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AAA Publishers Balk While Indie Devs Rock At E3

Last Wednesday I made my annual pilgrimage to the Electronic Entertainment Expo to check out the new video games coming out this year. Okay, it wasn’t much of a pilgrimage; it was just a short subway ride from my work to the Los Angeles Convention Center, which has been the home to E3 almost every year since the trade show debuted in 1995. However, unlike many trips, it’s the destination and not the journey that matters, for E3 is like the video game industry Mecca, where publishers show off their upcoming releases to retailers and the gaming press.

Except that there seemed like a lot more elbow room in Mecca this year. Activision, Electronic Arts, and Wargaming were all no-shows this year, as was Disney, which is (once again) dropping out of video game publishing entirely. Whereas in previous years South Hall was jam-packed with ginormous booths numbing crowds with sensory overload, this year there were a lot of lounge area and recharging stations in the back of the hall. The reason: retail sales are losing their significance in an era of digital downloads, and there are now many more outlets for promoting games that through the gaming press.

For the publishers that did show up for the party, the games that they were promoting indicated that they were living in glory days of the past: Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Halo 2, Killer Instinct Season 3, Gears of War 4, Elder Scrolls 5, Civilization 6, Resident Evil 7, and Final Fantasy 15. Now, don’t get me wrong, I loves me some more Civilization and Deus Ex, but I would have liked to have seen something new at the show. The closest the AAA publishers had to anything innovative was in slapping virtual reality onto titles: Batman Arkham VR, Doom VR, Fallout VR Resident Evil VII Biohazard, Star Wars Battlefront: X-Wing VR Mission, and perhaps the best of the bunch, Star Trek: Bridge Crew VR. Now, these are all good indicators that consumer virtual reality will eventually go mainstream, but there was still no killer app that convinced me that I gotta have VR today.

Truth be told, I found the most interesting games not in the multi-million dollar AAA publisher booths, but in the modest IndieCade exhibit. Here are a few of the games that captured my imagination.

 

Beautiful Corner is indeed both beautiful and in a corner:the entire game played out in a small, fantastical bedroom. t has a set, and lights and sounds that react to the player’s progress. Two interactive puzzles are used to convey the narrative,a coming-of-age story that plays out through letters, trinkets and postcards from the player’s imaginary friend.  It’s moving and sweet, while commenting on the realities of growing up (or not).

The player assumes the identity of a specific character, and is given costuming and props. The player enters the set and explores both puzzles to see how the puzzles relates to the character they are playing. As the player plays through the two puzzles, the set reacts to their progress by lighting and music changes. The experience ends with the player being asked to make a narrative choice on the outcome of the story. After choosing, the player experiences one of two possible endings

Lead designer and artist Martzi Campos created the game as her Master’s thesis in the University of Southern California’s Interactive Media and Design track. Her goal was to create an emotional tone in an interactive space of something besides fear or panic. By creating a single player experience, Campos’ hope was to bring about a higher degree of roleplaying opportunities for the player, bridging the emotional tones of interactive theater with the gameplay of escape rooms and creating a hybrid that sets players up as the main character in their own interactive play.

 

Speaking of escape rooms, I was once hired to write an escape room scenario, and ever since then, I’ve toyed with the idea of creating an escape room in a box that could be sold in retailed stores, like those murder mystery party games. Well, as they say in this business, ideas are a dime a dozen but implementation is everything, and two women beat me to making the idea into a reality.

Ariel Rubin and Juliana Patel are the co-creators of Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment,  a tabletop gaming experience that crams together all the fun and social interaction of a party game, the event nature of a consumable game and the cooperative spirit and dramatic timed challenges of an escape room. You have 19 puzzles, 3 locks, and 1 hour to save your life! Doc Gnaw has sent you a mysterious box. When you open it, you release a poisonous vapor and need to solve her devious puzzles to unlock the antidote, or you will be forced to join her werewolf army.  Unlike boxed “murder mystery” games, Escape Room In A Box consists us to try to capture the physical nature of escape rooms and not have our game consists not of not just pen and paper puzzles but also diverse materials and hidden objects to capture the physical experience of real-life escape rooms.

This game grew out of the duo’s deep passion for escape rooms and at home game nights and their desire to bring them together in a completely new way.  Their initial plan is to sell their game at a real-life escape room locations, so that players have an opportunity to bring their experience home with them to play with their friends.  I just hope some smart retailers who appreciate the growing escape room craze will offer to carry this product on their shelves, because I would be just one of the first to buy one.

You can learn more here: http://www.escaperoominabox.com/.

