Scott Steinberg on E3 and beyond
Games industry analyst Scott Steinberg has foreseen the future of the business in publications such as CNN, ABC, CBS, the New York Times and even Playboy. With E3 2009 kicking off in LA imminently, and a host of big announcements expected, we sat down with the DigitalTrends.com host to gaze into his crystal ball.
What are your highlights for this year's E3, Scott?
Far and away, the biggest highlight this year is seeing the show itself return to grand form. While a far cry from the decadent 70,000-strong spectacles of yesterday, at least the event should recapture some of the magic lost in its previous two, shall we say, underwhelming, incarnations. As one of the world's most exciting and dynamic industries, it's about time we realized the importance of having a public face that projects this image.
But in terms of games themselves, it's hard to fault with an overall lineup that includes titles like Modern Warfare 2, The Beatles: Rock Band, Dragon Age: Origins or Guitar Hero 5 - my top pick being BioShock 2, which aims to pick up where its predecessor left off in terms of sheer intensity, storytelling and overall cinematic impact (God of War 3 is a close second - hooray, high-definition killing rage!)
That said, expectations are also high for possible new hardware from Sony (the PSP Go!, a rumored UMD-less, digital-download-oriented update to the popular handheld, and a potential motion-tracking controller) and Microsoft (the Fluid, a 3D camera which supposedly tracks physical motion, allowing players to use actual gestures to control games). But with the potential reappearance of games like APB and Alan Wake, new announcements from Peter Molyneux's team at Lionhead and more, I'm confident many of the best surprises are still yet to come...
Do you think Microsoft can crack a wider audience through the introduction of motion control technology for the Xbox 360?
Not simply through introducing motion control technology, no - alone, this kind of measure promises incremental audience gains at best. What's more, at this point, it's sure to be perceived as a secondary add-on to the console itself, and therefore a footnote to its established feature set, unlike the Wii, where it's been a well-publicized, core system selling point for some time. However, the company might be able to achieve a more pronounced success here if it introduces software that makes new and innovative use of the control method, allowing players to experience games in a more intuitive or organic manner. Which is to say that it's not enough simply to ape what Nintendo's doing. To making meaningful inroads here, Microsoft will have to raise the bar in some way, or attack the problem from a fresh angle, else the manufacturer runs the risk of solving a problem which there was little demand for addressing to begin with.
Do you see any signs of the global downturn impacting video games?
Unquestionably: Titles aren't selling at the same volume as they previously were, countless publishers are scaling back plans for development and expansion and 8450 jobs have been lost, with a large fraction of that representing 12% of the total North American game industry workforce. Given such a risk-averse financial climate, you're also seeing less risk being taken across the board, resulting in more sequels and licensed properties, less innovative new IP and a harder time for cutting-edge startups such as MicroProse's founder Wild Bill Stealey's Thriller New Media or Curt Schilling's 38 Studios. Mergers and acquisitions are also rampant, e.g. Square Enix's purchase of Eidos and Time Warner's impending bid for Midway, while other studios - Free Radical, Stormfront, etc. - are closing outright.
That said, these sorts of downturns are cyclical, and much of the money that would've gone to large corporations such as Electronic Arts or THQ is instead winding up in the hands of producers of cutting-edge indie titles or online worlds. While audiences inevitably cut back spending on luxury goods in times of crisis, history further shows that people value their escapes, as evidenced by the game industry's overall resilience in the face of tough times. On the one hand, realignment is good for everyday shoppers, who deserve a broader range of options and price points. On the other, games still represent incredible value for the money, even at $60 for 20-30 hours of play time. Wherever you choose to purchase titles - direct from the developer online, via internet portal, using a digital distribution service such as Steam or Impulse, in a free-to-play 3D MMO via the microtransaction model - the fact remains that this is an industry that, as compared to virtually any other, is actually thriving.
How are third-party game makers fairing on the Wii now? Is the lack of big third-party success stories a concern?
That depends how you define success - and how many copies of your game you need to move in order to thrive. With 54 Wii games now million sellers, it's obvious that Nintendo isn't the only publisher that knows how to move units in volume. Realistically though, many of the biggest success stories on the Wii aren't the sort you'd hear trumpeted across the newswires. "Hello Kitty Pajama Pals Parties to the Tune of 300K Units" just doesn't have the same ring as "The Conduit Tops 2 Million Sold," does it? Third parties can do just as well on the Wii as any system - the media simply tends to focus on the larger players in the space, who require that massive numbers of units sell through at retail. Several third-parties out there are doing just fine: They're just doing it by shifting lower-profile games at a fraction of the volume of the mega-blockbusters, and being less aggressive about publicizing it.