E3 2014 Notes and Commentary

June 19th, 2014

This video was too funny to pass up.

For the first time in a long time I was completely satisfied by the E3 showing this year. Loads of great games and plenty of innovation. After hours of reading, watching, and reflection, here are my main take aways from the show:

Presenting Gameplay

Video playthroughs focused on select portions of a game accompanied by developer commentary and gameplay trailers with few cuts are the best way to show off your gameplay to a new audience. Montages, CG trailers, early prototype video, and conceptual demos of the developers talking high concept just doesn’t cut it. Let the gameplay do the talking.

Between Nintendo’s Digital Event and the Treehouse Sessions, they covered these bases pretty well. However, the Treehouse videos were often drawn out due to the Japanese to English translation. Yes, I’m interested in Codename STEAM. No, I don’t have 45 minutes to sit through a slowly narrated playthrough with translation delays. Sony’s developer interviews were much more digestible at 10 minutes a piece, but they were too unfocused. Take this video of Hohokum for the PS4. After watching a 9-minute interview, I still have no idea what you do in this game. Start the interview with a short, elevator-pitch summary guys….geeze. The interviews are also inter-spliced with short snippets of trailer footage. It’s a good idea, but there’s not enough gameplay or context in the interviews to be constructive. Sony’s punchy length and Nintendo’s dictated playthroughs together would make a winning formula. Next year, guys.

The Conferences

If you stripped out all the CG trailers and meandering demos from the E3 conferences and replaced them with focused gameplay explanations, they’d be much more effective. I’m an E3 nut, but 1hr and a half of sizzle grows tiresome real quick.

It boggle the mind that Sony and Microsoft continue this pissing match of minor exclusivity. “Console debut”, “DLC first”, “it’s better on…”, “exclusive alpha version”, every time you hear these words—or in the case of self-apparent multiplatform titles, not hear—you know that it’s still a free kick to the other team.

Microsoft’s conference was basically a rehash of what they’ve been doing for the past 7 years: shooting, stabbing, and driving. I have no problem with these kinds of games, but there wasn’t anything genuinely new—unlike Titanfall

The start of Nintendo’s Digital Event was so refreshing especially after two marathon hours of self-important sizzle. It was funny too; I almost fell out of my seat. I also love the idea of Nintendo pushing back against the vocal minority of idiots in the Nintendo fan base. However, it was unfair of them to use Mother 3—a game which they can easily bring over to the virtual console.

Sony gave even more time than last year to indie games and it certainly injected a shot of dynamism into their showing. I’m not sure that Microsoft’s “we have 100s of these games” tactic is as effective as Sony’s curation approach. Giving these games a platform outside of a video montage and winning over some exclusivity on key titles is the best way to demonstrate commitment. That’s to say I think that players are more interested in playing the next great wave of indie games than having a large quantity of indie games to play. After all, we’ve all got PCs. In saying all this, though, maybe it’s just a consequence of the way Sony presented their indie game line up, but it was hard to see how these games were unique outside of their visual flair.

New Zelda

I was surprised that no one said that the new Zelda looks like Killer is Dead meets Skyward Sword. It totally does, right?

Nintendo say that the latest Zelda will be “open world”, but I wonder what that means exactly. Open world design works against the squeeze of gameplay, so I wonder how they’re going to pull it off while still maintaining the high level of gameplay quality that the Zelda series is known for. I guess A Link Between Worlds, which I have sitting on my 3DS SD card unplayed, will answer some of those questions for me. Whatever the case, I think it’ll take all the design ingenuity that Nintendo can muster to deliver on what Aonuma articulated during the digital event.

