E3 2017 Conference Review

E3 Conference ReviewSince 1995, E3 has always been about what’s next in gaming, computer graphics technology, and the opportunity to network with bonafide AAA gamemakers. This year, however, marks the first time the event opens its doors to the general public.

Since it was my first time attending, I assumed ridiculous, hours-long lines to play never-before-seen games is not normal. At least that was my impression when only a fraction of the packed venue at the NOVO raised their hands after Jack Black and Lucas Art’s, Tim Schaffer, asked who worked in the game industry, myself excluded.

I can recall playing my mom’s Atari 2600. Asking for permission to go to my friend’s house to check out Donkey Kong on his ColecoVision. But by the time I finished high school, my love for gaming faded, at least until I landed a few gigs working on marketing videos for SOCOM U.S. Navy Seals and later The Con. Today, the average gamer is in his or her 30s and the gaming industry in 2016 is projected to grow to $91 billion in revenue.

Narrative Storytelling Makes Games Like “Death Stranding” Stand Out

The event really took off when ex-Konami VP and video game legend Hideo Kojima took the stage. Expressing a deep love for filmmaking, he highlighted the works of Chaplin, Hitchcock, Kubrick, and Kurosawa as some of his favorite inspirations. Appropriately so, considering some of his most groundbreaking contributions include innovations in narrative storytelling, like character dialogue and a thrilling stealth game system.

Although he is most famous for his Metal Gear series, Kojima remains curious and excited to launch new games like ‘Death Stranding’ through his company Kojima Productions. By breaking the “rules = system = games” approach, he was able to create surreal and terrifying game style that with over 51 million+ copies of the MGS series sold to date has proven incredibly successful.

“District 9” Director Aims to Create a Collaborative, Creative Community

Next, we heard from District 9 and Elysium director Neill Blomkamp and his upcoming sci-fi short film RAKKA, starring Sigourney Weaver and produced through his new company Oats Studios. Blomkamp is attempting to redefined filmmaking by partnering up with the popular multi-player platform ‘Steam’ to not only show short films, but also provide direct downloads to his raw footage and all CG/game assets. The goal for Oats is to release five initial story-driven volumes for purchase via DLCs, and then let the creative community reinterpret his content in endless new storylines, games, and fan art. This revolutionary experiment essentially transforms a passive audience into a pro-active creative community.

VR Headsets and Games Still Strong Despite Kinect Sensor Technology

As far as cool gadgets are concerned, I was disappointed Microsoft made no mention of its Kinect sensor technology. Outside of open source and other independent third party development of Kinect tools, it seems like MS is abandoning the platform to focus on other more profitable ventures. This is very unfortunate for animators like myself who have grown to love all these peripherals have to offer in the world of motion capture, point cloud data, and face/hand gesture capture, since its original release almost 8 years ago.

Considering 2016 sales for VR headsets sold worldwide are estimated to be around 6.3 million units, I wasn’t surprised to see the large scale investment in games and hardware at the conference. But regardless if AAA companies continue to push games like DOOM, Fallout 4, Quake, Batman, and Star Trek: Bridge crew, I still feel the number of users will pale in comparison to the estimated 24 million Kinect sensors already sold to date because fewer people can afford the hardware required to enjoy the full experience. There are also technical limitations and user fatigue issues that still limit how long people can use the headset. To be honest, I was more impressed with Nintendo’s Switch platform than the release of classic titles in VR.

EA Takes Over Pre-Press Conferences

I devoted the first two days to the guest speakers, but the action really started with the pre-press conferences. This year EA kicked things off first on June 10, and aside from few awkward moments, EA continues to dominate the sports game category. Games like Madden NFL 18 feature Longshot, a new story mode similar to ‘FIFA, but still lack the ability to provide custom avatars. FIFA 18, on the other hand, doubles down on the Alex Hunter story mode, so if you are not familiar with this narrative, you will need to purchase the FIFA17 version to catch up.

The game also shows off EA’s Real Player Motion Technology, also available in games like NBA LIVE 18. The new OneMode in NBA 18 offers the option to play for the National League or on the streets, adding a whole new dimension to the experience. But EA covered more than just license exclusive sports games, Visceral Star Wars, one of the most anticipated titles was not mentioned at all, but instead, Star Wars Battlefront 2 took the spotlight with multiplayer features, and more content, (although no Droidekas!).

In this new version, the improved story mode bridges a 30-year gap between episodes 6 to 7 thanks to the addition of free DLCs that feature Planet Crait and both Captain Phasman and Finn. These characters will also include Star cards for customization and are timed to match the box office release of the movie, The Last Jedi, later this year. But it was, however, most exciting for me to learn about a co-op action-adventure game, A Way Out made by Hazelight studios, where the main characters Leo and Vince must work together to escape prison.

Bethesda Enters E-Sports Market

Bethesda also announced a collaboration with the Nintendo Switch via their most popular Zelda RPG, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim which is something really special since it plays just as good with conventional controllers as with the Nintendo joy-cons according to recent reviews. Other news includes Fallout 4 and Skyrim SE generated an astounding 300 million downloads from mods made by members of their Creation Club platform.

