E3 2005 Report

Leo Hourvitz

Here's some stuff I saw at E3. I didn't have any special access (nor did I wait in the multi-hour lines for Xbox 360 or PS3 videos), so everything described here was being publicly shown on the floor. This isn't necessarily everything that was cool at the show (for instance, I heard that Remedy's new title, Alan Wake, was awesome), so if I don't mention it here, it just means that I didn't get to see it (or that I didn't like it!).

All games and game images are copyright of their respective publishers. Live photographs from E3 2005 copyright Leo Hourvitz.

Best Gameplay Innovation


Nintendo, developed by Vivarium


Odama was almost the only genuinely new gameplay idea I saw at the show, and boy is it weird. This is definitely a Japanese game, as evidenced by the full title, “Yoot Saito's Odama.” The basic game is a real-time tactical battle game played out on a small (single-screen) map. You have a finite number of men to get through a number of stages. To clear the stage you have to get your special group carrying a large temple bell to the other side of the map, which needless to say the enemy troops try and prevent.

What's unique about that? First off, you don't give your men commands visually. You use the new GameCube microphone accessory to speak (well, usually, to shout, actually) commands at them. There are commands to select different groups and basic movement commands to give them. As tou make tour way through the levels you'll add “charge,” “rush gate,” and more to your lexicon.

It's a good thing you can command your men without using your hands, because the truly quirky element of Odama is that on top of the tactical game, you're also playing pinball. That's right, pinball. You have a giant cannon back on your side of the map that shoots a huge pinball out onto the playfield, and two huge wooden paddles at the bottom of the map. The pinball (the Odama) can kill either enemy or friendly troops, so you have to be careful where you send it! The pinball game is real-time and much faster-paced than the tactical game, such that it will absorb a lot of your attention.

The two games are integrated in goals: before your men can carry the bell through the enemy's gate, you need to knock it down with the pinball. And, of course, the pinball can kill enemy troops without loss to your own, so you'll be trying to focus on any concentrations of troops you see.

This is definitely cool, it could easily be another Pikmin in terms of quirky fun!

Best MMO Game

Tabula Rasa

NCSoft, developed by Destination Games (Richard Garriott's company)


Tabula Rasa is a massively multiplayer game that plays somewhere in between a traditional RPG-style MMO and an FPS. It's a SciFi shooter-style game in an MMO world, and the pacing is definitely that of an FPS. People are constantly moving and firing; the only way they kept noobs alive in the demo was to have a staff member playing alongside them constantly healing.

The movement controls are like a PC FPS but the weapons controls aren't; they're more like an MMO. You lock on to a particular enemy and as long as you're looking in about the right direction you'll stay locked on. Of course, standing still improves your accuracy. Your basic chances to hit, though, are determined by your character stats, not your aiming, so you have a lot of motivation to level up.

Talk about taking your time, I asked when Tabula Rasa is due out, and the answer was, “When it's ready, but not before the end of 2006.” The game is definitely playable now, but only has one area. They have a lot of tuning, content-building, and quest-writing to do, but they sure seem to be onto something!

Best PSP Specific Game


Majesco, developed by Plant Moon Studios (for you Maxoids, that's Allyn Bruty's husband's company)


Infected is the first (well, the only) game I've seen so far that really uses the wireless play aspect of the PSP. The game itself is a series of short rounds of combat against Zombies (the levels we were playing were in an urban environment). Rounds are short, and you're playing against both other players over the WiFi and against Mobs. At the end of the round, the player with the highest score "infects" the losing players' PSPs. That means that your zombie skins will show on the other player's PSP until they can achieve certain goals to "clean" the game. And, you get extra points for purchasing upgrades based on how much infecting you've done.

The game was moderately - not overwhelmingly - fun to play moment to moment, so a lot rests on how well the mechanic of infection drives you to deeper gameplay. But I'm still really pleased that they're trying to find the new gameplay elements that the PSP enables, instead of porting another known game to the platform.


Best Visuals

Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures



Sorry for the bad photo, but the richness of this game's look was amazing. And, the screenshots on their website about this game look nothing like what they were showing at the show.

While this looked like yet another MMO (it supposedley has a rich single-player game as well) and while it wasn't really playable, it had a fantastic look. The outdoor level they were showing used a very dramatic sidelit yellow-and-purple look. In a pre-rendered cinematic (which they had a long one of), this wouldn't really be remarkable; what was remarkable is that their live demo where you could run around in the world looked almost exactly like that. What made the look so dramatic is that they really let the shadowed areas of a character go black (and everything was casting and receiving shadows), so it was an impressive bit of art direction.

The usual problem with this sort of super-dramatic look is that when things (like half the enemy's character) truly go black you can't see what's going on, so this look may or may not survive into the shipped game. But good for them for trying something this stylistic.

