E3 2011 Wrap Up
Monday, June 13, 2011
The Electronic Entertainment Expo once again rolled into Los Angeles last week. For many this is the gaming mecca as the top developers are showing off their progress on future game releases. For those in the industry it's also a rare event where many of the companies you would like to work for all swim around in the same pool for a week. It's also a good opportunity to examine modern and future trends in technology and interactive entertainment.
The gaming industry has been transforming and evolving a great deal over the last decade. Budgets are now hitting 1 to 25 million fairly regularly and can soar even higher on larger franchises. Better graphics, more audio content, more advanced game engines equals more art assets which equals more talented artists, programmers, animators, modelers, lighters, riggers, texture painters, etc... Which means larger studios and longer development times. On average most games are developed in 1 to 5 years, but there's a few titles out there that have taken much longer than that. Gaming is now real big business and studios have had to adapt to this concept. Nowadays, since technology has been catching up in gaming, it's pretty typical to see top level VFX artists from the motion picture industry working in gaming and vice versa. It's been interesting seeing how that growth has revealed similarities and differences in projects in both industries.
On a personal level, when I was younger and much more of an avid gamer, E3 was like a giant candy store. Colorful and tasty stuff could be found everywhere. As my career progressed from a gamer to a working artist I treated it much more like a networking resource. I remember so clearly hustling my business cards and folios around the show floor. Meeting up with other artists just starting out and sketching in front of the West Hall. Meeting many pioneering minds and nerding out with them. Good times. Different times.
E3 has certainly transformed much since then. It appears to be more media driven. Which is great for gamers everywhere as they now get unprecedented access to unreleased titles and the developers behind the games. It's both bigger and smaller at the same time. These days it's still a networking resource for sure, especially this year for me. But it's also an opportunity to say hello to friends you've made along the way. Often I only get to see these individuals once or twice a year (because they are so busy making games). Like all aspects of entertainment, these artists put in long hours and long weeks to produce a high quality product at the end of the road. Even the simplest games represent a great deal of passion and sacrifice to get a project realized. When I was younger playing Street Fighter or Super Mario Brothers I never really thought of that. After over a decade in entertainment production and post production VFX however, I'm acutely aware of those concepts :)
As I mentioned earlier, as the technology evolves, there's a larger need for talented creative technical artists as well as higher quality assets. Detailed and accurately shot texture, modeling, and animations reference. Spherical high dynamic range imaging for light probes or lighting reference. Shooting promotional graphics and behind the scenes content. Lots of imagery that ends up in and outside of the game. This is the kind of content that's slowly been seeping into the games field from the motion picture industry over the last decade. What's really interesting is now both industries are pushing graphics to new heights and seeing how they implement the material which often times calls for creating new technology to be developed along the way. Advancement, growth, and adaptation are the signs of successful developers and often where the most exciting content is birthed from.
Here are a few things that caught my eye this year at E3.
This year what I noticed more than previous years was the focus on the immersive realistic gaming experience. Many titles showed a great deal of effort put into their almost photo real graphics. Most notable was Battlefield 3 from Electronic Arts. Instantly within the first few seconds of playing you are quickly dropped into the Iran-Iraq border with your five man squad and you begin to feel you are pretty much right there with them. The visuals pumped out by the Frostbite 2 engine from DICE and it's use of dynamic global illumination with exceptionally smooth ANT animation tech really blow you away. In the demo I experienced you were placed in a full on siege with a deployment of tanks with a mission to take out a specific compound in the desert. The combined effect of the graphics with extremely impressive audio queues makes you quickly forget your playing a game. You really feel every shell blast and get into the intensity of the moment. Hats off the the development team for their efforts. Visually speaking industry wide this is a technological milestone.
On the somewhat realistic, but slightly more stylized front were a few games that focus more on a cinematic storytelling experience. This visual style has been evolving recently and rapidly with previous success from franchises like Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil, and the Uncharted series. Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception from Naughty Dog really provides an impressive adventure film experience and feel. Filled with more intense moments, a quick wit, and a high quality story with equal caliber voice acting; Uncharted 3 appears to successfully build on it's previous successes within the series. These games continue to raise the bar and really showcase what the Playstation 3 can do. Oddly however, I didn't seem to get the memo, but I counted no fewer than 6 titles that prominently featured ships, being on ships, or ships crashing at E3. Ships are the new black (thank you Metal Gear Solid 2), but I have to really give kudos to the Naughty Dog team as their swaying and rocking ship gameplay was clearly the most fun and well thought out.
One of the games that I was very surprised with and looks extremely promising is Crystal Dynamics new Tomb Raider. The series that really broke ground way back in the day of the first Playstation with their fantastic third-person shooter and puzzle solving gameplay. There have been many sequals at varying levels of success with the property. The popularity of the games and the feature films based on the franchise have really made fans wonder where they can take Lara Croft next. Within the same ballpark of Uncharted 3 gameplay and a bit of the Resident Evil 4 puzzle/survival/action the new Tomb Raider looks to show you a very different Lara Croft. The game sets Lara at the younger age of 21, to show you where it all began. And it looks like Crystal Dynamics is pulling out all of the stops by creating a much grittier, tougher, much more bruised up version of Lara. The general darker art direction is highly effective as you are experiencing Lara getting hurt, stumbling on small obstacles, and fighting off badies while an expressive and reactive voice acting performance from an as of yet unnamed actress convinces you that a real person is on this adventure. This should provide a unique level of attachment for players as they will be experiencing what Lara experiences. There's a lot to be excited about the new survival adventure direction and a great deal of potential for the final game in 2012. Already from the previews and promo graphics we can see that a new combat system and aiming mechanic is on the way. There's a lot pressure on this one for the Crystal Dynamics team, but so far I really like what I see.
