Among the gamers and the booth babes

Studio Output’s Rob Coke and Ian Hambleton check out the latest gaming, 3D and motion control developments at Los Angeles’ E3 expo

The Electronic Entertainment Expo, E3, is a bewildering experience for the uninitiated. With the video-game industry continuing to eat everything in its path, the annual tradeshow is a boisterous battle cry for a world that is not only resistant to recession, but seems to thrive on it.

As Studio Output works on branding and marketing communications projects for key gaming clients, E3 is a great opportunity for us to keep abreast of the industry, see what’s on the horizon and look at how brands are reaching out to their audiences. Today’s consoles are all-round entertainment packages – able to start a party, surf the Web, play HD movies and run BBC iPlayer – and as audiences become broader, so do the marketing methods which attract them.

Held across the vast halls and concourses of the Los Angeles Convention Centre, E3 sees software publishers and hardware giants spend millions of dollars on ever louder, bigger, brighter HD product launches. Booth babes are dolled up as popular game characters and drooled over; in this way, the event remains largely targeted at the hardcore solo (read ’male’) gamer. But we’re beginning to see marketing activity reflecting a more family-friendly, social approach. Mainstream pop stars and celebrities are becoming the norm, with Steven Spielberg appearing for Xbox in 2009, Usher, William and Eminem headlining the Activision party and the cast of Glee launching their new karaoke franchise.

The press conferences of the holy trinity – Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft – traditionally kick off the gig and all three were launching hardware that had been teased before. 3D and motion control dominated and were the standout developments this year, Nintendo launching its hand-held 3DS, while Xbox and Playstation approached motion in different ways with Kinect and Move respectively.

Kinect for Xbox 360 is a bold attempt to free gamers from their controller. Using video and sensor technology, games are played using body movements and voice commands – an exciting idea removing the barriers into gaming, although it seems to limit the potential for software integration. The titles showcased sit within the genres of action, adventure and fitness, the best of them being Dance Central, a social party game with serious choreography, from the creators of Rock Band. At the other end of the spectrum, the question of how you fire a gun without a controller seems to have been answered by a rather hammy ’point and recoil’ finger action, which perhaps explains why Kinect appears to be geared up for the casual gaming audience – the accessible nature of the software branding certainly supports that idea.

By contrast, Sony’s Playstation Move feels a more accurate system, in keeping with the brand’s reputation as home to authentic gaming experiences. The decision to introduce a controller allows a realistic range of actions and broad software integration. The hand-held technology also means the full power of the console can be harnessed to drive the most demanding software titles. Because of this, Sony has been able to integrate popular existing titles with Move features, giving the platform more appeal to serious gamers.

So, what about 3D? Much is being made of the next generation of 3D TVs, with all the major manufacturers getting involved this summer. But, in cinemas and on TV, it’s an odd experience – fake and strangely dated – when compared to the beauty of full HD. Yes, the technology is better now, but 3D TV will always be regarded as a ’big event’ experience and not an everyday one. In gaming, though, 3D may have found its natural partner. The way we participate in games is different to the passive consumption of TV, the action drawing us in for hours on end (often without blinking). 3D amplifies this focus, and doesn’t suffer from the problem of appearing ’unreal’, because it isn’t supposed to be real.

Nintendo’s big news – the handheld 3DS, which is yet to be given a release date – offers 3D without glasses, giving the impression of depth tunneling away beyond the screen. If it can be breathtaking, the downside at this stage is that the viewing distance is crucial; get it wrong and it’s disorienting. Playstation’s 3D demos offered a different experience again – using polarising glasses, we saw gameplay reach out from the screen into our field of vision. This effect, coupled with head-tracking movement on Gran Turismo 5, prompted one reviewer to call it ’the most immersive gaming experience ever’.

Gamers are ’early adopters’ by nature, and what we saw at E3 suggests they are ready to embrace motion control if it can balance social activity with a serious gaming experience. The fate of 3D could rest in their hands, too.

Rob Coke and Ian Hambleton are partners of Studio Output

Key launches this year

  • Nintendo 3DS, a 3D DS console that doesn’t require special glasses
  • Microsoft’s Kinect for Xbox 360, a controller-free gaming experience
  • Sony Playstation’s Move, a motion-sensing game controller platform

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