Splatoon

Splatoon was my game of the show. The genius behind this game makes my head spin. Territory control represented visually and organically as ink. Ink as a central dynamic that syncs into movement speed, traversal options, abilities, game flow and progression, and spatial dynamics. Ink as a solution to the issues inherent to gunplay (easy-to-see bullets that you can respond to, a weight dynamic to aiming, gyro to tune aiming, non-violent gunplay). Motion controls, touch screen controls, and traditional controller inputs. A reinvention of a well-worn genre. In terms of design, this is the most modern and sophisticated game I’ve seen in a long time.

I’m also surprised that no one said that Splatoon looks like a Sonic team game.

Odds and Ends

Yep. Very satisfied indeed. What did you most enjoy about the show? Let me know in the comments.

  • Steve Johnathan

    I like your take on E3. I wasn’t nearly as positive on Sony or Microsoft as you were. Project Spark looks like UGC crap and LittleBigPlanet 3 looks like they’re just throwing ideas around with little thought to platforming.

    Nintendo was the only one I watched live. They left out a lot of games in their digital event but that was probably to keep things short. Games like CodeName Steam and Devil’s Third are easy to miss if you don’t watch the treehouse.

    The only underwhelming games in the digital event were Yoshi’s Wooly World, X and Hyrule Warriors. X and Yoshi’s Wooly have the potential to be great. It would be embarrassing if they fuck up 2 Yoshi games. Hyrule Warriors though, I have no hope for. The treehouse did more of a disservice to that game than anything. I welcome an action-focused Zelda but they wasted the opportunity so they could make another shitty Musou game.

    Speaking of Zelda, Eiji talking about an “open world” Zelda kind of pissed me off. He starts by talking about how they began with older Zelda games as their focus and that this was something they’ve been wanting to do for a long time. What he’s talking about is, and I quote
    “In the earlier releases of Legend of Zelda games, players got to explore a wide area scrolling up, down, left and right”.

    What makes this quote so stupid is that he’s mistaking this aspect as something unique to these games and not the newer ones which is plain wrong. Wide areas where you can move in any direction are present in every zelda game. Every single fucking one of them. He then continues:
    “However, after the game transitioned to 3D and the hardware continued to evolve, it became harder to create that feel of being in a vast world. For example in Wind Waker, we used various techniques to create a wide world where you could freely explore many isolated islands but it was very hard to create one large world where everything felt connected. We had to design small bounded areas with a defined entrance and exit and putting them all together made it feel like you were playing in a large world but you still couldn’t cut through the boundaries wherever you would like to explore that world”.

    I really really hate this part. I hate how he’s obsessing over the “feel” of a “vast world”. It’s like he read that dumbass article. A “vast world” isn’t gameplay. Despite that Ocarina of Time’s Hyrule Field is a little on the sparse side, it was what you were made to do that earned the game its acclaim.

    Thankfully, he gets to a point where he starts focusing on the part of the game that actually matters.
    “As far as what you can do with such a vast field to explore as soon as those boundaries are removed, it means you can enter any area from any direction so the puzzle solving in this game begins the moment the player starts to think about where they want to go, how they will get there and what they will do when they arrive”

    So they haven’t forgotten that making a Zelda overworld isn’t just letting you be able to aimlessly roam around wherever you want like in GTA. The only thing that makes me anxious is that he’s so vague that he could just as easily be describing Super Mario 64 or Fallout. The details are what matter. If past Zeldas are any indication, it seems to be a progression of the level design in Skyward Sword. SS’s overworlds were made like dungeons and they became more open once you unlocked the shortcuts that connected passages. Knowledge of this was crucial for the Silent Realm challenges. Aonuma then just spouts more bullshit with this last bit that leaves me with mixed reactions:
    “This is a clean break from the conventions of past games in the Zelda series where you had to follow a set path and play through the scenario in the right order”

    No it fucking isn’t.

  • Hey Jonathan,

    The functional roles of each of the characters in LBP add new wrinkles to the design space. The demonstration showed this quite well. I thought it was neat.

    I feel the same way with Yoshi, X, and Hyrule Warriors. Although I’m slowly warming to the latter. I’m quite curious about the Dynasty Warriors games.

