Wow! If you haven't checked out the latest games and the newest platforms you need to. John Edgar Park did at E3 and reports on the advances.
Well, it was inevitable. The video game industry is growing up. Either that, or the depressed economic climate has really put a damper on PR and marketing budgets. I mention it because this year's E3 was a pretty darned sedate event by comparison to years past. Number of booth babes -- down. Number of guys in suits -- up. Number of multi-storied mega-booths -- down. Number of companies holding their meetings behind closed doors -- up. Amount of free T-shirts being thrown at me -- down. Number of gaming platforms being represented -- up.
Is this a bad sign? Not necessarily. As the industry continues to grow, and games become more mainstream, E3 will evolve into a more typical trade-show. I once accompanied a friend to the Forestry and Wood Products Convention. Not terribly exciting. But you know what, the wood-products business is a heck of a lot larger than the games business, and the purpose of that convention was for the industry to get together and make deals. E3 has always resembled a fan convention more than a trade show. While I'll always go with the anticipation of trying out the next crop of great games, I can't say that I'll miss the spectacle of greasy-palmed fan-boys ogling half-naked models dressed up like Lara Croft. Sacrilege, I know.
Is maturing a good sign? Yes, in light of the general economic slump surrounding all things technological, the continued growth of the industry is good. Currently estimated at $7 billion annual worldwide, and projected to reach $11 billion by the year 2005, this is a big industry. While E3 isn't the job feeding frenzy it once was, there are many jobs to be had for animators willing to consider shifting from film and television into something more interactive. The upcoming release of Microsoft's Xbox console and Nintendo's GameCube, coupled with the continuing development of PlayStation, PlayStation2, Nintendo64 and PC games equals a ton of overall development.
Looking around the show floor reveals a few general trends in gaming. One of the most welcome is the use of cartoon-shaded real-time rendering in 3D games. Sega's Jet Grind Radio and Infogrames' Looney Toons Space Race employed this cel animation look last year, and now many others are following suit. Why do I jump up and down when I see great cell-shading? Well, let's face it, most non-realistic games looked more stylish and colorful on the old 16-bit systems like Genesis and SuperNintendo than they did when they made the leap to 3D on the PlayStation and Nintendo64. Yeah, the gameplay is arguably more interesting in the third dimension, but the visuals really suffered. A well-painted sprite (think Capcom's Street Fighter) still has more going on stylistically than a low-polygon 3D equivalent (think Tekken). But as the poly counts rise and the programmers code better real-time renderers, the 3D games are starting to win out. Just take a look at Ubi Soft's upcoming Batman Vengeance for PlayStation2. It's toon-shaded in the style of Batman: The Animated Series and it looks gorgeous. Sierra's original property, Jonny Drama promises to bring a swank, martini-lounge spy-guy feel to the Xbox. Speaking of Xbox, Jet Set Radio Future from Sega will push this look to the next level with its beautiful hand-drawn style motion blurs and seamless toon-shaded environments.
The Sega Dreamcast didn't fair too well in light of Microsoft's planned $500 million marketing budget for their Xbox launch. This, coupled with the muscle of Nintendo and Sony's own platforms has forced them to concede defeat in the console war. Sega's departure from the hardware business will leave it breathing room to do what it does best -- software development. They have completed publishing deals with all of the major video game hardware manufacturers -- promising to bring the joy of such games as Super Monkey Ball, Crazy Taxi Next, Jet Set Radio Future, Ooga Booga, NFL2K3, Phantasy Star Online v.2, and even the venerable Sonic the Hedgehog, to PlayStation2, GameCube and Xbox. And with many hotly anticipated titles still headed for Dreamcast, like Crazy Taxi 2, Virtual Tennis 2K2, Floigan Brothers and the epic Shenmue 2, there are many reasons to think that Sega will come out of all this in very good shape indeed.
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OK, so I headed straight for the Nintendo booth when the doors opened on Thursday morning at E3, expecting to lay my hands on the new GameCube controller, play a few games, avoid being bombarded with Pokemon crap and then run off to the Xbox and PS2 booths. Well, I was surprised on two counts. One, there were no Pocket Monsters to avoid and two, the launch titles are so good that I stayed and played for more than an hour. Luigi's Mansion, Wave Race: Blue Storm and Star Wars Rogue Leader: Rogue Squadron 2 must be played to be believed. They are generational advances beyond most other console games. Where many of us were expecting the Xbox to be the 800-pound gorilla of graphics technology, it was the GameCube that blew us away -- this hardware is powerful.
