Wars combat designers are also veterain Street Fighter players, it seems foolish for any game company to invest millions of dollars in a melee combat game without hiring expert Street Fighter players to guide it. Yes, I'm serious.

Best Peripheral Game: Eye of Judgment
Yeah Guitar Heroes 2 is nice. No one cares about PSP peripherals. But Sony did get on my radar again with this "enhanced reality" card game. Contrary to popular belief, it does NOT use the EyeToy. It will use a proprietary camera that will ship with the game, and that camera doesn't even have an actual product name yet.

In Eye of Judgment, the camera points downward at a game board with 9 squares. The squares start unowned by any player, and the first player to own 5 of the 9 squares wins the game. You place physical cards on the board (kinda like Pokemon cards). They represent monsters that will fight for you. The novelty is that when you look at the TV screen, you you can see that the cards are summoning 3D monsters that sit on top of the cards. The 3D monsters fight each other, adding a lot of flashiness to the card game genre.

The technology was a bit buggy, but that's understandable for an early prototype. Also, all those flashy monsters interactions took waaaaaay too long. The game itself looks like it's shaping up not to be fun. I would love to design a game for that system if I were in any position to do so, but I'm not. "Enhanced Reality" games like this could be a big new category someday, though.

Best Presenter: The Girl Who Gave The Spore Demo I Saw
I don't know who she was, but she was one of the best presenters of anything I've seen in a long time. She was a blonde woman with a ponytail and a chisled, pretty face. She had a thorough understanding of what she was presenting, was clear and articulate, and had to roll with the punches in a very unpredictable demo that involves interacting with AI that has emergent behavior. She was able to deliver a whole lot of information in a very short time without it seeming rushed. Whoever she is, I hope her boss sees this.

Best Proof of Concept for Why the Nintendo Wii Will Reach a New Market: Nintendo Sorts: Tennis
The tennis game used no buttons. You flick the controller up to toss the ball up so you can serve. You swing the controller to hit the ball. That's it. If you swing in a wimpy way, you'll get a very weak stroke. You have to really put some effort into it and move around. Everyone I saw play this game understood it immediately and had fun.

Interlude about the Wii
Note that I played the following Wii games: Tennis, Wario Ware, Pointing Demo: Shooting (aka Duck Hunt), Dragon Ball Z, Metroid Prime, Zelda.

Wario Ware is great (as is every version of that game) and I'd definitely buy it. The duck hunt demo illustrated using the device as a precise pointer. Pointing and shooting large baloons is easy, and aiming at tiny targets is pretty hard, for human reasons more than software reasons. Dragon Ball Z seemed overly designed with confusing controls, just like always. Metroid Prime illustrates that a solid first person shooter is possible. After having actually played it, I can say that it has a pretty good interface that could perhaps rival mouse and keyboard. I was personally clumsy at it though, and people who aren't "core gamers" are going to have just as difficult a time coordinating one thumbstick and one freehand controller as they would with a dual analog. Metroid is very good, but it's a gamers game. Moving the Zelda character through the world is just as easy as any other game that uses a fixed camera angles and a single analog stick (aka: easy). The various free-hand actions and weapons/combat were all implemented well. It will of course sell 10 zillion units.

Most Crowded Booth of Anything Ever at Any E3: Nintendo
I have never seen anything like the mob scene at Nintendo. Lines for DS games like the New Super Mario Brothers and Starfox were pretty damn long. The line to get INTO the area with the Wii was absurd, with something like a 2 hour wait. On thursday, Nintendo closed the line at about 1:30pm becaus they already reached capacity. I was there on Friday, and inside the Wii area (after the crazy line), every station had massive lines. Nearly an hour wait each for Metroid and Zelda, and at least 10 minutes for most other games, probably more. The sheer number of people in and around Nintendo's booth and in the many and various lines was just staggering. It was pretty clear who owned the show.

