E3 2010: A family affair

Last month, the interactive and video game industry's premier trade and consumer show took place once again in the familiar environs of the L.A. Convention Center. A trio of new devices squarely focused on making game play an all-family affair drove the hype at this year's E3 event, which drew 45,600 attendees from all parts of the globe.
July 23, 2010

Last month, the interactive and video game industry’s premier trade and consumer show took place once again in the familiar environs of the L.A. Convention Center. A trio of new devices squarely focused on making game play an all-family affair drove the hype at this year’s E3 event, which drew 45,600 attendees from all parts of the globe.

The 3DS (Nintendo’s latest edition of its portable DS device), Sony PlayStation’s Move controller and the Kinect motion sensor for Microsoft Xbox 360 held center stage at the show organized by the Entertainment Software Association. All three pieces of technology are strategically designed to attract more casual, family-wide consumer adoption. In fact, with Nintendo removing the need for 3D glasses and Microsoft chucking the physical controller altogether, there’s no denying that the industry, which generated US$15.25 billion in video game content sales in 2009, is lifting developmental barriers for younger gamers and enabling them to better engage in interactive experiences.

3D that doesn’t need four eyes

While the gaming economy remains soft (Washington, New York-based research firm The NPD Group pegged 2009 US video game software sales at US$9.916 billion, compared to US$10.99 billion in 2008), the Nintendo 3DS is poised to spike sales and 3D game play, for that matter. The new 3D portable gaming system, which took home the E3 Best of Show Award this year, is set to roll out to US retailers by March 31, 2011. Succeeding the still-hot DS portable system, which NPD says sold11.22 million units in the US last year, the 3DS eliminates the need to wear special glasses to see 3D effects (unlike the crop of 3D TVs currently on the market) and is tricked out with sophisticated multimedia capabilities. A movie player, a 3D camera that allows for picture sharing between 3DS units, you name it.

‘The 3DS made a significant impact at E3 and made believers out of many skeptics in 3D technology,’ says Anita Frazier, video game industry analyst at NPD. ‘Even without knowing the price, it’s bound to be the least expensive option for engaging in 3D content for the foreseeable future.’

While Nintendo had yet to set the SRP for the device by press time, gamers are already buying into its robust features that rival, if not exceed, those of this generation of smartphones. Using one inner- and two outward-facing cameras, the lenses are built to allow one pair of eyes to view two distinct images at the same time, creating the 3D effect on its 3.53-inch widescreen LCD display with 800 x 240 pixel resolution. An added Depth Slider allows users to select the level of 3D effect they’re comfortable with and further personalize the experience. Users can also turn off the feature altogether. And while Nintendo didn’t invent glasses-free 3D technology, the 3DS has managed to successfully scale it down and provide varying degrees of engagement – a feature that makes it alluring to gamers of all ages.

Nintendo is developing proprietary games for the 3DS, such as the upcoming title PilotWings Resort, as well as translating current properties like Mario Kart for the platform. Among the 3DS titles generating industry buzz at the show was Nintendogs + Cats, which allows kids to select animals and interact with them on a more textured level than the game’s previous iterations.

‘The 3DS gives kids new ways to play with representational thinking,’ says Warren Buckleitner, editor of New Jersey-based The Children’s Technology Review, a journal devoted to evaluating digital software and devices aimed at kids. The 3DS is especially empowering for this group, he says. It puts control directly into their hands, allows them to use customizable graphics, and it is portable. And with richer kid-friendly titles in store, he adds, the device has the potential to border on Wii territory in terms of widening the casual gaming experience.

‘This ‘put the child first’ way of thinking has led Nintendo to many of its most important innovations,’ says Buckleitner. ‘Anyone knows that kids like to move around rather than sit. So that’s why they’ve made the child the co-publisher – the ideas flow two ways.’

It’s not just Nintendo that’ll be chasing the software market for 3DS. Enthusiasm for the platform has also spread like wildfire among third-party game developers. Indie developers like Lyon, France-based SmackDown Productions are eyeing the new device and figuring out how it will work for kid-friendly titles.

‘You can see the characters come off the screen,’ says Laurent Benadiba, CEO of SmackDown Productions, which focuses on creating child-centric and female-oriented titles for the Wii and DS. It debuted a new Build-A- Bear Workshop game and Secret Flirts for tween girls at E3. Benadiba, who runs the 25-person gaming company, is very interested in the immersive nature of the platform, despite its one key drawback – the user’s eyes need to be directly aligned with the screen in order to see 3D imagery.

‘The focus ahead will be 3D without glasses and support motion controller with glasses. And the 3D platform of today is really the 3DS,’ says Benadiba. Still the risk, he says, is that new platforms will continue to create niche markets, thereby increasing the need for multiplatform games. The developer now has to provide the right technology and the right game play for each market, making the process much more complicated than it used to be.

‘Family games in the past were synonymous with the Wii,’ says Benadiba, and now more options from Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft are opening the door to new types of games.

NPD’s Frazier believes that these new devices have to provide compelling experiences in order to drive consumer adoption, as they’re aimed more at casual audiences than they are at the core gamer.

As much as it seems like Sony and Microsoft are jockeying for a piece of the Wii’s family gaming pie with their motion-based peripheral devices (albeit the former uses hardware and the latter uses full-body recognition), their offerings may just rival that of Nintendo’s groundbreaking platform.

Now this is hands-on gaming

Microsoft’s Kinect might just have an advantage over Sony when it comes to this race. The controller-free motion sensor is an add-on designed to complement the existing Xbox 360 console, whose sales year-to-date have generated the biggest share of revenue.