    I think that Aonuma means that there are less locks to progression. In the original Zelda, you could explore more of the map and even enter certain dungeons before you were meant to. In the modern games (still haven’t played SS and LBW), the player tends to be funnelled down certain paths. Although you still get the overworld, the locks come earlier. It sounds like the solution is to have more organic level design.

  • Samuel Stephens

    I was wondering if you were going to do another write up this year. I very much enjoyed the last one. It’s easy to get swept away in all the E3 excitement, but I came away mostly satisfied this year thanks to Nintendo.

    “The additions to LittleBigPlanet 3 look smart and substantial. It’s funny that the same team who worked on Forza Horizon 2 are working on this game.”

    LittleBigPlanet 3 is looking pretty solid. I loved the press conference presentation as it felt very genuine with most cooperative demonstrations this year being either forced and awkward (The Division) or showed no actual cooperative interaction whatsoever (Assassin’s Creed: Unit). Of course, the physics-based platforming still seems wonky, but I like how there is more mechanical variety this time around.

    “Splatoon was my game of the show.”

    This game might have been my favorite of the show too. I think both it and Titanfall demonstrate how adding an emphasis on movement and verticality is a great way to create depth in a shooter.

    “It’s cool that Criterion are working on something awesome and completely new, but showing it off so early is poor form for EA.”

    EA was content starved this year. I wonder why they even had a press conference. It was kind of suprising that they didn’t do very much with Star Wars considering that’s going to be very huge soon.

    “Nintendo say that the latest Zelda will be “open world”, but I wonder what that means exactly.”

    The Zelda reveal was a bit disappointing and made me a little nervous. I know it’s still early, but Aonuma has been very vague about the game. He’s said it will be open and may not feature puzzle solving (or at least not in the way players have come to understand puzzle solving). I don’t know. A Link Between Worlds is great, but it’s still fairly linear, compact, and contains simple self-contained scenarios to offset the lack of order. I can’t see how that could be implemented in a big 3D world. Needless to say I don’t like open-world games, and Aonuma’s focus on scale and non-gameplay elements (“you can climb those mountains”) left a bitter taste in my mouth. However, I still have faith that Nintendo can deliver a really good game, so we will see.

    There’s a nice Eurogamer article about open-world games and E3 http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2014-06-12-see-those-mountains

    There were two particular features this year that interested me:

    – No Man’s Sky was very interesting. Not the game itself, but peoples’ reaction to it. Even with so little information about it, the bare concept of planet exploration has caused the internet to explode. I’ve already seen imaginations and expectations run wild trying to fill in the gaps. I think this says a lot about many “modern” gamers and what they value in their entertainment.

    – There was many co-op gameplay and unique multiplayer games this year. With a few exceptions (Splatoon, LittleBigPlanet), much of the presentations felt scripted and forced. Take Rainbow Six Siege for example. The presentation was neat, but I don’t think real players are actually going to try and role-play as a S.W.A.T. team as was demonstrated in the video. It would be much more informative if we could see how the game played with people who are playing to win.

    Oh, and what do you think about Captain Toad? That was definitely one of the highlight games for me this year.

  • Thanks, Samuel.

    I have faith that Nintendo will pull through too. The focus is worrying, though. Once they start showing us examples of what they mean by open world in the Nintendo Directs, then it’ll all become clearer.

    You’re dead on with No Man’s Sky. I watched a video on GameTrailers where they said something to the effect of “we still have no idea what you do in this game, but we’re madly excited for it”.

    Captain Toad looks good, I guess. I haven’t played Super Mario 3D World, so I can’t really comment. I hope it’s a full retail release. It’s strange how people look at this game and assume it’s for the eshop.

  • Samuel Stephens

    @Steve Johnathan

    “It would be embarrassing if they fuck up 2 Yoshi games.”

