E3 2001: The RPGs

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E3 isn't the biggest computer-oriented convention in the world, but for PC gamers, it might as well be. All the major game producers are there, each May, in force, along with their development teams. Announced products are placed on display throughout a vast arena-sized area filled with colorful, flashing lights, ear-crushing music, and pretty young company representatives dressed in the barely legal equivalent of cellophane. Meanwhile, in the privacy of intimate suites away from the noise, crowds and testosterone, corporate sponsors and press get down to the real business of the show: examining products in the earliest stages of development.

As computer conventions go, E3 is a relatively recent development, less than a decade old. It sprang out of dissatisfaction with the management of CES, the annual Consumer Electronics Show in the United States, which used to display both electronic gear and games each fall in Las Vegas. The balance between gear and games was questionable, and some people found the allotment of prime display space highly biased. As a former president of one major game company put it, (When exhibitors have to walk half-a-mile to a separate building to see our products while some guy selling telephones shaped like Mickey Mouse's head has his booth in the entrance of the convention's main hall, something seriously needs changing.) With a powerful impetus from game producers and developers, and over the protests of CES management, E3 was born.

This year's E3 was in Los Angeles' Convention Center. (Traditionally, the show caravans between Los Angeles and Atlanta, Georgia. The 2001 E3 was the first to stay in the same city for two consecutive years, encouraging Asian-American business connections.) The amount of floorspace devoted to PC games was significantly smaller than in the past-one major hall was given over entirely to console products, while the other sported large, bare patches where no game company flourished. However, many of us noticed that a few major PC-based companies had moved off the public floors for the first time-Interplay and Bethesda Softworks, for example-occupying suites where they could display their wares to maximum advantage. (It's been a regular complaint of E3 since the very first year that most people displaying Exhibitor badges were nothing of the sort, but game addicts who had relatives in the gaming industry. While that's undoubtedly an exaggeration, you have to wonder exactly what game-related profession is represented by a bunch of gawking guys in fetishwear with blank spaces on their badges where everybody else had company names. Baldur's Gate Leatherworks, Specializing in Stud Collars for Drowfolk, perhaps?)

Sad to relate, some important game development/production houses were missing for the first time this year; and you could almost see the edges of their booths ghosting around areas they once faithfully occupied during each exposition. Last year, SSI/Mindscape had a large floor booth where the company displayed a big screen trailer of Myst III; but they also showed with some pride an early build of their intriguing new RPG, Pool of Radiance. Frustratingly, SSI/Mindscape was the victim of some bad administrative decisions up top, at a level where expertise in making and selling games doesn't count for anything. They were eventually acquired by Ubi-Soft, seemingly only for Pool of Radiance. Someone at Ubi-Soft clearly recognized Another Potential Baldur's Gate Sales Explosion in the Making. The rest of the team that produced such brilliant strategy and RPG titles over the years is gone.

So, too, was Microprose, although that venerable distributor/developer had fallen victim to a number of internal problems several years ago. New World Computing was invisible, to all intents and purposes. Talonsoft, which suddenly lurched into view a year or two ago with some excellent acquisitions, just as suddenly faded back into the recesses of Take2 Interactive. Monolith, which had distributed such RPGs as Septerra Core and Odium, has nearly ceased development, and was off the floor. Origin Systems.? Sunk, without a trace-though it's hard to say whether the monumental mistake that was Ultima IX killed it, or the decision to forego RPGs for first-person action titles (which were called RPGs), or the deal that landed the company in the financial grasp of Electronic Arts. OS' Richard Garriott has resurfaced, but in a company developing multiplayer online games. They were not on the E3 floor, but it would be too early in their development cycle to expect that.

Other game producers are working nowadays on mixed platforms, without extensive expectations for PC-based releases in the immediate future. Not that anybody is fearful of poor sales on the PC side; it's just that many companies are greedy for a piece of the expected console action which has yet to materialize. Companies like Sony, Sega, and Microsoft are battling it out for control, not only of the software market, but of the hardware and peripherals markets, as well. Game producers are blithely (or nervously, depending upon the individual) ignoring the fact that nobody really needs a separate games computer, when a PC already provides great resolution, on-line access, portability, excellent sound, and tons of peripherals, applications, and games. Meanwhile, some PC-based development firms with excellent success records are growing frustrated at the lack of interest from producers who now see gold only in console products. Frog City (Imperialism I & II) has a great RPG/strategy title on hold for precisely this reason.

Thus far, this report may have given the impression that the PC market is dying away, but that's not accurate. While some companies, like Lucasarts and Activision, are putting a lot of attention these days into console games, quite a few companies are still producing PC titles. And while a fair number of products are the usual ripoffs of game concepts that were popular two-to-three years ago (Quake, Age of Empires and Diablo (action/rpg) clones currently lead that pack), there were also some very striking titles of quality RPG programming on display at E3.