So this year I've actually followed the bulk of the E3 conferences. Its been an interesting experience, and maybe unsurprisingly I've had a few ideas regarding some announcements made, and reactions to those announcements. These are pretty rapid-fire thoughts, not refined or researched, but rather 'gut feelings' with about an hours' reflection time. The two things I'll talk about here are a general comment on the historical precession of the industry. There's been (as there always seems to be now) an overtone of disappointment, of questioning whether any of the big 3 are 'innovative enough' and why we just aren't surprised by their announcements at this year's E3. The second topic is more specific ideas on the Wii U.
How old were you, dear reader, when you were last really blown away by Nintendo? I was only about 13 or 14 when the N64 came out, and Mario 64 was genuinely awe-inspiring then. But now...? I spend a lot of time imagining what I want and predict next. Did we each, individually really do that ten, fifteen years ago? We certainly didn't have the internet fora to collaborate on our collective predictions to the same degree we do now. Following from that, how mature was the gaming journalism scene back then? I honestly don't know, as I wasn't involved in it even when this current generation of consoles was announced. It seems to me, however, that it is now virtually impossible to really keep a good secret, and further that no one will be able to make good guesses about what's around the corner in this industry at this point. We have too many smart people digging too hard not to come up with something. Further, the more we see technology converge, advances in Apple's hardware (for example) will inevitably impact on Nintendo's. I mean, we can see the iPhone in the PSVita as well--if it didn't have a touch screen, that would be the surprise! So I think this is one part personal maturation and two parts industrial wisdom/cynicism where we kind of already know the kinds of things to expect too well to be "blown away." The harder the vast range of game journalists try to get a scoop, get early information, find leaks and make predictions, the better the odds that we will never, ever be surprised by the announcements. We can't have it both ways!
Perhaps the analysis of these announcements, the lukewarm reaction many journalists are having (if they are honest and not hype-machines) is a kind of dirge for our innocence. When was the last time the king of innovative consumer technology Apple genuinely blew us away? Honestly, truly, with something unprecedented? Personally, their original iPod, iPhone and possibly the MacBook Air were the last products that were genuinely ground-breaking, rather than logical conclusions. (The Air is an obvious refinement of an ordinary laptop, but I personally rate it as a line in the sand, catch me if you can product that delivered on the core value of a portable computer.) Even the iPad is, really, just a big iPod Touch. And the iPod Touch is an iPod with a cool interface. You can connect all the dots between these products, whereas prior to the iPod, we (or maybe just I) would not have expected to have gigabytes of storage in our pockets with a headphone jack. Seriously, think about the other MP3 and MiniDisc players that were available at the time...
Ok on to the Wii U. Let's concentrate on hardcore (or at least, not casual) games for now. The U is putting a thing in the player's hands, as opposed to trying to make the controller disappear. Core gamers can hold a DualShock and forget they are holding anything at all. The WiiMote tried to give that experience to everyone, by making the controller intuitive. It worked, to an extent, but not perfectly or deeply. So the U is taking a different approach. By placing something in your hands that you will be required to look at a lot, you're having a more embodied experience. So you players will end up doing things like looking down at their hands for a map rather than pressing a button to bring the map up on the screen. This is not that different to holding a plastic guitar or sitting at a drum kit while playing Rock Band. Its not always a bad thing to be aware of your input device, if the experience is crafted around that fact.
So, the one that comes to my mind is LA Noire: the notebook could be displayed on the controller. Its a small thing, but it makes you the player, instead of Cole, look down at your notes. Further, if the resolution is high enough, you the player could make genuine notes yourself, using the stylus. I've wanted that sort of thing forever in complex games. FarCry 2 comes to mind as well, thinking of the map I mentioned above, but anything that asks you to believe that you're looking at a book, parchment, scroll or computer interface, from World of Warcraft's spell book to Bioshock's hacking game could all be displayed on this mini-screen. The Fallout 3 PipBoy could be shown entirely on the controller, for example.
One of the things I like about this idea is that you don't have to pause the game to look at your map, inventory, etc. It also means that the game won't necessarily pause to allow you to do so either! So more like the real world, you don't necessarily get to spend all the time you like looking at your map for a route to your objective, safe in the knowledge that no one will be sneaking up on you while you have your head down. But just as much, you aren't blocking your vision with a paper map or screen in front of your character's eyes, so maybe you'll see that attack coming. Again, I come back to that FarCry 2 map...
Perhaps the character has a scanning device, thermal camera or something similar, used to find hidden objects in the gameworld - think of Assassin's Creed's Eagle Vision. Use the controller. Hold it up to the screen and see a version of the gameworld through that camera which changes the colour palette, or whatever effect works for the game. Scan across your screen with the controller, and you'll only see the object you're meant to find on the controller, through its infra-red vision. Hell, it could even just stand in for binoculars! Another LA Noire inspired idea is to use the controller's gyroscopes to turn the objects Cole holds in his hands over and around, instead of a joystick. I found the joystick terribly unwieldy to use in this way, but a 1:1 rotation/movement using the controller as a stand-in for the photo, shoe, or tire iron would have worked a treat.
That's all for now. I may write some about the new PSVita, which I find fairly compelling if only for the reasonable price point. We'll see.