Interview

Steinberg on the aftermath of E3

Expert talks Natal, the PSP Go, Nintendo and more

Before this year's E3, we sat down with industry soothsayer Scott Steinberg to see what we might expect from the expo's long touted return. With the dust now settling, we took Steinberg, the mastermind behind TheVideoGameExpert.com, to one side in order to see how things strike him in the aftermath.

Scott, what did you make of Microsoft's motion technology, and how does it compare with Sony's rival system by your reckoning?

No question about it: Project Natal swept E3 headlines and captured the general publics imagination as few set-top gaming technologies outside of the Wii have. But while its light years beyond what competitors such as Nintendo and Sony trotted out for the event, its also clearly in the infancy stage, and unlikely to arrive at retail prior to these rival technologies introduction.

Which isn't to say that Sony's system failed to impress, or that I'm not confident about the control schemes potential to introduce a further degree of charm and immersion to tomorrows most promising titles. Merely that it attempts to innovate on existing user interfaces rather than redefine them entirely, as with Natal, which stands the potential to largely eliminate the barrier between man and machine.

By making you the interface, Natal could be just the thing to help attract those who don't consider themselves gamers per se, and remain intimidated by the stereotypical game controllers dizzying array of buttons, knobs and switches. Moreover, it stands a chance of raising the bar as a whole for game development. Although stage presentations were carefully orchestrated, and behind closed door demonstrations of Milo were primitive affairs at best, you can clearly see the possibilities. Picture browsing menus with a flick of your wrist, knocking the world champ flat with a surprise roundhouse or slaying dragons by conjuring sizzling lightning bolts with a wave of your hand.

Sony's technology promises to make the process more organic, and put the power at your fingertips sooner from a practical standpoint. (Albeit still with the use of a physical interface in the form of a motion-sensing wand) Natal could change the way the world approaches play entirely though however, at this point, Id suspect were still a considerable ways off from widespread deployment, let alone anything resembling a killer app.

Can the PSP Go do enough to get Sony selling more handhelds?

Selling more? Certainly. Selling by the truckload? Unlikely.

An attractive piece of hardware that will appeal to high-end users, there's no question: This is a sexy piece of kit with its sleek aesthetic, svelte dimensions and emphasis on digital downloads.

But the high price tag still puts the device in a separate league from more mainstream-friendly systems like the DS, and most users still have yet to familiarize themselves with the ins and outs of digital distribution. What's more, the feature set doesn't do enough to distinguish itself from existing models, and the continued sale of PSP-3000 editions and UMD software cant help but prompt additional consumer confusion.

Undoubtedly, the PSP Go will help rejuvenate interest in the PlayStation Portable brand. But will it prove the magic bullet that helps the system unseat the DS? Don't bet your Neo Geo Pocket (OK, bad example) on it.

Was Nintendo's E3 conference as you expected - and do they need to worry about the competition anyway?

Yes and no the company managed to toe the line as anticipated, in that Nintendo's always played its own game anyways (see: the emphasis on casual/mainstream-friendly titles like Brain Age or Personal Trainer: Walking, peripherals such as the Wii Balance Board) and the onus wasn't upon it as category leader to raise the bar, or stray from current market strategies.

But holding back on the announcement of core franchises like a new Wii version of Zelda or the debut of exciting original IP did the company few favors, and overall, Nintendo did little to assuage the worries of diehard players. Freshly revealed franchise enhancements/expansions such as Super Mario Galaxy 2 and New Super Mario Bros. are all well and good, as is new outing Metroid: Other M. Still, it all seems a bit obvious, almost like a stopgap measure, as if most of the truly exciting announcements for hardcore gamers were either being defrayed entirely or kept in reserve.

To wit, Microsoft and Sony made it abundantly clear this year that they're hungry and gunning for the top spot. By comparison, Nintendo effectively yawned, shrugged and said 'ask if we give a crap?' The big question though is ultimately whether the latter feels its even running the same race. Either way, lets hope Japans number one son isn't content to rest on its laurels. Its a poor sign when your most exciting new hardware announcement in a year of marked innovation is a 'vitality sensor,' and one that fails to raise onlookers pulse.

There were some notable celebrity appearances at E3. What does this tell us about the industry?

That it enjoys playing the media game and doesn't mind meeting performers ridiculous booking fees? Alright, I jest. Lets face it: We live in a world where games bring in more than music and movies combined, and the vast majority of households in North America and grown adults are familiar with the pastime.

This isn't a hobby anymore its just another form of everyday leisure activity, destined for a permanent place in the pop culture gestalt. Entertainers from other fields such as Eminem, Jay-Z, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr (no relation to adult film actress Bobbi, pictured as one of Codemasters E3 'Dirty Girls' [see the top of this story - Ed]) realize this, and are making efforts to bridge the gap.

Take a look at what titles like Rock Band and Guitar Hero have done for the careers of countless musicians (finally, they can afford a nursing home for Aerosmith), or a title like the 8 million-selling Assassins Creed racks up in retail sales as compared to the returns on films at the box office. I think what it tells us is that the industry is finally coming into its own as a form of mainstream entertainment, and that the world of television, cinema, literature and music is finally waking up to it.

Rockstar North are making a PS3 exclusive. Should Microsoft be worried?

Too early to call for every Grand Theft Auto IV, there's always a Manhunt 2 (or Wild Metal Country, for all you former DMA Design fans). Besides, I recall, didn't we hear the same song about Final Fantasy XIII? Look how well that worked out...

OnLive was reportedly demoed off-site, and seemingly worked well. Is this the future?

My position remains the same: So far, both OnLive and Gaikai (which I did happen to spot running behind closed doors) put up a good show in limited demonstrations. But the real stress test here will come with actual physical rollout and performance under real world conditions. Another big question mark yet to be answered is whether the economics make sense and, given supporting bandwidth costs, whether the service actually aligns with the needs of its target market.

That said, as with other groundbreaking technologies such as Project Natal, I'm cautiously optimistic. If either can be successfully pulled off, it can only accrue to the entire industry, and fans, benefit. Lord knows in this job market, few can continue to afford to further line Intel and NVidia's pockets.

Thank you for your thoughts, Scott.

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