E3 2013: Console Wars and the Rise of the Indie Developer

Posted June 18, 2013 in
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The console war, won by Sony, in Alex Springer's opinion. Photo: Alex Springer

The Console War

I worked at a video game store when Xbox 360 and PS3 launched. I remember the lines, staying open until midnight and the absolute hysterics that video game enthusiasts mustered up for their particular console. Perhaps for this reason, I have always considered myself a “free agent,” so to speak. I’ve never seen the point in putting all of my eggs in one brand’s basket. I can love Microsoft, Sony or Nintendo with all my geeky heart, but are they really going to love me back? Probably not. As far as gaming is concerned, my loyalty is to myself. That being said, it was great to see the two main contenders spar with one another at this year’s E3. I, like the rest of the gaming world, would base my next-gen buying plans around whoever made the best impression this year.

Microsoft came out swinging with some very promising launch titles and some new perks for Xbox Live members. For example, they’re getting rid of the Microsoft points system in lieu of allowing players to use actual money and they’re using a system called Smartmatch to match players up with others who share the same language, interests and skill levels. Also, Xbox Live gold members will be given two free game downloads each month, starting in July. The system will be available in November of this year, for $499—a bit pricy, but each system comes equipped with a Kinect. I think they made a miscalculation when they didn’t try to put some kind of spin on the backlash that it has already gotten regarding the Xbox One’s lack of backwards compatibility, installing of used games and its Orwellian online check-ins. It was a weakness that Sony definitely exploited.

Sony opened with the announcement that their music and film divisions would be integrated with the PS4’s online capabilities—effectively creating a format similar to iTunes that PS4 owners can use to download movies and music right to their systems. They also dedicated a surprising amount of their conference to independent game developers with the announcement that the PS4’s launch will be accompanied by around ten titles that come from small, independent video game studios—a wise move, considering the fact that indie games are still punk rock right now. With this solid platform built, Sony fired a volley of announcements that were tailor-made to bring Microsoft down. Backwards compatibility? Check. Plays used games? Check. Offline play? Check. Every one of Microsoft’s glaring weaknesses were called out and picked off like death row prisoners in front of a firing squad. When they announced that the PS4 will be clocking in at $399, what more really needed to be said?

Though I currently own an Xbox 360 (is it a bad time to mention that it’s actually my fourth one, because the first three broke?) my self-loyalty is telling me to go with Sony for my next-gen console needs.

The Must List

Console wars aside, gamers have a lot to look forward to this year. I got the chance to check out a few of the Xbox One and PS4 launch titles, along with several upcoming games for current-gen consoles. Of course, we have our obligatory sequels coming down the pipe—Call of Duty: Ghosts, Battlefield 4, Pikmin 3, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2—but they’re little more than tweaked out versions of their predecessors. I made it my objective to seek out examples of gaming innovation, and here are the games that made my short list.

Project Spark
Microsoft
Available On: Xbox One
Street: TBD

During Microsoft’s press conference, the preview of this game caught my attention. In a market flooded with planets that have been devastated by holocausts, nuclear or otherwise, it’s refreshing to see a game that places the focus on creation. The idea behind Project Spark is to use the Xbox One’s advanced technology to build your own world, populate it with creatures and create a hero to then go adventuring through it. I tried out two different options during my session: “Create as you Go” and “World Builder.” “Create as you Go” mode seems ideal for when you want a quick hack and slash adventure. You start by choosing the environment and geography of the world you wish to traverse. These ranged from a mountainous arctic tundra or a woodland filled with rivers—but there were still several ways to customize your journey before the game even began. After I picked just the right kind of semi-mountainous forest, I was ready to select a hero. I passed up the ranger and the fighter for the renegade goblin with a sweet spiky turtle shell. After giving him a rickety old windmill to live in, I was ready to do some questing. The default quest was to help a comely lass find some more dragon meat for a potion she was making. After agreeing to help her, the player is prompted to create a destination, a path to that destination and a possible side quest. As the player creates a path to the destination, random enemies and critters pop up automatically. When the game begins, it feels much like a third person hack n’ slash like the Fable franchise, but it’s cool interacting with a world that you’ve created.

The World Builder mode gives the player a randomly generated landscape that he/she changes as he/she roams through it. For example, you can throw barrels that explode with a certain type of terrain, or you can simply create terrain beneath you as you run around. I found this mode to be very satisfying—almost like cultivating a zen garden.

Project Spark definitely shows off the power of the Xbox One. The world-altering is extremely intuitive, plus you can program animals, rocks and trees with their own brains which allow them to play different roles should your fantasy RPG require them. I barely scratched the surface of the true potential that this game has for both professional and amateur game developers.



