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E3 2007: Wow, What A Difference a Year Makes

Rick DeMott travels to the revamped E3 and discovers a maturing gaming industry that has put playtime aside and focused on the business of playing games.

Wow, an E3 where attendees can spend more time playing games instead of standing in lines. Images courtesy of Rick DeMott unless otherwise labeled.

Gone is the spectacle. Gone are the mega-watt booths. Gone are the booth babes. E3 has transformed from an overblown round of industry show-and-tell into a more intimate gathering of gaming professionals where the games are the focus.

Having gone to the three previous E3 extravaganzas, the change is a welcome one in many respects. The main reason is that attendees can actually play the games not stand in hour long lines waiting to see a demo or touch a controller for 30 seconds. Now on a much smaller scale with approximately 3,000 invited guests, the event is more focused and better organized. Staff members are trained better and can actually help unlike previous years when each individual would be sending you in a different direction and one person would tell you one thing and another would tell you something completely the opposite. Hotel hopping and the distance from the hotels and the exhibition floor at the Santa Monica Airport was a bit of a hassle on a tight schedule, but the shuttle service was helpful and more than one person commented that the beach front location helped all the stress melt away.

Prior E3s were billed as industry events, but they never felt like one. They played more like private country club Comic-Con; only the elitism was against fans who buy the games that were on display. In many ways, the change of this event is part of the maturing of the young gaming industry. Why spend loads of money to bring celebrities and razzle-dazzle to an event where you're only showing off to people within your own industry? The blaring music and rock concert adrenaline are not conducive to making business connections either. With the dawn of E for All this fall, the industry has figured out that impressing fans is a far more effective way to spend money on promotions. E3 now is a time for the players to meet and for companies to display their upcoming product to the hungry media. Now when I'm writing this article I'm thinking of the cool games I played, not Tony Hawk skating halfpipe.

When it came to the games, two areas also showed the growth of the industry -- gameplay and story. For gameplay, advancements are coming from the superior computing power of the next-generation systems as well as innovative uses of the various platforms. Assassin's Creed from Ubisoft uses the advanced strength of the next-gen systems to create fuller worlds. Buildings aren't just dressed with textures, but the detail is constructed up to two inches, giving the player opportunities into interact with the game environment like never before. Additionally, AI has moved forward allowing for more options in how the player interacts with the other characters in the game, which are being controlled by the game. Expanded worlds are not only something for action titles either. THQ's MX Vs. ATV: Untamed allows gamers to forget about the races and just go off-roading around the world surrounding the outdoor events.

Attendees get the first crack at playing the just-announced Wii Fit. 

While Warner Bros. Interactive's Looney Tunes' Acme Arsenal pays nice attention to bringing players of a new generation into the environments of some of the classic Looney Tunes' shorts, it was the Nintendo DS game, Looney Tunes' Duck Amuck that struck me as something new. Taking a page from the classic cartoon where an off screen animator tormented Daffy Duck, the game places Daffy in the game with the full knowledge that he's in a game, allowing users to torment Daffy as well as use him to play a variety of causal games. One particular challenge has gamers closing the screen on the DS and pressing the left and right buttons as commanded by Daffy. And Daffy's constant wisecracks are an added bonus.

Casual games are growing and Ubisoft has stepped into the arena with its first in-house developed title, My Word Couch. Working closely with educators, the game uses simple word challenges to help improve the users' spelling as well as their general vocabulary knowledge. The DS version can be synched up with the Wii and it will be available in three languages -- English, French and Spanish. In addition to the upcoming release of Brain Age 2, casual gamers -- as well as educators -- have a great opportunity to use innovative gameplay to learn too.

Looney Tunes' Acme Arsenal tries to balance between the classic cartoons characters and a new, edgier gaming audience. Game images © Warner Bros. Interactive. 

With the Wii being based around the concept of innovative gameplay, Wii Fit had to be one of the most popular games at the event. Using the new balancing board attachment, players stand on the board and shift their weight in various directions to accomplish the various games, which include yoga poses, balance tests and mini-sports games like soccer. With the title, Nintendo advances the way the Wii can get people off the couch and active while still playing videogames. It's like Dance, Dance Revolution for the Pilates crowd.