 

A tabletop game can be a lot of fun, but how about a thousand?  PlayTable is a tabletop console system designed to let you play any number of board and card games without fiddling with rulebook and hour-long set-ups.  The system consists of a full-HD 1920x1080p monitor that’s impact-resistant and waterproof, software compatible with any Windows-based laptop (future compatibility with Mac and iOS), and a set of standard pieces, cards and stickers.  The system also comes with a recommendation engine allowing you out new games and find the perfect one for game night.  It even includes a construction kit allowing you to make your own games using your existing game and toy pieces such as Infinity, Skylanders, and Amiibo figurines.  However, at $599, the price of admission is steep.

You can find out more at http://playtable.xyz/.

 

Magic Dance Mirror is an interactive visual music and dance experience created by game developer Kinetic Magic, a seven-person team assembled by Game Director Kyle Ruddick. It uses a Kinect motion sensor to track player’s movement and create a stylized mirror image of those using it onto a giant screen filled with neon starbursts that reacted to their dancing.

The concept was inspired by Burning Man and the immersive art there.The goal is to primarily explore and let players’ own movements and sounds entertain them and spectators. The Magic Dance Mirror is designed to be fun for all ages and promote exercise and healthy self-expression.  Not a typical game in tat there is no way to “win” or “lose”, Magic Dance Mirror was built for clubs or large parties, but thankfully not to the home living room, where my spastic attempts at dancing would result in all my furniture being trashed.

You can learn more here: http://www.magicdancemirror.com/.

 

From time to time I get on my soap box and talk about the need for more female game developers, and so I was really pleased to come across an exhibit for the book #Feminism: A Nano Game Anthology.  Written by feminists from eleven different countries, #Feminism offers bite-sized takes on contemporary feminist issues. Each of the 34 analog nano-games (games that can be played in less than an hour, explained exhibitor Whitney “Strix” Beltrán) in this collection requires between three and five participants, and simple (if any) props.

The games range from silly to serious, including scenarios about selfies and rom-coms as well as reproductive rights and domestic violence. And of course, enjoyment has no ideological boundaries–there are games here for participants new to feminism as well as those experienced in making gender arguments on the internet.  The book is available for sale via Indie Press Revolution.

You can learn more at https://feministnanogames.wordpress.com/.

 

Virtual reality was as popular among the indie games as they were with the AAA games, but the experience that most captured my imagination was not a game at all. The Zeiss booth featured a pair of their VR One Plus virtual reality headsets controlling and receiving camera images from drone suspended from above. The headset could only control the camera (you would need a second person to control the drone’s flight), but with the very lightweight headset (essentially a pair of lenses on which you mount a smartphone running the virtual reality software) and heads-up display, I felt like Iron Man flying above the South Hall exhibits.

You can find out more at http://vrone.us/flyfpv.

 

Maybe the reason I didn’t describe too many video games is that it’s a sign the E3 organizers need to rethink what their show is all about.  Fun is fun no matter how you get it, and in a year when doing the same ole, same ole just isn’t cutting it, I’m tipping my hat to the innovators who are thinking outside the console box.

 

 

The PC Gaming Show Highlights Virtual Reality On “The Only True Democratic Gaming Platform”

Apparently writing this blog qualifies me to be a member of the game industry press. A couple of week ago I received a media invitation to attend The PC Gaming Show that was live streamed today from The Theater in Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, where I just happened to be working on a consulting gig about five blocks away.  So, I took an extended lunch hour to attend the event and bring back this report to you, my loyal readers.

The PC Gaming Show is the second annual event for video game developers, publishers, hardware companies, press and  fans during E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, which opens at the Los Angeles Convention Center tomorrow.  The event, a live-streamed on Twitch and YouTube Gaming, was created by PC Gamer magazine to shine a light on exciting, innovative and unconventional projects happening across the personal computer world.  The sponsors this year included AMD, Bohemia Interactive, Frontier Developments, Razer, and Tripwire Interactive, and it was the first time that the show was free and open to the public (which kind of diluted the coolness of my media invite).

The venue for the event was a delicately restored, 1,600-seat movie palace from the 1920s with a three-story, 2,300 square foot grand lobby, an ornate open balcony and mezzanine and a vaulted ceiling with thousands of tiny mirrors that glimmer when lit.  The theater is the flagship theater for the movie studio United Artists, and like many movie theaters, the seat rows sink in toward the front of the orchestra section, so ticket holders there must look up at the stage.  However, this time ticket holders were not to see a movie, but the latest in gaming for personal computers.

