You might expect a story about video gaming circa ’98 to be horribly out of date, considering the electron-quick pace of change in the industry. Indeed, most the titles referenced here seem quaint (except for one massive title), and the two companies whose reps I talked with are out of business. (CyberFlix, a gaming company that vowed to create movie-like adventures with RPG elements, only had one solid hit: Titanic: Adventure Out of Time; and the entire universe of Voodoo graphics-chip acceleration went kaput along with 3Dfx.) But the issues raised here haven’t changed: What makes for good gameplay, and why can’t designers figure it out before heaping on the graphics?
First published June 11, 1998
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I’m standing in a pit of angry nerds.
We’re wedged together shoulder to shoulder in one corner of the cavernous Nintendo pavilion, waiting for the giant Pokémon Pikachu to belch forth its treasures. My compatriots shuffle in place, muttering impatiently to each other, clutching their plastic bags full of swag, eyeing their digital watches. “When’s it gonna start?” one demands. The inference is implicit: There’s so much else to do here. All around us, video monitors expel a multicolored miasma of bug-eyed creatures, attacking spaceships, and violent explosions–each accompanied by the thunderous, soul-shaking din of amplified destruction and thumping soundtracks. Hundreds of other geeks stand mesmerized at the game stations, controllers in hand, driving, shooting, jumping, running, flying, swimming, hitting…And here we are, just standing around.
Suddenly, a dry ice fog curls its way around us, a tinkly theme song blares over the P.A., and Pikachu comes to life. Its cute cartoon eyes glow, its plastic yellow skin lights up, and the huge red-lipped mouth begins to move.
“It’s Pokémon!” a female cartoon voice declares. “Catch ’em if you can!”
And then, BERRRAP!, dozens of Pokémon toys explode from its gaping mouth, raining free plastic crap onto the ravenous crowd. Hundreds of hands shoot into the air, vainly grasping at the packages as they descend onto the floor. The hundred-odd geeks then dive as one to the carpet, scrambling to snag a tiny Pokémon doll. Pokémon, by the way, is a Game Boy game that hasn’t even been released in the U.S. yet, and Pikachu is its most popular character. Never mind–this is FREE, and it could be collectible if the thing becomes a hit like it is in Japan.
Finally, as the blood scent fades from their fevered brains, the boy-men pick themselves up off the floor and make their way back to the video stations. Their typical uniform consists of patchy facial hair, pale complexions, and gaming-company T-shirts–the older the shirt, the more respect is commanded (the oldest I spot is an Atari shirt of early ’80s vintage). Sleek blonde models attired in silvery Nintendo team jackets await them, ready to answer their questions and smile sweetly, looking for all the world like pert Pan Am stewardesses from 1962.
Truly, this is a geek wonderland: unlimited video games, hot babes, and rock ’n’ roll. In fact, 70,000 of these professional nerds have congregated here at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) from around the globe, breathing in the sweet euphoria of their favorite pastime as EMF radiation tingles in the smoky air, reveling in the white noise of pixilated adventure roaring overhead. For these four days in May at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, geeks rule the world, their every whim catered to by large, multinational corporations. For it is in their twitching thumbs that billions of dollars are to be made; their reactions to this glimpse into the near-future of video gaming will supposedly decide fortunes, help determine winners from losers, and foster growth in the $5.6 billion video game software industry.
But I’ve got to wonder: Are any of these games really fun?
This is my mission: To find a new video game I can love. And at E3, there are plenty to choose from; approximately 1,600 titles from 440 exhibitors are being demonstrated in 534,000 net square feet of exhibit and meeting room space. This would be the equivalent of 35 football fields, every inch of it bleating, screaming, and rocking to techno metal soundtracks. These are the games to be released in the coming year, particularly during the crucial holiday shopping season when the major video game companies duke it out on a variety of gaming platforms to rake in Christmas cash.
Many a hard-core video game geek would pay high dollar to be allowed entrance into this legendary Mecca of digital excess; but this convention is for professional geeks only–developers, retailers, publishers, programmers, marketers, and the media. No one under 18 is allowed in, and plastic ID cards are brandished around necks like badges of protection. With my “MEDIA” credentials dangling, I feel as if I’ve been anointed with the keys to the kingdom–with but a glimpse at my ID card, company moguls will surely be handing over stacks of their games for my review. Would it be out of the question to pick up a free Playstation or Nintendo 64? Some peripherals, perhaps? I look forward to backing my car up to the gate and opening the trunk.
