Sunday, June 16, 2013

E3 2013 Impressions, Part I: Sony wins the show before it even begins.

It happened around 10:00am local time on Monday, June 10th. Microsoft was wrapping up its keynote press conference showing off an impressive lineup of games, explaining the features of their new console, the Xbox One, and overall putting on a decent show. They didn’t directly address the biggest gripes among the gaming press and public at large; it has to be connected to the internet at nearly all times, trading games was in a defacto state of not being allowed, and Kinect was integrated in the system. Out of sight, out of mind….

…well then came the price tag: $500.

Many of the industry people I spoke with (not associated with Microsoft) the night before the press conference was guessing the system would launch with a $400 price point. It made sense due to the face that Microsoft could afford staking a loss on each console, if they made up with it in games and other parts of the company.

Sony’s presser was yet 6 hours away, so they had sometime to plan a response. Sony was worried, however, that even though Xbox had run through some negative press in the three weeks since the Xbox One was announced, they could save themselves and swoop in with a low price and kill off any planned momentum Sony could get this time around.

Instead, Microsoft handed Sony a gift. $499 gave Sony the perfect opportunity to speak directly concerning the gamers’ gripes and slide in at a lower price point.

I was lucky enough to be in attendance for the Sony Press Conference. On the bus ride over to USC, there were some media people behind me reciting the IGN story that there were going to be three PS4 SKU’s with tiered pricing going from $399-599. There wouldn’t be any announcement about DRM because there were going to be some DRM policies in place, and that we may not even see the console that night. Even when I was seated, the talk was still about what can Sony do to win the day. “Well, they can’t possibly be cheaper than Xbox so they’re going to have to show some killer games”.

The conference started out talking about Vita games and games currently slated for Playstation 3. Now, I’m a Vita owner and really enjoy playing it, but I honestly was tuned out for that part, because everyone wanted to see what the PS4 looked like – even most of the Sony people I spoke with hadn’t even seen it.

The PS4 reveal was done poorly, in my opinion. They showed this short video that showed the console at the wrong angles; it honestly looked like an Xbox with a blue ring. It was also presented from the side, which made it look like a rhombus as opposed to the front resembling a blade. The air was kind of sucked out of the room, as people wasn’t sure what to think.

The Walking Dead on Vita. See, it isn't that difficult.
As the conference chugged on, (and I’m trying to be polite—but it chugged), we saw some of the video features that no one seemed to care about (Flixter), we saw some indie developers, which was impressive, but I’m still of the opinion that ALL INDIE GAMES SHOULD BE ON THE VITA. Other than Jack Tretton, there really weren’t many dynamic speakers on stage, and I could sense that there was a serious lull in the air, especially when the Assassin’s Creed IV Demo froze up and got cut off.

However, they really did save the best for last; a 5-10 minute live Multiplayer demo of Destiny (which looks amazing), followed by the announcement of the price. Before that, Jack wanted to take a second to cater to the audience – PS4 would not restrict game sharing. It would not have to be constantly connected to the internet. They would support rental and used games (much to Gamefly and Gamestop’s joy). And, they would retail at $399.

Boom. Mic dropped. Don’t forget to tip the waitress. Try the veal.

Those that were following the action on twitter, media, went nuts. Applauses erupted from the arena. I thought the guys sitting next to me were going to start crying. The rallying cry on Social Media was “cancel your XBONE preorder; go with Playstation 4”.

Microsoft is fucked. They don’t understand why, and I don’t understand that at all.

There is a fierce loyalty among the gaming community and I think Xbox and Sony took that for granted; the problem is that Sony learned that the hard way last time around and made up for it; Microsoft is just now learning that lesson within the last 48 hours. Gamers don’t want to hear what you can’t do with your “All in One” uber console. I don’t trade games in, I have my Xbox connected to the internet at nearly all times. I’ve been a faithful Xbox guy for the last 10 years, despite dealing with a few hardware failures. However, when you go out of your way to lock people out of playing games or acquiring games the way they want to play or buy, you are alienating the consumer. You especially look bad when your biggest competitor swoops right in and tells the gamers “Do what you want and do it for 80% of the price”.