Titanfall
Respawn Entertainment/Electronic Arts
Available On: Xbox One
Street: TBD

Created by Respawn Entertainment, which consists of alumnists that worked on the original Call of Duty games, Titanfall looks like it takes the intense battle mechanics of Call of Duty and kabooms them by throwing giant robots into the mix. Though I didn’t get to play this one, the preview looked extremely promising.

The player switches from regular foot-soldier ground combat to the pilot of a giant mechanized warsuit called a Titan. When piloting said Titan, the combat system rapidly changes. Where the pilot is more agile and adaptable, the Titan is a machine of pure firepower. One scene that stuck with me was the conclusion of some robot-on-robot action where the victor punched through the loser’s chestplate and threw the pilot into a burning building. I also liked how the Titans didn’t appear to be invulnerable—there was also a shot of a pilot scrambling on top of the behemoth and blasting away at its robot brain.

In an interview with IGN, Respawn co-founder Vince Zampella said that Titanfall is a multiplayer-focused game, meaning that social gamers who love to blow stuff up with their friends will be able to take advantage of several different combat modes—however, this could also mean that fans of a meaty storyline might be disappointed.

I tend to roll my eyes at first-person shooters, especially those focused on multiplayer—but the sci-fi nerd in me really wants to check this one out.



Knack
SCE Japan/Sony Computer Entertainment
Available On: PS4
Street: TBD

One thing that Sony has always done really well is platformers, and it’s good to see that they aren’t leaving this talent behind as they enter next-gen status. Knack puts the player in control of a sentient relic that has the power to attract junk to make it bigger and stronger. Based on the demo that I checked out, the game lends itself to all kinds of different play styles. One mission might require Knack to roam around a city growing bigger and bigger, where another might require him to shift between stealth and attack modes. The enemies range from high-tech security goons to axe-wielding goblins, and the environments were just as diverse. Along with the added bonus of having a Pixar-like feel to the animation, this could very well be the type of game that achieves the right balance of creativity and challenge that appeals to both young gamers and their older counterparts.



Watch Dogs
Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft
Available On: Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U, PC
Street: 11.19 (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U, PC) TBD (Xbox One, PS4)

I’ve always been a fan of the Grand Theft Auto games—up until the fourth one, because, dammit Yuri, I don’t want to go play darts with you when I’m in the middle of a high-speed police chase. As long as Ubisoft’s upcoming Watch Dogs doesn’t feature annoying and clingy friends to bother you while you’re trying to represent, I think this game will take the open-world gameplay to new and potentially exciting heights.

The protagonist of Watch Dogs is a dude named Aiden Pearce, a vigilante whose most powerful weapon is a smartphone. Set in Chicago’s not-so-distant future, Aiden has access to the city’s entire infrastructure—surveillance cameras, traffic lights and anything else that’s hooked up to a computer. During the gameplay demo, Aiden uses his shifty hacking abilities to distract police officers—most notably with a citywide blackout that leaves his assailants wide open for some 9mm wounds to the kneecaps. Not only does this myriad of gameplay options promise a high replay value, it’s also an interesting statement about the controversy surrounding the very real NSA and Project Prism. Will we soon be living in a world where tech-vigilantes have to protect our freedom?



Batman: Arkham Origins
Warner Bros. Montreal/Warner Bros. Interactive
Available On: Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U, PC
Street: 10.25

As far as current generation stuff goes, this is the one that I need to preorder right now. I’ve been a fan of the franchise ever since Arkham Asylum, primarily because it was high time that Batman got his own kickass game, and WB pulled it off. In this third installment, players take control of the Caped Crusader after his first year on the job. The skull-masked crime boss Black Mask has put a $50 million bounty on Batman’s head, and all of Gotham’s ne’er do wells are scouring the city for him.

WB has built upon the aspects that make the game great. Combat is still intuitive and seamless, but players will encounter different street thugs—the martial artist seems particularly infuriating—that require you to adapt your tactics. Batman still has access to his forensic technology, but the Casefile dynamic allows him to recreate simulations. One example took place as Batman tried to figure out who shot down a police helicopter. The player is able to rewind, pause and view the reconstruction from different angles. In addition to the primary quest of tracking down Black Mask, Batman is given the opportunity to pursue a “Most Wanted List” of secondary villains—WB showed off a dude named Anarky that I really wanted to punch in the face. Arkham Origins also gives Batman some new gadgets that make stalking criminals a bit more entertaining. One item, known as the Remote Claw, can be used to create a tightrope between walls and buildings. If you’re feeling particularly vengeful, this device can also be used to pull two criminals together in a collision of guns and unresolved psychological issues.