I soon discover, however, that as far as small potatoes go, I am but a French fried crumb. Here, the media big dogs go by the names of Next Generation, PC Gamer, Electronic Entertainment Monthly, Gamefan, Gamers’ Republic, etc. My badge does little more than allow me to wait in many different lines to briefly play the latest in video game design, titles like Metal Gear Solid, Diablo II, The Legend of Zelda, Rogue Squadron, Trespasser, and, most ubiquitously, Space Bunnies Must Die. Space Bunnies Must Die is everywhere, its posters of a gun-wielding, pig-tailed babette adhering to every available surface in the World Congress Center. I follow the trail of come-ons to the Panasonic section for a demonstration–who is this intergalactic valley girl, and what is a space bunny? What I find is a Vegas showgirl act.
On a small stage, three women do a ’60s-style go-go girl routine, bumping and grinding to “These Boots (Are Made For Walking)” by Loretta Lynn (I guess they couldn’t afford the Nancy Sinatra version). The trio is led by a pig-tailed babette not unlike the one illustrated on the aforementioned posters. Attired in a pink halter top and skintight capri pants, she rallies the crowd of geeks into a froth of expectation, promising them photo-ops and autographs–and, oh yeah, the game is also available for demo. The crowd surges forward.
As the girls are lobbied for camera poses, I make my way to a station and start playing the much-vaunted game. It’s another in the “Hot Babe in Tight Clothing Who Kills Stuff” genre, begun by the multi-million-selling Tomb Raider, starring the ruthlessly sexy Lara Croft. Since its runaway success with love-starved fanboys (and the one or two girls who like to blow things up, too), the HBITCWKS genre has become as standard in the video game firmament as the “Drive a Futuristic Tank and Shoot Stuff” or the “Drive a Race Car and Wreck Stuff” genres. In this case, main character Allison must battle mutant alien bunnies bent on usurping the Earth. It’s all efficiently executed, with clean 3D graphics, decent lighting effects, and a variety of weapons and creatures. But it doesn’t exactly captivate–everything about it seems too familiar.
I have little doubt that Space Bunnies Must Die will be a success, though; its marketers have latched onto an industry truism: If you market the hell out of it, they will come. It doesn’t especially matter that you’re selling old goods; just give it a new label and come up with a hip ad campaign that GOES TO THE EXTREME so it’ll grab the teenyboppers’ attention.
Unfortunately, as the industry grows ever larger and more and more games are released, the concept of gameplay is becoming progressively diluted. From a gamemaker’s perspective, this is probably due to players becoming increasingly jaded by the sheer number of games out there–they’re less impressed by new titles than they used to be. From a player’s perspective, this is because while there are more games to buy, they’re becoming overly similar as well–gamemakers may be larding on the cool graphics, but they aren’t coming up with too many new ideas. For instance, as I play Vigilante 8, a Playstation game in which you drive a modified school bus and shoot everything in your path, my interest level wanes by the second. Once you get over the novelty of directing a big yellow school bus equipped with guided missiles, you realize you’ve already hit the apex of its gaming experience. It’s just like its predecessors Twisted Metal or Interstate ’76, but slightly different. Is this enough to keep our attention?
I ponder this question as I walk through the east wing of the Center, which is slightly quieter, devoted to smaller software companies and peripheral equipment makers. I nearly collide with no less than Dave Whittle, online editor for Voodoo magazine, which reviews PC games that are compatible with the 3Dfx graphics accelerator. Dave is a first-generation video game geek like I am, weaned on Donkey Kong and Pacman. I ask him about my graphics vs. gameplay dilemma–what grabs him most?
“I’ll have to admit, the initial appeal is the graphics,” he concedes. “The graphics of a game is what makes me sit down and spend some time with it. It’s also got to be easy and intuitive to control so I don’t really have to think about how to play it. But the most important quality of a game is the ‘immersion’ level…how much does the game draw me into its world? Do I stay up past my bedtime to solve that frustrating level? Do I lean to the left of the monitor to get a better view around the corner of a wall in the game? Do I go to bed at night and the characters in the game haunt my dreams? Sad but true, these are the things that happen to gamers who are involved in a really immersive game.”