As a warm-up act before the show, there were AMD computers in the lobby set up for playing such games as open world military tactical shooter Arma III from Bohemia Interactive, space trading and combat simulator Elite: Dangerous from Frontier Development, and action-adventure stealth game Hitman from IO Interactive. I tried my hand at zombie apocalypse FPS Killer Floor 2 by Tripwire Interactive and was very please with myself for wiping out a legion of Zeds before it was time for the show to begin.

The 90-minute show (thankfully, an hour shorter than last year’s overlong show) opened with an on-stage shopping spree, “The Steam Speedrun presented by Razer,” where one lucky gamer had the chance to fill her Steam electronic shopping cart with as many games as possible in three minutes, all on Razer’s dime — $1152 worth of dimes, in fact — as well as a full set of Razer peripherals.  But she said her favorite catch was a copy of the new Doom from Bethesda Softworks (who says women don’t like to play FPS games?)

Next, Sean Plott, an e-sports commentator for StarCraft II and a former professional StarCraft: Brood War player who goes by the handle “Day[9]”, hosted mixture of screenings of the latest game trailers along with exclusive new footage, updated details on popular game franchises, and conversations with their developers on a set resembling a late night talk show. He’s a funny, charismatic guy whose voice reminds me of Jim Parsons from The Big Bang Theory.  Day[9] had good chemistry with a whirlwind of developers, many of whom wore rainbow ribbons in sympathy for the victims of the tragic Orlando shoots just the day before..

First up was Jesse Rapczak, cofounder of Studio Wildcard, to discuss Ark: Survival Evolved, an action-adventure survival game in which players can feed, tame and ride over sixty types of dinosaurs.  Players must gather resources to craft weapons and shelters for surviving in this primitive and dangerous environment.  The game blends cooperation between players and competition between groups.  Mods, Rapczak says, are also a big part of Ark, and the development team has already decided to use a community-made mod that minimizes technology and includes more resources for living off the land as an official mod for the game, which will be released at the end of the year.

Modding was also an important aspect of the next game, Mount and Blade II: Banner Lord, a stand-alone expansion pack developed by the Turkish company TaleWorlds Entertainment for publisher Paradox Interactive.  The expansion features a new multiplayer mode that allows for up to 250 players, split into two teams, to wage siege combat using catapults, ballistas, and battering rams without the RPG and map elements from the single-player mode.  Community manager Frank Elliot said that the fan community were an essential part of developing this “prequel” game, as the development team provided them with all the development tools needed to make mods.

Community-made mods was not the only feature discussed by PC game developers; virtual reality was another hot topics.  Advanced Micro Devices President and CEO Lisa Su came onstage to discuss all of the hardware her company is manufacturing to support vr in games.  AMD is angling to lower the cost of virtual reality, targeting the field with a new line of graphics hardware priced at $199—half or less the cost of comparable products. Su said the first chips based on its new Polaris design are expected to arrive in graphics cards for personal computers at the end of June. The company aims to help push the starting cost of PCs that can deliver VR experiences as low as $799 from above $1,000.  Su also showed off Alienware’ virtual reality backpack, which resembled something Tom Cruise might ware in a futuristic warfare film, designed in conjunction with Zero Latency’s free-roam multiplayer VR experience.  However, the device is still an early working concept that doesn’t even have a name as of now.

Virtual reality’s impact on gaming was demonstrated by Tripwire Interactive’s John Gibson. Although he initially came out to discuss Killing Floor 2 and its new features he was shortly joined by Anna Sweet of Oculus to announce that soon players will be able to blast open heads and scatter entrails in vr, courtesy of Killing Floor Incursion developed for the Oculus Touch, a a pair of controllers used for the Rift in selected VR games, and are mirrors of each other – one for each hand. They are lightweight, wireless handheld motion controllers featuring a joystick, buttons, and two triggers- one for grabbing and one for shooting or firing. The controllers are fully tracked in 3D space by the Constellation system, so that the user sees them in virtual reality responding to their real world counterpart, giving the user the sensation of their hands being present in the virtual space.

The show ended with legendary game producer Warren Spector coming on stage to support development for PC games.  He reminded the audience that all development work is done on PC’s, and that’s where innovation comes from.  Personal computers grow in capability as technology advances, and developers take advantage of that and the hardware’s open architecture.  Consoles may have consistent controls, but that’s also their weakness.  The core of PC gaming is its mouse and keyboard interface, giving players control that they can also customize.  It is, Spector says, the only truly democratic gaming platform.

Of course, there were many more games presented at the event, but unfortunately that’s all I have time to write about now — I have a trade show to see! But as someone who started his career developing PC games, it was exciting to “media representative” to this event, and while PC gaming has steadily been losing market share to consoles, online, and mobile, it’s a platform that’s still alive and kicking.