Kinect, formerly known as Project Natal, made its E3 debut against a backdrop of pent-up hype and Cirque-du-Soleil acrobats. (Seriously, Cirque de Soleil put on a show at the press conference.) And using advanced audio and gesture- and face-recognition technology, Kinect enables gamers to engage in peripheral-free gaming, taking complete control of the experience. The voice-control command feature also extends to the rest of the Xbox console.

In terms of family games, Kinect’s gesture-recognition technology is revolutionary, says SmackDown’s Benadiba, who along with his team is developing family titles for Kinect that will go into retailers next year.

‘If you know how to move your body, you can now play Kinect,’ says Craig Flannagan, group marketing manager for Xbox Canada. Roughly 15 games in total will be launching with the device in early November, including Dance Central, a family title developed by Rock Band creator Harmonix that tracks dance move from entertainers like Lady Gaga. The game snagged the Best Original Game nod at the Game Critics Awards this year, as well.

Another debutant generating industry buzz is the simulated pet game Kinectimals, developed by UK-based Frontier Developments. The game harnesses Kinect’s face-recognition technology by allowing kids to form a relationship with a pet that learns to recognize its owner’s features over time. Also worth noting is the plush element of the game, where kids can scan the tags of plush toys via the device’s sensor and then interact with the pixilated creature on screen.

Warner Bros. Interactive’s Game Party: In Motion, developed by California-based FarSight Studios, is also among the first Kinect titles set to hit the market at launch. Aimed at gamers six and up, the final version of the game series will offer 12 mini-games and Facebook integration, allowing players to post their results and avatars on Facebook walls.

Wii games for preschoolers

That doesn’t mean publishers are neglecting the Wii. On the kids side, they’re pushing applications into younger and younger demos. Along with its Kinect titles, WB Interactive, for example, has bolstered its lineup of family-friendly offerings primarily through the production of the first-ever Sesame Street games for the Wii and DS.

The initial fruit of WB Interactive’s multi-year license with Sesame Workshop are Cookie’s Counting Carnival and Elmo’s A-to-Zoo Adventure, which will be available in the US this fall. Both games are targeted at the core three-to-five preschool demo and come with a new Wii-mote cover that masks unnecessary buttons and is designed to be held sideways. (DS Sesame titles come packaged with a bigger Sesame-branded stylus controller to make game play easier for smaller hands.) Additionally, all game instructions are delivered through audio prompts on the Wii and through a simple touch-screen interface on the DS.

Also tied to a multi-year licensing contract is Novata, California-based gaming publisher 2K Play, which holds the exclusive on Nick Jr. properties for console and handheld games. First up is Nickelodeon Fit for the Wii, an exclusive preschooler exercise series created by third-party developers High Voltage. The game marks the first fitness title for kids to feature Nick characters, including Dora the Explorer, Diego, Kai-Lan and The Backyardigans. The title’s 30 different fitness games, played either using the Wii-mote or the Wii balance board accessory, are designed for three- to seven-year-olds. The game also includes a bonus feature that measures kid activity and allows parents to monitor their children’s progress.

Christina Recchio, director of marketing for 2K Play, says that aside from the Wii, the 3DS in particular offers a natural fit for her company’s family-friendly portfolio of games. ‘There’s no way we can’t address the platform,’ she says of the handheld device. But for now, the attention is focused on the exclusive Nick gaming license, which has also fathered two new DS titles – Dora’s Birthday Adventure and Dora’s Cooking Club, which incorporates math, coloring and matching.

While new licensed opportunities cropping up within its Fit segment only help to strengthen the Wii as a forerunner in the casual gaming sector, the console is also making a move towards next-generation gaming with titles like Epic Mickey. The Wii exclusive, set to launch this fall, is the brainchild of Warren Spector’s Texas-based Junction Point and published by Disney Interactive Studios. The game takes Mickey Mouse on a journey through Wasteland, a new and darker world inspired by vintage Disney characters, including seldom-seen Mickey rival Oswald the Rabbit. It also has an edgier interpretation of the iconic mouse and allows players to ‘paint’ their digital settings and then use ‘paint thinner’ to change the outcome of the game.

Sony down, but not out

As vibrant as the Wii remains, Children’s Technology Review editor Buckleitner points out the console has a real Achilles heel in its composite graphics, which don’t render in HD. With more people buying HD screens, this issue will become increasingly important for Nintendo. In contrast, for Sony, it might be a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. The electronics giant’s PlayStation 3 has arguably lost the most in terms of sales and market share since the introduction of the Wii in 2006. And because the PlayStation’s graphics remain superior to those of the Nintendo device, coupled with the intro of its new Move motion-control accessory, Sony may just be able to make a stronger play for the family audience.

Essentially, the Move is a glowing orb controller that uses motion sensors and the PlayStation Eye Camera to mimic movement on-screen in Blu-ray powered HD. And the bonus for PlayStation 3 owners with an Eye Camera is that the Move controller costs just US$49.99 as an add-on.

‘A lot of what we showed at E3 goes back to the social game environment,’ says Matt Levitan, director of marketing and public relations for Sony Canada. He says Sony knows the key to its success includes making games for everyone in the family. At the Move’s launch on September 19, one of the first available titles will be Eye Pet. Similar to Kinectamals and Nintendogs + Cats, Eye Pet allows young users to interact with virtual pals on screen.

Sony remains focused on making a mark with the Move and so far has rejected the idea of going after Nintendo’s 3DS by turning its PSP portable gaming device into a 3D platform. But according to Joseph Olin of the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, a California-based organization dedicated to the interactive entertainment community, everyone’s working on beefing up their portable gaming offerings to address changing consumer habits that rely on constant connectivity. Given the rising popularity of handheld devices, like smartphones and the iPad, it’ll be interesting to see how more app-based games fare over the course of this year and at the next E3 showdown.

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