As we head toward E3 2012 in Los Angeles, I've noticed something curious in the air:
No one really cares.
By "no one" I mean no one who's not a gamer, of course. The general public, even the casual technology fan. Compared with years past when friends would try to pump me for information on when the next PlayStation would come out, whether there would be anything new for the Wii...well, this year, it feels like radio silence. The video game fan at my local Starbucks who kept asking me about the Nintendo 3DS a year ago barely has any questions to ask. My friend who bought a Wii two years ago doesn't seem interested. I couldn't use E3 to start a conversation if I tried.
It's seemed that way on the appointment-making end of things, too: other than Nintendo's inevitable reveal of more details on the Wii U, we're entering this year's E3 with a stunning lack of new hardware...or even of new hardware rumors. The oft-wondered-about "When will we get a new Xbox or PlayStation?" chatter has already been shot down by Sony and Microsoft, which claim there won't be a PlayStation 4 or Xbox 720 at this year's E3.
I do know one thing, though: E3 needs a new product.
I don't necessarily mean hardware. I mean a reason to get excited. In 2009, that ended up being motion control courtesy of the Kinect (then named Project Natal) and PlayStation Move (then called the Motion Controller). In 2010, it meant glasses-free 3D gaming with the Nintendo 3DS. Last year, it meant hardware sequels to Sony's PSP and Nintendo's Wii.
Notice that in many of the above instances (the Kinect, Move, and 3DS), the hardware was teased over two consecutive years before its release. The Wii U is entering that second year in 2012, but this E3 looks like it's lacking some mysterious "first tease" product...at least, it seems that way.
New hardware is the easiest way to drive excitement, but in the case of the Kinect, a platform philosophy change worked just as well. Suddenly, thanks to Dance Central and a few other games, the Xbox 360 became a family system.
Now, here's the landscape as it currently stands: The Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita have been fighting an uphill battle to reclaim a stake in the market from smartphones and tablets. The upcoming Wii U faces scrutiny and skepticism, both for its dual-screen gaming and for the cooling-off of the Wii brand in general. And, finally, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 will be seven and six years old, respectively, come November.
Meanwhile, Apple continues accumulating profit while building a massive, vibrant catalog of popular, cheap games. And Apple, unlike Microsoft, Sony, or Nintendo, releases new hardware every single year. Processor speed, graphics, and screen resolutions keep getting better. The software improves. And, most importantly, the games keep getting more impressive.
We might be heading toward a post-hardware landscape for console games, where downloads are accumulated in cloud accounts like Steam, Android, or Apple's App Store (or, the way PSN and Xbox Live already allow). Still, without new hardware or a new product, a new concept, interest is guaranteed to wane. No amount of new games can cover for this...because, except for very rare few exceptions, games just aren't the killer apps they used to be.
Games are cross-platform. Most great games, apart from Sony/Microsoft/Nintendo exclusives, can be played on multiple consoles, and often on a PC.
Or, you can get something equivalent, and passable, on a smartphone or tablet. No, N.O.V.A. 3 on an iPad isn't the same as Halo 4 on an Xbox 360. However, I think it's getting to the point where the average person can play more than his or her fair share of time-killing, highly-entertaining games without ever considering a game console. Just a few years ago, I knew people who bought a Nintendo Wii just to play a couple of fun games.
I know other people who bought an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 just to stream Netflix or Hulu or to be a Blu-ray player. And yet, the cost of small streaming boxes like the Roku and Blu-ray players in general keep dropping, too.
I could see other ways that E3 could make a bold move to stand out:
Launch micro consoles. A mini Xbox 360 at $150 could become a plug-in alternative to Apple TV and Roku boxes, maybe at a smaller size and with access to downloadable games. Rumors keep persisting about just such a device. The Nintendo Wii already embodied this idea years ago, but the Wii's limiting hardware, poor online experience, and general lack of apps prevented it from being that device. Maybe the Wi U, in an HDTV-ready form, could be that product.
Make a real gaming phone. Sony never did it with the Xperia Play, but maybe Microsoft could make a gaming phone/handheld. It's time for someone to take the next step.
Make systems cheap, and sell content subscriptions. Maybe the "new product" is a new business model. Could games other than MMOs be subscribed to? Activision experimented with the idea via Call of Duty Elite. The amount of DLC floating around on consoles could warrant a subscription model if the content's good enough.
Make something magical. Does that sound vague? Well, that's because it is. All I know is, the first Wii was magical. The debut of the first next-generation gaming graphics on the Xbox 360 were magical. Apple's stolen the lion's share of magical products over the last few years. Can E3 get the magic back? New graphics aren't the only answer. This is entertainment: people want new and exciting ways of being entertained.
With Apple's WWDC the following week, and an ever-connected Internet culture where news is continually breaking, it'll take a lot for this year's E3 to stand out.
A new product would certainly help. Or, at least, a new idea.