Also of note: the total number of PSPs I saw in use by actual real people (not paid workers) was ONE. That's right, in 3 days of being on the show floor almost all day, I saw one. One of my friends saw 3 PSPs in that time and another saw zero. Meanwhile, the number of Nintendo DS's was too large to even count, certainly in excess of 100. Every line at E3 seemed to feature multiple people with DS's. Some joined in impromptu games of Mario Kart, several were playing Brain Age, a few were playing Tetris, and some used the Picto-chat to communicate with each other on the very noisy show floor where cell phone reception is spotty at best. I guess a 100:1 ratio of DS's to PSPs is a pretty interesting indicator of the state of the industry.

Oh, that reminds me:
Award for the Games I Will Actually Spend the Most Time Playing: Brain Age 2 DS and Clubhouse Games DS.
These are two unassuming little titles. The new Brain Age is even better than the last, and I'm sure I'll mess around with it quite a bit. Clubhouse games has 38(!!) games on one cart, that I counted at least. Half are card games such as poker, hearts, and rummy. The others are various board games such as chess and backgammon, and there's also random stuff like darts and bowling on there too. I'd probably buy it for chess alone, so I consider the other 37 games to be a bonus. There's a difference between flashy games that look good at E3 and the games I'll actually spend time playing. I'm sure I'll end up pouring hours into both of these games.

MMOs: There were a lot of MMOs. They all seem to involve aiming a reticule, which means I have zero interest in them. Guild Wars builds on it's very strong base of good ideas with even more new good ideas, more classes, more pve missions and story, and more pvp game modes. It reamains in my mind a "theoretically wonderful game." It has the exact same interface problems as it had ever since the alpha test: interface. It's still too interested in making me click-to-move even when I supposedly turn that off. It's still too awkward to pivot the camera without affecting my character's movement. When you click on an NPC or PC, you still get that totally ugly rectangle with only a name in it, instead of something reasonable like a nice border and a portrait. Guild Wars **NEEDS** to drop whatever it's doing and give me UI that functions like World of Warcraft. That is it's number 1 problem, and I wish that would be solved and announced so I can get on with actually buying it and playing it.

And finally: Game that Will Make the Most Money: World of Warcraft: Burning Crusade
Although it has a great art style (much better art direction than Guild Wars), World of Warcraft looks technically dated compared to every other MMO at E3. The expansion will have two new races (who cares?), level cap increased from 60 - 70, flying mounts (at 70), jewelcrafting and socketed items. It also will probably have tons of new raid content and more half-hearted attempts at small group and solo content that will ultimately keep the game focused on it's current elitist group-only time-ocracy mentality. I *want* to be this game's biggest spokesperson, if it would only stop mimicing EQ, embrace the concept of inclusiveness for all (skilled players and time-sinkers alike, solo and small group players and raids alike), and stop treating the player base overly aggressive Terms of Service.

Anyway, I just wanted to remind everyone that it doesn't matter that World of Warcrft is looking graphically worse than its competitors. It doesnt' matter that it can't show much of anything flashy gameplay-wise at E3. It's well crafted, it's addictive, and it's has fun locked up in it, and it will sell. The power of Warcraft will go toe-to-toe with Halo 3 and GTA. Blizzard please come back to us and stick with the original promises the game made during beta.

Final Summary:

  • Nintendo owned the show.
  • Sony had a few very strong titles, but the PSP is looking shaky. The $600 price tag is mostly irrelevant anyway because they'll only have 2 million units available (if that) by the holidays, so only that hardest hardcores will get one then, and after that the price will drop.
  • Microsoft didn't have much of anything inspiring to show, but Gears of Wars looks great of course. Halo 3 and GTA will make tons of money, and Xbox Live is still the best online experience in town. Also, Xbox 360 will probably reach 8 or 10 million units before PS3 even *launches* so Microsoft is doing just fine...but we didn't need to go to E3 to figure that out.

Long report, but I hope you find it useful.

--Sirlin

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