Best Non-electronic Entertainment

Perplex City

Mind Candy, Inc.

Alternate reality game, based on purchased card packs

A UK-based design firm, Mind Candy, is putting together an alternate reality game (yes, the genre of the discredited Majestic). Their entry point is quite different than Majestic or the various promo games such as "The Beast" that have been done up to now -- your first foray into the game is a series of cards that you buy in card packs. Hopefully the card packs, and the followup riddles available once you solve some of the puzzles and visit the website, convince you to buy yet more cards and continue to open up more areas of Perplex City to be visited. Somehow (I actually didn't figure out how from their materials) you can arrange to win $200K if you're the winner -- but more to the point, they can pretty much continue to sell card packs forver.

Their initial batches of games have a lot of clues related to gaming and technology, making the game definitely targeted at the geek set (an example: one card had ten cheat sequences, and asked you to identify the games those cheat codes were for). I really liked their puzzles cards that I got a hold of (an example is at right), but I don't know if they'll make a success of it in the card-pack medium.

I spent some time talking to the folks behind Perplex City. They were very bright and quite well-informed about the alternate reality games that have come before them, so they certainly are making an informed stab at this market. Besides, they were fun to talk to!


Karaoke Revolution Party


PS2, XBox, GameCube

Konami's latest installment of the Karaoke Revolution series incorporates their Dance Dance Revolution gamepad, so now you have to sing and dance to the same song. Check out the bottom line of the display at right: when the arrows hit the circle, you have to hit the corresponding pad on the DancePad. It's really fun, I actually got to play this game and I can't wait!

Death, Jr.

Konami (developed by Backbone Entertainment)


Death Jr. is an action platformer for PSP that looks really entertaining. It has a funny storyline, engaging graphics, and has been getting really good press. It's scheduled to release in August, and was playable and fun at the show. It could be a big PSP title.

Other PSP games from Konami include a port of their Japanese-style action-RPG Ys: The Ark of Naphishtim. I played that for a few minutes, I think that style of very easy action-RPG actually makes more sense on handhelds than it does on consoles anymore.

Lost in Blue

Konami (developer KCE Hawaii)


True to Nintendo's word, the DS had more innovative games on it this year than any other platform. While it's clear most of them are pretty niche titles, at least they're trying a lot of new ideas.

This title is basically a videogame of the movie, Blue Lagoon. Anime-styled boy and girl are marooned on desert island, and have to fish, hunt, trap, and cook their way out of trouble while figuring out what's going on on the island.

Some of the other DS titles are described below, including the surgery simulator and the lawyer simulator.

MMO Mania

It's impossible to overstate the number of MMOs that were shown this year. There are way too many people chasing this space -- even though I believe it represents the future of RPG and related gaming. Here's a quick list of the MMOs I heard about; a couple of them are worth describing and get their own section in the report as well. I'm sure I missed a few, too (acknowledgements to mmogchart.com for reminding me about a couple I forgot). I also list a couple MMOs such as the Star Trek title that are known but weren't shown.

Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King

Square Enix (developed by Level 5)


This is the best-selling RPG ever, thanks to being #1 in Japan. The visual style is a well-developed cel-shaded look and the gameplay is classic turn-based story-aligned RPG. This series is just starting to catch on for American gamers, probably due to the anime influence.

Buena Vista Games

a division of Disney


Buena Vista Games had a big booth immediately to the left of EA to reinforce the idea that they're back in the games business. Unfortunately, they had almost nothing of note; their offerings will all movie license games that looked and played like, well, movie license games: competent but not innovative or especially comeplling. They'll live or die on the strength of the underlying movie title, which is especially hard for properties like the Nightmare Before Christmas game they're doing.

They're also working on Chicken Little, Chronicles of Narnia, and so on.

Mark Ecko's Getting Up

Atari (developed by The Collective)


Like Jet Set Radio, this is a tagging game, in this case with a license from the Mark Ecko clothing line. The game really seemed to emphasize the platforming elements of getting to the hard-to-tag places before uncorking the spray can.

Gauntlet: Seven Sorrows


PS2, Xbox, PC

This new version of Gauntlet looks great in person, as the screenshots they've been releasing would suggest. John Romero is helping Midway's team create this version.

Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks

Midway (developed by Paradox Entertainment)


There was a lot of hype generated by Midway about this, for relatively little meat as far as I could see. The only thing I really enjoyed about playing this game was 2-player co-op mode, which was fun (non-splitscreen, constrained camera). Of course, you can't really enjoy the RPG elements of a game on the E3 floor!

One Piece


PS2, GameCube

This was a very cute kid-oriented pirate-themed fighting game, shown more prominently in the Nintendo booth than Bandai's own. Nothing out of the expected range, but well-executed and the series it's based on looked fun.


