E3 2011 Retrospective: Gimmicks, Games and Desperation
It's that time of year again. The sun is coming out, everyone is sweltering in the summer heat and gaming executives are hastily throwing on a branded t-shirt and hoping to God their big news doesn’t join the litany of leaks that precede every E3.
E3, which has slowly spread from a weekend-long tradeshow to a month-long orgiastic flurry of press releases, trailers and increasingly desperate filler sandwiched between announcements, gets increasingly slick year on year. Gone are the stilted financials of the 90s and 2000s and the elaborately staged press conferences of the early 2010s. Finally acquiescing to the general consensus that the Gaming industry’s biggest yearly event should perhaps be about games, conferences (on the rare occasions they aren’t pre-recorded sizzle reels) are, now more than ever, sterile compilations of trailers with the occasional shareable viral moment. There’s exciting stuff in there certainly, but they are not the spectacle in and of themselves they used to be.
Case in point, 2011. 10 years ago, the world was a different place, and the games industry more so. The Wii was winding down its wildly successful life cycle, the Xbox 360 and PS3 were vying for dominance, and a uniquely high number of highly regarded games were slowly making their way into customers hands. In a year sitting comfortably in the middle of a console generation, what did publishers have to offer at the biggest event in the year’s gaming calendar? Let’s take a look and try not to be too disappointed.
Microsoft opened its conference on a technical error and went downhill from there.
As a grim-faced Infinity Ward employee took to the stage to show us the intro level of Modern Warfare 3, the lights darkened, the screen lit up with hi-fidelity stealth action, and the game paused as the controller promptly disconnected. The presenters took it in stride, but having your big moment undercut by a snickering audience is never a good look.
If you wanted to sum up Microsoft’s 2011 E3 offering in one word, that word would be “desperate”. Microsoft had launched the Kinect the previous year, pivoting quickly in response to Wii sales that could be understatedly be called astronomical. A succession of industry professionals spent 2011’s Microsoft conference talking a big game about the potential of the Kinect, as they would later do about Xbox Smart Glass, Cloud AI, Kinect again and whatever the next big Xbox gimmick is.
Marvel as EA announces 4 of its sports games will have Kinect support to very muted applause. Be impressed as a despondent Bioware employee barks along to Commander Shepherds’ dialogue choices in Mass Effect 3. Laugh quietly as a Ubisoft developer flails his arms like an enthusiastic mime version of Minority Report to mimic gun customisation in Ghost Recon Future Soldier. There were even Kinect exclusive titles here like Star Wars Kinect (sadly the dancing portion was not featured), Not Wii Sports and Not Just Dance made an appearance, alongside Disneyland Adventures, demonstrated for 10 excruciating minutes by Disney Channel’s finest B-team. Even Peter Molyneux came along to hype up Fable: The Journey, a Kinect exclusive Fable game which, if the lack of an entry in the franchise since and Molyneux’s subsequent departure from the company is any indication, may have been the final nail in Fable’s coffin.
That’s not to say there was nothing here for the less casual fans in the audience. Forza Motorsport 4 (Fourza was right there guys), the Tomb Raider reboot, Modern Warfare 3, Gears of War 3 and a ‘one more thing’ reveal of Halo 4 gave Microsoft fans something to get hyped up for. However, each and every one of these was presented by a succession of developers with zero stage presence, including then Xbox head Don Mattrick who brought all the energy of a teenager called on to do a book report for a novel he hadn’t read. There was at least some substance here but that substance though was wedged between 10-minute segments of Microsoft trying to convince the audience, and themselves, that the Kinect definitely wasn't a mistake.
If Microsoft badly wanted the public to like them, Sony badly wanted them to forgive and forget. E3 2011 came just one month after the PlayStation Network “Outage” (Read: Hack), one of the largest data breaches in history where 77 million accounts were exposed to hackers. Then-president of Sony Computer Entertainment Jack Tretton addressed the issue head-on in an apology speech which leaned a little heavy on the jokes and the spin, and a little light on the actual apology, all while looking more than a little smug compared to the solemn press conference of the company’s Japanese head office just a month earlier. “Yes, we’re sorry,” Tretton seemed to say, "but look at all these new shiny things!"
And shiny things Sony had. There were some big games here, Uncharted 3, Resistance 3, Infamous 2 Bioshock Infinite. Also, the Star Trek movie tie-in game, but did we mention we have Uncharted 3? The big news, however, was that Sony’s new handheld had a name and a price point. The PS Vita was coming and got a deep dive on its features and upcoming games (only one of which was cancelled before it ever saw release, that’s a pretty good record). Ken Levine even came out looking like an extra from Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia and promised a Bioshock game for the console! Admittedly we never heard anything else about it after he left the stage, but he certainly promised it. There was also some mild booing from the crowd on the announcement that famously competent cell-phone provider AT&T would be handling the console’s 3G contracts, but otherwise, this part of the conference largely went off without a hitch.
