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Jon Hartley avatar 3:45 PM on 06.02.2009  (server time)
Regarding E3: When Games Aren't Enough

Ask any gamer, and they will tell you that the most important parts of the game industry are the games themselves. That should seem obvious enough, right? With a nod to the consoles and computers that allow us to enjoy them, this entire hobby and the multi-billion dollar industry that it provides are both all about the games.

So why is it that E3's press conferences no longer reflect this simple truth?

Each year, we expect to hear details and see footage of the most highly-anticipated games coming out in the year or so to come, and usually we do get a certain amount of that from the "big three". However, in recent years there has been a steady increase in the amount of emphasis on objects other than games during Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony's time on the stage, whether those objects are peripherals, controllers (or lack there of), or system redesigns.

The question is not only, "when did E3 become less about games and more about peripherals, system upgrades and technical innovations?" but also, "why do we not only condone this, but expect it?" Of course, as with any intriguing questions, there are multiple reasons and events which led to a less game-centric E3.'

First of all, you have the changes within E3 itself over the last couple of years. E3 famously went from being a sort of celebration among gamers who wanted to test out the best upcoming games to a press-only affair that was as much about graphs and sales figures as game demos and videos. Sure, E3 is trying to go back towards what it used to be, but in the meantime, a lot of the mentality behind the original changes remains. Only one of the three major console manufacturers was able to resist the use of sales statistics in their presentation, and even that company still spent a large amount of time talking about things other than the upcoming games themselves.

Also, you can't understate the impact of all of the gaming blogs and websites in all of this. It would simply seem underwhelming to have a press conference consisting of simply the same video game trailers and gameplay videos that we have already seen on gaming websites, anyway. While console manufacturers want to wait to reveal their own changes and innovations until E3, most third-party developers see no real reason to wait until E3 to announce upcoming games or release gameplay footage or trailers. This means that at E3, we are usually unlikely to get our first look at a new third-party game, especially at the press conference of one of the "big three".

However, we can't have a discussion about the decreased emphasis on games themselves at E3's press conferences without looking at perhaps the biggest reason behind the trend: the continued courtship of the ever-elusive "casual gamer". Since the Nintendo Wii and DS alike attracted never-before-seen numbers of folks who traditionally didn't play video games, all three companies have decided that it is in their best interest to implement new ways to not only keep the hardcore gamer interested, but also to attract legions of new gamers, albeit in sneaky ways that avoid the traditional stigmas surrounding video games (ie the overly-complicated controller, or the guy sitting almost lifelessly on his couch, with a trance-like stare towards the television).

Thus, this year the big news at E3 wasn't just the announcements of a new Metal Gear game for the Xbox 360, Final Fantasy XIV for the PS3 (when XIII isn't even out yet, gotta love that!), or some new Mario and Metroid action on the Wii, but also the addition of motion controls for the PS3, body and voice recognition for the Xbox 360, and ummm...a "vitality censor" for the Wii. Whether your reaction to the previous announcements was one of awe, being vaguely creeped out, or just shaking your head, it's undeniable that E3 has become center stage for the annual revealing of new and improved video game gadgetry...even at the expense of video games themselves, perhaps.

It's perhaps unsurprising, then, that we have begun to expect these types of announcements at each year's E3, as a sort of Pavlovian response. At this point, it would be more shocking if Microsoft didn't feature a British girl chatting up a creepy robot boy, or if Sony didn't announce yet another redesign of one of their systems. I'm still surprised that we aren't getting a SuperDuperElite Xbox 360, complete with limited addition Halo: Teabag graphics, to be honest. In other words, we can't blame it all on the companies themselves, because if Microsoft had unveiled Natal and Sony had just been like, "oh, here's some really cool games that are coming out", we'd be talking about how underwhelmed we were by their presentation, and wondering how they're going to counter Microsoft's new technology.

Still, at times it makes little sense to reveal some of these new items to this particular audience. Did anyone in attendance or watching via the internet really care about the Wii Vitality Censor? It's hard to think that the target audience for some of this stuff is the person sitting at home, watching the press conferences on G4. Most people who will be taking advantage of the new Wii Fit functionality probably don't even know what G4 is. Did any of us ever see the day when a company would even bother mentioning a Hannah Montana game during an E3 press conference?

For better or for worse, E3 isn't just about games anymore. In the big business of 21st century gaming, the games themselves are just one aspect of our favorite hobby, and the fascination with new gadgets, technology and Skynet-esque, I-Robot creepiness is now along for the ride. If you're lucky enough to be there in person, E3 is probably still seen as mostly a great chance to play and see the most anticipated games that the industry has to offer. For those of us stuck at home, living through the coverage of gaming blogs and the press conferences themselves, the focus has definitely shifted.

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