    I’m curious, what are the issues you have with Yoshi’s New Island? It’s not groundbreaking and it can be a little harsh on the eyes, but I found the gameplay to be fairly well designed. The annoying dual screen from the previous game has been eliminated so the levels are much more focused. There are also some creative level elements. However, there are a few technical issues I have with the game.

    Also, Aonuma has talked a little bit more about the direction of the new Zelda Wii U game in an interview with Kotaku if either of you didn’t already know.

    http://kotaku.com/the-new-zelda-might-not-have-the-puzzles-you-expect-1590544423

    http://kotaku.com/zelda-boss-promises-to-stop-overdoing-tutorials-1591975741

    He’s talking pretty abstractly here, so there may have been translation issues. Regardless of what Nintendo is planning, it’s difficult not to see this new direction as a direct response to common complaints about 3D Zelda games ( too linear, too much “hand-holding,” too much puzzle solving, etc).

  • Steve Johnathan

    Samuel Stephens

    I didn’t play Yoshi’s New Island due to how unappealing the trailers made it out but from people that I trust, they tell me the game is way too easy while on the flipside the secret levels are stupid hard.

    You’ve definitely made me more curious to check it out myself.

    For the first one, “Turning puzzles on its ear” is an admirable goal but his description is not only vague, it sounds like Aonuma doesn’t know what a puzzle is. The thing that irritates me though is the motivation behind it. It’s because of what he feels people’s ideas of puzzles in Zelda are. It’s rooted more in a platitude of “surprise” than looking at how previous game did their puzzles and how to refine or expand upon it. It would explain why the progression of puzzles in Zelda almost went backwards with SS compared to what they were doing in the DS games.

    The second one really pisses me off because he’s admitting to a mistake they never made. The people complaining about “hand-holding” are dumbasses. I’ve played through Skyward Sword almost 4 times now. The tutorial in that game is small. You can skip the student lifting the barrel, ignore the kid rolling into the tree and the sword tutorial altogether. You don’t even have to pay attention to Zelda when teaching you how to ride the bird.

    It does not take 4 to 5 hours before you “actually” start playing. It doesn’t even take long to get to the Faron Woods. The people writing this article are just full of shit. The way they say “actually playing it” is telling of their attitude and mindset. What’s dumber is that LBW isn’t even all that different. You still get a tutorial. The frontloading in SS wasn’t from tutorials but from cutscenes, fucking long ones too (for a Zelda game). The cutscenes in LBW were significantly shorter but some people STILL complained about that.
    They’re not really responding to the “hand-holding” complaint because there wasn’t much to fucking begin with.

    They are addressing the “too linear” complaint even if it wasn’t from fan feedback but Eiji “rethinking” the conventions like they do with every game. In any case, it wasn’t a complaint that needed responding and what pisses me off is that he’s not smart enough to know that. Even the 1st Zelda had an intended order for dungeons. You can’t have difficulty progression if you don’t have them done in sequence and LBW did suffer for that. Because they had to keep the difficulty between the 7 dungeons equal, the challenges couldn’t progress very far outside of their respective dungeons. It’s more interesting to see a consistent set of enemies, level and puzzle elements arranged in more complex ways over constantly introducing new ones while dropping the old ones.

    Too much puzzle solving isn’t a universal complaint. Some people actually complain that they want harder puzzles. The only thing regarding puzzles is that they want to do things different…again.

    This isn’t the first time they talked about “rethinking” Zelda either. They do this with every game. They couldn’t shut up about Skyward Sword and “density”. What bothers me the most and is slowly crippling my enthusiasm for this game is that he NEVER, not once talks about doing things they did before but better. Not better combat, not better enemies, not better puzzles, not better dungeons, not better bosses, not better items, not better overworlds.
    What the fuck?
    It’s like he doesn’t know what makes this series good that he’s focusing on the wrong aspects and ignoring the ones that made it good because he wants to “reconstruct the idea”.
    Or it could be the interviewers fault since they don’t know this either and didn’t bother to ask him about it.