The hitches came elsewhere. Like Microsoft, Sony had gimmicks to sell, and sell they did. First, the Move controllers, which have since found a home as Sony’s VR controllers, were heavily marketed as a Wii alternative in, this, the early stage of their motion controller to bargain bin to VR controller to bargain bin again lifecycle. From a bulky plastic gun for Resistance 3 to the late Basketball star Kobe Bryant patently not moving much at all as he played NBA 2k12 by pointing the controller at the screen, there were at least two ways to use the Move on display here. Two!
But wait, Sony didn’t just bring one gimmick, it brought two. Because it was 2011 and 3D glasses were the big thing, Sony had a whole range of 3D features and products to sell us. From a 3D gaming monitor to a commitment to 3D that Tretton claimed was “unwavering” before ditching it entirely a few years later. This was mentioned a lot more offhandedly, almost as though Sony had already given up on the concept which wouldn't be long for this world anyway. This 3D focus lined up nicely with their announcement that they’d secured not just Netflix for PlayStation 3, but more importantly CinemaNow, a service we definitely all remember and use today.
Once again then, there was some good stuff in this conference, but it was buried so deep under so many unnecessary and unwanted gimmicks and products. Undercutting its own hype at every turn, Sony felt constantly unsure of itself, not willing to let its games speak for themselves and unclear what other optional extras it could meekly offer you while you're here.
Say what you will about Nintendo, but they know how to leverage heritage. A technical fault? A montage of upcoming releases? Bah, those aren’t openers, say Nintendo. Enjoy this full orchestra playing a medley of 25 years of Zelda melodies because we can.
Following this pleasant surprise, Mario creator, Nintendo legend and gaming’s friendly Uncle Shigeru Miyamoto took the stage and announced a Zelda game was coming to every Nintendo console in 2011 for the franchise’s 25th anniversary alongside new Zelda branded Wiimotes, Zelda Symphony concerts in multiple cities and Zelda soundtrack CDs. It took Nintendo a full 15 minutes to move on to anything else, and absolutely nobody was complaining.
Then, blissfully, there were no gimmicks for a while. At least, no new ones. Gaming’s friendly, but slightly creepy, Uncle Reggie Fils-Amie came on stage to talk us through a slew of new 3DS releases including a new Mario Kart, Super Mario 3D, Luigi’s mansion, Starfox 3D and Luigi’s Mansion 2. Did these feature Motion controls and 3D too? Sure! But Nintendo, smartly, barely mentioned it. They were there, but they certainly weren’t the Future Of Gaming in the way Microsoft and Sony crowed about that year. What the future of gaming was, apparently, was the Wii U.
Like a bulky graphics tablet with a controller strapped to it, Nintendo’s hybrid home console and handheld Switch precursor was not exactly well marketed, despite spending the majority of its 2011 E3 conference trying to do just that. Was it a new console? The late CEO of Nintendo Satoru Iwata certainly seemed proud to say so as he unveiled it. But wait, the trailer shows people using Wiimotes and the Wii Balance Board, so is this just an upgrade? Is it an accessory perhaps? Things didn’t get any clearer as Reggie stood in front of a series of stock photos of happy families and explained that it would be something “we will all enjoy together” and something “tailor-made for you”. Oh, well that clears that up. Nintendo’s stock dropped 10% as confusion only continued to grow about the Wii U following Nintendo's conference. Less of a successful follow-up to the Wii and more a dismal flop, the Wii U's baffling announcement hamstrung Nintendo's otherwise fairly competent conference, providing a bit of a dismal denouement for a generally lacking E3 year.
What a year?
So that’s the big three. Oh, there were the usual also-rans of publishers, but they never ‘win’ E3 or draw quite the same viewership. But did anybody really ‘win’ E3 in 2011? Microsoft seemed convinced they were going to capture a market they never had a chance with, Sony had a strong games line-up but kept distracting itself from it and Nintendo were Nintendo with the usual promising highs and the one glaringly bad marketing decision that would keep them solidly in third place until the Switch released 6 years later.
There were no winners at E3 2011, except maybe players who skipped the show and picked up that year’s genuinely excellent releases. We have come far since Ubisoft's French Elf CEO, and overseer of the company's pathetic response to workplace harassment, Yves Guillemot stood on stage and proudly promised every Tom Clancy game ever would be Kinect enabled, or the future of gaming seemed to be some nebulous controllerless, 3D game-space, possibly also featuring a tablet. No doubt there will be weird stuff at E3 2021, but the big 3 companies are very clear in their aims for this console generation and aren’t stuck in a gimmick filled, corporate soul-searching space like they were 10 years ago. For all we see at E3 this year, we're probably not going to see an industry publicly flailing in front of thousands, desperately trying to work out what it wants to be for the next 10 years.
Really then, we’re all winners here.