As for story, I once read a quote from Steven Spielberg that games would never reach the form of art until they could create an emotional connection (outside of frustration, I guess) with the player. Many games still have a level based structure -- fight your way through a level then defeat a boss villain or complete a certain task to advance to the next level. But from games at this E3, one can see the advancing desire to create games that present great gameplay, but use plot points to move the player from one level to the next. This isn't revolutionary, by any means, but game developers are better at it with more thoughtful plots and the creation of real tension.

Three games stuck out to me -- the PC role-playing game The Witcher from Atari, Ubisoft's Haze and Monolith's untitled sequel to F.E.A.R. CD Projekt, developer of The Witcher, based the game on best-selling Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski's fantasy series. What is unique about the title is its morality system. Unlike other games where morality choices are often gauged on a scale much like power, this RPG allows players to make moral choice, like whether the kill a character or not, that they may not see the result of until much later in the game. For instance, one could sell weapons to "freedom fighters" and later in the game they will walk into a bar and find a character killed with the arrows you sold. Who becomes your partner and who villains attack you, change depending on your decisions. This advance not only extends the playability, but also develops a more interesting moral dynamic to how the story will turn out in the end, making a comment on how important decision we make can affect the world. If you think I'm coming at the game in a too high-minded way, then you'd have to accuse the developer of the same thing. They have weaved topic issues like prejudice and war into the game on purpose.

The Witcher (left) and Haze (right) are examples of game advancing combination of gameplay and story. The Witcher © Atari. Haze © Ubisoft. 

Haze stuck out in how it wove gaming conventions into its story. Set in a futuristic world, players are drugged up super-solider battling rebel fighters. When you kill an enemy, they disappear as many fallen foes had to do in previous generations of games, because they computing power wasn't strong enough to keep their corpses lying around. However, as the story progresses the player discovers that the government is evil and your character switches sides. Now without the aid of super-juice, players must use their previous knowledge of being a super-solider against your former allies. Subsequently, without a clouded view, killed characters remain and kills are bloodier, which conveys the story point that the juice made the soldiers stronger, but also obscured their view of the actions of the oppressive government. It's very interesting (whether intended, I'm not sure) that the game industry is maturing to the level that a game came comment on the desensitization of modern society to violence, which games are often accused of playing a part in.

However, it was the untitled sequel to F.E.A.R. that really struck me as a step forward in using storytelling devices to move the game along. At E3, I stat through a demo of the first level of them game, where the player wakes up in a hospital after some kind of apocalyptic event and must discover what has happened. Though I am not close to an expert on games, I've seen other horror titles create tension, but that was built via mood and anticipation. The sequel to F.E.A.R. has that too, but also creates tension through story. As the player walks through the environment investigating what has happened, story points, like over heard conversations of soldiers, writing on the wall or noises heard of screen, lead the character forward, thinking what was that and what does this all mean. There is an illusion that the whole is open for anything, but the developers have skillfully worked in elements that keep the player on the story without extended grind time, trying to figure too much out. More so than other games, this title seems to be driven more by discovering the story than it is achieving goals or killing lots of people (not that killing people isn't part of it). It's the first time a game suck me into its story and for a non-gamer (or casual gamer at best) that's a big accomplishment.

So at the end of the day, E3 is better because it has found itself. As games advances as a medium, they are also finding more of what they can be with a better understanding of how to weave together gameplay and story or in some cases advance gameplay to create new experiences for the player. As an industry and media event, E3 has transformed into what it was always supposed to be -- a place for people in and around the business to get their hands on games and find out more about those games so that gaming and the industry can move forward even more.

Rick DeMott is the managing editor of Animation World Network. In his free time, he works as an animation writer for television. His work on the new series, Growing Up Creepie, can be seen on Discovery Kids. Additionally, he publishes movie reviews at his blog, Rick's Flicks Picks. Previously, he held various production and management positions in the entertainment industry. He is a contributor to the book Animation Art as well as the humor, absurdist and surrealist short story website Unloosen.

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