  • Don’t read too much into it, Jonathan. I’m sure what Aonuma is talking about has more to do with their ideas in studio than what people are saying on the outside. Let’s wait until we see something more concrete. Also, please tone down your language.

    It might be helpful if you add a link to the thread where you discuss that particular Zelda article in more depth on Rizzoma. Might add a bit of context.

  • Steve Johnathan

    But I only said “fuck” 3 times. I thought I was doing good.
    Assuming we’re talking about the same thing, I don’t ever want to touch “that” article again unless I absolutely have to.
    I’d rather Eiji not admit to mistakes they didn’t make. I wouldn’t be bothered if he pushed back against the idea of hand-holding instead of saying he frontloaded tutorials when they never did. Not one of his finer moments.

  • Well, I can’t say anything about Microsoft or Sony’s announcements at E3, so I’ll stick to Nintendo’s. Here’s what I thought about the games they showed this time around:

    Splatoon: Nice concept, although perhaps one I’m not mega excited for. I did however like how they decided to use new characters and make it a new IP rather than just stick Mario or Miis in it though, it shows that Nintendo is willing to back to their more experimental NES/SNES days and stop playing everything so safe on the franchise front.

    New Zelda: I liked it. Open world seems interesting (it worked really well in the first Zelda games for the NES and Link Between Worlds), so I’m interested to see what they do with it here. The art style and music in the trailer was really great too, probably striking the best balance ever between ‘realistic’ and ‘cel shaded graphics’. Basically, it looks and feels like what Skyward Sword should have been.

    Hyrule Warriors: Looked interesting enough. I do like how it’s a pure Zelda action game, we need more titles in the series where combat plays a bigger part than puzzles and story. Let’s just hope they keep it varied and it doesn’t become repetitive like certain other Warriors games…

    Captain Toad. Looks great graphically, looks kind of boring gameplay wise. Ah well, I’m not a fan of puzzle games at all, so this was never, ever going interest me.

    X: I haven’t decided what I think of it yet.

    Yoshi’s Wooly World: Looks better than Epic Yarn due to the Yoshi’s Island gameplay mechanics playing a bigger part (and the presence of challenge in the game), but I’m a bit skeptical about Good Feel’s involvement. Cause they can make a great looking/sounding game, but don’t really understand game design too much. Still, at least it’s not by Artoon/Arzest. They’ve already destroyed Yoshi’s reputation with their shoddy work.

    Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire: They didn’t show much more, but the game’s looking as good as I (and probably everyone else) expected. Can’t wait to see what major changes they make and what new locations get added into Hoenn.

    Mario Party 10: I thought this looked surprisingly good. I certainly liked the idea of someone playing as Bowser and messing things up for the other players, it’s definitely the kind of asymmetric gameplay the Wii U works so well with.

    Mario Maker: Eh, I’m not convinced by this. Lunar Magic, Super Mario Bros X, the Hello Engine (and other ‘engines’), Super Mario 63 and Reggie all exist as Mario level/game editors, and they just offer a lot more than Nintendo’s offering seemingly does. I think I’m sticking to Lunar Magic myself.

  • SavagE

    Grim Fandango is in desperate need of a remake. Even Schafer says so. There’s one simple reason – terrible controls. Also the game’s old (hardware problems) and hard to get.

  • New character/IP doesn’t equal new gameplay. Nintendo usually come up with new gameplay ideas first and then find a suitable character that fits with the new concept. If you look at their output over the past generation or two, their creativity and innovation is very high.

    Mario Party did look surprisingly full of new ideas. Good point.

  • This, and the retrospective video that Sony put out, make me think that the remake won’t be a huge overhaul, but a “refinement”. I guess I had a different idea when I was writing the post.