My one little quip about making a sequel that is actually a prequel is this: If Batman had access to all this cool shit after one year on the job, why didn’t he use it in the first two games? It’s not a major issue to be sure, but it’s something that always bothers me about prequel-sequels.




Destiny
Bungie/Activision
Available On: Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, PS3
Street: TBD

When you create a game like Halo—a game that quite literally made Microsoft a serious contender in a market long dominated by Sony and Nintendo—it’s a terrifying prospect to jump back in the saddle knowing that your next project is going to be held to a ridiculously high standard. So kudos to Bungie for handing Master Chief and Co. off to 343 Industries and carving out a new piece of turf in the sci-fi action gaming world. Though it’s hard to say exactly how things will play out for Destiny, everything I’ve seen and heard so far will definitely blow minds—if Bungie can pull it all off.

As is the setting du jour, Destiny puts players on Earth, but it’s destroyed and humans are almost extinct and yada yada yada. What makes the decimated universe of Destiny unique, however, is that the human race isn’t just almost wiped out from Earth. See, during a mythical Golden Age, we colonized other planets in our solar system. So it’s like postapocalypse times three. Taking control of a Guardian—which offers lots of RPG elements like class selection and upgradable skill trees—the player sets off to...do...something that the developers haven’t quite mentioned yet. My guess is that it has to do with The Traveler, an enigmatic sphere that is currently protecting humanity’s last city.

Gameplay-wise, Destiny is a first-person shooter/RPG, which unfortunately reminded me of Borderlands—a game I had fun with for about an hour until I realized that the combat was monotonous and there was zero story. However, the developers have assured us that there is a rich story involved with Destiny, and the open-world aspect of the game exists only to support it. Oh, and that brings me to the game’s next big reveal: It’s open-world in the sense that a large amount of exploration is possible, but Bungie has also created a multiplayer matching system that will trigger in combat zones. That means that in addition to your character taking on a giant, mechanical war spider, other players at your same skill level will show up to help out. Now, you can either pal around with them for awhile, or just ignore them and keep playing solo. One thing I like about this—if it works the way Bungie says it will—is that both multiplayer and single-player fans will have something to look forward to. Bungie has not mentioned anything about PVP as of yet, but I hope that if it will exist, it’s not required. I really hate it when I’m just starting to feel confident with my abilities and some professional gamer pops out of nowhere and blows my head off.



The Indie Revolution

Sony made independent developers a focal point of their press conference this year by announcing that the following indie games would be a part of the PS4’s launch this holiday season: Don’t Starve (Klei Entertainment), Mercenary Kings (Tribute Games), Octodad: Dadliest Catch (Young Horses, Inc.), Secret Ponchos (Switchblade Monkeys), Ray’s the Dead (Ragtag Studio), Outlast (Red Barrels, Inc.), Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty (Oddworld Inhabitants) and Transistor (Supergiant Games). Not only is this excellent news for independent game developers, but it once again showed Sony’s business savvy. With the decision to make it more difficult to install used games on the Xbox One, Microsoft has shown consumers that its loyalty remains to the video game publishers, which runs the risk of alienating its target audience by limiting their ability to buy used games or lend their games to friends. By choosing to bring independent game developers onstage at their press conference, Sony has cast their lot in with the developers themselves—which serves to make them look like the Rebel Alliance spitting in the face of Microsoft’s Evil Empire. Whether Sony’s focus on independent developers was just a publicity stunt or the genuine article, seven developers just got promoted to the major leagues—which can do amazing things for their future in the industry. While checking out some of these featured indie titles, I managed to chat with Greg Kasavin of Supergiant Games and Shawn Halwes of Ragtag studio about their experience in getting drafted as part of the PS4’s launch.

Ragtag Studio featured a demo of their action/strategy title, Ray’s the Dead, in which the player commands a semi-intelligent zombie who is endowed with the ability to raise corpses to follow and fight for him. As members of the undead are in an advanced state of decomposition, both you and your army must rely on your braaaaains in order to survive encounters with local law enforcement and gun-toting yokels. Graphically, the game has a more refined South Park feel to it—the characters and landscapes are more detailed, but they retain their paper-like dimensions. “We featured our prototype at Indiecade last year, and Sony took an interest and we had been communicating with them for the past year,” Halwes says.

