What I want to see most in 2012 is what the platform holders and big developers/publishers bring to 2012. And not in a sincere, hopeful, or optimistic sense either. I think this longer-than-typical console lifecycle is going to leave E3 2012 presenters shrugging and scratching their heads over which announcements they can justifiably make a fuss.
I want to see what they are going to do when the natural rhythm of the industry says we're due, if not overdue, to start a new console generation, and when almost all of the flagship franchises of this generation have filled out their trilogy structures and come to a narrative endpoint. It is going to be an awkward series of presentations at best, and a great source of wahjah and douche-chills at worst. My prediction is that E3 2012 will be a disaster (at best, because at least that will be entertaining) or the most boring games industry trade show in years (at worst because the only thing worse than an overtly bad tradeshow is a giant waste of everybody's time and attention).
How much of E3 2012 will be Mr. Caffeine and Cammy Dunaway awkwardly over-hyping things people care nothing about? What more can be said about motion control, be it Kinect or Move after so many tradeshows? Is Sony really going to push the same 3D for a third year in a row? Besides the games we already know are coming fall/holiday 2012, what could publishers possibly bring to the table?
I think E3 2012 is going to feature a lot of presenters acting very excited over things that would has been a footnote or also-ran in the last few years, and going over like a lead balloon to the audience. Companies are going to show up, build booths, and schedule keynotes, but what are they going to say? Nothing important. This generation of games has played out, and by June most of the anticipated sequels will be out or just around the corner, and who wants to try to start a new franchise when new consoles are on the horizon? At the same time, those new consoles are not going to feature at E3 2012. So software people and hardware people are going to get up on stage and shrug – it is going to be must-see-TV for the schadenfreude set.
The early days of this current generation gave us the franchises that have defined the life of today's consoles. The thing is, at this point, nearly all of those franchises have reached the point at which they have told the stories they needed to tell, they have reached the end of their narrative arcs, so they're pretty much done – for this generation at least. This is a symptom of our current unnaturally long console cycle – publishers will take a risk on new IP at the beginning of a new generation, two or three sequels later, those IP are done with their storytelling, and the developers are aching to work on something else – and in previous console cycles that was about the same time it was time to start a new IP for the next generation's launch line up. Not this time, and it is going to present a problem for announcements at E3 2012.
Just to refresh your memory, major exclusives like Gears of War, Resistance and Uncharted were rolled out early and have been the series used to argue stupid-baby-console-wars. Gears of War is done, wrapped up with a bow, and Uncharted 3 did not blow away Uncharted 2, least of all from a story perspective. Major multi-platform series have also played out their arcs on the current consoles, or will finish them in their next release, like the Modern Warfare games, Mass Effect, and Assassin's Creed. MW3 was the big wrap up for the MW-verse, and critics have as much as said that if the next CoD game is just more of the same it will no longer be sufficient. Mass Effect 3 is to be the end of Shepard's story, and the next Assassin's Creed game better advance the plot in a dramatic way – its 2012 now, for one thing, and two side-sequels have tried fan's patience for the brand. E3 2012 is going to be light on big new game announcements because most of the franchises are finished, or are awaiting a final instalment that had or will be announced before E3.
If any of these established franchisees want to try to stretch another game out on this generation they're running a significant risk of over-staying their welcome. Halo 4 is a good example. Bungie was so sick of making Halo games that they quit, but MS seems to believe the brand can't just take a break. Halo 3 concluded Master Chief's story, and Reach took it up to the limit on the 'games based in this world' axis. The HD re-release makes three conventional FPS Halo games on the 360, which really seems like enough. With Bungie's exit on one hand, three games including an HD rehash on the other, it really seems like Halo should be finished on this generation of hardware to me. If 343 Studios wants to make Halo 4 staring Master Chief, it really seems like the thing to do would be to save it for the next system, to found a new trilogy on new hardware – to save the impact of a new Halo game until it can underline the importance and potential of a new console. I feel like releasing another Uncharted or Mass Effect (beyond 3, of course) on this generation would look similarly slimy, and I think most publishers are savvy enough to recognize this
So while I don't think we will see much in the way of huge announcements for the franchises we know and love at E3 2012, I think the looming inevitability of new consoles might also having a chilling effect on big reveals for new IP on current hardware. If you were the developer with the idea for a great new franchise, or the publisher who has to take the chance on an unproven idea would you want to be among the last big games on a console generation on its way out, or try to strike gold as a standout new franchise on hot new hardware? While I strongly doubt we'll have any useful news about new hardware at E3 2012, it takes a few years to make a game, especially to start a new IP from the ground up – the industry is going to be collectively holding its breath for the new consoles – if a company has a hot new idea, they're going to save it unless they need to turn a game around fast for money reasons. With that in mind, I think we can expect more HD re-releases and licensed games to fill the gaps until the new hardware announcements finally do come, whether late in 2012 or most likely E3 or other events in 2013.
