by SimHQ Motorsports Contributing Editor "Chunx"
Reflections by Joe Keefe
Reflections by Chuck "Magnum" Ankenbauer
Another E3 has come and gone. 2009 was my fifth visit to the expo — does that make me an "Ace"?
After the low-key fiascos of E3 2007 and 2008 (which I thankfully missed), E3 2009 returned to its traditional, extravagant, over-the-top format. Many may wonder if such decadence is necessary. I can tell you that the answer is a definite "yes". More on that later...
One thing thankfully has remained constant: The bond of friendship that forms when members of SimHQ meet for the first time and share a stressful and demanding task like covering E3. This year, I met three more members of SimHQ face-to-face: Joe, 531 Ghost and Magnum. And just as in years past when I shared writing chores with Tom Cofield, Pygmy, Andy Bush, Hornit and 20mm, I found them to be great individuals with a significant depth of knowledge about gaming software and the hardware that powers it. Our long days of interviews and longer nights behind the keyboard, sharing meals, car rides and living quarters allowed me to get to know them well and establish a bond of friendship — just as it has in years past. And that sort of friendship-building makes the personal sacrifices of covering E3 worth it for me.
Not all of the friendships I established at E3 were with SimHQ members. While waiting with Joe for his turn at the Fanatec wheel and Forza 3, I had the honor and pleasure to meet Shaun Cole and Darin Gangi from Sim Racing Tonight. With the PC simulation genre such a small slice of the overall gaming industry, it's always good to meet up with people who share an identical passion for our small hobby at an event as over-the-top as E3. It's also a good thing for the decision-makers and designers in the gaming industry to see that sim-racers are still engaged and interested in the future of the industry and that it still caters to our entertainment desires.
In a way I also felt like I was meeting a pair of real celebrities from our small community, having watched so many of Shaun and Darin’s reports on the Internet and heard them announcing the 2008 Enduro Challenge races that SimHQ participated in. It was an unexpected highlight of the show for me.
But I digress. Since Joe, 531 Ghost and Magnum were experiencing their very first E3, I also got to live vicariously through them as their eyes were opened to the tremendous capital this industry has to apply towards creating newer and more interesting ways to entertain us. It was great fun watching them have in-person conversations with game developers as they asked the kinds of questions simulation fans want to have asked. It’s also very satisfying to see how pleasantly surprised and impressed those same developers were at the SimHQ team’s intelligent and thought-provoking questions, and how many interviews later evolved into candid discussions about game design, marketing and feature selection. Right out of the box, our ‘newbies’ did a fantastic job and put SimHQ, its membership and the entire simulation genre in a more favorable light with every development team they encountered. Most of you live in ignorant bliss about how beneficial that sort if thing is to the simulation community. But I can tell you that you all owe these gents a very big “Thank You!” (and you can do that in our forum).
This year’s show was pretty good — certainly better than we expected it to be. And it actually got better as the days went on and the conservative gameplans of the industry were altered on-the-fly. The key to a successful E3 isn’t the glitz, the bling or the booth babes: rather it’s the atmosphere those things help create. Because the true value of E3 is in the networking that happens on the show floor: Networking and cross-talk between the media, the developers, the marketing teams, the corporate execs and the hardware manufacturers. The ESA tried to go the low-key route for two years, and the shows fell flat because they lacked the catalyst for human interaction. Without the festive and electric atmosphere of a big show, industry networking was limited, if it happened at all. And that defeated the intrinsic value of the show. E3 is like a flamboyant, three-day cocktail mixer, and a fun party is what gets people mingling. I stand among many who are glad that the "old" E3 is back.
In the months preceding the show, SimHQ’s E3 team was skeptical about the lackluster level of participation by simulation manufacturers in this year’s show. As the weeks counted down, roughly a half-dozen high-rollers of the simulation industry made late decisions to cancel their plans to attend, leaving the roster of sim-genre products pretty damn short. Our initial skepticism turned to outright demoralization. With only one true sim developer in attendance, what would SimHQ do at E3?
In desperation we combed the exhibitor list, looking for something to report on. And as we looked, we actually found quite a lot worth talking about. With little effort, we had a list of about 24 news worthy exhibitors — more than enough to keep us busy. Sure, we didn’t have ISI, SimBin, 1C or Bohemia Interactive on the exhibitor list, but they are not the be-all/end-all of simulations. And as we’ve seen over the past decade, sim developers come and go. Remember when the EA/Jane’s and Microprose were leaders in the simulation genre? Maybe not, which proves my point.
E3 2009 really was a great show for simulation fans despite being very light on sim-related products, most all of which were hardware.
In fact, the flight simulation highlight of the show was undoubtedly Logitech’s new G940 HOTAS, presented by its designer, Mark Starrett. Despite being delivered in a plain-vanilla meeting room, Mark’s discussion of the new Logitech HOTAS system was electrifying on many levels:
- Mark is clearly "living the dream". For someone with his passion for the simulation hobby to be tapped to design and produce his dream HOTAS rig is something beyond the hopes of most of us. We’re blessed to have someone like him working to create new products for us. Rock on, Mark!
- I was impressed with the quality and attention-to-detail of the new HOTAS rig. The ability to "one stop shop" and get a full HOTAS rig in one box will be a welcome addition to the marketplace.