At that point, your loyalty means nothing.

I get a lot of my games from either Amazon or Gamefly. If I can’t use Gamefly, I either have to dump them or dump Xbox One. Many other gamers are in my shoes—they rent games, buy them used, or trade new games in. They are going to jump like rats off the ship if Microsoft doesn’t do something.

What is more disturbing is they should have seen this coming. I saw it coming and I don’t work for Microsoft. They should have known that Sony would be willing to undercut them. Having Titanfall be an Xbox Exclusive isn’t going to drive people in droves to the console the way Halo did in 2001. These consoles are virtually the same—they pretty much do the same thing. Microsoft thinks that the integration of Kinect, along with a strong exclusive game lineup would be that which the gaming public was looking for….

It isn’t.

Microsoft should have ditched Kinect completely. While the concept has potential, it isn’t new. It is also costing Xbox because its mandatory inclusion in the system is driving the price.  Developers aren’t falling over themselves to include Kinect in their games, and  many of the hard core gamers find it irrelevant now and will be a bigger nuisance when they have to (HAVE TO) set it up with their new system.

Team Xbox has five months to sort this out. They can roll back their DRM policies and their always online connectivity. They can reduce the price of the console and sell it at a loss. However, they don’t seem to be getting it--in light of the last two days, have come out and said “if you can’t have your Xbox One connected at all times, just buy a 360”. These statements just insult the intelligence of the consumers and are only driving them into the arms of their biggest competitor, who are more than willing to accept them and their market share.

You just made Jack Tretton a man of the people, Microsoft. Think about that. The ball is now in your court. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

An Outsider’s Guide to E3 2013.

Every June, the gaming world descends on one central locale (usually Los Angeles) for the Electronic Entertainment Expo. While, an industry trade show among many throughout the year, E3 seems to be the placeholder as the premier event for breaking gaming news, premier announcements, and industry mingling. The show is usually covered by a cable outlet (in years past it was G4, but now it is Spike TV), and every major gaming publication/website. Gamers around the world tune in to check out the latest news on upcoming games, behind the scenes, and sneak previews.

For as much attention this E3 gets, there has always been this thing about actually attending the event; unless you work in the game industry or game media, you can’t do it.  Bob who sells insurance and plays games can’t go. Dave with his start up commentary blog can’t go, and even Jim who has a blog with some provable credibility can’t go unless he is willing to shell out big time coin for a pass, hotel, accommodations.  The peasants among the devoted gaming collective are reduced to seeing Morgan Webb, Jessica Chobot, Major Nelson, et. al indirectly rubbing your face in the fact that they are at the premier gaming event of the year, and you’re not.

I have never worked directly in the gaming industry; I worked in retail for a few years at a Mom-and-Pop video game store, a toy store that sold games, and a Brick and Mortar store that sells games both new and used games. That is the breadth of my industry involvement, and that was 9 years ago. Since then I’ve been involved in Community Non-Profit, and this year just started in the Mortgage Industry…

…and for the last two years, I’ve attended E3. 

This may come off as a humble brag, but I’ve been fortunate enough to attend E3 and not be subtle about my posing as an outsider. Multiple times I fielded questions like “so what do you do at Sony?”, “How long have you been at Sega?”, “Are you an Amazon buyer, too?”. Each time, I have to sheepishly explain that I’m not of their ilk and they kind of nod and politely head off into another conversation’s direction.

So how do I pull of going to the most widely covered gaming event in the country when I wasn’t invited? Well, what I’m about to tell you are some observations on the show, how I managed to get in to it, and what goes on a bit behind the scenes. There will be no names associated with this, because these people while they should be recognized for their genuine kindness, also went out on a limb to give me a chance to share in the experience.

