Last week, Jeremy asked us all to come up with an overarching thesis for what E3 2015 will ultimately be all about. I struggled for a while, tried to come up with some way in which this E3 would change gaming forever, and ultimately concluded that it simply won't happen. This E3 will instead refine existing ideas, with familiar franchises and concepts dominating the headlines even as the tech class chatters about VR, AR, and other high concept gadgets.
As with most E3s, it will mostly be about Triple-A franchises, a field in which advancement has mostly leveled off. The last real wave of innovation in game design in that area took place between 2006 and 2010, when Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Demon's Souls, Gears of War, Minecraft, League of Legends, and Guitar Hero revolutionized their respective genres. Even Shadow of Mordor, which was justifiably praised for its dynamic enemies, borrowed heavily from Arkham City.
The true advances in gaming are in the way we're consuming them. From Virtual Reality to streaming to mobile and free-to-play, we're all experiencing games in ways that were completely foreign to us just a few years ago. The bleeding edge of gaming is not in A.I. or texture design, but in wildly strange communal experiences like Twitch Plays Pokemon. It's waves like these that make the marketers standing on stage demoing Black Ops 3 look like dinosaurs.
In the Triple-A space, big-budget games have gotten too big and too expensive to risk alienating the mass market. Thus, we will see established developers continue to turn to what works, further cementing this generation as one that is more polished and attractive than ever before, but seemingly lacking in ambition. In many ways, I feel like I've been playing the same console games for almost 10 years now. They're even dusting off Rock Band, for heaven's sake.
In a way, this trend is baked into the consoles themselves. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 represented the true maturation of online play, offering developers a massive new suite of gameplay tools. The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are much more powerful consoles, but their innovation lies in their distribution models and their social media capabilities. Their increased horsepower have resulted in more dynamic open worlds, but otherwise the improvements have more subtle. The offensive linemen in Madden NFL may be smarter now, but we're a ways out from truly intelligent enemies, for example.
That's not to say that there won't be interesting games on display at E3. I'm really looking forward to No Man's Sky, which looks set to break out and really play around with the concept of procedurally generated worlds. I'm not even saying that the more traditional games like Fallout 4 will be boring or disappointing. I'm just saying that the paradigm shift that everyone seems to be waiting for, the signal that the current console generation has truly begun, probably isn't happening this year. In terms of innovative gameplay, this may be the best we get.
If you want to put a positive spin on it, take it as a sign of the medium's maturation. We're mostly past the awkward phases and technological growth spurts that marked gaming's adolescence. Now the industry is the gawky twenty-something casting about for a sense of direction. Anyway, tortured metaphors aside, you get what I mean. For better or worse, the industry is in a very different place from where it was a decade ago.
Absent all the tech being touted as the Next Big Thing, progress will continue to be found in the sometimes messy domain of indie development and modding, which in the past decade has given birth to MOBAs and survival games — arguably the two most popular genres that exist today. Beneath the glossy surface of Triple-A console development, independent developers will play with the form, and the best ideas will filter back up. It will be there that the medium is refined, and to the extent that this year's E3 offers true innovation, that's where I expect to see it.