Despite some cool, sim-friendly hardware on display at E3, the industry seems to be continuing its drive away from PC-based games of all types, with an increasing emphasis on console titles. With few exceptions, if we saw a PC title that would be of interest to a simulation fan, it was a multi-platform title. Since hard-core simulations are traditionally PC-only, this distressing trend could be cause for concern in the community.
Talking to hardware and software developers about the state of the industry and its vector, I started coming to the conclusion that Microsoft may actually be driving this trend forward. Creators of the industry-leading console gaming system (Xbox 360), and holding a virtual monopoly on game-compatible PC Operating Systems (Windows), Microsoft is clearly a lead player in determining the industry’s path. Despite any overtures about “Games for Windows”, Microsoft’s intent seems obvious, especially considering their closure of the Microsoft Flight Simulator studio — one of their biggest PC-only franchises. At E3 we saw more Real Time Strategy titles, once a staple of the PC gaming industry, move to the console. We also heard that several retail computer manufacturers like HP and Gateway plan to eliminate gaming-capable systems from their product lineup altogether – which would mean that new PC gamers would either have to build their own rigs or buy them from boutique stores like Voodoo or Alienware. With the majority of consumers lacking the technical savvy to build their own system, or the willingness to pay $4000 for a custom-built rig, this trend could effectively kill the PC as a gaming platform. For the time being, having new game titles with simulation features like Operation Flashpoint 2 offered in multiple platform flavors can maintain the status-quo despite apparent industry trends. My advice: Keep gaming on your PC, but start doing some research on what console you might want to buy in the future.
While the quantity of sim-featured products was low, the quality was high: CH Products’ Eclipse yoke; Ostendo’s curved-screen monitor; Logitech’s G940 HOTAS; 777 Studio’s Rise of Flight; Turn 10’s Forza Motorsports 3; 505 Games’ IL-2: Birds of Prey; SimBin’s RACE On; and Codemaster’s Operation Flashpoint 2; DiRT 2 and the Fanatec wheel for the Xbox 360. All looked like quality entertainment products that will benefit the community — especially if the simulation community votes with their wallets.
We also saw a surprisingly positive reversal of trend in the console world. Traditionally, PC-based simulation titles were long-lived products with a depth and challenge that offered a lot of re-playability. And devoted fan groups have kept the stand-out titles alive for over a decade with lovingly crafted updates, make-overs and new content. All of this was eschewed by console game producers, who saw replay-ability as lost revenue on the next new title. Their goal was to churn out easy-to-master games that left players craving the next new $50 title.
How times have changed. This year, we heard from more than one developer that the bright new idea in console gaming is to slow down the pace of game design and create titles with depth, longevity and replayability. And how do you do that? By offering the option to up-scale the depth and challenge of a game title, and by opening the game up to the creative talents of a devoted fan base. Sound familiar? This may put console gaming into a state of transition – a transition that could, over time, bring console game designs more in line with the features PC simulation fans have enjoyed in the past. Just don’t expect console games to turn into deep and challenging simulation titles overnight.
If you’re wondering just how the console world will enable this morphing from easy, simple and short to challenging, rewarding and enduring, the answer is simple: Plastics (sorry, old movie allusion). The actual answer is “Scalability”, or being able to tailor the level of realism to suit your own tastes (and BTW that aspect of design isn't trivial). I'll tell you that the Forza Motorsports 3 team is all about scalability, while the US side of the NFS: Shift team appears to be mired in a scalability conflict with the pro-sim Slightly Mad Studios team from the UK. After talking to a lot of devs, I think scalability (towards more realism features) is a game design element we should be clamoring for — to make a game that can be casual and fun for the masses OR challenging and deep for the sim genre, all depending on how you tweak the settings. And for those sim racers who think that SimBin's PC racing titles are already scalable to accommodate mainstream gamers, you're wrong. From what I saw of mainstream gamers trying to drive RACE On at E3, that race sim’s scalability ranges from "frustratingly hard" to "ridiculously hard". And that was with all of RACE On’s driving aids turned on.
In contrast, when I tried DiRT 2, I felt the game’s scalability ranged between "arcade joke" and "must modulate brake and feather throttle". But I watched many other people try the game (crashing constantly) and heard them comment that even DiRT 2 was too hard and tricky to drive — too much like a sim, as if simulation qualities were somehow a bad thing. While I thought that DiRT 2 was pretty entertaining, it certainly wasn’t as rewarding as a true sim — but then again I never expected it to be. Problem is, our simulation tastes represent a tiny sliver of the gaming market, while the “mainstream” crowd is where the money’s at. Something with a wider range of realism would be our salvation, but it ain't easy, costs time and money, and caters to a small market segment. Developers won’t spend the time, money and effort on scaling games to suit our tastes if we don't demand it, loud and clear. As niche consumers it is critical that we ensure our demand signal is heard and recognized in the marketplace! This is no time to be shy.
So, E3 2009 showed me once again that some things change, and some things don’t. The enjoyment that comes from meeting other members of the SimHQ team and sharing the event of E3 hasn’t changed. It’s still a very rewarding experience that establishes the bond of shared hobbies and interests. It’s probably the single most fulfilling aspect of covering the show.
And some things change a lot, like the declining trend of the PC as a gaming platform and the slow rise of the console to total gaming dominance. But at the same time, paradigms are being shattered in the console world that may ultimately favor the tastes of simulation fans. With that in mind, it’s of critical importance to keep your own paradigms in check while simultaneously voicing your desires as the electronic entertainment industry re-proves the old adage that the only constant in life, is change.
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