Tecmo showed their Dead or Alive 4 for Xbox 360. While it got a lot of press, I thought it was an incremental rather than revolutionary advance in graphics -- and no advance in gameplay. But what I really liked was Tecmo's blatant honesty about the appeal of their games, as shown by this sign outside their booth!




This game is every bit as cute in person as it looks in the movies that have gone around online. It's completely engaging and clearly destined to be the next Tamagotchi. If you haven't checked out the various promos for it, definitely click here and have a look at the movies! (it's actually even cuter when you see how the stylus integrates with the dogs). While this is deifnitely not a hard-core gamers' title, this is one of the few things at this year's E3 that actually has potential to grow the market for electronic entertainment.

Call of Duty 2

Activision (developed by Infinity Ward)

Xbox 360

While this is a great-looking game, the XBox 360-ness of it provided, to me, a little less visual oomph than I was hoping for. Perhaps it's just that the Call of Duty series has mastered their art direction on all platforms that made the next-gen version cool, but not overwhelmingly cool. The screenshot at right looks really great, but it's off their website; I don't remember the live demo being as impressive as this.


Sony PSP, Nintendo DS, Nintendo Micro

This year at the show I noticed two things about handhelds. One was that they clearly had more design innovation and thought going into them than the console games. With the escalating prices for console projects, the steady march to sequels and/or line extensions in the console games continued.

The other thing I noticed about the handhelds was that on average they were much "stickier" than the console demos. When an E3 attendee went to play a handheld game, the average time they stayed at the booth was longer than for a console. I suspect this is something about the psychology of a handheld experience more than due to the game quality -- even on the E3 show floor, and handheld feels more like a one-on-one interaction. But it was an interesting effect of this relatively new form of gaming.

By the way, one rule of handheld demos became painfully evident after trying a few games: always have your handhelds attached to the stand by a flexible steelcable, not directly attached to some hard-to-bend stand. Playing a handheld game for more than a few seconds on those difficult-to-maneuver flexible necks was painful, all the more testament to the gamers who did so.

At right is the human security device used for the Micro -- the units were cabled to this woman's belt!

Sparta: Ancient Wars

Playlogic International (developer World Forge)


Yes, it's Yet Another PC Historical RTS, although it's very nice-looking and well-executed. Still, it will be hard for anything to hold on against the new Age of Empires III, which also looked absolutely gorgeous.

Starcraft: Ghost

Vivendi (Blizzard)

XBox, PS2, GameCube

I went by the Blizzard booth to see how this year's showing of Ghost was going. On the one hand, I can't really say there was anything extraordinary about the game; it played well as a console FPS with strong multiplayer support across both PS2 and XBox, it had nice SciFi art, the controls were tight. It has a long single-player campaign, and even so Blizzard isn't saying when it will ship ("first half of 2006" is their current line. On the other hand, I managed to find a quiet station in the middle of the Blizzard booth where nobody was playing attention, and I ended up playing the game for about half an hour before it occurred to me that I might want to get up. Obviously, the play experience worked for me! They call it a stealth/action game, but as far as I could tell it's an action shooter, more analogous to Metroid Prime than any other single game.

The thing is, there were quite a few games that looked and played a lot like Ghost on display this year, not least EA's own Battlefield: Modern Combat. I played several of them and liked them all, but that means I might not get any one of them...

Battlefield 2: Modern Combat


PS2, XBox

As I mentioned above, there were a whole slew of fast-paced action/shooter games that ran on PS2/XBox at the show this year, and quite a number of them played well. BF2:MC was definitely a fun game to play; I played from the Sony booth, but I believe were hooked up to the same battle as the station in the EA booth (we were certainly in a good-sized battle with at least 8 if not 16 people). Generally smooth, play was fun and very reminiscent of BF:1942. The only negative I had on the E3 build of this game was that it doesn't have nearly the art direction of Ghost or some of the other fun console games, but that's not to say it won't be fun.

Above: an attendee hard at work on BF2MC

Shadow of the Colossus

(formerly known as Wanda and the Colossus)

Sony (SCEI)


Being developed by the team behind the awesome Ico from a couple years ago, this game actually looks and plays more like a follow-on to God of War right now. The gameplay segment being shown was one where your player character fights on the Colossus itself. Like the boss segments of God of War, you are actually riding on the Colossus while trying to kill the thing. The game is giving you hints, again a la God of War, like "Hold down square while pushing circle to use stab attack."

This game definitely looked like it could be a lot of fun, and at least amounts to pushing forward on the gameplay ideas introduced last year. Very surprisingly for a game from the Ico team though, it looks terrible. The screen is essentially a sea of gray pixels, both as evidenced by the official screenshot above right, and by my impressionistic blur photo at lower right. It's really surprising, since Ico was by far the best-lit game ever shipped when it came out.

