E3: There and back again
Other than the inevitable meetings, the thing I look for on the show floor is innovation. A couple of thoughts:
The graphics plateau will never be reached
People still get excited about graphics that are 2% more detailed than last year's graphics. It's an attitude promoted by the ultra hardcore. I live this technology and I can barely tell the difference between a gorgeous game like Shadow of the Colossus and a 'new' Xbox 360 title. Oh, there's 5 years technology difference? Who knew? The geeks know and they are still willing to use polygon count as a measurement for gaming goodness.
At first I cursed "You are focusing on graphics at the expense of gameplay! How can you be so blind." But then it occurred to me that something far more intriguing was happening here. For the hardcore, technology stats are a defining cultural badge. It is no longer about fun, sales, or profit. It is about belonging and exclusion of those who do not belong. Technology worship becomes a potent symbol of a gamer's tribal association. Even when games machines are indistinguishable to the human eye in graphic capabilities, the predominant gaming culture deems it emotionally important that a distinction must exist. How else will you tell who is elite and who is not? In terms of gameplay, it matters not one whit if the PS3 is more powerful than the XBOX 360. In order to win the allegiance of the hardcore opinion leaders, both companies must claim superiority.
Before I poo pooed the fixation on game graphics. Now I am waiting with great anticipation for the day someone comes out with a game console that builds a cult without relying on the current techno-fetish fanboys. If you can do it with meaningless polygons, you can do it with something equally abstract (iPod's style, Hollywood's glamour.) What will be the symbol of cultural identity that takes on the hardcore culture and unleashes a new way of defining the game market? Whoever figures this out will make billions.
Innovative games are jump started by controller innovations:
Say what you will about the DS. Percentage wise, it had the most innovative games of any platform. A surgery game where you make incisions and sew sutures? A puppy simulator where you talk to your pet? That's sweet innovation at work. I get the feeling that developers are frantically exploring the new interface of the DS and churning out dozens of core game mechanics.
Minigames are core game mechanics by another name
I've talked about core game mechanics quite a bit, but I've not mentioned mini-games. Warioware is a very informative library of core game mechanics. It has always struck me as such a blatant lesson in game design that I'm surprised at it's success as a product.
What is happening with the DS is worth watching by every game designer. Many DS games are still pure action / reward based core game play in the mode of Space Invaders or Pacman. People deem them primitive and they certainly are. However, these gameplay seeds will evolve rapidly and I wouldn't be the least surprised to find one or two major new game genres finding their birth place on the DS. We get to watch the path from Spacewars to Quake 4 happen on a new platform in front of our eyes. What a wonderful opportunity for the design community.