The quality (and quantity!) of the graphics in Rogue Squadron 2 is astounding. Imagine the polygon power to display every last detail of a star destroyer in geometry! The little greebles on the Death Star really stand out from the surface and even catch colored lighting from the explosions caused when you down an enemy fighter. On all previous games of this type the texture and bump maps were used to convey such detail. Only when you see it done with real polygonal geometry can you fully appreciate what we've been missing all this time.
Nintendo's Wave Race: Blue Storm was another that elevated the visuals of an already great jet-ski race game. The real-time reflections in the water and the distortions seen as drops of water hit the "camera" are breathtaking and drew crowds all day.
Luigi's Mansion is a terribly cute, nicely animated, expertly textured adventure game. Based on a familiar "ghost-busting" premise, the player takes control of Mario's less famous brother Luigi in order to eradicate a haunted mansion of its spooky spirits. The level of artistry put into this launch title is evident from the care given to small details like lighting, shadows and special effects.
The PS2 was boasting some interesting second-generation titles like Herdy Gerdy, Gran Turismo 3, Devil May Cry and Metal Gear Solid 2. The level of artistic sophistication found in such titles as Konami's Silent Hill 2 is impressive, bringing to mind Square's upcoming feature film Final Fantasy: The Movie.
Blending fantasy and real-life, Infogrames' Stuntman will allow players to take on the role of a stuntman who must perfect outrageous stunts in front of the camera to create the awesome chases, jumps, powerslides and near-collisions we see in the summer blockbusters. Not only will you get to live out your stuntman fantasy, but you will also get a chance to act as director -- with the in-game movie making tool you'll have the chance to place cameras, make cuts and build your own mini-film of your favorite stunts.
So what did the Xbox have to offer? Well, the best looking title from an art direction standpoint was the latest in the Oddworld series, Munch's Oddyssee. In this third installment of the adventures the gameplay is familiar to those who played Abe's Oddyssee on PlayStation -- guide Abe through his very alien world as he tries to figure out, "What's goin' on?" -- only now the platforming is in 3D and the visuals are simply beautiful. Rich terrains, silky-smooth animation and a continued evolution of the innovative "Gamespeak" system in which Abe talks with other characters in order to solve puzzles and save his fellow Mudokons mark this new title.
Making an attempt to be the other king of the Xbox, Halo by Bungie (who doesn't fondly remember wasting many hours playing Marathon, an early Bungie hit?) is a sci-fi shooter offering huge outdoor vistas, first- and third-person infantry and vehicular combat and four-player deathmatches. While no one else seems to have figured out their online multiplayer strategy yet either, it was surprising to learn that Halo will probably not offer online play until the next version.
So, as the retail marketplace braces for the upcoming launches of these new hardware and software offerings, we should take a moment to think about the future. What will gaming hold in store for us at the next E3? Where is all of this going? One thing that seems to be true is that people love to play games against other people. Multiplayer PC games are doing incredibly well, but the consoles have yet to figure out a way to set up and manage these systems. Of the current and upcoming consoles only the Xbox is shipping with a broadband connection (onboard 10/100 Ethernet NIC). Most research indicates that console gamers rarely purchase add-on peripherals. How Sony and Nintendo plan to get people to buy a broadband connector in any kind of numbers remains to be seen, but the recent announcements of Macromedia Flash, Netscape, SSL encryption and Real's RealPlayer for PlayStation2 indicate that they have big plans for set-top convergence.
This is the year that analysts project the game business will overtake movies in terms of sales. Will the titles offered need to be dumbed down to appeal to this wider market? Or can BarbieFashion Designer and Deer Hunter co-exist with hardcore titles like Soldier of Fortune 2 and Grand Theft Auto 3? Chances are, yes. As E3, and the games industry itself, matures it will become more like other entertainment businesses. This is a good thing. Just don't mourn the booth babes too much, okay?
John Edgar Park is a 3D animator, instructor and writer based in Los Angeles. He received his B.A. in Drama from the University of Virginia.