Spartan: Total Warrior

Sega (developed by Creative Assembly)

PS2, XBox, GameCube

This game is kind of a surprise from the Total War people, since it was a good-looking, console-only, action game. I couldn't tell whether it would become just a button-masher, but you're a Greek soldier trying to kill lots of Romans (and accomplish other mission objectives) through big, big levels with lots of enemies and allies, often all at once. The scale aspect of it was pretty nice, and the game was good-looking (not that you can tell from my photo!).

Destroy All Humans!

THQ (developed by Pandemic)

PS2, XBox

This game has the potential to be really great, assuming all the details are wrapped up as well as the playable parts. You're an alien, you're on earth, and your orders are... well... to Destroy All Humans! (think Mars Attacks! and you're on the right track). Something I had no idea of until I got to the show was that this game looks absolutely great -- the colors, models, and textures are all really well-executed. It manages to be modern while still evoking that slightly cheesy feel it needs to reference classic 1950s SciFi.

Pandemic has made a bunch of good games, and in particular the highly entertaining Mercenaries, so I'm hopeful this one will be totally fun as well!

We Katamari



Namco wisely is jumping in with more Katamari! Besides having a giant Katamari ball that people could come attach items to, they had lots of stations both in their own booth and in Sony's where people could come play the new Katamari. The only really new elements were new challenges and a variety of two-player modes, but boy this game is fun. Even on the chaotic show floor it was hard to stop playing (fortunately the canned demo prompted you to give others a turn at the end of a challenge!).

Battalion Wars

A Cute Little War



Battalion Wars is a small-scale war game -- a la Army Men -- ported to the GameCube. Without the specific conceit of the armies being plastic, it's extra weird to see a tactical game going on with the aesthetics of early Saturday morning cartoons. Go Nintendo.

Donkey Conga Line

How can you resist a full assortment of E3 nerds playing Donkey Conga? Nintendo continues to try and convince us all to buy the Bongo accessory.

Trauma Center: Under the Knife

Atlus Co.


OK, so here was more proof that most of the experimentation in games is going on in Japan, on the Nintendo DS. This is a surgery simulator. On the top screen at right, you're getting the grave Nurse character saying "Let's go do surgery in a determined manner!" while on the lower screen, you see the patient's abdomen, and you use the stylus as, you guessed it, a scalpel. You actually try to cut into the patient and successfully perform the surgery using your "scalpel." I didn't have too much luck since I can't quite parse enough Japanese to follow the instructions, but at least I can say I've never played a 3D handheld surgical simulator before!

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney



Continuing in the "all unusual games except Katamari run on DS" thread, Phoenix Wright is pretty much a classic early-90s adventure game in the legal genre, running on the DS. The anime-styled characters prevaricate, squirm, and generally try to prevent you from exonerating your framed partner. Bizarro anime elements provide a break from the stern courtroom segments. As you can see at right, the characters you're interviewing, examining, or receiving judicial pronouncements from appear on the top screen and the bottom screen provides UI. This should be out in the US in a few months.

Nintendo GameBoy Micro

Nintendo's New GameBoy

Nintendo wasn't talking much about Revolution, their next-gen GameCube, but they were happy to let you play GameBoy Micros. These things are small -- iPod Mini sized -- and have all of the functions of a GBASP. While I don't think these threaten the higher-end PSP market (the screen is small), they do have one of the same attractions as the PSP: the dot pitch on the screen is really tight, so the screen is a joy to look at. They also weigh approximately nothing and fit in any pocket.

While they won't generate as much press as PSPs, I'll bet these have more unit sales in the coming year.


Capcom (Clover Studios)


This watercolor-stroke-rendered game is edging ever closer to completion (scheduled for 2006 release). The game's look has been shown for awhile and it's still impressive, really bringing a watercolor world to life. At the show it was possible to see more of the gameplay, which is mostly centered around making calligraphic brushstrokes for combat, world alteration, or special powerups. I really want to get this game home and try it out to see if the experience works once it's put together.

GamePipe Research Group


I ran into Mike Zyda, who filled me in on his latest academic venture. Mike ran the lab at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey for many year. NPS built some of the first (publicly disclosed) large-scale distributed simulations as a follow-on to the classified SimNet research in the 80s. The SimNet algorithms became the basis of almost all of the strategies used in network gaming. After that, his lab was the military half of the partnership that produced the America's Army game (free copies of which were still being given away at the show -- the military has found it to be an effective recruiting tool).

Mike has now moved to USC, but he isn't part of the ICT (Institute for Creative Technologies, the unit that teaches game design and with which EA is currently involved). He's starting a program called GamePipe out of the computer science department which is focused on gaming technologies. Their research agenda is more focused on the technological needs and research that supports gaming (both for entertainment and educational purposes). Sounds like it could be a good academic program to keep an eye on.