There's a phrase bloggers and social media managers know all too well. It's "feeding the beast," and it refers to the need to constantly generate new content to keep people tuned in, reading and clicking. For game companies, the beast comes once a year, and its name is the Electronic Entertainment Expo.
For better and sometimes for worse, the Los Angeles-based show, which launches its 2011 edition on June 7, has become gaming's biggest stage, one of the handful of times a year the world -- if by world we actually mean the mainstream media -- trains its sights on videogames. In this sense, E3 is kinda like the Iowa caucuses or the first round of the Scripps Spelling Bee -- you either nail it, or you end up like Rudy Guiliani.
E3 actually took a short-lived dirt nap four years ago, temporarily toppled by a grotesque excess of titan- size speaker displays, hordes of steaming fanboys and booth babes as far as the eye can see. While the overall vibe of the show has settled back into something resembling professional cool, the pressure to impress for the big three -- Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo -- has never been bigger.
Even though new games and gaming platforms take years to create, the beast wants its annual splash. Last year, Microsoft heralded the forthcoming arrival of the motion-control device Kinect by hiring no less than a pack of elephants and freaking Cirque du Soleil to flip and somersault around the E3 stage, an ingenious strategy to distract us from looking too closely at Kinectimals.
We can't predict the spectacle or delivery method, but we can definitely check the pulse and vibe of each company -- and that' a pretty good indication of whether they'll be feeding the beast or be eaten by it.
Sony limps into E3 on the heels of the PlayStation Network debacle, which, as of this writing, is still unresolved. The gods clearly hate the winner of the last console generation: Between the devastating earthquake in Japan and the PSN hackfest, the company (and its developer affiliates) lost billions of dollars, and need some major mojo the same way the Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder need additional superstars to stay in the game.
E3 is Sony's big chance to roll out and showcase the oddly named NGP (that's "next generation portable," in case you were wondering), the device the company's hoping will make us all forget about how far the PlayStation Portable fell short of lofty expectations.
The NGP's fronting some cool tech -- that backside touch-screen function opens up a world of possibilities -- but rumors began to swirl late last week that the NGP's horsepower was actually going to be a lot less than advertised, and it still remains to be seen whether Sony can price the NGP at a level people can, you know, actually afford. Will they confirm the rumors that the PlayStation 4 is in development? How about a ridiculously overdue price cut for the PlayStation 3? At this point, anything would be a plus.
Microsoft has been awfully quiet leading up to E3, and there may be good reason. While people have been clamoring for The House that Bill Gates Built to announce that the Xbox 720 is on the horizon, this won't be the year it happens. Unless Microsoft has an ace so far up its sleeve it's coming out its carotid artery, chances are good that the company's E3 focus is going to be all about the games.
In particular, the Kinect games. Microsoft sold a ton of Kinect units over the last eight months, but as of now, the best and most interesting games on the system are variations of Dance Central, and a lot of the promising applications of controller-free tech remain annoyingly unexplored. If Team 360 plans to maintain its momentum, there'd better be some earth-shattering exclusive games, both on the core system and on Kinect.
Of the big three, Nintendo is the only one with a new console to actually debut at the show -- the Wii 2, otherwise known as Project Café. Chances are good we'll finally see how aggressively big N intends to take the fight to Microsoft and Sony, who've been poaching Nintendo's motion-tech and casual-gaming space for the last two years.
The rumors are swirling. Will the Wii 2 offer HD, eliminating the Wii's Cee-Lo-Green-sized Achilles heel, its sub-par graphics? Will there be enough on-board memory to make the games playable? How many buttons and analog tricks are they going to try to cram onto the controller? It'll also be interesting to see the list of games that get announced and/or dated for the Nintendo 3DS. Like Microsoft did with Kinect, Nintendo wowed us with the debut of its shiny new toy, then left us wondering when all the cool new games that utilized the 3D portable system's features would come out.
It's like any time Greta van Susteren interviews Sarah Palin. Three days in the first week of June will leave us with as many questions as answers. Check back here next week for a dissection of the flash, the bang and the BS.