This is the experience we geeks are all trying to relive every time we try a new game–to not simply blow things up, but to fall into a video game’s universe. It doesn’t have to be a particularly large or complicated one, or even a literal world–the meditative objective of Tetris, for example, is simply to match up colored blocks; but it’s extremely captivating in its pureness of form. Other classics like Doom or Myst suck you into artfully mapped worlds you haven’t seen before–even though their individual goals are complete opposites. What’s important is a sense of discovery, whether it’s a role playing game or an arcade shooter–there must be a feeling of anticipation. What’s coming next?
I try to work up a little anticipation playing some other new titles: Tomorrow Never Dies, a recreation of the latest James Bond movie; Rebel Squadron, a Star Wars spin-off; Mission: Impossible, another movie tie-in; Dark Side of the Moon, one of those much-dreaded full-motion video games that “play like a movie.” All of them are well-done variations on old gaming themes–some of them quite fun, in fact. If I had more time to play, I might form some personal relationships with a few of them. But not too many seem readily immersive like the classic video games of yore–Asteroids, Centipede, Galaga, Defender, et al. Even though the programmers of 15 years ago had comparatively minute amounts of processing power and memory to work with, they nevertheless managed to continually come up with fresh concepts that demanded your quarters. Why not now?
To get a game company’s perspective, I confer with Rand Cabus, propaganda minister for CyberFlix, which is at E3 demonstrating its unique pirate adventure game, Redjack: Revenge of the Brethren. What impresses him most at the trade show?
“How much money is spent,” he says. “Not that I am really impressed, just in awe. It’s HUGE. It’s becoming more Hollywood and less creative or original. Unfortunately, no real new trends emerged as far as game design is concerned, except that no new trends emerged for another year. The only trend that continues to grow is more violence, more violence, and more violence.
“More chances were taken in the ‘old’ days, just a mere four years ago. New games are technological marvels with incredible graphics and 3D stereo sound, but their game design has not changed much. Just new twists–albeit some good ones–on old concepts.”
Speaking of old concepts–very old ones–a swing into the Hasbro Interactive section does reveal a growing trend in the video game wars: updating classic titles with ’90s graphics. Hasbro has in fact licensed Atari’s most famous games and is in the process of remaking them. Right now I’m struggling with Frogger, trying to get the newly 3D toad across superhighways without having him squished into froggy mush. It is at once familiar and…not quite the same. The controls aren’t very precise and the graphics don’t exactly intrigue. It feels more like an effort to cash in on a classic title than any kind of reborn gameplay. If you’re looking for a true nostalgic rush, you’re much better off downloading the Multi-Arcade Machine Emulator off the Internet and playing the actual games.
Feeling somewhat defeated, I begin my circuitous route to the exit, bombs exploding to my left and right, powered by 300 megahertz Pentium IIs. I recall the first time I discovered video games, down at the Southfield (Mich.) Civic Center snack shop, somewhere back in the misty ‘70s–it was a brand new Pong cocktail table model. Being a pinball aficionado, I was leery of the strange device at first, but soon found myself spending hours bopping that little glowing ball back and forth, quarter after quarter. Thankfully, I somehow avoided becoming a juvenile delinquent and have been shamelessly playing ever since. And it appears I won’t stop, despite age, jadedness, and an inability to get too excited by bikini girls with machine guns.
For some reason, I decide to take one last walk through the Nintendo arena (a.k.a., The House That Mario Built) before leaving. Perhaps it’s a last-ditch attempt at redeeming my video game enthusiasm after being pummeled for an entire day. And it’s there I take a longer look at The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, a game designed by the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto. It certainly looks cool, with lush graphics and a certain feeling that there might be a surprise around the next corner…who knows what kind of wonders it might have? Secretly, deep inside, I can’t wait to find out.
E3 2005: After the Party
First posted May 23, 2005
Amid the din of exploding bombs and high-pitched screams, they poured onto the staging area like an unrelenting army, one by one. Just when you thought the invasion had stopped, another combatant would suddenly appear from the wings and dash into the swirl of smoke and flashing lights. And then… they attacked: Thrusting their pelvises in unison to the hella-loud club beats, they brandished their booties like weapons, slaying quivering game geeks in a merciless onslaught of bare female skin.
The thousand-strong assemblage of male nerds didn’t stand a chance in the face of those 12 Namco Girls. All thoughts of Katamari, Soul Calibur, and (yes) even Pac-Man evaporated in an instant as Nicki, Vanessa, Menina and the other sweating girls engaged in the kind of aerobic dance routines that you’ll find in Vegas gentlemen’s clubs. But don’t think for a moment that it’s unusual for a video game publisher to employ scores of semi-naked hotties to deliver its marketing message. With very few exceptions, just about every major exhibitor at the 2005 Electronic Entertainment Expo peddled its wares with T&A—disguising the lack of verifiably original games with (literally) smoke and mirrors.