I'll admit to some optimism here though, some smaller titles that didn't blow up for one reason or another in their first release might take this twilight period of the current generation to take another kick at the can while the big guys wait for the next generation. If the studios haven't been closed down (as with Blur, sadly) we might see follow-ups announced to games like Brink and Alpha Protocol – games which had good ideas but rough launches for one reason or another. We might also see new games from smaller names that don't have the budget or stable to wait another year to announce their next game or shove out some kind of filler in the meantime.
So this long-assed console cycle is putting a crimp in franchises by outlasting their current narrative arcs, but not allowing them to make a next-gen jump. The lack of new consoles is also chilling the roll out of new big ideas as well. So what we need are some new consoles, right? Dig this, we're not getting a look at new consoles this E3. I was hopeful, there were early indications, but all signs and portents in the last two or three months have suggested that it isn't going to happen. I love the excitement and anticipation that comes with a new console generation, but on the balance of what we know and what we can intuit, it seems very unlikely that Microsoft and Sony will have new hardware to announce and hype at E3 2012.
In the case of a new new Xbox, there is little fiscal motivation for Microsoft to announce new hardware at this year's major tradeshows. Despite its advanced age, the Xbox 360 has been posting crazy-bananas sales figures over the last two years. The audience is expanding on the 360, not shrinking, which makes it difficult to justify unleashing new hardware, which could leave many of the recent adopters from the profitable-but-less-devoted segments of the market feeling quite put out.
There have been rumours of first draft CPUs taping out for the next MS console, but those are unsubstantiated, and 'taping out' is such an early step in the process of designing a CPU, it suggests the next Xbox is still rather early in development. So early that if MS wanted to show anything at E3, it would only be bullshit target renders and speculative tech demos only, and with their current product still rolling strong, I don't think they need to take that risk. CES is happening now, and the Tested crew is covering it in their usual all-out fashion. On Monday night's livecast, they had Michael Pachter as a guest and Pachter told the panel and audience that he had pushed MS about announcing a new console and that they had told him a flat “no console announcements in 2012” - a flat disclaimer, not a “we're not talking about that now” or “we don't comment on rumours or speculation”. Pachter's accuracy in predicting the industry may be held in low regard by most fans, but I doubt he would lie about something said to him on a live show that was watched by thousands, and will be archived in video and podcast formats in perpetuity.
Sony is similarly unlikely to instigate a new console war at this E3. Their home console hasn't been blowing up the sales charts in quite the same way as the 360, but sales have been still healthier than a casual observer would expect for a four-to-five year old box. Sony is also currently launching the PS Vita, so they are already dealing with one launch, even if it is a portable system, they would have little motivation to open another front for themselves by spinning up the hype machine for a new home console at the same time. Sony also appears to be in the middle of an internal shake-up, with reports that Kaz Hirai, SCEI Chairman and father of the Playstation, would be kicked up to Grand High Chief of all-Sony. Those reports were challenged by Sony a few days later, but just in a 'not right now' manner. A significant power shuffle is not a good time for a new console roll-out, which is a massive undertaking of risk and commitment.
Nintendo disclaimer: when I talk about major platform holders in this context, I mean Microsoft and Sony. Nintendo will be showing something related to the Wii U, but I don't care. First off, they already announced it, and what they showed was a load. When they announced the Gamecube and Wii, I was like “Oh...hmm... well, they are Nintendo, I'm sure they know what they're doing”. After seeing the Wii U so far I'm not extending them that credit this go-round. I'll gladly watch Nintendo's keynote at E3 2012, but I won't be expecting inspiration or excitement – I'll be waiting for the Wii U to have its “Wii music demo” moment, or to have its “Bullshit renders later proved to be bullshit” incident. Call me a hater if you want, but I grew up a Nintendo kid and nothing would please me more than a return to relevancy for the once mighty “N”, I just can't look at the Wii U and picture that future.
E3 2012 is shaping up to be a train-wreck. Seeing a keynote train-wreck is my second favourite thing to seeing a raft of exciting announcements and new hardware detail. Because I don't think we can expect the later, we better get some popcorn and get ready to watch the fail-pile.