Trends and thoughts on E3 2012

As most gaming analysts predicted, this was a pretty quiet year for E3 news. Companies made very conservative moves and announcements given we’re at the end of this generation’s consoles. Several console manufacturers are also wary of making a costly misstep as mobile gaming devices (e.g. iPhone, iPad) eat up an increasing amount of their market share.

However, there were a few major trends worth noting.

Nintendo has lost its way

The 3DS wasn’t a strong seller out of the gate. Wii sales have crumbled. Nintendo is gambling a lot on its Wii U, and from what I’ve seen from E3, it looks like a non starter console. I’m aware that’s a strong prediction, but let’s break down what we’ve seen. First of all there’s the price, rumored to launch at $300. That’s almost surely cheaper than the next generation of consoles that Sony and Microsoft will offer. But then factor in the cost of those bulky controllers that I’d predict are far north of $100 each. That’s not exactly family friendly territory. There are other hardware problems as well: a controller only lasts for 3-5 hours per charge. It likely has a processor only marginally more powerful than a current gen Xbox 360 or PS3.

Finally, there’s a lack of compelling software. Nintendo’s E3 presser was depressingly conservative, even by Nintendo standards – few new IPs, no new Zelda or extra details on Paper Mario. Their flagship launch title NintendoLand doesn’t appear to have the crossover success of Wii Sports. And has Nintendo secured third party support? The company’s failure in that aspect really tanked long term sales of the Wii. The trend threatens to repeat itself with the Wii U.

Note that there are plenty of dissenters with my outlook. Josh Topolsky over at the Washington Post praised Nintendo’s “heads-down, single-minded mentality.” Time also defends Nintendo well, making some especially strong points regarding its hardware. Also Pimkin 3 looks great, but it doesn’t change my feeling that Nintendo could be out of the hardware business within a few years if it isn’t more careful.

Microsoft’s SmartGlass could be big

Microsoft had the best of the pre-E3 press conferences this year. It was yes, conservative, but it balanced the hardcore gaming and “casual” multimedia camps well. Most importantly, don’t underestimate SmartGlass. SmartGlass is a companion app for mobile devices (Windows phones, iOS, Android) that gives users the ability to control and interact with games and other XBox content. For instance, on the latest Madden you can preview and select plays before the huddle. For a TV show or movie extra bonus content is synced and displayed in SmartGlass as you watch. The Verge put together a nice preview.

Granted, Microsoft has pushed the multimedia convergence angle on every recent E3 and ended up bombing most of the time. Last year the Kinect got the hard sell. This year saw Internet Explorer for XBox, a total head scratcher. But SmartGlass is different because it’s not about selling a service or device that you have to run out and buy. A huge percentage of Microsoft’s target audience already has an iOS or Android phone, and as long as developers have incentive to make SmartGlass functionality, it could be a huge incentive to stick with the XBox over an Apple TV or Roku (there’s a nice Hacker News thread discussing this topic.)

An awkward transition period between current and next gen tech

There were a few new IPs announced that look incredible like Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs and Star Wars 1313 from LucasArts. However, their developers are cagey with regard to launch platforms. Watch Dogs may someday come to PS3 and XBox 360 but these E3 demos were clearly running on high-end PCs. I bet those demo PCs closely mirror the specs of Sony’s and Microsoft’s next gen consoles.

I’d expect any game without an early 2013 release date will debut on both current gen and next gen platforms. I’d also predict that next year is going to look very dry for console gaming as platforms shore up support for their big next gen console launches. That’s going to be a very interesting tech period. Mobile gaming will have matured by a full year, and the iOS ecosystem will be likely far more comprehensive, revolving around a completely revamped and relaunched Apple TV. Will console gaming thrive or weaken? It’s hard to say but we’ll know a lot more a year from now.