I suppose it sounds like prudish whining to point this out, but things have certainly changed since the first time I attended an E3 convention seven years ago. Way back then, the Lara Croft impersonator’s short-shorts were considered to be pushing the envelope of risqué marketing. The 2005 edition was a veritable wall of smooth flesh: thongs, bikinis, lingerie, spandex, and those painfully tight micro-shorts that are low in the front and high in the back. With all the guys spending most of their time drooling over the booth babes, who had a chance to notice how little gaming innovation was being put on display?
E3 is now all about the spectacle that is E3, and that means: 1. Booth babes, 2. Stage shows, 3. Grandiose pavilions, 4. Schmoozing, and, in last place, 5. Video games. For industry professionals, E3 has become a global media event for crowing about how big the video game biz has grown. For gamers, E3 is a mixed blessing: initial excitement over the sheer number of new titles being announced, quickly followed by the inevitable let-down over how derivative most of them are.
Of course, E3 2005 will be remembered most for the Big Three console announcements, so new hardware was the main event. After Microsoft’s dubious unveiling of the Xbox 360 on a schlocky MTV special, it really needed to wow attendees with some big news or amazing demos. It didn’t. Thus, Sony swooped in with its usual promises of amazing graphical prowess (remember how the Emotion Engine was going to deliver movie-like graphics?) and seemingly too-good-to-be-true tech demos. Poor old Microsoft tried to “keep it real” by actually offering playable games using less powerful alpha-kit hardware, while Sony delivered pie-in-the-sky footage simulating what players might see some day. All Nintendo could unveil was an empty box, albeit a sleek one. Guess which company won the hearts and minds of hopeful gamers.
So what about those next-generation game titles? With all the massive power provided by the upcoming consoles, how are designers unleashing their creativity? Based on what I saw at E3, they’re making their games look prettier. Otherwise, it would appear as if the first round of next-gen titles will all be very, very familiar. That means: Futuristic Shooters (Gears of War, Perfect Dark Zero, Huxley), Grand Theft Auto Imitations (Saint’s Row), World War II Shooters (Call of Duty 2, The Outfit), Movie Adaptations (King Kong, Scarface, The Godfather, Dirty Harry), and Resident Evil Imitations (Condemned: Criminal Origins, Possession). Then there are the latest sequels to Metal Gear Solid, Madden Football, Splinter Cell, Tomb Raider, Ghost Recon, Project Gotham Racing, Need for Speed, Tony Hawk, Quake, etc.
Am I happy to have games like these with sharper, more detailed graphics than the current generation of consoles can muster? You bet. Frankly, I love Futuristic Shooters, so bring on the massive particle effects, I say. But did my eyeballs explode out my skull in excitement at the mere sight of these titles being demoed? Nope. (I must admit to feeling a strong tingling of excitement when I saw the Killzone 2 footage—the graphics were so next-next-gen that they were an attraction in themselves. But based on Sony’s record in this regard, I’m going to keep my giddy anticipation at bay until some lucky writer files a hands-on preview verifying all the graphical goodness.)
So once you get past the eye candy (both virtual and physical), here’s where the E3 let-down kicks in: When you realize that most every new title unveiled here will take you to the same worlds you visited in previous years. These games may provide much-improved experiences, but they’ll nevertheless be well-known ones. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, and companies understand that gamers will more readily buy into franchises, so that’s what they give them—it’s good business sense. But it’s also a creative dead-end that one could see on the horizon at this year’s convention despite the dancing girls and all the buzz over new hardware. Although I can’t claim to have witnessed every new game at E3 firsthand (can any mortal human?), there was but one title that appeared truly unique to my eyes: Will Wright’s Spore, a strategy game in which you evolve from an amoeba to a space explorer. Will it be fun? It’s too soon to tell, but it’ll sure as hell be intriguing to see if he can pull off such a daring concept. And how often can we say that about other game designers these days?
I hope E3 2006 will be a different story, that designers for the next-gen consoles will conquer their graphics fetish and move on to allocating more resources to new gaming concepts, smarter AI, and stories that relate genuine emotions. Conceivably, the new consoles should empower game studios to take their craft into the realm of art—which would be an achievement worth celebrating even more so than growing profits and entertainment market share.