Comment: The great skateboard simulator – life beyond E3

By Neil Merrett

The annual E3 gaming event in Los Angeles came to a close last Thursday (June 16), bringing with it a host of thrills, spills, surprises and the usual frustrations for gamers.

Was 2016’s event a case of 17 steps forward and 16 back for the industry? Perhaps it is the other way around and the future is actually quite bright for nerds of all shapes and sizes.

It says something about the growing sway that gaming holds over the populace, both culturally and as mass entertainment, that just about every respectable and disreputable publication known to man – not to mention crackpot blog –  seemed to cover the event.

So in what felt like an oppressive week within UK politics as the country mulls the complex, massively infuriating issue of whether to remain part of the European Union, the mainstream media and technology press largely focused on our apparent need to avoid actual reality at any cost.

VR, fears of institutionalised misogyny within gaming and a possible return to the golden era of the arcade game were some of themes to arise from a show where Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo looked to deliver their latest salvo in the ongoing and somewhat grandiose sounding “console wars”.

For good or bad, the future that E3 is selling in 2016 looked gloriously hard to predict, other than ensuring we will be able to continue to live out collective fantasies of briefly pretending to be batman or a noble elf.

So what were the big stories?

Publications like IGN reminded us about our love and need for gaming royalty, even in an era of almost art-house independent gaming. The publication picked the newly unveiled ‘The Legend of Zelda: Breathe of the Wild’ by Nintendo as its game of the conference – showing that mainstream titles can still captivate, while pandering to the masses.

Meanwhile, industry leaders Microsoft and Sony gave details about their intentions to update the relatively young PS4 and X-Box One consoles with new versions of the hardware to soup up existing capabilities to meet requirements for high definition and VR gaming.

PS4 Neo, which will handle all existing PS4 titles in a more efficient and gorgeous manner, could be out before the end of this year, according to Gamespot.

Yet in the eternal playground battle of whose game console has the better “grafics”, Microsoft seemed to take the prize, albeit at potentially much greater cost to the consumer, according to alphr.

The publication noted that the company’s Project Scorpio console would leave all other consoles in its dust with regard to creating a top of the range VR experience, while potentially breaking down the barriers between PC and console gaming even further.

Vaughn Highfield said that with a number of new Xbox One consoles to be made available at various cost points, the era of the seven year or so lifespan for games machines was likely to be over.

“While nobody is sure just how often Microsoft is prepared to iterate, it’s clear that updates will be a more regular occurrence. Not only has Xbox boss Phil Spencer explained that he’d like to see consoles take on a PC-like evolution, he continually reiterated that during the end of Microsoft’s E3 conference,” wrote Highfield.

“It’s no surprise either, with Microsoft bringing Xbox One and Windows 10 closer with each software update. For instance, you can now get Cortana on your Xbox One and all forthcoming Xbox One games will also work on PC, free of charge. Assimilation is happening.”

Highfield noted that the cost of Microsoft’s Project Scorpio could yet prove prohibitive to wide-scale mainstream adoption, reflecting wider concerns about how viable a true VR experience may be for individuals hoping to completely detach from reality.

In his piece on E3,  BBC North America technology correspondent Dave Lee asked if the substantial technological, space and cost requirements for VR adoption may see the return of gaming arcades to city centres and rickety seaside piers from our distant past, or the 90’s as it is also known.

“As consoles become cheaper and more powerful, gaming moved out of the arcade and into the home,” Lee noted.

Could a reverse of this trend now be likely, or  will our rapidly shifting technological capabilities develop quick enough to help us avoid having to leave the house to embrace VR?

One example of the potential and challenges that lie ahead for VR adoption was picked up by TechCrunch, with Brian Heater looking at what the technology could mean for the future of the skateboard sims.

He took part in an E3 exhibition trying to recreate an authentic downhill longboard experience by linking Samsung’s Gear VR headset with a mechanised boarding rig.

“I’ve been skateboarding for longer than I care mention, and I still had to hold onto the damn railings. I’m going to blame it on the screwy sense of orientation one experiences in virtual reality, but it probably owes just as much to my fear of falling off a mechanical skateboard simulator in the middle of the crowded E3 show floor,” wrote heater.

“It’s hard feeling fully immersed on the floor of a show like E3, but the company did a good job matching the video to the interactive experience, right down to the vibrating bumps of the gravel road. It’s an impressive experience, but one still cost prohibitive for those of us who don’t, say, own a fleet of cars, private jet, or have a line of steaks named after us.”

Will such an experience be enough to return skateboard games to the immersive and accessible past titles like the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series that was a defining title of the original Playstation era.

During the last console generation, Electronic Arts did bundle copies of the ‘Tony Hawk Ride’ title with a somewhat costly skateboard peripheral in order to try and recreate an immersive experience for boarders.  However, the market was not set alight and the board is no doubt gathering dust along with Nintendo’s much cooler soudning bongo drum peripheral for the Gamecube.

As well as offering a glimpse of the future for gaming, some of key ongoing bugbears from the industry’s past were also present at E3, noticeably in catering for more diverse audiences and the not inconsiderable number of female gamers.

Nick Statt, writing for The Verge, noted that only 3% of the title titles on display at E3 had female protagonists – equating only to what he said amounted to two games.  The new Tomb Raider was good though right?

“Of 59 new video games showcased at this year’s E3, only 3% featured exclusively female protagonists, according to a survey compiled by gaming non-profit Feminist Frequency,” wrote Statt.

“In other words, just two games — ReCore and Horizon Zero Dawn— have female leads, while 24 games had male protagonists. That’s a significant drop from last year, in which 9% of games shown had female leads while 32 percent contained male main characters. A majority of the remaining titles, both this year and last, let players choose either gender while playing or the gender of the character is unspecified.”

The findings were presented by the organisation founded by the critic Anita Sarkeesian, as a means of looking at gender balance.

Sarkeesian’s sometimes insightful, at times spurious reflections on gaming culture, has made her a central hate figure for the so-called ‘Gamergate’ movement.  This has in turn seen her face death threats and derision from an organised group of angry individuals seeking to drag her name through the mud.

Considering the more something-for-everyone approach that the gaming industry is trying to sell at E3, the Gamergate approach is doing no one any favours, no matter how much an individual professes to love Super Mario Brothers.

It is uncertain whether Statt’s coverage will lead to further debate about the changing dynamics of who game players are and can be, or just is used by individuals to further inflame anger and prejudice over something that is effectively a very flashy toy for children is uncertain.

As always in games, it appears to be a case of going 16 steps forward and 17 right back – or have I got it the wrong way around?

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