Not every game focused on reality or a cinematic feel. Rayman Origins from Ubi Soft featured gorgeous 2D animation presented in a 2.5D world which really impressed gamers with it's strange comedic charm. One extremely stylized game that stood out for me was Journey for the Playstation Network. Journey is attempting to follow That Game Company's success with off the path titles like flOw and flower, which have really won over gamers with their approachable gameplay and unique visual style. Journey is going to be focusing on much more strange and introspective concepts as you exist only as a "cloth creature" in a large world where seemingly your only goal is that mountain with the light shooting out from the top. There's no dialog. You can indeed play with other players as they will inhabit the same world and call out to you. Apparently the team at That Game Company took a trip to the Pismo Dunes and were largely inspired by the landscape, a place that I myself have been to many times. It's all been very cryptic from what I've seen, but I do think that Journey will explore some very interesting concepts like solitude and bonding in ways that many games today don't present. There's going to be a real focus on letting gamers discover this world, it's history, and their role in the whole thing on their own through exploration. There likely won't be any "answers" given in the game, and even after completion the player will probably have more questions. I think the developers are after exactly this. The art direction is minimalistic and there's a real focus on color palettes and mood. I'm a sucker for titles like this and can't wait for it to be released towards year's end.
On the guilty pleasures front there are many titles that I've been looking out for. Duke Nukem Forever is finally going to be a reality after 10 years of development. Id's Rage, which has been in development for 7 years is also coming out in the Fall. Gears of War 3 was also at the show and will be released in September. Ubisoft has been knocking my socks off for a while now with Assassins Creed franchise and it looks like Assassins Creed Revelations is about to do that again. With the new implementation of a new hookblade to help with whizzing by the world below and the added bomb weapons; the series looks as fresh as ever. The compelling storyline of Ezio and Altair as well as Desmond, who's currently stuck in the Animus, look to not only further the intrigue but also conclude several storylines. Strangely whenever I visit the farmers market I have weird flashes of myself walking through the crowds, pushing people out of the way, hoping to avoid the attention of the Templars. This game I believe is a direct cause of this and this condition should have an official medical name.
Twisted Metal is back and on the PS3 for the first time. I can't even explain how happy this makes me. The team at Eat Sleep Play looks like they really fleshed out the gameplay and story of many of the characters in the series. The revamped style really looks like it's building on what made TMI and TM2 so great. The overall game from the demos also just seems to be a richer experience with insane boss fights and apparently you can swap out drivers in vehicles. Reinventing the game that revolutionized car combat games has had to be an extreme challenge. I'm a little surprised Sony didn't feature and highlight Twisted Metal more at E3 as it was playable and had some of the most entertaining gameplay and visuals at the entire convention.
I also have a real warm place in my heart for anything zombie related (my birthday is next month friends). And while a few titles at E3 this year focused on are blood thirsty undead buddies, none impressed me more than Dead Island from Techland. This game definitely pays homage to the tone of 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, and Dawn of the Dead. It would appear the game provides the same survival story style that I adore about those films. There looks to be an impressive story with multiple characters that develop as the game moves forward. What I like the most about Dead Island is the variety of zombies. There are many different types that vary in speed and strength. You have to plan out your combat/survival situations to accommodate for this, which is a nice change up to the normal hack and slash mentality of a lot of zombie games. This may end up being mandatory playing (for educational purposes) while we wait for the Zombie Apocalypse. I know I've got my survival suit ready.
Wii U? No, no, no. Ling.
On the new hardware front Nintendo announced their new system at E3 this year. It's their first official HD console and sports a large 6.2 inch touchscreen on the main controller. An interesting idea. Nintendo demoed a lot of concepts where the user would interact with the controller's screen and the television to produce a new game play experience. Like swinging over a golf ball on the controller and viewing your struck ball traveling on the main screen. Very original with lots of potential. Especially for first party titles. However, it will be interesting to see how third party developers embrace this concept as no other system does anything like this. This particular above controller was tethered to lovely girl working the Nintendo booth. She could not confirm or deny if she would come included with the standard system. The Wii U is coming at a good time in the industry. Sony's PS4 and Microsoft's next console efforts will likely not be out for two or three years. So with Nintendo finally stepping into next gen by partially skipping next gen, they can get a good jump on next next gen with there next next gen system. If that makes any sense. It's going to be a graphically impressive system no matter what the case and with the combination of a unique interface there's a lot to be excited about there. Innovation and experimentation in this case peaked my interest.
Another interesting hardware release is Sony's PSVita or Vita. With both front and rear cameras, a front multi-touch touchscreen and a rear multi-touch pad, dual analog sticks, a reasonable price tag, with six-axis sensors to boot there's a lot for developers and gamers to get excited about. It will certainly be the first handheld unit capable of graphics at this level. There's currently no HDMI out on the unit, but I imagine after so many people being critical about that post E3 there might be a motivated effort to add that to the hardware in some capacity. The Vita will be coming to the market at a time where we are saturated with mobile devices that multitask as phones, eReaders, and can play games. Luckily for Sony none of these multitaskers have yet to be stellar mobile gaming systems.
That's my little wrap up from E3 this year. Lots of meetings, lot's of talking, lot's of walking. A lot of titles to be excited about and many that I didn't mention here. It was good to get my hands on some new devices and games. Some of these titles won't even be done by next year's E3, but its often nice to get a preview of things to come and see where all of this going.
Below are a few other images from E3 2011