How does one get into E3? Simple: have some really fucking cool friends. I am fortunate to have friends that work in the industry; first party (Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft), third party (Accessory companies, Sega, Warner Interactive). I met them initially through working at the retail level, but grew my friendships through gaming, networking, and knowing associations. This was one time a year all of them would be in the same place; and both years one of them were able to pull strings and get me an affiliate pass; which meant I was put on a list as being credentialed, and given access to attend the show. These people are first rate; I was able to stay one a hotel room with one of them, they were kind enough to pick up my meals and drinks, and they were able to give me some behind the scenes access to VIP areas. E3 is a work trip for them; they meet with buyers, and retailers, developers, engineers, and producers. They have a passion for games – and for putting out good games. I’m really fortunate to get the opportunity to spend some quality time with them all in one place.

Now that I’ve stroked their egos plenty, here’s a little info about the show itself. First off, you’d think there was this Jets vs. Sharks routine between the heavy hitters – Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. At the highest level, there is extreme competition; however, beyond the executive levels, everyone is pretty friendly. All three major companies shared the same hotel – The JW Marriott at LA Live in Downtown Los Angeles. The lower bar and lounge area was frequently packed with people from all different companies, talking light shop, but more importantly, trying to determine whose tab they were going to tie their drinks onto.

There is also an interesting dichotomy among those that work at these companies. The higher you go up the ladder, the less it seems that these guys actually care about the games. They seem to be more interested in how to maximize returns on investment. I get that to a certain extent; if gamers ran game companies, they would all go out of business. Even some of the buyers I met didn’t seem to be that interested in gaming; some of them didn’t really know much about them other than through sales forecasts and previous year numbers.

I saw the most passion was among those that were testers, creative directors, producers, and sales guys. I was able to have dinner with a group of people from Microsoft my first night in town along with a Senior Producer at a company that does mobile games. These people were the front line workers of the show; giving demos, answering questions, promoting their products. They loved to play; all throughout our three-hour dinner, I was able to sit back and observe them talk about past projects, current projects, and what they were looking forward to at the show. They had the job that all gamers wanted but few understood the actual work involved in the process. They weren’t programmers or coders, or mo cap models, or voice actors.

E3 itself, while an industry only event (save for a few posers), could really stand to be more selective about its attendees. The LA Convention Center is huge, but the place is still very claustrophobic when 75,000 of the unwashed masses descend upon the two exhibition halls. All badges aren’t alike; there are badges for Media only, there are some for VIP media, which allows you access outside of the show hours (which is Tuesday--noon-6pm, Wednesday – 10am-6pm, Thursday—10am-5pm), Exhibitors badges which also allow access outside of show floor times, and Exhibits only badges which only allow access during floor times.

The majority of attendees have either the Exhibits only or Media badges, which create a bit of a mess when the doors open for the day. Everyone masses in front of the main doors to each respective hall, while the pros seek out the side entrances with minimal lines. One the
show floor opens, people immediately rush to the games either they want to see the most, or whatever booth is giving out free stuff. If you give out a T-shirt, automatic 2 hour line. If you’re a hot game doing a live demo—automatic 3 hour line. If you’re Disney and you’re giving out a one of a kind trinket—FOUR. HOUR. LINE.

Look, I’m a sucker as much as the next guy for free shit, but nothing is worth waiting in excess of 2 hours to see/play/get a free shirt. My advice is first day, see everything; day two, be willing to wait for something only if it is really cool, and you’re able to play it. Be prepared to be let down for a lot of companies (Bethesda) like to show things behind closed doors only to VIP media or buyers. Don’t waste your day looking at a 20 minute trailer of Destiny. You’re going to buy the game, regardless, and you’ll be able to buy a Tshirt somewhere down the road.
Another tip is that you’ll want to dress comfortable. Those that are there for work will wear a sport coat, button up shirt, nice jeans or slacks, and dress shoes. You’re going to be on your feet for 5-7 hours – wear nice shoes. Also, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the concept of Los Angeles weather, but wear shorts and a light shirt. The convention halls are kept at a pretty cool temperature, but you’re still going to sweat.