  • there is a fan HD remaster underway for more than 2 years now. Guess this will make it obsolete now, unless it stays exclusive for PS4 (which I doubt). You can read about it here: http://kotaku.com/5876549/heres-what-grim-fandango-hd-might-look-like

  • Cool. Thanks for the heads up.

  • The first thing is an issue sales wise though. As someone on another site said about Nintendo then vs Nintendo now, the reason we got so many NES era series is because they created new franchises rather than decided ‘right, we’ll put Mario or Miis in this’. Their new Mario, Zelda, etc games have a ton of creativity, but you have to admit that if some of them were turned into ‘new IPs’, we’d have a lot more variety by now.

    As for Mario Party, what interests me is that it’s one of the few games being made which isn’t pure co-op or competitive gameplay. Cause a lot of multiplayer games assume multiplayer has to either be a choice between players working together to take down enemies or players trying to beat/kill each other. Or at best, you get two or more teams of players with equal abilities trying to kill each other or achieve some objective. Playing as Bowser in Mario Party 10 on the other hand, looks like the kind of asymmetric gameplay which the Wii U originally promised. Or in other words, sort of counter co-op multiplayer.

    And you have to admit, that kind of multiplayer leads to some interesting possibilities. Like the beta mode called Bottles Revenge that was in Banjo Tooie, where the second player could control the enemies and bosses in an attempt to kill the first and stop them achieving their objectives in the levels. Or a rather interesting Super Mario World hack called two player co-op quest, where another player could control the enemies and bosses in the game over the internet. It made me imagine the results if someone connected the game to some Twitch Plays Pokemon type service and challenged random people to try and play through it as a Mario game…

    It also made me imagine how cool an online version of the Bowser Party mode would be. If you could join random people’s online games as Bowser and just screw things up big time. Forget all these game developers talking about how to make everyone act like ‘good’ people online, what we really need is a game where a sort of grieving is encouraged by the system and where random player controlled boss monsters and opponents can just screw things to hell and back.

    Or for that matter, an RTS meets action adventure/RPG game, where some players can play as evil overlords/game master equivalents and others as the heroes trying to save the world. That could be quite an interesting experiment in asymmetric gameplay…

    So yeah, I’m excited for Mario Party 10 simply because of the Bowser Party possibilities and the ideas that if evolved correctly, could revolutionise gaming.

  • “Their new Mario, Zelda, etc games have a ton of creativity, but you have to admit that if some of them were turned into ‘new IPs’, we’d have a lot more variety by now.”

    So a new character = a lot more variety? Not really. I talked about this topic last year, if you’re interested: http://danielprimed.com/2013/06/e3-2013-game-design-notes-and-commentary/

    Absolutely. The new Mario Party stuff looks cool. The potential of the gamepad is massive. Let’s hope a lot of it gets realised. 🙂

  • The problem with the idea that gameplay and not characters/content is involved in variety is that as much as it may seem logical, it’s not the way most people think of games or media in general. The reasons not to put older characters in your original games can be summed up as:

    1. Many of the fans of said characters don’t want the new stuff. Why? Because when people buy a series, they’re basically saying ‘I like this and I want more of the same’. The ‘experiments’ are off putting to them, just ask the Zelda series and its recent sales decline.

    2. It feels more varied, even if it isn’t on a game design/gameplay level. And that’s a good thing for the Wii U’s general perception among the public. Where we see Captain Toad, 3D World, Mario Party, Mario Maker, etc, the average Joe just sees ‘Mario’. When we get say, Splatoon, new IP 2 and new IP 3, they see ‘variety’.

    It’s not really game design related, but come on, you see the point, right? That Nintendo needs the new IPs in order to APPEAR to be doing more new things, even if they’ve been doing a ton of innovative stuff for years already.

  • I see your point, but I would much rather Nintendo do what’s best for the game than pander to a small niche who have irrational expectations and don’t like gameplay. When it fits, attaching new ideas to existing IP is a way for Nintendo to guarantee uptake and success.