In sharp contrast to Ragtag’s charming zombie puzzler, Supergiant Games featured a demo of Transistor, their most recent game. The first thing that grabbed me about this game was its visual aesthetic—it was like the otherworldly offspring of Frank Miller’s Sin City, Tron and Akira. The music was absolutely stunning, and I thought the gameplay was nostalgic but also innovative. Transistor consists of guiding Red—a lounge singer turned fugitive through a hostile cityscape. For reasons unknown to her, she has been targeted by a shady, technocratic society called The Process. The game shifts between top-down third person and both 2D platform depending on story triggers like dialogue and cutscenes—all of which give the game a very cinematic feel. “After creating a fantasy world with Bastion, we wanted to see what we could do with a more sci-fi world,” Kasavin says. “We wanted to create something that we hadn’t seen before.

The success of both Ragtag and Supergiant came from equal parts passion, determination and persistence. Both developers had success featuring their games at PAX East, where Sony was impressed enough with their work that they offered to include them in their launch lineup—which is much like getting drafted into the NBA right out of college. “We’re at a pivotal moment in the industry,” Halwes says. “It’s no longer expensive to develop a game, and with Kickstarter and digital distribution—it’s wide open.”

Halwes also featured Ray’s the Dead at last year’s Indiecade, so I decided to check out this year’s lineup of up-and-coming developers before they became hot shit. Now in its seventh year at E3, Indiecade is a bit like the Sundance Film Festival for game developers. It gives these developers a unique opportunity to meet with media from all over the world, and publishers often headhunt the promising new talent that is featured. In my experience as a video game enthusiast, I have to say that I haven’t really seen anything like the games that were featured this year.

The first kiosk that captured my attention was that of Epicycle, who had developed a game for the Oculus Rift—a virtual reality visor that completely immerses the player in a digital world. Based on the success of Epicycle’s previous game Blind Side, Oculus asked them to develop a game that was compatible with their Rift device. The game is called A Tree Screams in the Forest, and it’s unique—and terrifying. Once you slip the Rift over your eyes and place headphones over your ears, you are immediately thrown in a dark forest. Epicycle founders Aaron Rasmussen and Michael Astolfi were there to hold my hand through the experience, which involved making your way safely to your car in a forest of demonic trees. The only thing that can stop these trees from skewering you is if you stare at them—a feature which the Rift makes creepily easy. The Rift offers a 360-degree radius, so successfully navigating the game depends on how fast you can look over your shoulder. I didn’t get too far, however. My monitor was splashed with pixellated blood and my ears rang with an agonizing scream after about one minute of gameplay.

I also checked out a game called C3, 3D puzzle platformer from Phoenix Productions. At first glance, I made a comparison between C3 and Valve’s revolutionary Portal. Both games feature geography-bending gameplay that, for someone as spatially challenged as myself, can seriously tie the brain into knots. In C3, the player takes control of a chrome robot that must escape the confines of a cube by rotating it to suit his needs. Once you get the hang of the gameplay, the challenge becomes searching for every little angle that can possibly be exploited. Alex Rowland, a member of Phoenix Production, summarized the game by saying that it’s like solving a Rubik’s cube from the inside—a difficult task for me, since I never really got how to solve those things from the outside.

Another avenue for indie developers who happen to be in a university program is E3’s College Game Competition, which had its initial run at this year’s convention. I was pleased to see that among the five finalists that were selected to compete was Lazy Penguin Studios, a team from Brigham Young University. They were demoing a game entitled Witch Hunt, in which players take control of a broken-hearted witch who shoots her way through an enchanted forest of bunnies and puppies on a quest to find the smarmy princess who ran off with her man. Though I couldn’t help but feel a slight twinge of guilt the first time I plugged a puppy, I thought Witch Hunt was fluid and entertaining enough for me to definitely pour a few hours into. Despite the fact that BYU did not take home the prize, Lazy Penguin’s lead designer Keith Beavers mentioned that most of their team walked away from the competition with full-time contract jobs with other developers.

Conclusion

Though 2013 was a big year for the videogame heavy hitters, it also showcased the clout that indie developers have. This is why Respawn Entertainment—a company of less than 70––will be helming one of the most promising titles in the Xbox One’s launch arsenal. I suppose this makes a fair amount of sense, given that we’re hurtling headlong into a digital age that is hard to comprehend. Regardless, the success of indie game developers is not something to be scoffed at. I’ve spoken with independent filmmakers, artists and musicians, all of whom will tell you that it’s a total bitch to get picked up by some big distributor. Based on the stories I heard at this year’s E3, that’s not the case with indie game developers. In fact, it’s a great time to be an indie game developer. Not only can funds be secured through programs like Kickstarter, but the industry itself is one that values innovation and creativity—at least a few degrees more than the film, music and television industries do.

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The console war, won by Sony, in Alex Springer's opinion. Photo: Alex Springer Jesus is a gamer. Photo: Alex Springer BYU's team of developers came to the convention with Witch Hunt and left with job contracts. Photo: Alex Springer