Pack light; there really is no reason to be toting around your tablet, laptop, sleeping back, 3DS, etc. The wifi at the LACC sucks, and you’re only going to be weighed down. Nice camera, phone, that’s it. Speaking of phones…

…bring multiple batteries, or a mobile charger. This is a shameless plug (no pun intended), but this iSound portable charger was a savior last year and this year for those who have Android phones that don’t like to last long snapping pictures and uploading them to Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc.

It is okay to wear an ironic shirt or video game shirt, but try to be unique. I went with my N7 shirt yesterday thinking I was going to be all cool; well it isn’t cool once you’ve passed the 300th person wearing something N7. Today I went with a shirt featuring Pam Poovey from Archer (via Teefury), and that was a much better decision. If you’re going out at night, then you can change into a collared shirt. During the show, keep it casual -- just don’t be a furry. If you attend E3 and you’re dressed as some kind of elf or Pokemon character, or for God’s sake wear something Brony related, you will draw my ire and immediately not be taken seriously.

Food wise, food trucks are the way to go as the sandwiches and drinks inside will run you a small fortune. There are quite a few food trucks camped out in the side entrances between the South and West halls. Don’t spend 45 minutes waiting at Starbucks. If you need a drink, hit a vending machine.

Make sure you’re getting sleep. I live in the Midwest, therefore my body is 2 hours ahead of local time, therefore I was always mega tired. You don’t want to be that guy that taps out at 10:30 because you’ve been on your feet all day, your eating schedule is all fucked up, and it is 12:30am in your internal chronometer, so try and get plenty of rest.

I am really not the world’s biggest drinker. I’ve had to pace myself at the bars and lounges at night. Usually, someone has an open tab going and people just attach their drinks to that tab. I’d love to see the faces of the accounts people at Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo when they are try to reconcile $25,000 (that’s a VERY conservative estimate) in alcohol and food expenses over three days among their staff members. Drinks costs at the JW Marriott were obscene. I saw three drinks – a mixed drink, a glass of champagne, and a beer—go for $45. You can try and be courteous and order a soda to temper costs and your impending hangover, but it will be met with some ridicule. Still, go easy on the drinks for yourself and your friends.

One cheesy thing I’ve done the last two years is to buy an E3 logo’d T-shirt. This year’s selection wasn’t as good as last year’s but it is something cool to bring back and show your friends that yes, you were that guy that got to go to E3 and they weren’t. You are the guy that has the good friends willing to hook you up, and all they have are you willing to tell them what they were missing out on. Maybe, one day, they can be that cool, too.

Lord Bling's Ouya Unboxing Video

He shut up and gave them his money. Let's see how it pays off.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

This is what Battlefield 3 has been reduced to...

Ok, let's backtrack a bit.

A few months ago, I took a new job. Total career change, total commute change, total leap of faith. I went from being in an office 30 hours or so a week to 50 hours a week. Naturally, that allocation of time and energy meant less time for goofing around on the video game console.

There are a lot of things coming up in the next few weeks. E3 is on the immediate horizon, which should at least reveal a lot of questions we have about the two new consoles coming this fall/winter. There should be new games to explore and new technologies to embrace, but let us look back at one of the games of yesteryear that occupied most of our time:

Battlefield 3.

This game is a conundrum; we have a love/hate relationship with it. Love because it is probably the best shooter of its kind currently out there and hate because it should have been a lot better and better designed. A few months back, bored of the repetitive malaise of bullet lag, hiding through walls, and over powered weapons, we decided to keep things interesting by attempting stunts. Below is what came of that night:

Desperate to re-create that, we tried it again last night, only it took quite a while to re-create that allure of fun and humor through repetitive failure. There are a few other stunts we tried other than the one seen above, but that just didn't quite live up to it. As Sgt. Angry put it; "we tried to recreate the epic party, which evolved organically, and now we're just making shit".

Eventually we went back to the well and tried this again, with everyone in party pulling off the stunt (yours truly making it on my last attempt, after all the capture devices were turned off). However, if this is really the only way we can squeeze a few ounces of fun out of one of the better games of the past year, then I'm not sure how much optimism I should have for the games of the immediate future.