If you play computer games – either casually or more hardcore – then the past few days have been some of the most important for 2012 and the future.
Over in Los Angeles, the great and the good of the gaming industry – from publishers and developers to journalists and analysts – have been gathering for the E3 Expo.
It is here under one massive conference centre roof that all the latest games for the coming months are shown off to the assembled crowds, where all the big names in consoles – Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo – reveal their own hardware plans for the future.
This year it was all about Nintendo’s new Wii U console, with a revolutionary screen on the controller, and Microsoft’s SmartGlass service – software to allow gamers to use a smartphone or tablet as a second display for their Xbox 360.
But it has now been more than five years since the war between Sony PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii was at its height.
And as the popularity of app-based games on Apple’s iOS platform and Google’s mobile Android operating system continues to grow fast, many are asking whether console – and even PC – gaming still has the same relevance it once did.
In 2011, the video games market in the UK was worth £2.52bn, a whopping figure, but down 13% on the previous year. It also represented the third continuous year of decline from previous record-breaking figures of more than £4bn in 2008.
Sales of software last year was also down in Britain by seven per cent, with only console games on the Xbox 360 seeing any growth. High street chains such as GAME struggled too, failing to attract enough customers and ultimately closing some stores.
In America, many stock market analysts are now shying away from recommending investments in games industry shares while some experts already believe Nintendo’s new Wii U will fail to live up to the Japanese giant’s previous successes. They claim the changing appetite for cheaper, portable mobile-based titles across all generations will hit Nintendo, especially in its normally dominant younger and family market.
Games industry analyst Nicholas Lovell, of GamesBrief.com, believes the tablet and smartphone is increasingly making E3 irrelevant.
He said: “There was hardly any showing from tablet gaming. From smartphone gaming. From browser gaming. It’s not surprising – the participants in these subsegments of gaming don’t need to be at E3 to wow distributors, retailers and journalists. They are business-to-consumer companies who need to talk directly to their customers to make money, and for them the show was less relevant.
“EA has forecast how it thinks there will be a massive drop in AAA revenue on console in 2012/2013, and optimistically forecasts the industry will return to its 2008 peak by 2015. I think that is optimistic because of the narrow range of genres, the creative bankruptcy of the games on show, the lack of innovation and acceptance of the new world.”
He added: “E3 is about hardcore gamers. It is a show that has its genesis in the days when retailers needed to decide what games to stock for the Christmas season and hence publishers built a huge, bombastic, over the top marketing event to wow the handful of retail buyers who mattered. It has barely changed as the world changed.
“More than that, the big keynotes weren’t aimed at the E3 audience either. Microsoft was busy showing off its multimedia credentials – movies, music, television, etc – just as much as games. SmartGlass is as much about the potential threat from Apple TV as it is the threat from tablet gaming. Nintendo showed off the Wii U – a casual, family-oriented device – to the crowd attracted by booth babes and violence. Again the wrong audience.”
Seasoned UK games critic and broadcaster Johnny Minkley agreed. He said: “With no Apple, Google or Facebook, and limited space for smartphone and tablet content, how relevant E3 is in its current form is the bigger question. The LA show remains a major bellwether for the traditional console business and a focal point for hardcore gamers but with very few big surprises this year, the picture was one of a nervous industry caught in an uncertain transition.
“The ‘second screen’ was the defining trend of this year’s show. SmartGlass is Microsoft’s big idea and when Xbox boss Don Mattrick said it “turns any TV into a smart TV”, it was clear he’s more worried about rumours of an Apple TV than anything Sony or Nintendo is up to. Microsoft wants to ‘own’ the living room with Xbox, and that means music, TV, internet and movies – gaming is now only one part of that vision.”
But he added: “Sony’s key message, in stark contrast, was that there’s plenty of life left in PS3 for gamers – with neither PlayStation 4 or the next Xbox expected before late 2013. It backed that up with the strongest games content from any of the console makers.
“Wii U clearly has great potential, but Nintendo is finding it hard to explain how, so we’re left with glimpses, not guarantees. Above all, it desperately needs a ‘Wii Sports’ moment – the title that inspired the original Wii’s game-changing success. But with no clear sign of that yet, and with only six months to go until launch, that’s a real worry.”
However, opinion on E3 does remain divided. Graphics card manufacturer NVIDIA unsurprisingly maybe feels the current console woes now give the PC a new chance to shine.
Spokesman Ben Berraondo said: “If anything, this year’s E3 showed just how much appetite there is for cutting edge hardware to make games look amazing. All the latest games were shown running on the PC and that’s what the PC is right now; a glimpse into the future, unshackled by console ports and free to stretch it legs.”
Daniel Krupa, games writer at IGN UK, is one who believes E3 is still very much an important part of the gaming calendar, alongside its German and Tokyo equivalents.
He explained: “You might not find a wealth of innovation or a place where indie development is lovingly nurtured, but it’s still the place where the majority of triple-A, multi-million pound blockbuster games are unveiled or paraded in front of players.
“Of course, it’s becoming more difficult to keep things under wraps than ever before. Most of the major announcements of this year’s expo dribbled onto the internet in the week leading up to the event. But the reception of Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs – a brand new IP – proves that people who look towards E3 are still hungry for genuinely new games.
“I think the level of muted disappointment that was registered following this year’s major first-party press conferences highlights just how much anticipation is still stoked by E3. And it’s reaching a bigger, more mainstream audience than ever. For the first time this year, Microsoft streamed its presentation live across Xbox LIVE.”
Despite all the reservations, there was certainly no shortage of big name games winning plaudits at E3. Among those capturing the Best of E3 Editors’ Choice awards were the likes of Halo 4, Assassin’s Creed III, Star Wars 1313, Splinter Cell Blacklist and the aforementioned Watch Dogs.
And it is such a slew of top titles that heartens Ben Parfitt, editor of games industry trade magazine website MCVuk.com. He feels that while the lack of new hardware from Microsoft and Sony – the so-called Xbox 720 or PlayStation 4 – did leave the show devoid of some major excitement, the future for gamers is bright.
He said: “What evangelists of the ‘new’ games market forget is that the core games sector has been around for 30 years or more, and it’s not going away. While the pickings may be becoming slimmer, these fans still had plenty to sink their teeth into.
“Making the biggest splash was Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs. Even ignoring its fantastic visuals, the game has some great ideas and evokes a tremendous atmosphere. Sony’s Beyond: Two Souls, which comes from the makers of Heavy Rain, is another fascinating prospect. It promises an involving narrative presented with dramatic cinematic flair, and will be exclusive to PS3.
“There were also impressive demonstrations from Tomb Raider, Hitman: Absolution and Far Cry 3, all of which should see great success and mean that core games fans have plenty to look forward to.”