Microsoft hyped its Scorpio chip during the unveiling of their new Xbox One X console, and at $500 it brings 6 teraflops of processing power for serious uncompressed 4K gaming. Being the most expensive console in market, (double the price of the Xbox S and still $150 cheaper than the iPhone 7), the console has to compete with PC hardware.

Computer GPU cards can run between $600 – $2,000 but still they can’t match the real-time performance of rendering 3840×2160 at 60fps, making the console a lot more palpable. I admit I’m a sucker for cinematics, so I was blown away by the trailer for Forza 7 when shown on a quality screen. Imagine watching the best IMAX movie and then multiplying the quality by two.

Minecraft Takes and Educational Turn

Now let’s talk about Minecraft because I love this game! A VR version for Oculus and GearVR is now available, along with improvements in cross-compatibility and mass-multiplayer realms. Later this year, MS will be releasing an update of the game with 4K textures and support for High Dynamic Range to improve fidelity. After the bells and whistles came MinecraftEdu, a version of the game designed to help both educators and parents teach STEM principles, along with problem-solving and programming concepts.

It comes packed with familiar tools like red stone block circuitry and command blocks. This summer they have scheduled a free demo release focused around growing their existing user base of 7,000 classrooms across 40 countries. As someone who recently had the opportunity to use CodeKingdoms’ server-based mod building platform, I welcome the news with open arms.

Narrative Development Done Well

One of my personal highlights of the conference was the special attention given to storytelling and narrative development. Ubisoft showcased some beautiful games including, Far Cry 5: Hope County. Set in Montana, the game tells the story the Eden’s Gate cult. The goal of the game is to rally the locals to fight off the invading maniacs.

The new Assassin’s Creed Origins has been crafted as a historic replica of Egypt around 49B.C. Inside an open-world RPG, we follow our protagonist Bayek and learn about the beginning of the 2010 hit title Brotherhood. Ubisoft boasts it’s attention to authenticity through realistic environments and ethnically appropriate characters for the time and place. We can climb 90% of the environments and are able to follow Bayek’s eagle as if it were a drone camera, along with improved multiplayer PvP mechanics.

Another interesting game, Skull & Bones showed jaw-dropping graphics with a much darker photo-realistic tone, outfoxing the more cartoony title created by Microsoft and Rare named Sea of Thieves. From what I saw, other than just finding loot, shooting cannons and sailing around, rare attempts to keep things humorous by letting players eat bananas and get drunk. You can also load your character into a cannon and fire yourself across long distances including other ships, (very cool!). Both games approach multiplayer via a persistent-shared world game, but I feel unless you have 3 or more people in your team, the games can get boring fast. 

With 60 million PlayStation owners worldwide this was one of the most anticipated talks of the event, but unfortunately, as far as SONY’s exclusive titles, they will all be released in 2018. Featuring multiplayer improvements, a new story mode and stand alone DLCs for Uncharted and Horizon Zero Dawn, SONY is betting big on Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, by featuring female protagonists, Chloe Frazer and paramilitary mercenary sidekick, Narine Ross. This may explain why Naughty Dog decided to give Uncharted all of the attention and suppressed any mention of another popular title, The Last of Us 2.

But in my opinion, it was God of War that showed off the most amazing storyline focused around the main character, Krato’s son. As a dad myself, I really appreciate this new twist. Another big game reveal was Capcom’s Monster Hunter World which also looked amazing. I was lucky to witness one of the lead developers of the game play it for us and show off its improvements and many cool looking features. Being able to play with up to three other friends simultaneously via a drop in/out functionality that saves this game. 

A collaboration between SONY and Insomniac games, The Amazing Spider-Man also follows in the 4K trend. The game features a new nemesis, Martin Lee, a.k.a. Mr. Negative who changes the storyline into that of a turf war between him and the previous criminal kingpin Wilson Fisk. In some exciting twists, we get a preview of future Spider-Man, Miles Morales, and hints of a Green Goblin follow up. With a slew of new moves, improved web-slinging mechanics, never-before seen storylines, I was a bit bothered by the suit in the game not matching the one on the upcoming film!

Nintendo had the shortest of the press conferences, but it packed the best punch by announcing cross-platform collaborations with both Xbox and PS4 consoles. Specifically, Rocket League will be available for Switch, Xbox and PS4. In an attempt to avoid the mistakes of the WiiU, Nintendo is releasing many popular titles including, Xenoblade Chronicles, Kirby, Metroid, Zelda, a new Yoshi and of course, the Pokemon RPG! But it will be the Mario Odyssey scheduled for October 2017 that I think can make or break the success of this device.

E3 was an amazing experience that allowed me to catch up with the times making it well worth the effort. Seeing both the fans and the game companies under one roof was like going on a high-tech safari to witness wildlife in its natural habitat. I can’t wait until next year!

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