9 Hot E3 2017 Observations

 

  1. Though apparent at the time, it is now clear that the “indie” movement was co-opted by large companies such as Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft in an attempt to beat each other out in the recent console war. Few indie games were shown in press conferences – surprisingly, Microsoft did the best job (Ashen, Tacoma, Cuphead, The Last Night). I think Sony has given up on indies at E3 entirely. A handful of indie games were shown in the PC Gaming show, only to quickly cut to a minutes-long discussion of the latest gritty robot military hell shooter.
  2. However, the indie games shown often have a lot of work put into art style or are in being created by studios of 4-6+. Though showing these games is nice, it still sends a message that there is absolutely no place (in a big company’s marketing bandwidth) for games with extreme experimentalism or art styles that buck trends.
  3. Most AAA games are lost in a downward spiral of pursuing higher and higher fidelity graphics. Indie games, too… ! Endless multiplayer shooters with ‘photorealistic’ graphics, without any questioning from developers as to why this is a worthwhile at all goal. Likewise, games have difficulty keeping up with the huge art budgets, so it’s rare to find interesting art styles. There is a disturbing uniformity amongst the AAA announcements. This manifests itself in Japan as games with your generic Anime style or Shounen Manga JRPG Plot, or in US/Canada/Europe as Another Gray Shooter/Fucking Zombie Game.
  4. The VR evangelism is still strong from Sony and other companies, but outside of practical uses such as medicine and research, on the level of popular culture there are not many signs VR is amounting to much other than a toy for the well-off to play largely the same games, or a platform for art world artists to impress their art world critics and friends through their first steps into digital space.
    1. For the near future, I think VR will mostly be relegated to VR theaters or gallery spaces, or lower-end experiences such as Gear VR. I think this is fine as the means for the general public to engage with VR games/films/art/etc, but there should be lower financial/visual quality bars for artists/developers to meet to show their work. Forcing a creator to implicitly need to meet a sales bar will only hurt the quality of future work, or leave future VR work to those with the resources to create something popular/marketable.
  5. There is little interesting design or art direction experimentation in AAA. There are and always be interesting little touches, designs and polish to any AAA game worth ‘mining’ and using as influence, and many recent AAA games are fun and good, but overall things are more or less the same, with some progress here and there. Occasionally something *really* interesting pops up: the climbing in Breath of the Wild (in an otherwise average game), commanding your dog in The Last Guardian. Yes, Nintendo showed a lot of fun-looking stuff, but when you really look at it, there isn’t much fundamentally different in say, Kirby, Yoshi, or Mario, etc. Perhaps you change the way you collect the Green Goblets of Good or whatever, or you’re in Cookie Town instead of Castle Town, but things kind of feel the same.
    1. Perhaps the most depressing example of lack of design/art direction innovation are the constant HD remasters, such as the newly announced Shadow of the Colossus Remake, Mario Superstar Saga remakes, Metroid 2 remakes. While some games could desperately use design revamps and remasters, largely these feel like cash-ins that also operate under the false assumption that upgrading textures and graphics automatically improves a game. What would really be interesting would be to see remakes that don’t ‘upgrade’ the art stylebut still fix design problems. I think it is a fact that some older art styles, such as on the SNES or PSX, can create artistic themes other than nostalgia that are *impossible to create* through the pursuit of “HD”.
  6. It’s interesting to think about how as AAA companies move away from creating sequels or games in the style of what fans want (Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon, top-down SNES RPGs, Metroidvanias), we see indies coming in and creating these games that fans demand.  Games that satisfy these criteria can become immensely popular: Undertale for Earthbound, Stardew Valley for Harvest Moon, Ooblets for Pokemon/Animal Crossing, Tunic for 2D zelda, Hyper Light Drifter for SNES 2D action RPGs, Owlboy and many more for metroidvanias, etc. Often you will find a popular indie game satisfying a niche that AAA no longer creates for.
  7. Looking at all these E3 trailers, I still feel the pressure of games needing to look “Good” or “Polished”, and a focus on a game needing to be designed to create good ‘marketing fuel’ – being able to show well in short clips or what not, to have their premises easily and quickly digestible. This kind of competition and how fans engage and relate to the games creates an environment where it’s really hard for an experimental work to ‘make it’ – or even be seen, as it is drowned out by more popular-appeal games.
  8. This pressure to create a ‘marketing fuel’ game also inherently reduces the amount of risk-taking in the design process. You see the effects of this most prominently in AAA, but it’s pretty common in indie as well – most games you see might innovate in a few tiny ways, but are largely beholden to its predecessors it looks to improve on. I think it would help for new games to try and take larger ‘leaps’ from predecessors, rather than make a few improvements/innovations – to create something that cannot be easily defined as a mix of “X, Y, Z” – to create the anti-elevator pitch.
  9. The same goes with art styles – we have computers and can create literally any image on earth, but the range of art styles I see tend to feel frustratingly stuck in a small range of choices. I think it might help to view the art direction/style more as an Artistic Tool rather than a Marketing Tool.
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